He can’t sing, plays guitar like a drunken stockbroker in his garage on a Saturday afternoon, and looks like a homeless person.
He is also a genius.
When, in 1965, Neil Young first came down from the mountain, so to speak, driving an old Pontiac hearse from his hometown of Winnipeg, Canada (listen the song “Born in Ontario” on his new album for the full backstory) into the emerging haze of Californian hippie counterculture, the world should have known then that this soft-spoken modest Canuck would be doing things a little differently.
Almost 50 years later, Neil Young releases his 35th official album, the 15th with his reunited compadres Crazy Horse– their first original recording in 9 years – Psychedelic Pill.
An album that is not merely a collection of songs, but rather a rapidly accelerating concrete block manifesto of epic-jam-meditations and bold statements typical of his consistent style of blended electric and acoustic contradiction, and the substance of elegiac and rich storytelling. It is an album that sits comfortably, proudly, deservedly, in the parthenon of Young’s classic canon.
Even from the beginning of his career, first with Buffalo Springfield and then in super group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; right through the 1970s solo era of classic albums like Harvest and After the Goldrush; into unexpected and strange tangents such as the synth-heavy Trans album and forays into experimental filmmaking and finally into re-emergence during the 1990s and beyond as an elder alternative rock sage, Neil Young never played by the rules, set by the recording industry or popular zeitgeists of each era. Even when seeking new avenues of re-inventing his music, Neil has never pandered to conventional trends.
At the heart of Neil Young is, simply, a songwriter with a guitar, and whether that guitar and song were noisy and loud, quiet and meditative, understood wholeheartedly or derided as eccentric and futile, Neil Young has made the kind of music so immersed in authenticity and passion, he has transcended the description of rock star and musician, and become a true artist. Not something one could say about a lot of the rock and pop stars of this era, or even some of Neil’s contemporaries.
In much the same way Frank Zappa approached the playing and recording of his music – and that’s where that comparison will end – Neil Young surrounded himself with array of masterful confederates; musicians, producers, muses who could enhance performances, interpret his vision and completely vindicate his music.
Crazy Horse, a workhorse LA bar band comprising guitarist Danny Whitten, rhythm section Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, and latterly Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro (following the death of Whitten), are Neil’s most prodigious backing band that added, throughout some of his timeless career highlights, sturdy consistency and strong performances. Neil may have played with many collaborators away from Crazy Horse, sometimes to good effect – most notably with Pearl Jam on the Mirrorball sessions and, more recently, with producer Daniel Lanois on the experimental guitar album Le Noise – but returning to collaboration with Crazy Horse always guaranteed memorable musical documents. Psychedelic Pill is one of these.
Time in the Neil Young universe has a mysterious and perplexing quality, like why doing enjoyable things like eating an ice cream seem so short, and changing a flat tyre can seem to take so long.
Pill’s Side A opener “Drifting Back” is 27 minutes, 37 seconds short, or long? It is hard to tell, the song exists in a vacuum, a long meandering train journey without a care in the world. It all starts off in typical Neil Young fashion, a simple acoustic motif and collection of beautiful lyrics. Within a minute, a full band echoic jam drifts in, and this mysterious train (a patient and solid Crazy Horse rhythm section) rolls endlessly on, hypnotic as Neil’s guitar scats, whines and dirges on top of the lead engine. Occasionally, the song drifts back into familiar stations, where he sings, mysteriously, about Picasso, MP3s and getting a hip-hop haircut. It a simple, beautiful formula that in the end seems too short, but just long enough. Like a train, it doesn’t linger, makes all the stops and provides a remarkable, memorable voyage.
Walk Like A Giant, track 4 on Side B, is a completely different animal. Clocking in at 16.29, the song is a more urgent and determined journey, still rambling and tangential, loose and heavy. It does what it says on the box. A theme song for a heroic but misunderstood superbeing, lamenting how he couldn’t change the world, all the while whistling as he walks, stomping gigantic slabs of sonic distorted doom across the land, and thinking “how close he and his friends came…” It’s typical Young property, with words and sound. He is a master manipulator of guitar noise, finding the most beautiful melodies in the ugliest of sounds, each fedback note, strum and chord a metaphor, packed with emotion.
Music today, it seems, is no longer a journey. We seem unable to sit down and listen, instead just shuffling and skipping over the good parts to get to the end, or the next beginning. You can fit several Gangham Styles in the time it takes for Neil Young and Crazy Horse to spin these new epic tales on Psychedelic Pill, but putting your head inside Neil’s Marshall amplifier for an hour seems a lot less painful than sitting through less than a minute of Psy, or whatever his name is.
Chances are that if you’re reading this, you are already a Neil Young fan, and need no convincing about how important he still is for music, but if you’re inspired, like Neil’s giant, to change the world, give this album to an impressionable young person today. Humanity will thank you for it.
bizarrojerri’s 10 essential outsider songs by Neil Young
10 “Downtown” with Pearl Jam
In 1996 Neil solidified his role as alt rock elder statesman / godfather of grunge – Kurt Cobain quoted his lyrics in his suicide note, Sonic Youth inherited and evolved the mantle of his noise aesthetic s- when he recorded and toured with members of Pearl Jam playing the role of a younger, tighter Crazy Horse. While the Mirrorball recordings were some of his more straight-forward hard rock records, the collaboration created oceans full of great riffs, epic jams and breathed new life into Neil Young’s song writing process from that point on.
9 “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” cover version by St Etienne
Neil may not be the most obvious influence on electronic dance music over the last twenty years, but with this 1992 version of one of his most moving love songs, British flower-chill-ravers St Etienne, has some novelty value, and proved that his lyrics and simple melodies suited the beat-oriented dance genre. With jangly piano and urban beats, Neil now had an awkward but much deserved place on the dance floor.
*More recently, up-and-coming funky lounge collective Poolside extracted his Harvest Moon into a lazy, but delightful mojito-sipping, sunset-watching anthem: to view click here:
*Neil’s original version of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” here:
8 “Hey, Hey, My, My. (Into the Black)” with Devo
Apart from being one of music’s most prominent outsider musicians, Neil Young, under the guise of reclusive director Bernard Shakey (production company named ‘Shakey Pictures’ – never say Neil Young doesn’t have a sense of humour), also branched out into unapologetic experimental filmmaking, delivering probably some of weirdest and diabolically horrible images ever put to celluloid. Best described as proto-Tim Burton, John Waters-tinged trailer-park avant-garde, Neil’s quirky film style is none more evident than in the film Human Highway, an “ecological apocalypse comedy”, featuring appearances by Dennis Hopper and weirdo new wave band Devo. The film’s final ten minutes is a typical Neil Young jam with Devo, featuring frontman Mark Mothersbaugh as the bizarre masked Booji Boy, performing “Hey, Hey…” like an episode of Sesame Street on peyote. The visual and musical improv is truly astounding; disturbing and uncomfortable but still astounding.
DEVO & NEIL YOUNG “Hey, Hey, My, My…” CLICK ON LINK FOR VIDEO:
*Trailer for the rest of the madness that is Human Highway, here
7 “Sample and Hold”
The cover for Neil Young’s 1982 experimental electronic album TRANS was one of the first artworks to be designed and drawn using a computer. It was created using an Apple MacIntosh II.
The story of how Neil Young embraced electronic music technology and came to use it to record/compile the controversial album Trans in 1982 is both mystifying and poignant.
It was one of the first occasions that saw Neil staunchly exercising complete unwavering authority over his creative output, but also one of few times his career might have been in serious jeopardy, almost beyond the point of no return.
Headhunted away from his original record company and signed to the fledgling Geffen Records, no doubt motivated by a $1 million per album advance and full creative control over the content, the deal also offered Neil the time and space to focus on caring for and rehabilitating his son Ben, born with cerebral palsy, through the use of new ground-breaking technology-based therapies.
Surrounded by this new influential sphere of technological innovation, it was no surprise then that burgeoning music technology, prototype recording devices and products not yet available on a grand public scale, would pique Neil’s interest. Acquiring a Synclavier and a Vocoder (the voice manipulator instrument much loved by Peter Frampton and Cher), Neil took the prospective Trans demos, as recorded by Crazy Horse, and began adding electronic treatments. Soon, as he spent more and more time on the recordings, these treatments overpowered the original songs’ rock format – much to the chagrin of the resolutely rootsy Crazy Horse – and Trans become a malformed electronica concept album, inspired by the sounds of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, and with the Vocoder, a method of using his music to communicate with his son.
“At that time (Ben) was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people. That’s what Trans is all about. And that’s why, on that record, you know I’m saying something but you can’t understand what it is,” Neil explained enigmatically.
Under pressure to deliver an album to Geffen, he allowed the album to be released, though the record company was less than impressed with the results. Naturally, Trans’ strangeness didn’t appeal to Neil core base of rock fans, and bombed. Although still difficult to listen to today, it has, with time, been recognised a historic electronica album and an important milestone in Neil Young’s musical evolution.
The release of Trans and the follow-up, an equally inaccessible and intolerable rockabilly tribute Everybody’s Rockin’, prompted Geffen to file a lawsuit against Neil, claiming that the albums and Young’s musical inquisitiveness was “just not Neil Young enough” to market successfully and that Neil himself, in questing to develop his new stranger tastes in music, had deliberately produced and released unsellable works.
Eventually, Neil would gravitate back to the guitar, but his work from then on would always be affected by these, and other experiments in sound (see the 35 minute long looped, chopped and sampled guitar noises of the concept album Arc, released some years later).
The song Sample & Hold is one of the more accessible pieces from the Trans album.
6 “Cinnamon Girl”
By far Neil Young’s best and most original guitar riff. A live standard that travels light years beyond the realms of the studio original – as do most of his songs performed live – Cinnamon is classic show case for Crazy Horse, and their importance as the backbone of Neil’s music.
5 “Unknown Legend” by TV on The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe in Rachel’s Getting Married
The opening words “She used to work in a diner/Never saw a woman look finer” of Legend are probably one of Neil most endearing couplets. Written as a tribute to his wife Pegi and the story of how they met, the song is originally from 1992’s Harvest Moon, a sequel of sorts to Harvest. The album is a subtle return to form for Neil, having spent most of the 80s flying under the radar. One of more tender acquisitions of the song is by TV on The Radio’s (and indie film actor) Tunde Adebimpe in the film Rachel’s Getting Married, as a bridegroom performing a makeshift serenade to his new bride.
*Neil’s Unplugged performance of Unknown Legend here:
4 “Like A Hurricane” – MTV Unplugged version
Featuring just Neil and an oldtimey pump organ that literally creaks a morbid rhythm to this stormy tale of karmic desire. The entire 1993 Unplugged performance is a career highlight for Neil, a format seemingly made for his music, and found new fans from a younger generation of alternative music audiences. The performance features some of the more obscure songs from his catalogue that had never been performed live, including Buffalo Springfield songs (“Mr Soul”) and tracks from Trans (“Transformer Man”). Using a variety of traditional and more peculiar instruments in the show, mostly solo, Neil gives a riveting and haunting performance. Possibly the best show of the original MTV Unplugged concept.
3 “Ohio” with Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Musically, Neil always seemed at odds with the hippie-tinged three-part acoustic harmonies of CSN, knocking over furniture with jittery, noisy guitar playing and a jarring trademark falsetto that just seemed too rural and out of place with the group’s Laurel Canyon sophistication. Ohio – one of Neil’s strongest songs – together with a powerful vocal dynamic from CSN created a perfect storm of a song. Lyrically and sonically, Neil’s tribute to the lives lost at Kent State University at the height of anti-Vietnam war protests in 1970, takes the protest song format to a darker, angrier place.
2 “A Man Needs a Maid”
Taken from the classic, every-home-has-a-copy album Harvest, the record that fortified his solo reputation, Maid is a lush and sexy love tribute to actress Carrie Snodgrass, the mother of his son Zeke, and is Neil at his most achingly honest. What pushes the song over the edge is producer Jack Nitzsche’s string arrangements – by the London Symphony Orchestra – that drift in and out of the song, giving it a grandiose and cinematic quality.
1 “Cortez The Killer”
Another strong anti-war anthem, this time using an analogy that references Spanish Conquistador history in the Americas, specifically the role of explorer Hernán Cortez in overpowering the indigenous Aztec people of Mexico, Cortez’s lyrical themes of conflict and the quest for peace are augmented by a slow brooding musical undertone, and fractious guitar duels between Neil and ‘Poncho’ Sampedro. Above all though, it one hell of an air guitar song.