december 2011

Buddy Holly: Not fade away

We Hear You Still, Buddy

Peter Asher and Songmasters team up on a winning new Buddy Holly tribute project

By David McGee

Buddy Holly’s continuing influence on rock ‘n’ roll is measured in many ways, but surely in the number of his songs artists continue to cover, and moreover, by the periodic release of tribute albums featuring multiple artists performing his songs. As per the latter, these are sometimes tied to an anniversary of some sort, but often exist simply because someone wanted to pay their respects to the power of the Lubbock gent’s legacy.

This month marks the 52nd anniversary of Holly’s death in what is one of the most famous aviation fatalities in history, the crash on February 3,1959, that claimed the 23-year-old Holly’s life along with those of J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and the first great Latino rocker, 17-year-old Ritchie Valens. A fifty-second anniversary is not especially eventful in the way, say, a 50th is, but September 7, 2011, was a signal date in that it marked what would have been Buddy’s 75th birthday. No matter the numbers, we have, once more, a Buddy Holly tribute album to enjoy, Listen To Me: Buddy Holly, and enjoy it we should: it’s good. (Actually, last year saw two multi-artist 75th birthday tributes to Holly, the other being the underwhelming Rave On Buddy Holly released this past June.)

hollyProduced by the charitable organization Songmasters and executive produced by the legendary Peter Asher--he of Peter & Gordon fame in the ‘60s, and from the ‘70s through the ‘90s one of the chief architects of the modern rock sound as producer for Linda Ronstadt, chiefly, but also for James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Tony Joe White, 10,000 Maniacs, J.D. Souther, Neil Diamond, Cher and others--Listen To Me: Buddy Holly (on the Verve Forecast label) features a multi-generational lineup of artists offering new spins on 16 familiar Holly tunes. That these recordings are so enjoyable is all the more remarkable for the songs being the most familiar Holly fare--you might swoon at Holly’s original version of “Words of Love” or get a tingle from the Beatles’ jangly version on Beatles VI, but Jeff Lynne’s sumptuous one-man-band version here is a real beauty shot. Stevie Nicks opens the album with a tough, stomping “Not Fade Away,” with a gritty vocal that may remind some of how effective a rock ‘n’ roll singer she can be; Brian Wilson’s tender “Listen To Me” is suffused with emotional light, and a completely in-the-moment Wilson singing with greater control and conviction that he’s evinced on his recent solo recordings; Jackson Browne’s “True Love Ways’ is simply humbling in its depth of feeling; Imelda May scorches “I’m Lookin’ For Someone to Love” with a rockabilly flare and feisty attitude, reminding us that Jeff Beck knew full well what he was doing when he had her accompany him in a Les Paul tribute at the 2010 Grammys show; The Fray, seemingly terminally morose, bring sincere urgency to “Take Your Time”; in a cut appropriated from his forthcoming solo album, Ringo Starr sounds like he’s found the Fountain of Youth in frolicking through “Think It Over”; Cobra Starship offers a tough-minded “Peggy Sue,” featuring a sassy vocal by one Victoria Asher, daughter of Peter; Natalie Merchant, accompanied only by piano and Jay Ungar’s epic heartbreak of a violin solo, wrings every last ounce of desolation out of the subdued, soul searing treatise, “Learning the Game,” delivering an autumnal version so introspective and haunting it becomes a torch song; Pat Monahan (“Maybe Baby”), Chris Isaak (a touching “Crying Waiting Hoping”), Lyle Lovett (“Well All Right”), Patrick Stump (“Everyday”), and Zooey Deschanel (a sunny “It’s So Easy”) all acquit themselves admirably. Asher’s former charge Linda Ronstadt is on the album too, with “That’ll Be the Day,” not a new recording but the massive hit she and Asher cut in 1976 for her Hasten Down the Wind album. The wild card in the bunch is truly wild, and at least borderline insane: Monty Python’s Eric Idle.

ericNow what, you ask yourself, would Eric Idle be doing with a Buddy Holly song? More than you can imagine, friends. Asher’s liner notes barely hint at the chaos unfolding on disc when he says Idle’s Threat, if you will, was to perform “Raining In My Heart” as if he were channeling both the master of musical mayhem Spike Jones, and Spike Milligan, the legendary British comedian-writer-musician-poet and creator of the influential radio program The Goon Show, without which there might not have been a Monty Python’s Flying Circus and a host of other English comedy troupes and writers. In true Spikes’ fashion, Idle’s spoken word version of “Raining In My Heart,” backed by a lone and lonely violin, features thunderclaps and the sound of a downpour (at the onset of which Idle emphasizes “raining in my heart” and a voice replies, “Oh, sorry”) before he effectively collapses in tears (as thunder again cracks overhead). From there Idle’s misery reaches Homeric proportions, with him anguishing in a totally self serving aside, “What’s gonna become of me?!” as the tears flow--until at last he orders the violinist to shut up. Then, as if by magic, Idle re-emerges as an old blues singer, a trumpet blowing low and mean behind him. After dismissing the violin player--who had re-entered unannounced (we know she leaves because we can hear her footsteps and a door closing after Idle orders her out)--the song inexplicably becomes a British music hall raveup (or rave on, you might say) with a tuba pumping furiously as trumpets fashion a bouncy riff amidst all sorts of wild, comical Jones-ish sound effects punctuating the soundscape (about all that’s missing from a typical Spike Jones sortie is a gunshot) and a lively chorus (which includes Peter Asher) tries to keep up with Idle. Needless to say, of all the Buddy Holly covers through the years, Eric Idle’s gets the prize for the most unique interpretation, one whose equal we may never experience again.

A preview of the Listen to Me: Buddy Holly concert broadcast on PBS in December 2011.

Listen To Me: Buddy Holly, which is both a CD and a DVD of PBS concert special that aired this past December (co-hosted and produced by Asher, the DVD features fabulous performances by Raul Malo, Graham Nash, Shawn Colvin and Boz Scoggs, who are not on the CD, as well as a memorable non-CD duet on “Heartbeat” by Chris Isaak and Michelle Branch), began with a phone call from the Songmasters organization to Asher. He bought in immediately, owing not only owing to his affection for Holly--manifested early in his career when he and Gordon Waller had a million selling single in the U.S. with “True Love Ways” in 1964-65--but also to his respect for the Songmasters mission.

Co-founded in 1994 by Jennifer Cohen, former head of Warner Music International product development, Songmasters is dedicated to supporting charitable and educational efforts, and has worked on benefits for AmFAR (for AIDS research, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and “Share Our Strength” (working for an end to childhood hunger). Writing in Goldmine in December 2011 (PDF), Mike Greenblatt noted: “Hooking up corporate clients to benefit charities using music and events, acting as global music distributors with the 2006 creation of The Music Coalition, Cohen and senior partner Regan McCarthy not only developed better deals for artists, but have received two Ford Foundation grants for their efforts.

“We are pleased with the wide variety of work that we have done, and plan to do,” said Cohen. “Technology has made it easier to create and produce music, but harder to develop a music career. Young talent today has more competition, more pressure to fit a mold, fewer resources, and almost no guidance in how to develop a success-ful life in music. We thought we might be able to help in our own small way to give young artists a real shot.”

Recording Listen To Me: Buddy Holly: the EPK, featuring in-studio footage and commentary by Peter Asher

The Buddy Holly project is the first in Songmasters’ Listen to Me Series, which pays tribute to groundbreaking artists whose work remains influential to new generations of artists and appealing to fans of all ages.

Asher, Cohen told Greenblatt, was an easy choice to steer the Holly project: “Peter is Buddy’s best curator, possessing a genuine love of Holly’s music, an extensive and exceptional record of performing and producing some of the most notable versions of Holly’s songs, and a lifetime career of producing award-winning albums and records. He was not only the obvious choice for a Holly tribute, he was the only choice worth considering. Through both this album and this con-cert, he has once again shown why he deserves the accolades he has received.

“So much of rock starts with Buddy Holly: the configuration of the guitar-based band, the contemporary singer-songwriter-performer, even the independent producer of his own creative work. And so much of Buddy Holly’s music and legacy is captured in the remarkable career of Peter Asher.”

For the rest of the story, we got Peter Asher on the phone for a quick Q&A about his work on Listen To Me: Buddy Holly, and beyond.


Peter Asher: ‘..what appears particularly miraculous looking back is that Buddy wrote every damn one of those songs in what? A year and a half or two years? That’s crazy.’

Peter Asher On ‘Listen To Me: Buddy Holly’

I think I’m up to about my fifteenth listen of Natalie’s version of ‘Learning the Game,’ and not take anything away from her—she’s terrific—but Jay Ungar’s violin on that is just perfect. It’s so sad and beautiful, it turns it into a torch song.

Absolutely. That was all live, just the three of them. We did a few takes and that was it.

Why did you end up recording that at her place instead of out in L.A. where most of the other new tracks were recorded?

She wanted to stay at home. (laughs) She’s got a kid, her little girl is nine, or something, and she really wanted to do but she couldn’t leave. I said, “No problem, I’ll come to you.”

Peter and Gordon, ‘True Love Ways,’ a million selling single for the duo in 1964-65

Let’s start at the beginning: Your musical partner and friend Gordon Waller introduced you to Buddy’s music. What do you remember feeling when you first heard his songs? What stood out about the music he was making?

I suppose the simplicity, the superficial simplicity. They were pretty easy to learn, you know; they were songs we could play, as beginning guitar players. But at the same time they managed to be very memorable and emotionally quite complex. Combine the two and that’s what’s so hard to do: to write a simple song that means a lot, you know.

Were you and Gordon already trying to get your own music together or were you just fans at that stage?

Oh, we were singing. Since we met we started singing together. So as we would find a cool new song we would figure it out and learn to sing it, yes.

It’s 2012 now, and I wonder how your perspective on Buddy’s music has changed from what it was in your youth? What do you think you appreciate more now about his songs than you did back then?

That’s a hard one because in a way it’s the same thing, but one learns to appreciate it more. I suppose now what appears particularly miraculous looking back is that he wrote every damn one of those songs in what? A year and a half or two years? That’s crazy. Because now, at my great age, two years seems like a day! It whizzes right by! I suppose the brevity of his career compared to the magnitude of his body of work is something you appreciate later.

How and why did you get involved in this Buddy Holly project?

Songmasters approached me, the company. I didn’t know much about them, but I’d learned that they’d done some of these benefit-type things before, that they did a lot of work for music in schools, they support a lot of very good causes, they’ve got scholarships, so that all sounded really good. So when they said they wanted to do a Buddy Holly covers album “and it’s been suggested you might be the man for the job,” my reaction was, “You’re right. I am.” (laughs) Because I’m somebody with a history with Buddy Holly, and considerable knowledge of the songs and great affection for the songs. And some ability to produce records. So I said yes in a second.

I like the way you understated that “some ability to produce records.”

I have a history that qualifies.

Buddy Holly, ‘Peggy Sue.’ Posted on YouTube by FiftiesrockVideos2

How did you arrive at the roster of artists? Was it set when you came in?

No. We all made lists, and then we all argued about each other’s lists. At the same time we just started asking people, as they would pop up on a list. Some people said no; some said “Yes, but I’m busy now; some said “Maybe. Ask me again.” That process continued until we ended up a year later or whenever it was with that many good people. The first person I asked was Stevie Nicks. Waddy Wachtel, who’s her musical director, is a dear old friend of mine; Stevie’s a friend too, but Waddy is a very close friend. He thought she’d be interested. She was and she said straightaway, “I want ‘Not Fade Away’ before anyone else gets it.” So she was first on board and got first song choice and chose that one. All the way through to the very last act that came on board, Zooey Deschanel. I knew I loved her voice because I’ve heard those She & Him records and I had heard somewhere that she was a Linda Ronstadt fan, so I thought, That’s gonna help. Then I met her, oddly enough, in my own house, because she’s friends with my daughter Victoria, who was having a party and said, “Oh, by the way, Zooey’s here.” So I asked her on the spot and she said yes.

Did you pitch specific songs to specific artists?

Yes. Yes. “Learning the Game,” it was my idea to do it that way, to do a sad version, someone who’s learned the game. For example, The Fray, I had a really clear idea of how they could do “Take Your Time.” They’re big Buddy Holly fans and said they were interested in doing it but they weren’t sure what they could do. I said, “Look, how about ‘Take Your Time’? Because there’s a line in it about ‘take your time/til all time’s end.’ It’s not as jolly a song as the way Buddy sings it. So I thought about The Fray, who do these great, mournful, sort of plangent versions of their own songs. How about we change the chords a bit, slow it down and you give some of that Fray-ish quality to it? So I went to Denver and we cut in their studio with them in a day.

Did anything take more than a day?

Some things happened in layers. Like the Cobra Starship track. First I went to a friend of ours who’s a good programmer and got all the electronic drum parts, then went in the studio with the band and overdubbed the band. In that sense it was more than a day, because we moved locations. And of course in most cases mixing was a separate day.

How did you like producing your daughter’s band?

I loved it. I’d been friends with them all since she joined, and they’re a good band. It was really fun. It was the first time I’d been in the studio with them as a band. I’ve had Victoria sing backgrounds on some things, odds and ends, before, and indeed, she does some backgrounds on this album—all the backgrounds on “Everyday” are all her.

Upon receiving the CD, I was looking at the song selection and saw Linda Ronstadt’s name and thought you’d lured her back into the studio to sing some rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s her hit 1976 recording of “That’ll Be the Day.”

We were looking at who should do it, and somebody said, “You know, the best version ever is Linda’s. You should just use that.” Fine with me. Let’s see what Linda thinks. I don’t think officially we needed her permission; just a license from the record company. But I asked Linda what she thought and she said it would be fine. So we stuck that one on there. Interesting thing is that it holds up pretty well beside all these brand-new recordings.

Did you actually ask her about doing something new for this album?

Not specifically for this but we have talked about going back into the studio together, but it never seems to quite happen. She thinks she’s retired, but we’ll get her back. She’s still my favorite girl singer in the world.

From the Listen to Me: Buddy Holly tribute concert aired on PBS, Raul Malo performs ‘True Love Ways’

One of the songs that quickly moved to the top of my list of favorites on this album is Ringo’s “Think It Over.” He sounds positively energized, as good as he did when he cut “You’re Sixteen” in 1974.

Yes, that’s true. I didn’t produce that one, as you know; he did it as part of his album [Note: Ringo 2012]. But it was my idea to do that song. It’s cool.

I guess we could have predicted that Eric Idle was not going to do a Buddy Holly song straight, and sure enough your liner notes indicate he wanted to make his version of “Raining In My Heart” a hybrid of Spike Jones and the British writer/comedian Spike Milligan---of course it winds up appropriately twisted in a Spike Jones way crossed with Monty Python in an English music hall.

Yes. Some people hate it. Really hate it. We’ve heard complaints that “it desecrates the song” and all that kind of bullshit. Well, Buddy Holly songs can certainly take it. Like people do Shakespeare in all different ways and it survives very nicely, thank you. The more different ways you do that song the better. And certainly Eric’s is a radical take on the song (laughs), without any doubt. I think English people are somehow more ready for that; some Americans are going, “Oh, what have they done to the song!?” Well, just about everything we can get away with.

The first time I heard it my initial thought was that some of those Holly purists out there were going to accuse you and Eric of trashing this serious heartbreak song. But you’ve already been accused of breaking up the Beatles. So how much worse could it get?


Did you know what Eric was going to do?

Oh, yeah, we did it together. We came up with the ideas together. We sat and talked it over together over a couple of evenings, how we could do it and what we would do. So I got a couple of musicians and went in with him and we put it together.

Were you actually doing your backup vocals while he was doing his thing?

No. I think I overdubbed them.

Because I was going to ask how you kept a straight face while that was going on?

Yeah, that was hard. It was hard.

Michelle Branch and Chris Isaak, ‘Heartbeat,’ from the Listen to Me: Buddy Holly tribute concert aired on PBS

I don’t want to ask you which are your favorite performances and risk having you offend someone by leaving them out, but did anything jump out and surprise you when all was said and done?

Not really. The great thing is they all did tend to live up to my expectations. When Stevie sang “Not Fade Away,” she sang it so great. That’s mostly a live vocal. She’s a great rock ‘n’ roll singer, and one tends to forget. These great talents and we take them for granted. And she’s just a unique and brilliant singer. And that goes for a lot of them. Same with Natalie. Cobra Starship was a new experience, but I loved doing it because I had this idea that the drum part of that song could be an electronic drum program and it works that way. So I enjoyed all that. I don’t think I have a favorite; it would be hard.

Much like Ringo’s performance, Brian Wilson on “Listen to Me” gives one of his best performances in recent years too.

Yeah, it is, very cool. Again, that was just him, but he wanted to do that song and I said, “Great. Whatever he wants to do is great with me.”

Last year you were touring around with a multimedia show in which you sang and discussed your career and the interesting artists whose paths you’ve crossed over the years. Is that something you’ll start up again or was it a one-shot deal?

Any time the opportunity comes up to do that, I do it. So I think we’re going back to New York in a couple of months. I just did Minneapolis a few weeks ago, a jazz club there. Yeah, I do it from time to time.

What else are you involved in right now?

A lot. I’m doing a lot of movie soundtrack stuff right now. I work with Hans Zimmer on a lot of projects. I worked with him on Pirates of the Caribbean, and that’s where I met the guitar players Rodrigo and Gabriela, and I produced their new album [Area 52], which just came out. We did that in Cuba. They’re astounding. Astounding. I also worked on the music for the Sherlock Holmes movie that just came out [Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows]. And now we’re in the middle of Madagascar 3. So a lot is going on.

Listen To Me: Buddy Holly is available at

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