I don’t recall there ever being a time when I didn’t know who Neil Young was. Both of my parents liked Neil Young; my mother more as a casual listener, and my father as a more dedicated fan who had most if not all of his albums. Admittedly though, for years my impression of his music mainly boiled down to Heart Of Gold, and the ragged look he had on the cover of Freedom. But hey, I was a kid when my parents divorced and hardly even listened to music yet, and Neil Young wasn’t exactly the dog’s bollocks for a kid starting to listen to music in the mid-90’s, so I think I can be forgiven for that!
I discovered Neil Young in the mid-00’s through a best of CD my mother had had for years. For some reason I decided to give it a spin, probably because I liked Johnny Cash’s version of Heart Of Gold (found on Unearthed) and wanted to hear the original. Well, sure enough, I liked the original, but I liked other tracks way more: Cowgirl In The Sand, Like A Hurricane and Down By The River in particular.
Neil Young: Greatest Hits – a good place to start
Like A Hurricane in particular was the song that blew me away. There was something in the lyrics and the way Young delivers them in his almost quivering, tender and vulnerable yet unique and powerful voice, and the guitarwork cemented it for me. For me, the way Young plays guitar on Like A Hurricane embodies pretty much everything that’s great about Neil Young when he’s rocking: it’s raw, unpolished, it’s not overly technical, but imaginative and evocative, like he’s telling a story not only with the words, but with the notes as well. Like Willie Nelson, Young seems to have the ability to pull a stray note off-beat and shake things up that way, to purposely put in a chord where it doesn’t belong and both shake up the listener a bit and add a small but significant new element to the riff. And his soloing is incredible as well, a jam that takes the song, Young and the listener to new spheres of immersion. You just have to pay attention to what the man’s doing. It is obvious that with Crazy Horse as his backing band, Neil Young is at home with letting himself go when soloing: they know what he needs, they seem to know where Young is taking the song two beats before Neil does, and are able to follow him there in stride.
It is not without reason that Like A Hurricane is one of Young’s signature songs. Though when broken down to its building blocks it may not be anything special – a riff, a verse, a chorus and a solo – the way Neil Young and Crazy Horse deliver it, build a ten-minute midnight epic out of it, grants it a prominent place in the long list of rock classics.
Cowgirl In The Sand, from the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), on which Crazy Horse debuted, is another classic, and from the start it is obvious that Neil Young with Crazy Horse is magic. The way the band tear into the song in a way that is not quite 60’s psychedelic rock but neither is it quite early hard rock, sometimes sounding like they play the wrong note or skip a beat, with Neil letting go on his guitar on top of that… it’s the kind of instant chemistry and magic you can’t create, it happens by accident. Young’s soloing sounds rambling, wandering and explorative, but Crazy Horse keep things grounded with their sparse, constant backing. You can literally see with your mind’s eye Neil’s pained face as he tears notes from his guitar, his pose one of using force and violence to coerce the guitar to give up them. The lyrics, full with the weird and almost indecipherable imagery typical to Young, are open to interpretation, and though it may seem harsh to say so, the lyrics are of secondary importance to the vocal delivery – which, in turn, is of secondary importance to the strikingly powerful guitarwork that defines this song. And yet, the vocals are not redundant in this song; everything is needed, everything has its place.
Though Young has worked with a wide variety of backing bands, some used once only to be discarded right after the album, Crazy Horse has always been his go-to band, the one thing he has always returned to. And rightly so, as there is an undeniable magic in this combination.
Crazy Horse, originally formed from three members out of a band called The Rockets, are, as bands go, far from the most precise or polished bands there are around. But that’s the point: with Crazy Horse, Young strives for an organic, authentic and brutally sweat-stained sound. Their style of playing has a certain plodding aspect to it, they don’t feel like the most dynamic and fluid band around. But again, that’s not the intention: Crazy Horse isn’t mean to sound like a slick, polished and professional guns-for-hire type of backing band, one of those dime-a-dozen bands who get the job done but are interchangeable with each other. Crazy Horses’ sound is meant to sound like four guys jamming in a garage, four guys playing music for a love for music itself. Four guys who take the basic rock ‘n’ roll setup and tear into it. And the sound is entirely deservedly iconic.
One cannot deny the fact that Crazy Horse and Neil Young just click. Crazy Horse provide a perhaps somewhat stiff but reliable, unrelenting and rock-solid backbone for Neil Young to ramble around with his inspired, exploring and outside-the-box guitar work. But it’s not just all soloing and going wild with the guitar: Neil Young and Crazy Horse manage to seamlessly combine that with solid songs. The rocking, garage-y Mansion Of The Hill from 1990’s Ragged Glory is a prime example of this:
Crazy Horse has been around since 1969, and at the time of writing, their last release with Young was in 2012. That’s 43 years, and the on/off co-operation certainly hasn’t seen its last chapter written yet. As a sidenote, Crazy Horse have had a career of their own as well, releasing a few albums without Young.
Neil Young has been a pioneer and innovator in guitar-driven, hard-hitting rock. He may not have invented hard rock and can’t exactly be called proto-heavy metal (or, why the heck not, seeing what artists are sometimes “awarded” that title!), but in his inimitable style he has created so many milestones in rock that not calling him an innovator is a gross injustice. Also, how many established rock stars would in 1977 give a respectful nod to the Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten? Neil Young did in Hey Hey, My My – in a song inspired by Devo, who Young worked with!
There is, of course, another side to Young as well, one which he is just as well known for. When he puts aside his electric guitar, picks up an acoustic one and pins a harmonica stand around his neck and goes all folk. That’s what his first solo album, the self-titled album from 1968 is pretty much all about.
Yes, the aforementioned Heart Of Gold is a fine specimen of this category of songs in Young’s vast discography… but of course, far from the only one.
In stark contrast to the electric material, on his acoustic songs, Young’s playing is controlled, exact and at times almost intricate if not exactly complex. He keeps the reins close and in control, and instead of exploring around the song, he sticks to it. But his voice remains the same: tender and vulnerable, yet not without a certain strength. He is just as much a master of the folk ballad as he is of the rousing rocker.
How does one concile these two very different approaches?
To me, the answer seems to be: one doesn’t. Neil Young himself doesn’t seem to be concerned with it. There’s folky Neil Young, there’s rocking Neil Young, and though the two sometimes overlap, there’s a gap between the two and it’s perfectly fine for it to be there. Young has no need to create a singular Neil Young Sound, as obviously it would limit his creativity far too much: like with his choice of forming, disbanding and returning to backing bands and co-operation partners, Young is at home with exploring different styles of music whenever it feels right to do so, at the same time avoiding being pigeonholed too much. And with a discography as impressive as Young’s, one can hardly say he’s wrong.
Of course, there’s far more to Young that rock ‘n’ roll and folk. He’s recorded country, electronic music, soul (with Booker T & The MG’s, none the less!), rockabilly, blues and what have you during his career – during the 80’s, his label at the time, Geffen, even sued Young for releasing albums that didn’t sound like Neil Young! His discography is strewn with experimental releases – whether it be Rust Lives Forevers’ method of recording basic tracks in concert and doing post-recordings in studio or the synth-heavy sound of Trans, or Young going loose with nothing but a crisp distortion on his guitar on 2010’s Le Noise – and though not always entirely succesful, they serve to keep his output interesting and his fans on their toes. When Neil Young releases a new album, you can never be quite sure what to expect.
If I build something up, I have to systematically tear it right down before people decide, ‘Oh that’s how we can define him.
– Neil Young
Neil Young is one of the giants of the “golden era” of rock music, a true icon from the age of the rock giants, and one of the most long-lived, prodigious and innovative rock stars of all time. And one who remains relevant still today, one who isn’t satisfied with playing tours where he dishes out nostalgia for middle aged fans who wish to relive their lost youth. Where others have seen their career sag after the golden sixties and seventies, Neil Young has managed to re-create himself time after time and return with albums that prove he is still as creative and innovative as he ever was, and still in touch with what is going on in rock music these days. I mean, how many rock stars from the sixties would in the mid-90’s have teamed up with a popular, hot rock band of the time and record an album with them? Neil Young did on 1995’s Mirror Ball, where he plays together with Pearl Jam. Of course now, in the 2010’s, Young is not quite as fresh or in the forefront of innovation as he was in the past… but the man is 69 years old already! But then again, his involvement in and championing of Pono, an on-demand music streaming platform and format for lossless music, shows that he’s still keeping an eye on current developments in the field of popular music, and co-operating with Jack White on one of Young’s latest album proves that Young is still interested in exploring the ideas and methods of younger generations through his music.
After listening to and profoundly liking the Greatest Hits album, it didn’t take me long to gather a sizeable collection of his albums. Granted, I think there are quite a few items in his discography that are more curiosities than essential items, but the sheer number of awesome songs and high quality albums in his vast discography certainly cement his place as one of my all-time favourite artists. Personally, I am preferential to Neil Young the rocker, where I feel he is at his most innovative, but there is plenty of material among the other styles he’s dabbled with that’s highly impressive as well, such as the country/folk albums Old Ways (1985) and Prairie Wind (2005).
It’s better to burn out than it is to rust