Buddy Holly: For the First Time Anywhere

Last September, while rummaging in the mustier reaches of the MCA tape archives in Los Angeles, Steve Hoffman, head of the company's catalog-research-and-development department, came across a long-forgotten box marked "Do Not Use." Inside were some ancient tapes and another label: HOLLY. Rockets went off in Hoffman's head. He realized immediately that these were the master tapes of ten tracks that, although listed on Buddy Holly's MCA artist card, had never before been located. The songs, recorded between the end of 1955 and January 1958, captured Holly in all his wild rockabilly splendor, wailing for the ages. It is something of a public service that these tracks have finally been released on an album, For the First Time Anywhere.

The title, while essentially accurate, may be misleading to casual fans of Holly's work: this material has previously been available to collectors on low-grade bootlegs. However, its only official incarnation has been in posthumously doctored versions on which Norman Petty, Holly's producer and sometime collaborator, overdubbed a backup band called the Fireballs. Thus, this album of original, unsullied performances, released on the twenty-fourth anniversary of Holly's death, finally sets the official record straight — a deft marketing move at a time of rockabilly resurgence.

If For the First Time Anywhere adds no new material to Holly's voluminous legacy, it does reaffirm his extraordinary powers in the simplest possible setting. All but one of the tracks here were recorded as demos at Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, under what were apparently loose and rather joyful conditions. That Holly was a master rock & roller was evident as early as 1955, when he covered "Bo Diddley"; this track, along with a raving rendition of Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," became a posthumous hit, with overdubs, in 1963, four years after Holly's death. Here, stripped of the Fireballs' zingy guitar figures, "Bo Diddley" emerges as an almost-acoustic rock-out that shines with pure, pioneering spirit, while on the Berry tune — unencumbered by the Fireballs' muffling elaborations — Holly's distinctive buoyancy is finally restored. And the unvarnished charm of "Maybe Baby," here presented in its pristine March 1957 form — with guitarist Niki Sullivan's Mr. Bassman bomping once again prominent — is as instantly seductive as the classic version recorded six months later in the officers' club at Tinker Air Force Base during a tour through Oklahoma.

The Fireballs' controversial ministrations — not entirely philistine as such commercial moves go, and in any event now an inextricable part of the canon — were perhaps least obfuscating on such here undefiled songs as the Elvis Presley-inspired "Baby Won't You Come Out Tonight" and "I'm Gonna Set My Foot Down," and the equally exuberant "It's Not My Fault" and "Rock-a-Bye Rock," all recorded in 1956. One suspects that Holly could have made this material rock madly even underwater. On the other hand, the Fireballs' galloping accompaniment on "Changing All Those Changes" is hardly missed, and few mournful thoughts are likely to attend their absence on the rest of the album, either.

The Fireballs' effect on two of these tracks, however, seems moot; both are unsalvageable ballads. "That's My Desire," the standard, recorded in Manhattan in January 1958, reveals a ripened appreciation for pure pop corn on Holly's part, and also boasts a bad Neapolitan guitar filigree that would be cause for alarm in the lowliest cocktail lounge. But then, toward the end of his life, Holly had become amenable to employing session musicians and strings to broaden his appeal — an unsettling indication of one possible way in which his career might have developed had he lived. More disconcerting is the second ballad, "Because I Love You," a puddle of gush put down in early 1956 — a time of some of his greatest recording triumphs. The song is irredeemably inert: you can feel Holly's band trying to kick some life into the sucker just before the bridge, then sinking back into the song's sumplike banality.

But even these two duff cuts will hold documentary interest for Holly obsessives. And for everyone else, this album provides a clear and accessible assessment of the man's still-astonishing gifts. For the First Time Anywhere is an instructive and exhilarating addition to The Complete Buddy Holly, the essential 1978 six-disc boxed set, which MCA still lists in its catalog for less than forty dollars. If you've got them both — barring any future unearthings — you've got it all.