A Quietus Feature: On the Beach by Neil Young 40 years later (September 8th, 2014)

In a curious twist of coincidence, I’m writing this anniversary piece not long after the release of a long-awaited live album culled from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s legendary 1974 tour, which took place not long after On The Beach was released. Together, they encapsulate the creative and personal whirlwind that was Neil Young’s life as the seventies reached their midway point.

The CSNY tour represented in many ways the apex of Young’s commercial resonance amongst rock’s pantheon of giants. Two years earlier had seen the release of the smash hit Harvest, its delicate country-folk catchiness propelling the enigmatic Canadian to the top of the charts amid a wave of popular acclaim. His decision in 1969 to hook up with former Buffalo Springfield sparring pal Stephen Stills in CSNY, rock’s premier supergroup, had exposed his eccentric take on folk and rock to a wider audience, and Harvest represented an almost inevitable conclusion to that suddenly raised profile. Despite previous alternative success in the form of 1970’s After The Goldrush, Harvest propelled Young to the very top of the singer/songwriter pile, with rewards aplenty to boot.

Almost immediately, however, the dark side of fame took hold of Young’s life with a vice-like grip. As he prepared to embark on his biggest-yet tour in support of Harvest, his alter ego in his garage-rock band Crazy Horse, Danny Whitten, died of a heroin overdose mere hours after being fired from tour rehearsals by Young. The concerts went ahead under a cloud, with an increasingly alcohol-fuelled Neil finding himself at odds with his band and his audience, who couldn’t relate to the unhinged, hard-edged songs he took to hurling at them in lieu of Harvest-esque folk-pop. The tour was captured in all its lo-fi glory on Time Fades Away (still unavailable outside of its original vinyl pressing), which served as the first sign that Young was, in his words, “heading for the ditch”.

In the space of a few months, the sunny* outlook of 1972 was erased completely. After Time Fades Away, Young – still grieving the death of Whitten, which was compounded by the similar demise of roadie Bruce Berry – took the remains of Crazy Horse and old stalwarts Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith into an improvised studio to lay down his first masterpiece of the dark recesses of the soul, Tonight’s The Night. Recording at night in a series of tequila-fueled sessions, TTN is bleary-eyed, barely in tune and totally phenomenal, perhaps all the more so because it can still shock CSNY and Harvest fans to the core. And if TTN was acclaimed by all involved as a cathartic experience, there was enough of its morbid malevolence still lurking in Young’s soul by the time the sessions for On The Beach came along in early 1974. As such, the trio of Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night (released tardily in 1975) remains one of the greatest and bleakest sequences of albums ever recorded by a major recording artist.

Just as Tonight’s The Night was guided – for want of a better word – by tequila, so too were the On The Beach sessions dominated by a rather different concoction. Ben Keith had introduced Young to a tubby and wild fiddle player called Rusty Kershaw and, while he only features on two songs, the latter’s influence, notably potent hash cakes named “honey slides”, cast a rather woozy shadow over proceedings. Indeed, one of the producers would report to peering through the glass separating the booth from the recording space in a vain attempt to locate the musicians, such was the pall of smoke and darkness that hung over the protagonists. If the album’s title and gorgeous cover suggested a change from Tonight’s The Night’s blackness, the sessions and what they produced were as gloomy as ever. With his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress (the mother of his first child) in tatters and his booze and drug consumption increasingly rampant, Young poured out his angst and anger over the roughest, most sparse music in his career to date (yes, even more so than TTN).

Consequently, whilst it’s not as punishing as TTN, sonically, On The Beach is not for the faint of heart. The bouncy opener ‘Walk On’ aside, most of the album is given over to bitter musings on the emptiness of fame and relationship breakdowns. For the latter category, Young resurrected an old unreleased song, ‘See The Sky About To Rain’, recorded at snail’s pace and laced with funereal electric piano. ‘For The Turnstiles’, meanwhile, is just Young and Keith on banjo and dobro respectively, striving to sing in tune a cracked exposé of the stadium rock scene and ‘Vampire Blues’ points to another future favourite of Young’s bugbears: the destruction of the environment. This is Young at his most disillusioned, and his fury is distilled into raw viciousness on the third track of the first side, the apocalyptic ‘Revolution Blues’. Over an almost funky rhythmic backing provided by Rick Danko and Levon Helm of The Band (man I wish he’d played with them more often!), Young channels the spirit of Charles Manson, culminating in a harsh incantation: “I hear that Laurel Canyon/ Is full of famous staaaaaars/ But I hate them worse than lepers/ And I’ll kill them in their caaaaars!!!!” In any decade, even now, this would be seen as dark, even controversial stuff; coming from a huge star at the height of his fame in 1974, it could have been career suicide.

For all the first side’s excellence, though, the three tracks that make up side B of On The Beach, starting with the title track, possibly represent Neil Young at his absolute peak. ‘On The Beach’ is heart-rending blues played with absolute anguish as Young contemplates his collapsing world in unflinching detail: “Though my problems are meaningless/ That don’t make them go away”. ‘Motion Pictures’ is another minimal dirge aimed as a last farewell to Snodgress, with Young’s world-weary voice accompanied simply by hand-patted drums, plonking bass and the occasional wurble from Kershaw’s slide guitar. Finally, the album comes tumbling to a close with exquisite emotional potency with the epic, blearily psychedelic song-poem that is ‘Ambulance Blues’, a strange voyage through Young’s past in Canada to his traumatised presence via a few meanderings into the realms of politics and music criticism.

Of all Young’s albums, On The Beach may be the hardest to describe musically, such is the way it sits between identifiable genres. It seems to have emerged, blinking but oddly full-formed, from the darkest chasms of Neil Young’s heart and mind, with Kershaw, Keith, bassist Tim Drummond, drummer Ralph Molina and the other guest performers layering sounds onto his vision and basic outlines with intuitive ease. Maybe honey slides generate telepathy. On The Beach wasn’t a commercial success, as audiences continued to be baffled by its sombreness, and it suffered the same fate as Time Fades Away until 2003 when it saw a belated CD and vinyl reissue, but it now has deservedly earned a place of true favour with Young aficionados. And to come back to CSNY, when Young brought the likes of ‘Ambulance Blues’ and ‘Revolution Blues’ to the almighty party, his erstwhile colleagues were beyond taken aback, with David Crosby begging off having to play on the latter. Yet, forty years down the line, I will find myself reaching for this unrelenting masterpiece far more often than Déjà Vu.

* For what it’s worth, a closer look at the lyrical content of Harvest shows considerable nuance in its supposed cheeriness. Yes, Young was in love and successful, but from the slightly wistful surrealism of ‘Out On The Weekend’ to the anti-racist rant that is ‘Alabama’, via the cautionary and slightly chilling ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ and the title track’s Southern Gothic chill, Harvest is actually anything but a simple ray of James Taylor-esque sunshine. How could it be otherwise with Neil Young?

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A Clash Magazine Feature: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere 45th Anniversary

In 1969, Neil Young was a little-known professional musician eking out a fledgling career in Los Angeles. He had known brief fame as part of Buffalo Springfield, and released a poorly received debut solo album – but success of the kind enjoyed by his former Springfield pal Stephen Stills, flying high as part of supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash, eluded him.

For most, Young’s rise to significance starts at the time he joined CS&N in the summer of 1969 and culminates with the celebrated albums ‘After The Gold Rush’ (1970) and ‘Harvest’ (1972), the latter achieving mainstream impact with its hit single ‘Heart Of Gold’. But that puts too great a value on commercial success.

Rather, the starting point for Young as visionary rock musician is ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’, an album that arguably represents the greatest leap forward of his early career. Put simply, ‘Everybody Knows…’ is one of the groundbreaking albums of alternative rock, a blueprint for so much of what has followed over the last 45 years, and deserves to be revered in the same manner as The Stooges’ eponymous debut or ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’. It’s punk before punk, grunge before the term had been thought up.

Bumming around LA’s underground in search of inspiration, Young stumbled upon a local garage rock band called The Rockets, with whom he jammed a bit, literally in their garage. He quickly developed a rapport with their rhythm section: Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums) and Danny Whitten (rhythm guitar). Hijacking the trio, he renamed them Crazy Horse and immediately hit the studio, backed by his inestimable producer David Briggs, who had worked on his debut LP.

But where ‘Neil Young’ had been a labour to produce, the sessions that led to ‘Everybody Knows…’ were a breeze, with Young forming an almost telepathic kinship with the Horse, and Whitten in particular. Whitten was an ace guitarist, but also had a background in doo-wop, meaning he could also sing. The formerly microphone-shy Young – whose voice was considered “weird” by many – rose to the challenge.

Yet it’s Young’s music that was really transformed by Crazy Horse. The simple rhythmic framework offered by Molina and Talbot opened up acres of space for Young to cut loose and develop a ragged, open-ended form of garage rock that is as heady as it is basic. Some of his folk heritage remains, in the form of the gentle ballad ‘Round & Round’, and the country rock title track. But ‘Everybody Knows…’ is dominated by intense, to-the-point, emotionally direct rock, epitomised by the crisp, driving ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and two epic pieces, ‘Down By The River’ and ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’, on which minimal, repetitive rhythm patterns allow Young to plug his Les Paul straight into his heart and tear out some of the most beautiful solos in rock history.

‘Everybody Knows…’ is not fancy, overdubbed, or elaborate: it’s rock ‘n’ roll at its purest and most authentic.

Young would go on to a unique and wildly successful career, twisting between genres and following his own muse, but he took the blueprint he forged on ‘Everybody Knows…’ and kept it close to his heart, returning to the Horse sporadically over the years with stellar results – ‘Zuma’, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’, ‘Ragged Glory’ and 2012’s ‘Psychedelic Pill’ – but also applying the stripped-down ethic to seminal masterpieces such as ‘On The Beach’ and ‘Tonight’s The Night’, both of which also share the doom-laden vibe of ‘Down By The River’.

Forty-five years on, it still sounds as fresh and innovative as ever, and in its sly humour, ragged riffs and searing solos lie the seeds of countless bands, many of whom have tried to emulate Young, never to succeed.

A Quietus Interview: Bohren & der Club of Gore (April 30th, 2014)

In 1991, German hardcore band Bohren & Der Club Of Gore made the radical decision to shed the shackles of the style they’d been playing for four years in favour of slow-moving, jazz and ambient inflected instrumental music. Since then, they have released eight albums, usually separated by three-to-four year gaps, but each containing exquisitely snail’s pace sonic constructions dominated by echoing piano, gently brushed drums, gently grinding bass throbs and mournful saxophone. Each album builds patiently, with every track a slow-burning capsule of melancholic atmosphere, and latest salvo Piano Nights is no exception. The title suggests a focus on the piano over the other instruments, a subtle shift that makes it possibly their most evocative album in years. The Quietus caught up with multi-instrumentalist and keyboardist Morten Gass to discuss the album, along the way learning that Bohren don’t see themselves as making dark music, compare their sound to elevator ambience and – perhaps surprisingly – don’t really consider their music in jazz terms.

Could you please provide me with a bit of background on the development of Piano Nights?

Morten Gass: It was three or even four years in the making. We put a lot of patience and research into the record, looking at studio techniques and instruments to get the easy listening sound that this album has. The title, Piano Nights, came first, as always with our records. We think of a title and then come up with the music for that title. It’s like a kind of theme, and this was the same with Piano Nights. So we needed a piano [laughs].

The title suggests the piano sits at the heart of the album. What drew you to taking this route?

MG: The album is not really based around the piano sound, it’s just in the title. We chose a piano because we always wanted to use a vibraphone, which we’d used before but you couldn’t really distinguish the sound between the Fender Rhodes and the vibraphone. It’s almost the same sound. That’s the main reason why we used the piano, and on this album, we actually used an acoustic piano.

Piano Nights has been described as your best album since Black Earth, which many consider to be your masterpiece. Would you agree? Do you have favourites among your albums?

MG: Favourites… [laughs]. Musicians always say “our last record is the best”, and for me it’s the same. We didn’t say that this record is as good as Black Earth, it’s something that record companies write to sell more records, I think. We never would describe the album in that way, it would be silly.

One word often associated with Bohren & Der Club of Gore is “dark”, and this album has titles like ‘Ganz Leise Kommt Die Nacht’ (‘Quiet Night Is Coming’) and ‘Fahr Zur Hölle’ (‘Road To Hell’). Do you think of yourselves as making nocturnal or dark music?

MG: That’s a tough question. We never think of ourselves as making dark music, it’s beautiful music, and you can listen to it at night. That’s maybe right, but is it dark? I don’t know. What’s dark music? It could mean goth music for some people, for others it’s black metal, and some think an album is dark because the artwork is dark or the musicians have black fingernails. It’s nice, warm music, and for me dark music is cold. In the end, it depends on the listener.

For me, the mood [of this album] is the same as on other records. Maybe it’s because of the sound of the record, which I would describe as “easy listening”, more than the other records. It’s more James Last than the other records [laughs].

Although it’s almost always purely instrumental, there is an emotional resonance to your music. Do you seek to convey certain feelings and thoughts through your music?

MG: We have no lyrics, just titles, and I like it when things are abstract. I don’t want to tell a story or force anyone towards a certain story. Everyone can do with the music what they want. That’s why it’s instrumental music in the end. When we write the music, we have a sort of theme, because we have the title. There are pictures in our minds when we think of a title, and the other guys in the band know in which direction we want to go with the music if we’ve got the title first. It is important, but not so much for the listener.

How do you compose and record your albums? Is there an element of improvisation at play?

MG: There is no improvisation. Like I did 30 years ago, playing on the guitar and getting to a riff, we play on the keys of the organ, vibraphone or piano, each of us at home, and come up with cool riffs, which we put together and make a sound. We make demos, and when everyone’s happy with a demo, we record it in our own basement studio, in a painful way.

I’m always amazed at the pace of your albums. Everything advances with incredible slowness and patience. Was that conscious decision from the start?

MG: It was our aim from the start, to play slow music, albums that feature only ballads. I’ve always liked ballads, and it’s a pity that every record only features one or maybe two.

Is it hard work to play so slowly?

MG: Of course, we don’t jump around! You need to concentrate and be a bit focused. On the other hand, you have lots of time to think about the next chord. But you have to concentrate on the music. If you play a wrong note, it lingers for ten seconds, and the audience will notice.

Interestingly, although your music is based around familiar instruments: guitar, bass, drums, sax, piano, people seem to find you very hard to define. I’ve heard you called dark ambient, post-metal, doom jazz, even… Do you think any of those or other terms apply? If not, how would you define your music?

MG: That’s a good question. We describe our music right now as elevator music [laughs]. That’s more a joke, but somehow it’s true. We try to be a bit original, we don’t want to be copycats, so it’s hard to describe the music because it’s a little bit weird. But, for us, it’s a good thing that it’s not so clear what style we play and that we don’t belong to a specific music scene. A black metal guy can listen to us, a jazz or pop guy can too.

You mentioned wanting to a band that only plays ballads, and your music makes me think of classic ballads like ‘Love and Hate’ by Jackie McLean and John Coltrane’s Balladsalbum. How do you think you fit into the jazz tradition, if at all?

MG: Hmm, the jazz tradition… It’s hard for us, because we’re not so much into jazz at all. We like the sound of jazz music, but we don’t like what they play. They’re all such good players, and we’re such bad players! We came from a hardcore band and we’re not masters of our instruments. We can play the way we do, so to describe our music as jazz would maybe be over the top. We understand why people make the connection, because we use the same instruments, which was our aim at the beginning, but I don’t know if it’s really jazz music. A real jazz guy would maybe laugh at our music.

Could you please tell me a bit about your background as a band? How did you come to evolve from a hardcore band into what you are today?

MG: We didn’t want to just cover other bands that we liked, we wanted to make something of our own. In about 1991, we chose to make something different. We were into so many other types of music, such as Sade and Chris Isaacs and even Detroit techno, so we thought “let’s make our own music”. We weren’t fed up with hardcore or metal, but for us it was boring to play that stuff, because we never reached the same level as our idols. It was fun to play, but there was no real joy for us. It wasn’t that much of a shift, really. We don’t play chart-friendly music. It’s underground, and just a few people like it. The only difference is the pace of the music.

Your previous record, Beileid, included one track, ‘Catch My Heart’ with vocals by Mike Patton, which was a first for Bohren & Der Club Of Gore. Is this a direction you might explore further?

MG: No, no. As you can see with Piano Nights, we don’t want to use vocals again. I see that as a kind of remix album, you know? Some people add breakbeats under their music, whereas we thought “let’s do something with vocals”. We always had the idea to cover this nice German metal ballad, and that’s why we needed vocals. At first, we hadn’t thought about Patton, we had someone like Amanda Lear in mind! But the final version was so slow and difficult, we needed somebody a little tougher when it comes to extremes. And Patton has a beautiful voice, and it was an honour to work with him.

In recent years, you seem to be performing live more often. Has your attitude to live shows changed?

MG: No, it’s the same as every year. We play around fifteen to twenty shows every year, and have done so for fifteen years or so. Maybe it’s because we’ve been doing more shows in England [that you feel we do more]. We don’t like to play more, but we don’t like to play less, it’s a perfect number. So, as always, we will now play our fifteen shows per year for the next three years. Why not? [laughs]

Bohren & Der Club Of Gore’s Piano Nights is out now via Ipecac

A Kit Interview – An Interview with William Basinski (February 22nd, 2014)

William Basinski is an artist who should need no introduction. Since the release of his seminal tape loop masterpiece The Disintegration Loops in 2002, Basinski has shone like a beacon in the fields of ambient and drone music, with his unique blend of sustained resonances and acute emotionality winning fans across the globe. In the wake of last year’s Nocturnes and a sell-out concert at St John’s Church in Hackney, Basinski is set to return to the same venue for a week-long residency in March of this year. Joseph Burnett caught up with the man to discuss his unique career, singular approach to music-making and the background behind his best release in years.

Joseph Burnett: Could you please tell me a bit about the creation of Nocturnes? Am I right in thinking the two pieces on the album were created at very different times?

William Basinski: Yes. The title track was a very early, very formal experiment that I did in, I believe, 1979, in San Francisco. At that time, I was working with tape loops and experimenting with prepared piano. I would hit the note and then hit the record on the loop to cut off the attack, and see how it sounded without the hammer on the string. This helped to create the great sense of suspension in Nocturnes. I had a very formal graphic score laid out for the piece, and had decided on twelve or so loops which I laid out over a time period, almost how the programme Live Score is laid out, with lines and sections and tracks. Unfortunately I got a little indulgent at the end. Understand that I was multi-tracking on a cassette deck, so I had a piece of tape over the erase head to overdub. But these kinds of overdubs are not like recording on separate tracks that you can go back and change. Once the piece was done, that was it; they were all hardwired on top of each other. You could be bouncing in and out of different levels, which was great, but at the end I added these things that I decided almost immediately I wished I hadn’t. Sometime later, digital editing comes along and eventually I was able to go back in and take out these little overindulgences and correct things. So the piece, which I always thought was really good, now has had its little plastic surgery or tooth cap (laughs).

I’ve been so busy travelling the last few years that I haven’t put out a record since Vivian & Ondine in 2009, so I decided to release Nocturnes. I thought it was a good time to release it. It’s a very dark album, kind of a warning, with an unsettling theme. I had recently done The Trail of Tears, with a couple of loops on a couple of tape decks with delay, and the loops just melted into this drone. I then put in this other loop at the end, which creates this wonderful resolution. Finally, I got the album and the artwork done, so it came out in May.

JB: As you’ve said, the album is very dark and melancholic. What made you aim for this particular mood?

WB: It’s a lamentation, so it’s not a happy album, but it is what it is. I think the resolution does something really amazing at the end. Sometimes you have to walk a trail of tears so you can find your epiphany.

JB: Do you have this sort of central idea or theme on each album you release?

WB: It’s not as though I start out going “I want to do this”. It’s like painting: you have to make the first mark and then you have to resolve that mark. Then you make another mark and have to figure out what’s going to happen next. It paints itself, and when it’s done you have to know that it’s done. That’s when it teaches you what it is. From there, you think about that and maybe come up with a title. It’s a learning experience.

JB: How do you go about the tape loops you use? You must have quite a few to root through!

WB: It’s just what strikes me at the time. I dunno… it’s hard to describe. It’s just what resonates at the time. It’s like taste, y’know. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, you don’t eat a pickle.

JB: So it’s very intuitive?

WB: Yes, yes, exactly.

JB: Has your way of recording and selecting loops evolved a lot over the years?

WB: Yeah, of course. I’ve gone through a lot of different changes and lots of different techniques, working with lots of different equipment. In the beginning, I had nothing. Tape decks were cheap, used tape was cheap, so that was what I had available to me, how I began. It’s how I developed my sound: creating all those loops was like building a synthesizer. I had my patches. Over the years, without having anyone beyond a small group of friends being able to understand that it was even music, I began playing in bands, doing all kinds of stuff. I continued doing my work, but before the internet and being able to self-publish, there was just the music industry. If you wanted to be a player, you had to do what was accepted as pop music.

When James [Elaine, William’s partner] and I moved to our second apartment in Brooklyn in 1989, we had fought for years against a local development, which was going to be built by tearing down all the buildings in the neighbourhood. They had to settle with us, and we found this ruin in Williamsburg, which we rented and spent a lot of money restoring. It was an extraordinarily beautiful place, which became Arcadia [Basinski’s performance space and studio until 2008]. I was able to build a proper studio and control room, and we had a sound system, and this wonderful mini-ballroom with this beautiful sound. It turned out like a Venetian palazzo or something overlooking Manhattan. We were holding the Arcadia evenings, and I was producing bands, working with synthesizers and better recording equipment. I tried more pop music then, and worked on a song cycle with my friend Jennifer Jaffe, a poet and member of an art group called TODT. I tried to get this very gothic work released in the nineties, but there were no takers.

Eventually, when CD burners came out, I got one and found all these cases with my old tape loops in them in a storage room we had, which was full of old furniture and Jamie’s paintings and all this junk. I didn’t know what had happened to them! Knowing what tape does, that it would disintegrate, I started archiving the old work. Around this time, Carsten Nicolai came to New York, I think for a residency at PS1, and was staying downstairs with my German neighbours. We met when I was working on shortwave music and listening to that again, and he just flipped over that, and asked to release it on his label. I’d been waiting to hear that for a long time! So that was the beginning of being able to release work, and it turned out that all of a sudden there was an audience of people who were about the age of these tape loops who were ready to hear my work. It’s been incredible, because I never thought I’d live to see the day.

William Basinski kit records

JB: When you performed in London, I noticed you used a laptop. Do you find that computers and synthesizers allow more freedom and a wider range of possibilities than tape loops?

WB: Well there certainly are benefits. There are certain things I do with computers that I can’t with tape loops. But I’m an old dog and I’m not so good at learning new tricks, so I have certain things I can do. For example, in shows the computer is sort of a back-up. Sometimes the tape decks break or don’t function properly. In London, one of them had crashed or something. When I started the tour, it was perfect, but after one of the early shows it came back and it was only playing on one speed, which was a speed faster than it was supposed to. I had enough time to cut and record new loops for this machine on the speed that it wanted to play at. I was using this old tape that Richard Chartier had sent me, so I just started using them and something amazing happened. On the back of one of the loops, there was some recorded material already there, and at the speed I had it going, it was this incredibly beautiful thing that happened to go beautifully with these variation loops that I did at the end of the concert. It might even have been some Beethoven or something, slowed down, that came in towards the end of the concert. These little accidents can happen, and it’s always a blessing. The computer is also good for remastering analogue material, digitising it and preparing it for release, but I don’t create sounds with it like a lot of people do. I’m not proficient at that. Like I said, in the last twenty years in Williamsburg, at Arcadia, I had a control room with synthesizers, MIDI and a big console with multi-track tape decks. Unfortunately now, all that is sitting in my garage, waiting for a place for me to set it up. But I’m hoping that after this year-long tour, I’ll be able to look for a studio space I can install it in and get the old spaceship back up again. That’ll be lots of fun.

JB: You’ve mentioned the tour that you’re currently on. How do you approach performing live as opposed to recording in the studio?

WB: In a way, especially when I’m working with loops, it can be very relaxing for me, because it’s kind of just like when I’m in the studio. Often, there’s a random element. I have a plan, but you never quite know what’s going to happen. Things can go wrong, or sometimes interesting things can happen. Time just disappears. Every room is different. You’re moving air and resonating a space, so there’s always the time in soundcheck when I get to work with all the nice technicians, boys and girls who know their space and know how to fit the resonances in this space. I’m listening the whole time, just trying to surf these waves.

JB: Your music evolves at a very gradual pace. Does that present a challenge when performing live, and do you find some audiences more receptive than others?

WB: I was very nervous this year, because I wasn’t sure how Nocturnes would go over, but it’s been amazing. The audiences know what to do, they know the work. People either get it, and can’t get enough, or they don’t, so this year my experience has been that the audiences are there. They get prepared, smoke pot or do whatever it is they do, and then just sit or lie down and close their eyes and go there. They’ve been so quiet, so great, and the response has been fantastic. I’m just thrilled to death.

JB: When I saw you at St John’s in Hackney church, I was reminded of a performance of Eliane Radigue’s music, also in a church, from a few years ago…

WB: It’s the best way, it’s all you have to do: just open your ears and… I’ve got Jamie’s beautiful video. It’s not necessary, but it’s beautiful and great, and it creates an atmosphere. But if you close your eyes, your own movie will appear. And the time just goes away, changes.

JB: The first adjective that comes to mind when describing your music is “emotional”. Does emotion play a big role in your music?

WB: Yeah. It’s very much a part of me and who I am. In fact, I have to be careful, because I get so hung up about stuff and tend to respond emotionally! I’m a year of the dog, I always get my back up, so that’s definitely all over my chart, let’s say.

JB: It’s impressive the way you’re able to communicate that back to the audience, just in the way you select your sounds.

WB: Thank you. It’s been a good run (laughs).

JB: About a year ago, I saw an orchestral performance of The Disintegration Loops in London at The Royal Festival Hall, and noticed the difference between the tape loops on the record and how it came out when performed, but the end effect was the same.

WB: That was extraordinary. Those young musicians were brilliant, to do that there, and the audience was incredible. I think there were five minutes of silence after the last note. We were blown away! Max [Moston, the arranger] did an incredible job, he’s amazing.

JB: A lot is being written right now, by music journalists, about silence and quietness in music, and I recently saw a film called Silence that approached that very notion outside of music. Zones without people, if you will. Do you find that to be something that resonates in your music?

WB: I heard about that film! Absolutely, and silence is such an ephemeral thing, it’s something we can hardly ever experience these days. We were just on the island of Pantelleria, near Sicily, this volcanic island, and we’ve been there six times, but the difference this year was incredible. After the big economic crash, it was silent. There was no-one there. You could hear the ocean and the wind in the trees. There are hardly any birds on this island. It was incredible to have that. Like in films, there’s always some kind of sound. It’s not a digital silence, because that’s so unreal, in a way.

JB: The Disintegration Loops recently received a lavish reissue as a beautiful box set. Did you anticipate at the time that it would become such an influential and important work?

WB: Not really. Jeremy Devine, who did such a brilliant job art directing and overseeing the whole thing, and releasing it, came and talked to me in LA about it, and I was a little wary at first. When I got my copies, I was like “Oh my God, this is amazing!”. So yeah, the response has been incredible. It’s quite a lovely object to see on my shelf. When it first happened, over two days in my studio, I called all my friends to tell them to come and listen to it. Everyone just flipped, we just lay around the loft and listened to it all the way through.

JB: When I interviewed Antony Hegarty recently, he mentioned that he first met you when you were handing out fliers for a Diamanda Galás concert at your loft. You must have a lot of fond memories from that time in Williamsburg. Do you miss it?

WB: Well, I miss my beautiful castle, that’s for sure! It was such an amazing place and home. It was a home for artists. But we have a lot of recordings from that time, and a lot came out of it. It was a huge petri dish that really grew something. And [in March 2014], we’re planning on doing a series of Arcadia events in London, over a period of a week, with a bunch of creative friends of mine from Europe.

JB: Finally, what are your plans for the future? I know you’re touring a lot, but do you have any releases planned also?

WB: The two don’t go hand in hand. I just released Nocturnes, you greedy bastard! (laughs) I’ve been going all year, and won’t be doing so many next year so I can get my studio set up, and then we’ll see…

William Basinski’s Arcadia residency will be held at St John’s Church in Hackney from March 12th-20th, with performances by Michael Gira, Charlemagne Palestine and Rhys Chatham, amongst others. Excitingly, composers or ensembles can apply to perform a support slot within the series through the Sound and Music and Art Assembly.

Main picture by Peter J. Kierzkowski.

A Quietus Interview – Psychic Hi-Fi: Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s Favourite Albums (January 23rd, 2014)

Neil Megson, now known as Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, stands tall as an almost unique individual who has dedicated h/er entire adult life to h/er art. Best known, perhaps, as the intimidating and provocative lead vocalist in seminal, genre-founding industrial giants Throbbing Gristle, who evolved out of performance art group COUM Transmissions, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge became a key figure in the UK underground, with TG paving the way for the likes of Whitehouse, Nine Inch Nails and Ministry.

However, as interviews with, and articles about, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge have consistently proved, there is more to Gen than h/er position as the first leading light of British sonic terrorism. Through h/er work with his post-TG band Psychic TV, and as an artist, s/he has consistently transformed the idea of how an artist can work and live through creativity, culminating in h/er collaborative work with h/er late wife Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, in which their all-consuming love led them to transcend the barriers of gender and identity, until they existed as two halves of one romantic and artistic creation, The Pandrogyne. Since Lady Jaye’s tragic passing in 2007, Genesis has dedicated h/erself to pursuing their shared vision, via the latest, righteously psychedelic incarnation of Psychic TV, and by continuing to share h/er and Jaye’s work, most recently in a lusciously-presented book compiling photos, artworks and writings.

Head to First Third’s website to get hold of the book.

Hapshash_and_the_coloured_coat_1390411452_resize_460x400Hapshash And The Coloured Coat – Featuring The Human Host And The Heavy Metal Kids

Do you think it’s an unusual list?

Sort of, but I remember when we last spoke, I said that, contrary to what I’d imagined, you do come across as a bit of a hippie! Or at least deeply psychedelic.

Well, I grew up in the sixties. In 1962, I bought the first Rolling Stones single, and I still have it. I still have every single they released, in order, right up until Brian Jones was murdered. I saw Pink Floyd god knows how many times, and even did a couple of light shows for them…

We started listening to pirate radio and John Peel’s Perfumed Garden, and had a friend at school called Spidey who was very good at spotting interesting new music. John Peel was the first person to play The Velvet Underground, and Spidey said, “Listen to this, you’re gonna love this!”. That’s when we got the first violin.

We used to go to Birmingham, to this tiny little record shop that had nothing of interest except some Albert Ayler and free jazz. There was a record in there, and we recognised the artwork from Oz magazine so we knew it was by Hapshash and The Coloured Coat, because they used to do psychedelic posters and Oz. So we bought it just because of that. It was on Magnet Records. When we pulled out [the disc], we were shocked to see that it was on red vinyl, which we’d never seen before. We later discovered that all these people on the scene in London wanted to raise money for the legals fees of John “Hoppy” Hopkins, the first person who’d been busted for drugs and who co-founded the International Times. He was a real mover and shaker of the times. It’s like twenty to a hundred people high on acid jamming! We fell in love with it and still listen to it all the time. When we DJ, people come up to us and ask, “What was that with that great riff?” Guess what one of them ended up doing? Writing “We Are The Wombles”! That really got me in the head, that was worse than a bad acid trip!

Mike Batt! He also wrote the music for William Hague’s campaign…

Oh no! How could he go from Hapshash to that! That’s disappointing to say the least. Michael Batt, what a twat! I didn’t even like The Wombles…

Acid_mothers_temple_1390411485_resize_460x400Acid Mother’s Temple & The Melting Paraiso U.F.O. – Lord Of The Underground: Vishnu And The Magic Elixir

It was my manager, Ryan Martin, who also does Dais Records, who said, “You don’t know who Acid Mothers Temple are?!” I knew the name, but had never listened to them, so he immediately burned about 30 CDs! We loved it, and then he rang me to tell me they were playing live at The Knitting Factory the following week. He took me, and I was absolutely entranced. The guy at the front, with hair longer than mine that had gone grey, and he was swaying off the rhythm of the music, in perfect time to something in his head. It just blows you away. And then, what’s his name with the guitar, begins with an M…

Makoto Kawabata?

That’s it. He then freaks out, and does the opposite to this Zen thing. He’s everywhere, with his big afro. And you just think: “Fucking hell! That’s what music’s supposed to be like!” Psychedelic, free-form, and when you feel like going nuts, you go nuts. And then at the end the one who was so zen suddenly got his guitar and hung it from a pipe in the ceiling and started swinging it so it started to feedback. And then they just walked off. And we just thought: “After my own heart!” [laughs]. Afterwards, Makoto came up to us and said, “We’re such huge fans of yours, we can’t believe you came to see us. Here’s my guitar!”, and he signed and gave me his guitar neck, which he’d snapped off! He had a t-shirt of Che Guevara that he’d turned into himself, and he wrote lots of stuff in Japanese in a silver pen and gave it to me. We were so proud of that t-shirt. And then my fucking cleaner came in and laundered it! All the writing came off, all I had was the Che.

And everyone’s got a Che t-shirt! It’s interesting because a lot of the bands on your list, including AMT, are ones I discovered through Julian Cope.

Oh yes, of course. He loves all our new stuff too. He’s the same: it’s acid jamming. And it’s my roots. My roots aren’t rhythm & blues, it’s this. And a day comes when you think, “Fuck what the world thinks, I wanna hear what I like to hear, and there’s no-one around me doing it so let’s play our music”. And strangely enough, we’re more successful as a result of having just let go of all preconceptions and deciding to go back to this era. The audiences just go nuts. There you go. Be true to yourself.

Church_universal_and_triumphant__incChurch Universal And Triumphant, Inc. Featuring Elizabeth Clare Prophet – The Sounds Of American Doomsday Cults

This was the hardest one to track down and gather information about. I found a video of some chanting on YouTube.

Isn’t it weird? How do they do that with their voices [ululates manically]? There’s a really good documentary called Death Cults or something, and it shows you them digging this enormous bunker, and [Elizabeth Clare Prophet] says: “The world is going to end on this date with a nuclear war”. The bunker’s not finished on time, but they go down anyway, come back out about a week later and the world hasn’t changed [laughs]. She says the master’s order wasn’t right, and that the world will actually be in four or five months. So they all go back down, and it doesn’t happen. It turns out she has brain tumours, which probably explains the entire cult, and then she dies. But it’s still going! They interviewed them a few years later. The women all look like Elizabeth Clare, with their suburban haircuts and clothes, and big smiles! There’s one piece on the album where they’re cursing pop music, and it’s just stunning. Hilarious. We play them at the beginning when we DJ!

Hawkwind_1390411557_resize_460x400Hawkwind – Hawkwind

I just saw Nik Turner on Sunday night. He’s doing good. We have a strange history with him and Hawkwind. In 1971, in COUM Transmissions, we somehow managed to con this benefit concert for a commune that had been busted for drugs that Hawkwind were headlining, and got the second slot on the bill. None of us had ever played anything, except me on drums, and it was the era when everyone was trying to have the biggest drum kit, so we borrowed drum kits from some of the other bands involved. We got a dwarf on guitar who’d never even seen a guitar before. We had someone from Bridlington on a surfboard on a bucket of water as the vocalist, who just told jokes because he was actually a comedian. Cosey was dressed as an English schoolgirl with a starting pistol, firing in the air, and her own whips. Nik Turner and Lemmy and everyone remember Cosey!

Then in ‘92 or ‘93, Hawkwind came to tour the West Coast, and Nik called me up and asked if I wanted to play keyboards for Hawkwind. I said “of course!”. We got to San Francisco and Jello Biafra was there and he came running into my dressing room and said, “Gen! I love Hawkwind!” I thought he was kidding, but he was serious and said it was his dream to sing ‘Silver Machine’ with Hawkwind. So we got him to join in on backing vocals on ‘Silver Machine’. He was thrilled.

HH.P. Lovecraft – H.P. Lovecraft

Wonderful! Brilliant! It’s very different to everybody else, and it’s all men singing who sound like women. It sounds like Jefferson Airplane at times, and you think, “Who’s that woman?” and then you realise it’s a man. And now that singer does TV commercials and plays accordion in coffee shops.

They were quite big. In England, quite a lot of people bought their records. We DJ-ed a lot with our original one, and somebody stole it from a club. We’ll find one again! H.P. Lovecraft were really underrated in terms of the sixties bands from the West Coast.

I suppose they were quite different.

They were! They were all classically-trained, and refreshing because of that. They weren’t just following everyone else.

The_incredible_string_band_1390411608_resize_460x400The Incredible String Band – The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter

I’ve got everything they ever did, and it’s hard to pick one, really. We like ‘A Very Cellular Song’ – who else could write a song about an amoeba and make it sound great? That was Jaye’s favourite Incredible String Band song, so that’s why we picked that album. You can see the connections growing here, can’t you?

DrDr. Strangely Strange – Kip Of The Serenes

We came across the song ‘Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal’ on a psychedelic compilation and fell in love with it. I just thought, “Who could write a chorus of, ‘Strangely strange but oddly normal’, and make it a really catchy song?” The whole thing was sort of irrationally brilliant, and later we found out that one of them went off to Japan and tried to become a Zen priest. Of course, when we considered the history of literature in Ireland, with James Joyce and everyone, it started to all gel. And then we found out Joe Boyd was involved. They did the first one in one afternoon, because he didn’t think it would sell. We’re not sure which, who and when, but there was some exchange of personnel with the Incredible String Band at certain times.

DrDr. Strangely Strange – Heavy Petting And Other Stories

The second album has the guitarist from Phil Lynott’s wonderful band.

Thin Lizzy? Really?

Yes! He does the guitar on my favourite track on there. It’s very different to the first, it’s a little bit more rocky. There’s a drum kit in there, but they also sing some church hymns. That whole thing that the ISB and Dr. Strangely Strange did, with sudden shifts. You’d think you’d know where [a song was] going and then it would stop dead and something completely different would happen. We always loved surprises and novelty and chaos happening that reprograms the brain to stop assuming things.

Joe_byrd_and_the_field_hippies_1390411691_resize_460x400Joe Byrd And The Field Hippies – The American Metaphysical Circus

This has a bit of an H.P. Lovecraft feel to it. We were stuck, because there were two albums, the other one being by his band, The United States of America. That one’s much more weird, and we like it a lot, but this one we always found harder to listen to, so for that reason we chose it. Because if it’s still hard to listen to, there must be something in it that’s playing with my expectations, whereas The United States of America is fairly funky. So, it was a struggle to choose one, but in the end we picked that one for the singing.

There are more people on it…

Yeah. It was done as a project for his college!

The_13th_floor_elevators_1390411726_resize_460x400The 13th Floor Elevators – The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators

Well, I had to have this on it! We’d like to have it on vinyl. Did you watch the documentary about Roky Erickson’s life? There’s this moment when you first come across him in the documentary. He’s sitting in this room that’s filled with junk. He has about ten or more television sets. Some are black and white, some are colour, some have no picture, just zigzags, but they’re all on full. And he’s got radios on full. And he’s sitting in the armchair and says, “This is the only way I can go to sleep! It drowns out the noises in my head.” And you’re thinking those are the noises in your head! [laughs] But he’s playing again! He’s back, it’s incredible.

I know. It’s hard to believe, because I’ve read interviews with him from years ago where he’s barely coherent. But on that album, vocally he sounds like Mick Jagger, but with screeching!

“Aaaaaahhh!!” And then there’s that jug sound, which is just incredible! I don’t know how they did that!

Blossom_toes_1390411755_resize_460x400Blossom Toes – The Psychedelic Sound Of Blossom Toes, Vol. 1

From what I’ve read, this is a bootleg…

You’d have to ask Giorgio Gomelsky. It’s probably a bootleg by Giorgio Gomelsky. Do you know the story about him? He was the guy who first managed the Stones and put them on at the Station Hotel. He was right that he thought the only way to get the Stones publicity, as the house band, was to get the Beatles down to hear them, and they loved the Stones. And then he got Andrew Loog Oldham down to see them, and Brian Jones secretly did a commercial deal with Andrew, because they’d never written anything down with Giorgio, he just trusted them to stay with him. He then went and got The Yardbirds.

Good ear!

A very good ear! Which he still has to this day, because – he lives in New York – he has hundreds of thousands of amazing tapes. But they left him, and he found the Blossom Toes, whom he thought would be the next of his successes, but they weren’t because they were so fucking quirky. There’s one song which goes, [sings] “You should have come home you little frozen dog/ You stupid little frozen dog”, and that’s the chorus. They were trying to do a sort of Sgt. Pepper’s based on Giorgio’s Eastern European understanding, and so it’s just really odd. Very English, and very quirky, and fun, with lots of funny effects and brass bands – the whole thing that everyone was trying to do. And it didn’t sell at all. So he decided, after The Yardbirds became Led Zeppelin, that Blossom Toes should be like Led Zeppelin. So he tried to do a Led Zeppelin album, which is absolutely terrible! Sorry Giorgio, we’re friends, but it’s terrible. So that’s them, the one thing they did, in my opinion, that is worthy of discovery because it’s odd. He should have just let them do their thing.

The_zombies_1390411840_resize_460x400The Zombies – Odessey And Oracle

That was the first record that Jaye ever played to me when we met. It was surprise. This is a girl who ran away from home at age 14 to Alphabet City in the eighties, lived in a squat there, was into the hardcore scene so went out with one of the biggest hardcore guys in a band so no-one would beat her up or touch her, and yet she loved sixties psychedelic music. The Electric Prunes, The Zombies… Eventually The Zombies reformed to do one gig in New York, in this little club, so I got tickets, and they were spot-on. They did Odessey And Oracle, and afterwards I introduced her to The Zombies and they signed her album. It’s an excellent album. The harmonies and Colin Blunstone’s voice are stunning. That voice with the hissing in it. We had this friend, who did a lot of co-production on early Psychic TV, and he said my voice took to tape really well because it had this hiss in it. Apparently, it gave more resonance, so I accidentally have the same sort of resonances as Blunstone. Sadly, not the same voice or skill!

Syd_barrett_1390411875_resize_460x400Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs

I had to. I mean, how do you pick one? Syd Barrett, brilliant. One thing he did which just knocked me out, at a very early gig – and we thought we’d imagined it because we were stoned but we read about it in a magazine – in those days a lot of the bands would do an hour set, and then maybe the drummer would do a half-hour drum solo while the others went off to do drugs, or they’d all go off and we’d all be sitting around for half an hour because we’d do drugs. And then they’d come back. So, anyway, they went off, and we thought, “Oh no, drum solo, I guess it’s time to do drugs”. And they changed into workman’s outfits and old macs and one by one they all came back. One of them brought some wood, another one had a toolbox, another one had a flask and tea-cups, and the floor of the stage was miked. They made themselves things to sit on, and it was all done rhythmically, creating this piece of musique concrète. They made a table and sets of chairs, then sat down, turned on a transistor radio and drank cups of tea! Then they left and came back on as Pink Floyd! I was thinking, “Did I really just see that?”, and for years thought we’d imagined it. And we didn’t, it really happened.

Kind of sums up Syd Barrett in one anecdote!

[laughs] People used to say his solo stuff was all crap, that he couldn’t do it anymore, but as time has gone by, I think anyone with any brains has realised just what a genius he was. My two children grew up with his music and would say that ‘Baby Lemonade’ was their favourite song of his. So, every birthday we’d have to play ‘Baby Lemonade’. Pretty good taste, no?

A Quietus Feature – 30 Years On: Soul Mining By The The Revisited (October 23rd, 2013)

One of the most charming quirks of the very early eighties was the unexpected popularity and commercial success of the most enigmatic of pop music. In 1982, impressively-coiffed British quartet Japan were rewarded after years of near-misses when their positively minimalist single ‘Ghosts’ climbed to number five in the UK charts. A year earlier, New York avant-gardist Laurie Anderson performed even better, as her eight-minute mini-suite mixture of pop and spoken word, ‘O Superman’ hit number two. When you think of it, even the likes of Soft Cell or Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark seem quite unlikely as stars, with their peculiar dancing, affected vocals and dry, skittish percussion on singles like ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Enola Gay’. But, aside from The Fall and the Associates, few “bands” of the early post-punk years were as popular despite being positively eccentric as Matt Johnson’s The The.

I’ve seen The The described as both synth-pop and post-punk, but neither term really seems to fit. In fact, for their first releases, including this debut album proper, they weren’t even an actual band. Only the enigmatic Matt Johnson features on all seven tracks, often playing multiple instruments in a kind of megalomaniacal desire to keep absolute control over his creation. But, given how long it appears to have taken him to make his mark (a first album, Burning Blue Soul, was released in 1981, but under his own name, and he found getting an actual band up and running more than a little difficult), it’s hard not to find some sympathy with Johnson’s determination. In this context, it’s no wonder that Soul Mining is no joyful debut from a confident young whippersnapper, but rather a claustrophobic and cynical slab of self-loathing and barely-restrained fury.

Much has been made of the current generation of synth-wielding artists who appear to have elevated bedroom-composed music to an art form. Well, Soul Mining may have been recorded in a couple of studios, but it crystallises the inner world of the bedroom-based singer-songwriter to perfection. Its opening salvo, ‘I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All Of My Life)’ and ‘This Is The Day’ are two sides of the same isolated coin, the former a despondent musing on inertia, the latter a more upbeat look at potential futures. ‘I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All Of My Life)’ features pounding, almost metallic rhythm stabs, almost of the sort you’d get on a same-period Einstürzende Neubauten or Test Dept. album, aligned with see-sawing bass lines, snippets of radio static and fuzz-laden guitar. Johnson practically eviscerates himself emotionally in lyrics such as “All my childhood dreams/ Are bursting at the seams/ And dangling around my knees” and, in the chorus, “Another year older and what have I done/ My aspirations have shriveled in the sun”. Anyone who has ever felt that their life failed to live up to expectations will instantly connect to such self-laceration, which reaches fever pitch as he closes on a repeated mantra of “My mind has been polluted/ And my energy diluted”, over and over again. It’s quite ironic that Johnson manages to conjure up such a potent and determined piece of deformed pop whilst simultaneously lamenting his own lack of focus.

The response to this attack of self-doubt comes, after a fashion, on ‘This Is The Day’, although it starts out with a bleary-eyed “day after the night before” vibe. Johnson quickly decides, though, that things can only get better from here, as he loudly proclaims, “This is the day your life will surely change/ This is the day when things fall into place.” Accordion and fiddle lend the track a more pastoral vibe that contrasts nicely with its predecessor’s moody rock sound, whilst its catchy melody was surely deserving of better than its eventual chart position of number 71. These two tracks set out the spirit of Soul Mining, which vacillates between a certain forlorn romanticism (‘Uncertain Smile’) and fierce cynicism (the slow-burning faux-soul of ‘The Sinking Feeling’). At a time when pop was aiming for short, sharp bursts of infectious musicality, Matt Johnson’s melodies must have seemed quite alien, with frequent temporal shifts, such as on the loping, hazy ‘The Twilight Hour’ or the multi-faceted title track. There are hints of progressive rock at some points, whilst elsewhere the album nods towards where Mark Hollis would take Talk Talk later in the decade.

It all culminates fantastically with the unfathomable and unexpected dance epic ‘GIANT’, a track that coalesces Johnson’s pop sensibilities with his innate sense of disillusion into nearly ten minutes of p-funk bliss. In his best mix of croon and snarl, Johnson declares “I am a stranger to myself” before going on to lament his fear of both God and Hell, sounding like a man torn up by his terror. Zeke Manyika provides funky African rhythms whilst synthesizers zip and fly in all directions, guided by supple bass and snaking guitar licks. The percussions builds into a storm of pounding beats (courtesy not just of Manyika but also Foetus’ JG Thirlwell) as Johnson wails out “How could anyone know me/ If I don’t even know myself”, his voice seeming to give out through exhaustion to be repeated by a multi-voiced chant. ‘GIANT’ is a weird closer that really shouldn’t be. It’s fun and irresistibly groovy, but this simple pleasure is subtly tainted by the raw angst of the lyrics, and the increasingly claustrophobic repetition of rhythms and voices. It’s Soul Mining and The The in one track: catchy, musical, but also strangely obtuse and unfathomable.

After Soul Mining, The The would grow in strength as Matt Johnson brought an overt political angle to his lyrics, heightening the universality of albums like Infected and Mind Bomb by turning ever-so-slightly away from his debut’s moody introspection. He even allowed The The to become a proper band after 1986 or so, and forged a singular career, often at the same skewed angle away, but never disconnected, from pop music that he started with in 1983. Soul Mining is in every way a perfect starting point, and one of the best albums of the eighties to boot.

A Liminal Feature – Walk On: Neil Young, from the Buffalo to the Pill (April 5th, 2013

neilyoung

For many, if not most, Neil Young fans, seeing him return this year to his best-ever backing band, Crazy Horse, even with a relatively throwaway covers record (Americana), will have felt like all their birthdays and Christmases had come at once. That it has since been followed by a double album of new material, not to mention the man’s autobiography, which offers fresh insight into this most unique of rock’n’roll minds, must have had more than a few filling their boots in some form or another. I know I did, but I’ll spare you the details.

Weirdly, however, Neil Young is these days an even more polarising figure, be it among his fans or music listeners at large, than he was back when he wrote ‘Southern Man’ and ‘Alabama’ to castigate racism in the Deep South. For many, his decision to seclude himself at his Californian ranch for most of his post-seventies recordings and the increased comfort of his life (marriage, kids, cars, model trains, etc) has led to a dip in songwriting quality and musical standards, with lyrics -usually focusing on war, the environment and eternal love for his wife, Pegi- dashed off as if written on the backs of cigarette packets (which he does a lot, actually). Whilst there’s some truth to this complaint (gone -mostly- are the psychedelically surreal and oddly poetic rambles of ‘Ambulance Blues’ and ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’), it actually seriously misses the point and the bigger picture. Because, even as he becomes more settled into his stable country life (hence all the love songs and ecological concerns), away from the drugs, illness and instability of the sixties and seventies, he still remains rock’s eternal maverick, a constantly contrarian spirit who approaches his life and his music the way he always has, and in the same manner: on his own motherfucking terms. You don’t like a new direction, or some of his new lyrics? Tough shit. Neil Young just keeps on rolling, and in that he is both fascinating and, I swear, as consistent as he’s ever been. The differences between the Neil Young of 2012 and the one of 1966 are of course there, but not as important as they might seem. It’s where he connects with his eternal muse that Neil Young stands tall, which is handy for me as I sit down to write this tribute.

Early days: Buffalo Springfield, The Horse and CSN

Young first emerged, after a few years bumming around Toronto’s folk and rock scenes, as a member of LA-based quintet Buffalo Springfield, a supremely talented outfit formed in 1966 that also just about contained fellow singer/songwriter/guitarists Richie Furay and Stephen Stills. That their super-confident blend of Byrdsian folk-pop and Stones-inspired rock’n’roll never saw them score more than moderate success via Stills’ era-defining single ‘For What It’s Worth’ is something of a mystery, although by the time they finally imploded in 1968, a lot of the blame was laid at the feet of Neil Young (and the twice-deported, drug-addled bassist Bruce Palmer). Plagued by epilepsy and insecurities, Young left and re-joined and left again, his once potent guitar interplay with Stills reduced to acrimony, leaving three albums, of which their second, Buffalo Springfield Again, is a triumph and the other two somewhat hit-and-miss. In hindsight, however, it becomes clear that there was another factor beyond personal drama: Young was far too idiosyncratic, personally and musically, for a band of young pups such as Buffalo Springfield. Even aged just 21, his odd and intense approach to his life and art were clear, and it’s this attitude that permeates and continues to drive his music 46 years later. Songs like the surreal ‘Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing’, the epic ‘Expected to Fly’ and the overt ‘Satisfaction’ rip-off ‘Mr Soul’ were just too weird, self-absorbed and introverted to fit easily with a band whose other members were dreaming of pop stardom. Young would pursue this doggedly self-questioning tack on his first, self-titled solo album (1968), a collection of oblique pop ballads centred on his non-existent love life and the environment (oh hello). It wasn’t a great success (it still sounds odd and febrile today), but it did see the start of his near-career-long association with Warner/Reprise and, perhaps more crucially, his partnership with the late, great producer David Briggs.

In October 2008, The Wire ran one of their Primers entitled “Alternative Neil Young”, which is an apt, if somewhat misleading, way to explore his substantial catalogue, encompassing a great many career highlights, both familiar and obscure. His work with Buffalo Springfield and his debut solo album could be taken as good starting points (and were by The Wire’s Joseph Stannard), given how awkwardly they sat alongside so much of their contemporaries. But, to be honest, the real alternative Neil Young was born the day he met LA garage band The Rockets and stole away their rhythm section (Danny Whitten on guitar, Billy Talbot on bass, Ralph Molina on drums) to form the incomparable Crazy Horse and record the Briggs-produced masterpiece Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. EKTIN and Crazy Horse are alternative in the purest sense of the word. It’s alternative in the same way The Stooges and The MC5 were: the Horse lay down a beautifully basic rhythmic canvas over which Young soars like an eagle, unleashing unkempt solos that are as far removed from the niceties of a Clapton or a Page as Iggy Pop was, as a vocalist, from Perry Como. Predictably, quite a few rock snobs hate them with a passion: “They can’t play!” is a familiar and tiresome mantra spouted by the likes of David Crosby. The music the Horse concocted seemingly out of thin air way back in 1969 (heavy but spacious, country-tinged but definitely rock-centred) seemed to straddle the ages, as if Young and his three cohorts had tapped into the eternal spring that might lie at the base of rock’n’roll. After the near-misses and spurts of genius on his earliest material, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere saw Young finally establish his voice. And what an unusual one it was.

Lyrically, this period remains one of Young’s most-celebrated, and it’s easy to see why. Songs like ‘Down by the River’ and ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’, the two ten-minute workouts on EKTIN, showcase Young at his most lysergic, meandering story-songs where meanings cross over each other until you’re left with a stoned musical equivalent of a Rubik’s cube. On ‘Down by the River’, Young sings of shooting his baby, but it’s never clear if he’s actually killed her or just broken up the relationship. And I’m damned if I know what a ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ or a ‘Cinnamon Girl’ are! Neil Young’s ‘Last Trip to Tulsa’ is an acoustic cousin to those two, a 9-minute acoustic Dylan-esque ramble that is as ridiculous as it is evocative: “Well I used to be a woman you know/I took you for a ride/I let you fly my airplane/it looked good for your pride”. Such weirdness reflects all the way back to the early Springfield classic ‘Mr Soul’: “I was raised by the praise of a fan/who said I upset her/She said ‘You’re strange, but don’t change’/And I let her”. Such wordplay may be oblique, but it works, in part thanks to Young’s already stunning gift for melodies that matched his heady language for intensity. It’s also worth noting that references to actual relationships were quite few and far between during this period, with his first wife Susan only supposedly cropping up on the grim ballad ‘Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)’ on Everybody Knows this is Nowhere. Compared to how often his current spouse, Pegi, traverses so many of his latter-day songs, it’s remarkable, and proof that, as demonstrated by the druggy, introverted nature of his lyrics, Young was very much living in his own world at this point.

Predictably, however, he promptly ditched Crazy Horse and jumped onto the publicity-spinning bandwagon that was the world’s first major supergroup: Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young). I actually rather like CSN’s first album, and many of their songs, not to mention what Young brought to their ego-laden table. But, ultimately, the association would prove crippling to the other three, particularly as Neil’s career soared, and I keep coming back to what an associate of the band once said (it might actually have been Graham Nash): “What did CSN need Neil Young for?”. Deja Vu, the album that resulted from this hugely-publicised assembly of talents, is not as great as its sales implied, nor as terrible as its subsequent critics (such as Young biographer Jimmy McDonough) would have us believe. Young’s two main contributions, the haunting ‘Helpless’ and the overblown, tiresome ‘Country Girl’ mainly indicate how oversold his arrival was, with the album’s biggest highlights, lyrically and musically, coming from David Crosby, in the form of ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ and the elaborate title track. The rest veers from folky schmaltz (Nash’s ‘Our House’ and ‘Teach Your Children’) to excessive faux-rock (Stephen Stills’ ‘Carry On’). Neil Young’s greatest contribution to CSNY would ultimately be the track that sealed the band’s mythical status: the superb, chilling anti-Nixon diatribe ‘Ohio’, inspired by the Kent State University shootings and punctuated by Crosby hair-raising improvised shouts of “Why!?” and “How Many More!?” at the end. ‘Ohio’ crystallised the Californian anti-establishment spirit, and ensured Young would forever be a key element to CSNY’s aura. But he hardly stuck around to enjoy its success with the other three. By the time the hit-and-miss live album Four-Way Street was released in 1971, he was already back on the solo path, leaving CSN a tad rudderless, reduced to being a side path he would only return to on his terms.

Success

CSNY provided the ideal springboard for Young’s solo career, as he was viewed as the most interesting, talented and mysterious of the four, a contrarian spirit who could write circles around all of them and refused to be filmed at Woodstock. As the bright-eyed sixties made way for the disillusion of the seventies, the haunted, uncompromising Young was expertly placed to capture the hearts and minds of the world’s increasingly jaded music consumers.

After The Goldrush (1970), his first post-CSNY solo album, kicked the decade off with the expected bang, and would prove to be his biggest success yet. Recorded by a hodge-podge of his best collaborators, from Jack Nitzsche (with whom he’d worked on ‘Expecting to Fly’ and Neil Young with often spectacular results) and members of the Horse to a then-unknown guitarist (perversely made to play piano by Young) named Nils Lofgren, After the Goldrush mixed together every style he’d touched on thus far, from minimal folk (‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’, ‘Tell Me Why’) to raucous garage-rock (‘Southern Man’, ‘When You Dance (I Can Really Love)’) via country (‘Cripple Creek Ferry’) and politico-environmental balladry in the form of the title track. Despite the constant variety of styles, the album was cohesive and coherent, and a number of its tracks have remain crowd favourites ever since. As for the aching ballad ‘I Believe In You’, it comprehensively proved that far from having a weak voice, Young was one of the premier vocalists of his generation. The only shadow to loom over the considerable success of After the Gold Rush was Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten’s gradual slide into heroin addiction, something that would have a considerable impact on Young’s future career.

In 1971, Young met actress Carrie Snodgrass after seeing her Oscar-nominated performance in Diary of a Mad Housewife and swiftly fell in love, moving her and some of her family to his recently-purchased Californian ranch. This romance would form the backbone of his next studio album (I’m going to gloss over the rather dreadful soundtrack to his film Journey Through the Past), and biggest commercial triumph, Harvest, which came out in 1972 and promptly stormed to the top of the US album charts, alongside the single ‘Heart of Gold’. The critical consensus is that Harvest is little more than a romantic country-pop album (it was recorded with some of Nashville’s top studio musicians, with Elliot Mazer replacing David Briggs as producer) full of love songs. Popular and catchy, but maybe a bit lightweight. Closer examination reveals, however, a certain current of melancholy unease, from the dreamy opener ‘Out on the Weekend’ through ‘Harvest’s’ reflections on Snodgrass’ mother’s mental issues and the drug horror of ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’, the latter clearly inspired by Whitten’s ongoing abuse. Admittedly, the album’s pace is laidback and friendly, dominated by Young’s lovely harmonica, and Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor even feature on backing vocals for ‘Heart of Gold’ and the equally catchy ‘Old Man’. But ‘Alabama’ pursues the anti-racist themes of ‘Southern Man’, whilst the epic closer ‘Words’ is a demented psychedelic romp that proves that Young didn’t always need the Horse to rock out. Less inspiring were the two piano-and-strings ballads ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ and ‘There’s a World’, featuring dreadful arrangements from Jack Nitzsche. Harvest is a mixed bag, but its success was amply merited (it remains one of the highest selling albums of all time), and even 40 years on, whenever Neil Young cracks out ‘Heart of Gold’ onstage, I find myself joining in the ecstatic applause like a teenager at a Justin Bieber concert.

What should have been a period of great joy soon turned sour. Desperate to aid his friend, Young brought Danny Whitten up to the ranch with a view to bringing him on the Harvest tour. Whitten, however, was so strung-out on heroin that Young was forced to send him home with $50 in his pocket. The next morning he got a call to say his alter-ego in Crazy Horse had overdosed and died. The tragedy would cast a dark cloud over the tour, and precipitate Young into a creative underground in a way he drily described as “heading to the ditch”.

The Ditch and beyond

Danny Whitten’s death threw plans for the Harvest-supporting stadium tour into disarray and, in retrospect, many involved feel it should never had gone ahead. Young was severely depressed by his friend’s death and, to make matters worse, his trusty Old Black Les Paul guitar was broken and his relationship with Carrie Snodgrass was deteriorating. Their son, Zeke, had been born with mild cerebral palsy, which put a further strain on matters, so the added stress of a massive tour must have stretched things to breaking point. As the tour got going, it quickly became apparent that the Harvest band was ill-suited to the more rock-oriented material, both old and new, that Young brought in to bolster sets, with the exception of slide player Ben Keith,  who stayed with the Canadian until his sad death in July 2010 and remains a legend for any Young fan. Relationships between Young -perpetually drunk and furious with the Gibson Flying V he chose to replace Old Black because it sounded shit- and the band collapsed, with Jack Nitzsche a perpetually antagonistic presence, even on stage. Drummer Kenny Buttrey was fired midway through the tour, and audiences were shocked by the violence and anger of Young’s performances, as he unleashed a series of previously-unheard electric rock songs on them rather than deliver sweet, cheerful versions of Harvest-esque country-folk. What should have been Neil Young’s biggest triumph became an unmitigated disaster.

Despite the trauma, the resultant live document of the tour, Time Fades Away, was a landmark album in Neil Young’s career. Eschewing any commercial considerations, it featured eight previously unheard tracks, most in a form of ragged garage rock that was a million miles away from the elegantly-realised material on Harvest. The album bombed, predictably, but it would come to define its creator’s off-key relation to success and popular demands. Lyrically, it was fascinating. The hallucinatory rambles and imagistic balladry of previous albums were totally absent in favour of harrowing, realistic narratives that provided fascinating insights into Young’s mindset, and it is this tradition -with its part-angry, part-wistful focus on his past- not that of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere or After the Goldrush that set the template for almost everything Young has done since, bar occasional more lysergic forays like on On The Beach. ‘L.A.’ is a moody rock ballad excoriating the excess and pollution of California’s biggest city: “Uptight/City in the smog!” Young bellows in a voice ravaged by tequila and anger. “Don’t Be Denied” is one of The Loner’s greatest story-songs, one that begins with his parents’ divorce, goes through him being bullied at school and heading to California, and ends with poignant expression of disillusion at fame’s elusive hold: “I’m a puppet in a naked disguise/A millionaire through a businessman’s eyes!”. As for the near-nine-minute “Last Dance”, I don’t think any major artist had at that time chosen to end an album with such a cynical, brutal dirge. Young sounds unhinged as the track degenerates, his bitter lines about being up for hours and cold orange juice underpinned by a claustrophobic cocktail of jagged riffs and woozy vocal harmonies. When he starts yelling “No, no, no” over and over, Young sounds positively deranged. Harvest could not have felt further away.

To the ongoing chagrin of his music people, Young didn’t stop there, but instead descended into a maelstrom of angst and bleakness that only Lou Reed has equalled among major rock artists. Shortly after Danny Whitten died of a heroin overdose, CSNY roadie Bruce Berry followed suit, and this fresh tragedy, coming on the back of a failed tour, precipitated Young close to the edge, although the results bore stunning fruit. Bringing the surviving members of Crazy Horse, as well as Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith around him, in 1973 Young recorded (with the able help of David Briggs, of course) a series of tracks that would form the backbone of 1975’s unique masterpiece Tonight’s The Night. Living off tequila and cocaine, the musicians became a radical band of brothers, recording at night and not giving a flying fuck about bum notes, off-key vocals or even conventional rock structures. The title track references Bruce Berry’s death, but could just as easily been an elegy to Danny Whitten. In a startling move, it actually crops up twice on the album (and would be expanded into bonkers 30-minute suites, sometimes three times in one night, during the subsequent tour). On ‘Mellow My Mind’ and ‘Borrowed Tune’, Young’s voice frequently breaks, yet somehow it doesn’t matter: the emotion contained in these songs, whether dealing with parenthood, the emptiness of fame, death or inebriation, is unlike anything else in rock. Neil Young and his pals were plumbing the depths of human sadness, but somehow the results felt celebratory. Indeed, for all its bleakness, everyone involved said the Tonight’s the Night session were a blast.

A now-legendary, but at the time panned, tour followed the recording of Tonight’s the Night (including a UK leg supported by The Eagles). Young’s fans, despite the Times Fades Away debacle, still went to see him play Harvest songs, and the result was a plethora of vacated seats and general disbelief, with many assuming the former superstar had gone mad. But, as a certain Sid Vicious later said, having seen the London show, the combination of “unprofessionalism” and even audience abuse that defined the Tonight’s the Night tour, would be a key influence on punk, and ensured Young escaped the vitriol other veterans would suffer when the great clear-out was unleashed in ‘76.

Tonight’s the Night, the album, however, was shelved until 1975, although that didn’t mean Young was ready to veer away from the ditch. Instead, 1974’s On The Beach was, if possible, even more insane and pitch-black than Tonight’s the Night. With his relationship with Carrie Snodgrass disintegrating, Young and a bunch of reprobates including Ben Keith, members of The Band and bonkers fiddle player Rusty Kershaw holed themselves up in a studio, subsisting on copious amounts of hash-based concoctions known as honey slides. Whilst the likes of Graham Nash failed to connect with the sickened, grungy vibe that ensued, Young delved into proceedings headfirst, laying down his most hallucinatory songs since Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere over minimal electro-acoustic backings that allowed him Crazy Horse-esque space to escape into the lysergic pathways of his words. The treasures are manifold: ‘Walk On’ is a bouncy rocker, the cleanest of the tracks on On The Beach, taking a wicked swipe at music critics with gleeful panache; on ’Vampire Blues’, you can almost hear the hash blurring Young’s sense as he rails slurringly against Big Oil; ‘After the Turnstiles’ is a druggy banjo-and-acoustic-guitar dig at the big stadia that he found so soulless on the Harvest tour. These tracks display a sly humour and slinky wordplay that take the rather basic rhyming style he has always been keen on (if you listen carefully to Young lyrics, you’ll generally find that ‘sky’ rhymes with ‘try’ or ‘die’ or ‘lie’ and so on – he’s almost the anti-Dylan) and turn it inside-out.

But this playfulness was a facade for the nocturnal heart that beats at the centre of On The Beach. Where Tonight’s the Night contained a celebratory tone, like a wake, and songs about Young’s love for his son and partner, most of its predecessor (in release terms) is a bleak, mean, cynical and tortured reflection of a troubled decade, as evidenced by its fantastic cover. ‘Revolution Blues’ channels the spirit of Charles Manson over a wicked funk rhythm, with Young adopting the persona of a cult leader in a trailer who sees apocalyptic visions of bloody fountains and dune buggies before screaming “I hear that Laurel Canyon/Is full of famous stars/But I hate them worse than lepers/And I’ll kill them in their cars!”. Even Lou Reed never achieved this level of psychotic terror, and the song so traumatised David Crosby that he would refuse to play on it during the 1974 CSNY reunion tour. ‘On the Beach’ is a lugubrious ballad on which Young seems positively ruined by his own fame (“Though my problems are meaningless/That don’t make them go away”), and features some of his best-ever guitar work: slow, sad and achingly intense. ‘Motion Pictures’ is equally personal, a lament to the demise of his relationship with Snodgrass, but ‘Ambulance Blues’ hits lyrical heights that few “rock” artists have ever achieved. It’s as opaque as ‘Last Trip to Tulsa’, but more potent, an exquisite ramble through Young’s career and Nixon-era paranoia seen through a filter obscured by hash smoke. On the Beach was another commercial failure, but as a work of art, it has few parallels among any of Young’s peers and surely deserves more recognition now that it has received a belated CD release.

For most Neil Young fans, the “Ditch Trilogy” represents his creative apex, and it’s hard to disagree. Tonight’s the Night finally saw the light of day in June 1975, after a commercially successful but artistically frustrating megatour with CSN in ‘74, although Young shelved a more Harvest-esque album called Homegrown in the process, much to the anger of producer Elliot Mazer. Despite popular indifference to his work, and difficulties in his private life, Young had never been more creative, the songs pouring out of him. In November 1975, he released Zuma with a revamped Crazy Horse, Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro filling the void left by Danny Whitten. It was an altogether more upbeat affair than On The Beach or Tonight’s the Night, but also featured two immense workouts, the brooding ‘Dangerbird’ and the poetic Aztec lament ‘Cortez the Killer’, both of which showcased the slow-burning post-psych structures of the Horse and Young’s singular lead guitar solos at their full splendour. A weak duo album and aborted tour with Stephen Stills followed in 1976 (about which the less said the better), whilst ‘77 saw the release of the hodge-podge of slight country-esque tunes and unparalleled genius that is American Stars’n’Bars, which featured the classic ‘Like A Hurricane’, featuring guitar magic that kicks any of the more celebrated but less instinctive so-called heroes such as Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton into the dirt, as well as the Canadian’s most bizarre song, ‘Will to Love’, on which Young compares love to the tribulations of salmon swimming up a river! Young initially recorded ‘Will to Love’ alone on a cheap tape in front of his fire, but David Briggs took this lo-fi recording and overdubbed Young on a variety of extra instruments (vibes, drums, piano) to flesh things out, resulting in a ghostly ballad not that far removed from the bedroom hauntologists of the last few years. Placed back-to-back on the album, ‘Will to Love’ and ‘Like a Hurricane’ completely overshadow everything else on American Stars’n’Bars.

With so many songs being written, everything was in place for Neil to re-emerge as a commercial and critical force, especially as the punks were heralding him where his peers were being sneered at. It started with a very personal two-disc retrospective, Decade, followed by the pleasant, country-tinged Comes a Time in 1978, which is mostly notable for its references to parenthood and his new love, Pegi, who would become his second wife the same year. 1979 was as momentous a year as any before bar 1972, as Young reunited with Crazy Horse for a gargantuan tour involving towering amps, roadies dressed as Jawas from Star Wars and a batch of new songs clearly influenced by punk’s frenetic energy (Young had at some point become friends with punk weirdos Devo, with whom he would also make the bonkers feature film Human Highway, which he directed and starred in under the alias ‘Bernard Shakey’). The resultant “fake studio” album (recorded live, but with the audience track removed), Rust Never Sleeps (remarkable for being half acoustic and half electric), and the live film of the same name, were critical and artistic triumphs, with the almost-title track ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’/’Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ immortalising one of Young’s most iconic lines: “It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away”. Rust Never Sleeps (and the live album Live Rust) showcased a new version of Neil Young: short-haired, aggressive and unafraid to drench his guitar sound in layers of feedback, like a hippy, rock version of Britain’s industrial noise-makers. The success of Rust Never Sleeps, a brilliantly cohesive album that takes in ecological concerns, snarky asides aimed at the increasingly-irrelevant CSN, and some of Young’s most timeless and weird rock songs (‘Powderfinger’, ‘Sedan Delivery’, ‘Welfare Mothers’), would echo down the years and lead The Village Voice to crown Neil Young their artist of the decade.

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Those troublesome Eighties

Neil Young fans had probably come to expect the unexpected with their hero, but I doubt anyone could have foreseen the tumult of his eighties period. The momentum built up by Rust Never Sleeps was effectively halted the moment his first child with Pegi, Ben, was, like Zeke, diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Ben’s case was particularly severe: he couldn’t speak or walk, so Neil and Pegi effectively put their lives on hold to take care of him. Young’s first two post-Rust albums, Hawks & Doves and Re-Ac-Tor, were mostly throwaways, the former a mostly banal country-folk collection that showcased Neil Young as a reactionary Reaganite flag-waver (predicting future directions), the second a more interesting rock opus on which he transformed Crazy Horse’s garage stomp into a sort of brittle motorik groove halfway between krautrock and Detroit punk, which closed with a deranged synth-tinged rock-as-genocide piece called ‘Shots’. Neither was supported by a tour, due to Young’s commitments to Ben, so both sank without much notice.

Then, Neil made his most fateful decision, quitting Warner/Reprise, his label since Neil Young, to join David Geffen’s recently-launched Geffen imprint. Promised full artistic freedom, Young quickly realised that he did not have the label’s full support, with the resulting legal and creative battles becoming more of a story than the music he would record. His first Geffen album, Trans (1982) was the biggest curveball of his career: inspired by Kraftwerk, as well as the way electronic technology was helping his son to overcome his disabilities, Young embraced both synths and vocoders, to the point that songs like ‘Computer Age’, ‘Transformer Man’ and ‘Sample and Hold’ sounded like they’d been beamed into his psyche by robotic aliens. And yet, in retrospect, Trans holds many delights, at least on the aforementioned tracks. Young is not one to do half measures, and, when he whacked out the synths, he did so with gusto, and, provided one has the context of Ben’s condition, the results are startling moving. The problem was, no-one at Geffen, or among the public at large, had that context, whilst several tracks on the album were bland folk-pop tracks as forgettable as they were brief. Trans was widely panned, and so the problems with Geffen started.

Much of Young’s eighties output is seriously crap. At loggerheads with his label, Shakey retreated into a series of characters, from the cheesy rock’n’roller of Everybody’s Rockin’ to the cantankerous, reactionary country twat of Old Ways, the latter even causing him to be sued by Geffen. When he eventually got back to rock, on 1986’s Landing on Water, he overloaded it with effects and studio wankery, effectively neutering his once-potent muse. His swansong for Geffen, Life, saw him reunited with Crazy Horse, but his obsession with MOR studio techniques hamstrung the whole thing, stifling his band’s brutish, earthy instincts. A subsequent -truly bonkers- tour ended in acrimony and the clear sense that the potent entity that was Neil Young & Crazy Horse would never be revived again.

Even when he left Geffen and returned to Reprise, Neil wasn’t done with the turgid genre exercises. A brilliant EP, Eldorado, featuring Young at his most abrasive, notably on the snarling proto-Nirvana of ‘Cocaine Eyes’ and ‘Heavy Love’, proved to be a false dawn, as 1988’s This Note’s For You was a tiresome, overproduced r’n’b-themed bore (the less said about the dismal CSNY album American Dream, the better), with his best song of the period, the massive, evocative horn-and-guitar powerhouse, ‘Ordinary People’ left off alogether. And then, unexpectedly, 1989’s Freedom, propelled by the infectious single ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ and the tidy production of Niko Bolas (not to mention the enthusiasm of the returning Sampedro), received unanimous critical praise and his highest post-Rust sales. Essentially a snapshot of every Young archetype, from delicate folk to raucous rock via sentimental balladry, Freedom is not actually that good, but it certainly has a focus much of his previous eighties material had been severely lacking.

Beyond the questionable artistic merits of his eighties work, especially the schizophrenic genre experiments, what mostly disappoints is the febrility of his lyrics. He said himself that Ben’s condition caused him to shut down a lot of his feelings, whilst the (relative) calm of a stable marriage and fewer drug or alcohol issues meant that the angst that drove so much of his best seventies output was gone for good. However, Trans had proved that engaging with his son’s illness could reap great rewards (‘Transformer Man’ is one of his most affecting songs), but, sadly, he refused to explore that further, instead resorting to dull genre cliches (Everybody’s Rockin’, Old Ways, This Note’s For You), unsurprising political statements (‘Mideast Vacation’ on Life, ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’) and predictable expressions of love. It’s perhaps telling that his two best songs of the decade, ‘Ordinary People’ and ‘Hitchhiker’, went unreleased until revived in the last couple of years. Having said all that, Freedom at least gave him a position of force from which to embrace the next decade, and boy did he go for it.

Back to the top

Almost inconceivably, Neil Young emerged from the eighties more popular than he’d been since his seventies heyday. Even with hindsight rehabilitating Trans, Re-Ac-Tor and, to a lesser extent, Life and Landing on Water, lyrically if not musically, the yuppie years represented Young’s nadir, from the jingoistic Reaganism that characterised his country forays to the banal love songs that peppered This Note’s For You (although the title song from that album remains a protest song classic, eviscerating corporate sell-outs rather than warmongers this time). But Freedom saw a net improvement, with ‘Crime In The City’ a nice story song and ‘No More’ providing one of his best anti-drug statements since ‘Tonight’s the Night’ (although it was very much overshadowed -if you could get a copy- by Eldorado’s ‘Cocaine Eyes’).

Young’s status as a reinstated icon actually owed less to Freedom than to the emergence of a generation of young bucks who’d gorged on his seventies classics, especially the halcyon, feedback-drenched output of Crazy Horse. The grunge bands that emerged from America’s Pacific Northwest all sported the plaid shirts, torn jeans, scraggly hair and converse that had defined Young’s own aesthetic since the early seventies; likewise, their distinct approach to rock was decidedly unabashed by considerations of skill or technique. Like the punks ten years earlier, the grunge kids called Neil Young an icon, and, flush from Freedom’s success, the old timer quickly capitalised. Crazy Horse were recalled to Young’s ranch, David Briggs returned as producer, and the quintet quickly spat out a gnarly, unkempt beast of a record that struck an instant chord with this emerging new generation: Ragged Glory.

In hindsight, Ragged Glory’s pace and countrified chord structures is somewhat removed from grunge’s high-octane thrash, but the spirit was identical, with the album’s trio of lengthy workouts, ‘Over and Over’, ‘Love to Burn’ and ‘Love and Only Love’ showcasing the Horse’s unique ability to stretch time and a single chord, whilst shorter rockers such as ‘White Line’ and ‘Fuckin’ Up’ packed a mean punch that harked back to the glory days of ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and Zuma’s ‘Drive Back’. Young’s words are superbly minimal throughout, his repeated lines reflecting his equally single-minded approach to riffs and solos. The Horse chugs along like a rusty locomotive and everything is drenched in angry layers of feedback and saturation. The boys may have been having a laugh (see their dirty old man take on ‘Farmer John’), but Ragged Glory was their heaviest album to date. The grungers lapped it up, and the band subsequently embarked on a massive US tour supported by Sonic Youth, immortalised by the monolithic double-live album Weld. Young even went one better, accompanying initial pressings of Weld with a monstrous 35-minute feedback collage called Arc, using fragments of noise from the end of various tracks performed on the tour, a release even more warped, and above all unexpected, than Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, if only because it was more spontaneous and unpretentious. Reed often comes back as a comparison for me whenever I consider Neil Young. The Loner may not have Reed’s art background or direct experience of heroin addiction and perverse sex, but somehow every comparable foray Young has made, be it drug songs, death references or noise experiments, seems more authentic in the Canadian’s hands, perhaps because it’s obvious he hasn’t thought about them as much as the former VU. And the proof is in the 21st-century pudding: where Lou Reed increasingly seems to be lazily parodying himself (except with the Metal Machine Trio), Young remains a figure of admiration, even awe, among both his peers and the public at large (I do love Reed, though, I promise).

In yet another about-turn, though, Neil Young confounded expectations by returning to the style and atmosphere of his biggest-ever success, with the delicate, folky Harvest Moon, with more than its title echoing his 1972 classic from exactly 20 years earlier, as he recruited most of the same musicians. Part of it was necessity: Young’s ears had been shot to bits by the sheer volume of the Ragged Glory tour, meaning he could no longer play at the intense volumes required by Crazy Horse. Equally, with success now once again a reality, how could he resist the temptation to revisit the aura of his greatest commercial triumph, especially as the angst that underpinned Harvest had been replaced by a comfortable maturity inspired by his enduring relationship with his wife Pegi? After all, the fragile waif was by now all grown up. In many ways, Harvest Moon is more cohesive, and therefore superior, to Harvest. Songs like ‘From Hank to Hendrix’ (a love song to his car) and ‘One of These Days’ herald a Neil Young who no longer seeks to escape his past (which had at times led him to seem heartlessly callous), but rather dwell on it and maybe heal the wounds of his trail of ambition.

Harvest Moon, however, principally heralded a new central focus on love, something that has now come to dominate most of Young’s lyrical output. By 1992, a more settled Young had little time for the experimental, lysergic wordplay that ran through Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, On The Beach, Zuma and songs like ‘Expecting to Fly’, ‘Will to Love’ and ‘Dangerbird’. Even the self-doubt of the Harvest love songs was long gone, replaced with a sort of languid relaxation. For the most part, at least. Two songs jump out from Harvest Moon, once one has ignored the cliched title track or the forgettable ‘Unknown Legend’ and ‘You and Me’: ‘Such a Woman’ and ‘Dreamin’ Man’. The former is the most naked expression of love I’ve ever heard from a major artist. The lyrics are simple, almost basic, but Neil’s voice is more beautiful than on any song since ‘I Believe In You’, and all cynicism folds when he hits the highest notes. ‘Dreamin’ Man’ is as cryptic as anything on On The Beach, in a way, it’s sweet aura folding away when you realise the lyrics are about a gun-toting stalker. It doesn’t contain the terror of ‘Revolution Blues’, but it’s close.

Harvest Moon was a massive success, followed by an equally lucrative MTV Unplugged live album. More importantly, it marked a turning point away from abstract lyricism to narratives more anchored in Young’s real concerns, from the personal (his love for Pegi) to the mundane (‘Old King’, an ode to his dog and one of his most dismally insignificant songs) to the socially-aware (the environment). Of course, these tendencies had existed throughout his canon, and already present on Ragged Glory, where they were almost brushed aside by the sheer gnarliness of The Horse. On Harvest Moon, they really came to the fore, taking centre stage and ultimately defining Young’s vision.

Young was now one of the few major “old” stars to be completely relevant to a new generation, as even Bob Dylan had disappeared to semi-retirement and acts like The Rolling Stones were content to rest on their long-gone laurels. Neil even received an Oscar nomination for his heart-rendingly sparse theme song to Jonathan Demme’s AIDS drama Philadelphia (unjustly snubbed in favour of Bruce Springsteen’s glossy track from the same film). This relevance was surely down to Young’s singularly contrarian spirit (he has never sold out, as the phrase goes, something even vintage punks haven’t managed – see Rotten, Johnny), and in 1994 he confounded expectations by once again teaming up with Crazy Horse and releasing an album he would not support with a tour or any promotion. The inspiration for what now stands as one of his best-ever albums was the tragic suicide of grunge’s poster child, Kurt Cobain, someone Young seriously admired and who quoted the Canadian in his suicide note: that timeless, controversial line “It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away”. Neil was so overwhelmed by Cobain’s death that he promptly wrote a fuzz-drenched death ballad, ‘Sleeps with Angels’, which doesn’t overtly reference Cobain but still storms straight to the heart of the tragedy (“And when he did it/She ran up phone bills”). ‘Sleeps with Angels’ is the most troubling Neil Young song outside of his “Ditch Trilogy”, and its grim fatalism runs through the album that ultimately took its name. Sleeps With Angels isn’t so basic as to focus on Cobain’s death, but the mournful atmosphere surrounding that event permeates every track (except the throwaway ‘Piece of Crap’), from the doom-laden murder ballad ‘Drive By’ to the lengthy drug hymn ‘Change Your Mind’ via the fantastical ‘Prime of Life’ and the minimal overdriven noise stomp of ‘Blue Eden’. Almost every track on Sleeps With Angels is arresting, mood-driven and poetic, featuring some of Young’s best lyrics since the seventies, precisely because he resists the temptation to delve too deeply into the whys and how comes of Kurt Cobain’s death, centring his attention on its fall-out and allowing the emotional response to filter into every other song. Sleeps With Angels was the last time Neil Young would be so grim and elusive, and, as such, it’s one of his best ever albums. It also helps that Crazy Horse and Young branch out in ways they’d never dared before, bringing in bass marimbas, tack pianos and even a tin whistle.

In 1995, Young received the considerable (and probably overdue) accolade of being inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. The man who inducted him was Pearl Jam’s lead singer Eddie Vedder, and the mutual respect quickly blossomed into a collaboration, with Young ditching the Horse to go into the studio with the grunge kids. Mirror Ball was recorded in a few days and showcased Young at his rawest, with Pearl Jam offering loose, rambling backings to his stoner-ish lyrics about the music business (‘I’m the Ocean’), abortion (‘Act of Love’) and the hippy dream (‘Downtown’, ‘Peace and Love’). Mirror Ball’s best moments are up there with the Horse in full flight, but most of it is sloppy, with lyrics that feel like they were dashed off on the trip to the studio. David Briggs would have probably brought more focus and space, but he was, like Crazy Horse, snubbed in favour of Brendan O’Brien. Sadly, it would Young’s last chance to record with the man who, more than anyone else, helped shape his sound: Briggs passed away of cancer in November 1995. Heeding his mentor’s last demand that he “get closer to the source”, Young went on tour with Crazy Horse, playing small venues and stretching out beyond anything they’d ever done before. A rapidly recorded studio album, Broken Arrow, followed in 1996, as well as the cruelly-underrated live Year of the Horse (his best, in this writer’s opinion, and also the title of a superbly grainy documentary by Jim Jarmusch, for whom Young had previously provided the iconic soundtrack to Dead Man). Two new masterpieces featured on Broken Arrow, a lengthy, guitar-driven Briggs tribute called ‘Big Time’ (“I’m still living the dream we had/For me it’s not over”) and the dreamlike ‘Like A Hurricane’ follow-up ‘Slip Away’. Sadly, the rest of album, bar the muted acoustic ballad ‘Music Arcade’, did not do justice to Briggs’ memory, leaving Year of the Horse, featuring the underrated ‘Barstool Blues’ (from Zuma), ‘When Your Lonely Heart Breaks’ (an aching ballad first featured on Life) and an electric version of Rust Never Sleeps’ ‘Pocahontas’, to pick up the slack, although both releases were too lo-fi to garner much interest. After an unexpected Indian summer as one of rock’s most valued artists, the now-51-year-old Young was receding back to the sidelines. He would never be as peripheral as in the eighties, his legacy and ongoing dedication to rock purity ensuring he’d constantly crop up in magazines as diverse as Rolling Stone and The Wire, but the heady money-raking days of Harvest Moon were decidedly gone. CSNY’s average Looking Forward, for which Young supplied the best tracks, and Silver & Gold, a quaint, love-centred acoustic album that was as unflashy and nostalgic as it was pretty and mellow, closed the nineties and opened the new millenium. Since then, Neil Young has remained something of a cult artist, albeit one capable of filling stadia. His output has grown increasingly idiosyncratic, but, despite sometimes very negative press, I’m convinced the noughties will one day stand as one of his best decades.

Looking backwards, gazing forwards

In a recent Mojo special dedicated to Neil Young, the ever-contrarian Nick Kent provided a scathing assessment of the Canadian’s nineties’ output. Others return to Ragged Glory and/or Harvest Moon with the kind of starry-eyed effusiveness they only otherwise reserve for Harvest and, maybe, Rust Never Sleeps. Personally, I am more ambiguous about Young’s music in the decade he turned fifty. His best moments, such as Sleeps With Angels and Year of the Horse, were generally the most-ignored, whilst the supposed classics mentioned above are not actually, as amazing as many would have you believe. Certainly, Young’s releases in the nineties far surpassed those from the previous decade but, as someone who has always drunk in his lyrics as much as his unique guitar playing, the last ten years of the twentieth century were very much a mixed bag, especially as his writing appeared to grow noticeably more sedate and less imaginative, bar a few exceptions (most of Sleeps With Angels and the impenetrable standout tracks from Broken Arrow and Mirror Ball such as ‘I’m The Ocean’ and ‘Slip Away’ that harked back to his seventies’ best).

Ironically, the 12 subsequent years would see Young settle for the more literal style of Harvest Moon and Silver & Gold, even as his life would suffer more upheaval, arguably, than ever before, and the results were often remarkable in every aspect. In March 2005, he was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm that required surgery in order to save his life. Just a couple of months later, his father, famed sports journalist Scott Young, passed away. In 2010, two of his closest friends, producer L.A. Johnson and his longtime sidekick Ben Keith, also died. The sudden intrusion of fatality into Young’s life galvanised him in unexpected ways (unlike most of his peers, he releases about an album a year, a frequency more pronounced than in the nineties or eighties). The post-2000 Neil Young is more focused and less fanciful than ever before and, for me at least, this has taken some getting used to, especially as the enjoyable-but-limited Silver & Gold (it does at least contain the eighties-era masterpiece ‘Razor Love’) and the positively dire Are You Passionate?, recorded in 2002 with Booker T & The MGs and almost entirely made up of insipid r’n’b-flavoured love songs aimed at Pegi or his daughter Amber Jean, hardly kicked the decade off with a bang.

As he’s got older, Young’s focus has mainly been on three themes: love (as mentioned), war and the environment; and, as familiar, even overused, as these subjects may be in popular music, this single-mindedness has at least provided him with clear frameworks in which to write. 2003 saw the release of his most ambitious project ever: an environmental concept album called Greendale, recorded with Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, and which would evolve into a theatrical tour replete with sets and lip-synching actors, a feature film and even a graphic novel. Greendale is fascinating, even by Young’s standards: centred on a typically American family whose lives are turned upside down by media intrusion and ecological activism, it ultimately shines a light on its creator’s oddball vision, rather than provide any grandiose statements, as one would expect from a concept album, something that was missed by most critics. Each song presents a vignette recounted like a chapter from a novel, something that isn’t always successful, especially as the band, in trio format, is mostly limited to grungy blues plods, but certainly stands Greendale out as a unique, essential component of Young’s discography, one that the man himself recently picked out as a personal fave, on a par with Tonight’s the Night. Above all, it also showed that, at 57, the one-time chart-topper was not ready to settle into rehashing old habits.

The combination of his aneurysm and Scott Young’s death would result in a much calmer follow-up, the bucolic Prairie Wind, on which he returned to the country-folk tradition of Harvest and Silver & Gold, but where the focus was not abstract Americana, but rather abstract Canada, the land of his birth. Even for Neil Young, Prairie Wind is a nostalgic affair, with some standout tracks (‘The Painter’, ‘No Wonder’, ‘Falling off the Face of the Earth’) and little else of note, beyond near-universal praise. A follow-up Jonathan Demme concert film, Heart of Gold (a song he’s finally reprised in concert of late, showing a mellowing towards his unexpected success of 1972) was better, but Prairie Wind’s follow-up would cause quite a different stir. Living With War, from 2006, is an angry grunge-rock protest album recorded in a couple of weeks that aimed skewering darts at the Bush Administration and the Iraq War. If this spontaneity had echoes of ‘Ohio’, his audience were much more divided on its message than they had been 1970. When taking the material out on tour with CSNY, spectators across the South of the US walked out and booed, especially when the quartet ripped into the hilariously in-your-face ‘Let’s Impeach the President’. Even among left-leaning critics, the album’s brash simplicity and rushed messages garnered some critics, who tended to overlook the fact that Living With War includes some cracking tunes, from the anguished paranoia of ‘The Restless Consumer’ (a welcome broadside against US TV networks’ panic-mongering) to the moving ‘Roger and Out’ via the anthemic title track and the Obama-predicting ‘Looking for a Leader’. He may not have put lots of thought into the album beyond the messages, a nice use of trumpet and an occasionally invasive choir, but Living With War was an heroic effort from an artist still refusing to compromise or hide his feelings. Plus, ‘The Restless Consumer’ really is one of Young’s best songs.

And then, typically, once the CSNY Deja Vu tour was over (and made into a delightful documentary that didn’t shy away from the negative feedback), Young did an about-face, releasing an album that harked back to his past, and one of the many unreleased albums of his seventies purple patch. Chrome Dreams II doesn’t make up for the absence of the first version, but, like Freedom, it provides a nice snapshot of Neil Young in just about all his guises (except the synth-Young of Trans). He dipped into his back catalogue to revive ‘Ordinary People’ and ‘Boxcar’ from the mid-eighties, giving them their first airing outside of bootlegs, and juxtaposed them with delicate folk numbers and potent rockers, notably the epic closer ‘No Hidden Path’, a 14-minute meander that would become the fulcrum of his live shows. Indeed, he would use Chrome Dreams II as a platform to embark on one of the best tours of his recent career, including at least three visits to the UK, to this reviewer’s delight. Ably backed by bassist Rick Rosas, Ralph Molina or Chad Cromwell on drums, and the ever-reliable Ben Keith on guitar and just about anything else, Young delivered performance after performance that belied his 62 years. Shame that he had to follow it up with Fork in the Road, his most inconsequential album since Everybody’s Rockin’.

Fork in the Road was a mere blip though, followed as it was by one of Young’s most sonically radical albums ever in the form of the solo Le Noise. Before that, however, came the long-awaited first version of his Archives, covering the first phase of his career, from 1963 to 1972, and compiling demos, full albums, live performances and unreleased tracks, the most interesting of which were his early pre-Springfield tracks. The whole thing was somewhat undermined, however, by the fact that most of the full live sets had already been released on CD (Crazy Horse Live At The Filmore East, solo Live at Massey Hall 1971 and Sugar Mountain – Live at Canterbury House 1968), as, of course, had the studio albums, which were also reissued with improved sound. Now, I would urge anyone to get all three aforementioned live releases (they’re magnificent, among his best work) and 63-72 represents a key period, but if you already have these live and studio CDs, justifying the purchase of these first Archives seems tough. Unless you have a Blu-Ray player, maybe. Maybe…

So, back to Le Noise. Recorded entirely solo, but with famed producer Daniel Lanois adding remarkable textures and effects from behind the console, the thirty-third Neil Young album is weird, intimate and experimental in ways that the Canadian had never approached before (except on ‘Will to Love’). His voice is delayed, distorted and looped, as are both his acoustic and electric guitars, lending a ghostly, detached quality to his baroque tales of love, war and drugs. Familiar themes, very unfamiliar style. ‘Love and War’, indeed, gives good insight into his writing approach of late, as he admits that the two are his main lyrical obsessions. Most affecting is the first official release of ‘Hitchhiker’, which Lanois’ effects take into post-grunge territory, all blundering solos and choppy riffs under Young’s soul-searching lyrics. It’s the most nakedly open album in Young’s recent catalogue (which is saying something in a period that includes Prairie Wind and Are You Passionate?), and he sounds far from relaxed, for all his decades of stable love and contended parenthood. The shadows of substance abuse (which he has now definitively put behind him by giving up pot and booze) and omnipresent war loom large in Neil Young’s life, and bearing this in mind adds potency to Le Noise, making even his most romantic songs, such as ‘Walk With Me’, seem tinged with a hint of desperation and yearning. Oh, and the accompanying film is superb.

And so we get to 2012, and the new Crazy Horse releases, the first with the full contingent in 15 years (bar ‘Goin’ Home’ on Are You Passionate?, that album’s only real highlight). But before that, it becomes clear that the album-less 2011 saw Neil Young taking stock. The results were not only his return to the Horse, but also Waging Heavy Peace, his autobiography published at the end of last year, and which is a fascinating read that lets just a bit more light into this strange man’s life. He muses about his past in scattergun fashion, jumping back-and-forth through the decades (it’s no surprise that his songs have the ability to stretch time!), but with a keen -and grateful- focus on the people who marked his life, from the departed (Briggs, Whitten, Keith, Johnson and so many more) to those who still support and accompany him, with Pegi and his kids understandably at the top of the list. He regales the reader with anecdotes about making records and touring, but also appears genuinely humbled by how his life has worked out for the better. His writing style is as you’d expect: direct, unflashy and at times a little simple, but this has a charm unto itself. In fact, it demonstrates that the notion of an “Alternative Neil Young” is a false projection based on the success of Harvest and Harvest Moon. Neil Young did not set out to have the kind of commercial appeal that those albums gave him; if anything, success was achieved despite Young’s personality and aims (after all, he himself admits that ‘Alabama’, from Harvest was crassly judgemental, whilst that album also included references to drugs and insanity; and HM features a tale of a impending murder!). His prose has always been basic, his concerns instinctive, so he’s every bit the wonderful idiot monomaniac as are Iggy Pop, Lou Reed or the Blue Cheers and MC5s of this world. What Waging Heavy Peace demonstrates is that he writes from the heart. At times, this chimes with the hearts of millions, at others the same people are baffled, indifferent or annoyed. And Young never cares. He just goes forwards, but forever with a grateful eye fixed on those he’s left behind.

Waging Heavy Peace also dwells at length on two of his pet projects of the last decade or so: LincVolt and Pono. The former is his ongoing determination to convert an old Lincoln convertible car from the fifties into an ecologically-sound, bio-fuel-driven vehicle. It’s taken years, seen more setbacks than most would put up with and been the focus of one of his albums, and it’s still not ready. Young doesn’t just sing about the environment, he’s actually building towards a better one. Pono, meanwhile, is the result of his near-apoplectic frustration at the poor sound qualities of MP3 files, and his determination to allow listeners to hear digital music at the best possible quality. Apparently, he’s nearly there, and the book has served to make me more excited about the project than I was before. Waging Heavy Peace is as messy, bizarre and rough-around-the-edges as the best (and worst) Neil Young music, and any fan will surely love him for it.

One thought that permeates through Waging Heavy Peace is Young’s desire, at the time of writing in 2011, to reunite with Crazy Horse. He didn’t just reunite with them – he did so for two albums in a few months! Both reflect the concerns and issues that he covers in his book: the environment, the past (both his and America’s – hence the title and nature of Americana), his obsessions with sound, love… Americana is a collection of covers taking in a number of traditional American folk songs and, er, ‘God Save The Queen’. It’s a slight record, but huge fun, as The Horse take old classics such as ‘Oh Susannah’ and ‘She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain’ and splurge a load of stomping garage-rock all over them like teenagers rehearsing in a garage. It’s also not without pathos -as demonstrated by epic versions of ‘Tom Dooley’ and ‘Clementine’- or humour (again, ‘God Save the Queen’!!).

The double album Psychedelic Pill, however, is the real deal, a titanic album that stretches over an hour and a half and opens with the ridiculous near-thirty minutes of ‘Driftin’ Back’, an oblique journey that springs into his history via his annoyance at MP3 sound quality and concludes with the utterly bizarre line “Gonna get me a hip-hop haircut”. This is Young at his most ethereal yet bludgeoningly obtuse, whilst the Horse do what they do best: riffs that gouge great big canyons out of the California mountains and fill them with torrents of belligerent percussion, loping bass lines and avalanches of distortion. The more wistful ‘Ramada Inn’, a story-song metaphor for Young’s new-found sobriety and the whistle-driven ‘Walk Like A Giant’ also clock in at head-spinning durations, and, as ever with Crazy Horse, that famed canvas Frank Sampedro, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot lay down for their leader allows him to soar higher than with any other band when he’s gripping Old Black. I honestly don’t know whether Psychedelic Pill is Young’s best album since whenever, but, as I drift (no pun) along to its open-ended riffs and effortless melodies, I really don’t care. In fact, the conclusion of the last twelve years is that Neil Young has actually got more free, more intense and more determined, both musically and lyrically, as he’s got older. And there’s so much more to look forward to: the next set of the Archives, two more Demme films, more unreleased live albums and records such as Homegrown and Toast, a European leg of the Psychedelic Pill tour, maybe even another book. And, of course, because I never doubt this, more music.

If Waging Heavy Peace, and 15-odd years of listening to Neil Young, have taught me anything, it’s that he’s impossible to pin down or pigeonhole. He’s a  free spirit, one who may dwell on the past, but somehow does so whilst living wholly and emphatically in the present, always moving on. He’s an enigma and an example. Forever alternative, forever Young.