We had such a good time last week with George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (the acoustic demo), why should we leave well enough alone? This week’s double-sided SoTW is going to visit a pair of songs that have always been indivisibly associated in my mind – both short (under two minutes), slight demos by artists whose oeuvre I’d assumed I knew completely, only to discover these gems decades after I thought the book had been closed. And as if that’s not enough, the later artist was profoundly influenced by the earlier one.
And if that’s still not enough, the songs sound so much alike it’s spooky, a single acoustic guitar strummed at an insistent rock tempo, with just a little percussive ornamentation by his buddies in the studio.
We’re talking about the discarded Beatles George-song from 1964, ‘You Know What to Do’, and the even more obscure undubbed version of a Buddy Holly demo from 1958, ‘You’re The One’. Buddy Holly (1936-1959) is one of the greatest talents to arise from the world of rock music. He recorded professionally for 18 months before he died in a plane crash (“the day the music died”). I listen to his very small output regularly, as do Paul McCartney and Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen and everyone who understands anything about fine rock music. He wrote much of his own material, thus inventing the singer-songwriter format and serving as an acknowledged role-model for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The first recording of the Quarrymen was a cover of ‘That’ll Be the Day’, one of Holly’s biggest hits.
Much of his music improves from year to year, none more so than The Apartment Tapes, half a dozen recordings he made in his home in January, 1959, which I reverently described in SoTW 002. Could be I invented Song of The Week just to have a platform to sing Buddy Holly’s praises. I thought I knew all his recordings, even the bootlegs of him and The Crickets as high-schoolers playing on Saturday afternoons in the Lubbock, Texas Ford dealer’s parking lot. But here’s one that hid under my radar for many years.
Buddy came home to Lubbock for Christmas 1958, a month and a half before he died. Two days after the holiday he went to the local radio station KLLL to visit his DJ buddies Waylon Jennings and Slim Corbin. Waylon challenged Buddy to write a song on the spot, which he did (in minutes), and proceeded to record it right then and there, Buddy playing acoustic guitar, Waylon and Slim clapping their hands together and on their knees (a la ‘Everyday’). Buddy had just turned 22, but in five weeks he would be dead.
Even the better-known version of the song is obscure, the horror Norman Petty created by overdubbing a band, just as he ruined the better-known versions of the Apartment Tapes. But naked, it’s as beautiful as Botticelli’s Venus.
On June 3, 1964, The Beatles were in the Abbey Road studios preparing some demos for what would be “Beatles for Sale”, including ‘It’s For You’ (Paul-penned for Cilla Black) and John’s ‘No Reply’. George brought ‘You Know What to Do’, his first composition
since ‘Don’t Bother Me’ from the year before. The song was dismissed as being too lightweight, and was subsequently misfiled, to be rediscovered only in 1993. George said that he had forgotten about it. But he was also so discouraged by the experience that he didn’t write another song for a year (‘I Need You’). It’s George on acoustic guitar, John on tambourine, and Paul on bass. George had just turned 22, and would have an illustrious career spanning the next 37 years.
Rolling Stone magazine: Buddy Holly turned a generation of future heroes – George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck – onto the guitar, with an elemental style: an antsy mix of country and blues that merged rhythm and lead… Playing his Stratocaster and fronting a double-guitar-bass-and-drum quartet, Holly essentially invented the rock band. “Listen to the songs on the first three Beatles albums,” says John Mellencamp. “Take their voices off and it’s Buddy Holly.”
The Beatles recorded Holly’s ‘Words of Love’ for that “Beatles for Sale” album. But they didn’t give it their unique Beatles’ stamp as they did to all the covers they did before or after (check out for example The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’ in contrast to the version they were adapting from
the Isley Brothers. But for ‘Words of Love’ they reverently recreated the original, virtually note-for-note – John and Paul emulating Buddy’s double-tracked vocal (one of the first such recordings by a major artist!), and George copying the lead guitar part on the same Fender Stratocaster guitar.
Here’s Buddy Holly’s version of ‘Words of Love’.
And here’s The Beatles’ copy.
More similar than different? And how about these two unknown gems? Are the similarities not greater than the differences?
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