February 21, 1964—In a particularly auspicious day for the post-Beatle phase of the British Invasion, three singles destined to be classics were released. The first was Billy J. Kramer’s “Little Children”; the second, the Hollies’ “Just One Look.” The last, a cover version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” did more than just provide the Rolling Stones with their first single to hit the U.S. pop charts; it also served as a seque into the songwriting that would make them pop forces in their own right in the next half century.
Like their contemporaries and competitors, the Beatles, the Stones began their careers by, in effect, reflecting back to American audiences rock ‘n’ roll songs seemingly familiar for the last dozen years, but now revivified. What the Beatles did for the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” for instance, the Stones did for the B side of Holly’s “Oh Boy!”—i.e., they made it fresh in their own interpretation.
Actually, they took it a step further: they unlocked potential that had been somewhat muted, substituting Mick Jagger’s growling, rougher vocals for Holly’s trademark hiccup (while stripping away the doo-wop harmonies), accentuating the Bo Diddley bomp, bomp-ba-bomp, bomp-bomp beat of the guitar, along with Brian Jones’ bluesy harmonica. The new take on the song was different enough from the original that manager Andrew Loog Oldman even termed it “the first song that Mick and Keith [Richards] wrote. The way they arranged it was the beginning of their shaping of them as songwriters.”
The idea that the longhaired British youths, with no real songwriting credits of their own, just signed to Decca Records, could have so reinvented a song by the brilliant, blazingly prolificTexas artist might have seemed laughable on the surface. It becomes even more astonishing when one recalls how green they were in the studio, and how unprepossessing that particular environment itself was.
As Keith Richards recalled in his bestselling 2010 memoir, Life, Regent Sounds Studio in London was "just a little room full of egg boxes and it had a Grundig tape recorder, and to make it look like a studio, the recorder was hung on the wall instead of put on the table.” The space was cramped, allowing little definition between instruments, and so, by necessity, the sound approximated the band’s raw feel in concert at the time. The boys loved their primitive environment—especially the Stones’ guitarist, co-songwriter and ultimate pirate spirit, who learned the art of overdubbing there on a basic two-track tape recorder.
The Rolling Stones did for “Not Fade Away” what Frank Sinatra did for Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”: refocus attention on a relatively neglected portion of a major song catalog to such a point that it became a standard. Clearly, Holly’s record company didn’t see it as a major commercial hit, but the British band took their version to #3 on the charts in their own country and #48 in the U.S. (Not quite “She Loves You” territory, perhaps, but the ground overseas was becoming prepared for bigger things soon.)
Over the years, other artists have followed the lead of the scruffy U.K. upstarts. Florence and the Machine recorded a four-minute take on the song three years ago, and that only begins to scratch the surface of what others have done with it. The Grateful Dead jammed for an epic 10 minutes in their version. But, as longtime readers of this blog might guess, my favorite version was done by Bruce Springsteen, who made it the first half of a melody with his own, equally fiery “She’s the One” in a Madison Square Garden concert I attended back in August 1978. (Hear for yourself in these two YouTube clips—“Not Fade Away” and “She’s the One”—that are, admittedly, far better in sound than visual quality.)
Today, “Not Fade Away” is the second most-covered song by Holly, exceeded only by “Peggy Sue.” Rolling Stone has even listed it among its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” What accounts for the awesome power that the Rolling Stones sensed? Joe Ely, who’s been playing the song in concert for years, told an interviewer several years ago: “The easiest thing to do is get it started. The hardest thing to do is find a place to stop. It’s infectious. It’s like a freight train you can’t stop.”