CD Review of Down the Line: Rarities by Buddy Holly
Buddy Holly: Down the Line: Rarities
Recommended if you like
Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry,
The Beatles
Label
Geffen/Decca
Buddy Holly:
Down the Line: Rarities

Reviewed by Michael Fortes

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T
he beauty of a collection like Buddy Holly’s Down the Line: Rarities lies in the striking clarity not just of the recordings themselves – the music here is more than 50 years old, much of it recorded outside of professional studios – but in the way rock’s primary elements are all brought into sharp relief. As one of the original rock stars during the music’s first decade, Holly was there on the front lines, fusing country, bluegrass and blues with rockabilly into the original devil’s music.

Divided into four sections, Down the Line opens with the double-CD set’s one recording that suffers from poor sound quality even by bootleg standards, but whose historical importance is trumps audio concerns. Holly’s very first home recording, a confident performance of Hank Snow’s country hit "My Two-Timin’ Woman," was recorded in 1949 when Buddy was just twelve years old. It gives little indication of where Buddy would go from there, though his duo recordings with his school pal Bob Montgomery (as "Buddy & Bob") spanning 1953 through mid ’55 continued in the country vein, with several Montgomery originals, co-writes with Buddy, and a faithful take on Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic "Footprints in the Snow."

Of course, Elvis Presley loomed large over just about every rocker in the ‘50s, and by late ’55 and ’56, Buddy was no exception, as he covered the King’s "Baby, Let’s Play House," "Love Me" and "Blue Suede Shoes" (yes, Carl Perkins did it first, but Elvis pushed it before our ears), flexing his rockabilly muscles. Of course, Elvis wasn’t the only rocker who mattered, and Holly was just as much at ease with Little Richard ("Rip it Up"), Bill Haley ("Shake, Rattle and Roll") and even Clarence "Frogman" Henry’s "Ain’t Got No Home," frog-voice and all. These "garage" recordings retain a raw excitement that he never captured on tape again, which more than makes up for the very garage-like (though still clear and easily listenable) ambience of the recordings.

With few exceptions, he was already sounding like the hit-maker who would enter the studio with the Crickets and producer Norman Petty in 1957. The studio outtakes that comprise the first half of disc two chronicle Holly’s glory years, and before we know it, sixteen solo recordings known as ‘the apartment tapes,’ all recorded in the weeks leading up to his death, close out the set. These solo recordings were later sweetened with overdubs by the Crickets and three of them – "Peggy Sue Got Married," "What to Do" and "Learning the Game" – became a posthumous top 40 hit in the UK. But here, they are presented just as Holly recorded them in his Manhattan apartment in December ’58 and January ’59 – just voice and guitar, and ready for prime time.

It’s remarkable enough to know that nobody had any idea this music would matter as much as it does fifty years down the road. And yet, here it is – the basis for much of the rock and roots music so many of us fawn over in the early 21st century. As a historical document of one of the all-time greats of rock, Down the Line is downright essential. Better still, it’s a fun listen, which is ultimately what rock and roll should be.

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