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?

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

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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.

Film Feature: Things Learned At The 27th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (April 3rd, 2013)

 The Empire Never Ended

Sci-fi fans might recognise the above statement from the great Philip K. Dick’s novel Valis. For Dick, the sentence signifies -I think– that the Roman Empire was the construct of an insane god whose nebulous influence traversed time and space and was reincarnated in the imperialist tendencies of Nixon’s United States. I make no such bold exegesis, but, nonetheless, the phrase kept running through my head throughout the 27th edition of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Whilst I do not have any grandiose vision of the nature of time and reality, it is clear that, whilst the rights of gay and lesbian people in the UK have come along in leaps and bounds, many films in the programme highlighted just how far we have to go on a wider scale, and that the spectre of hate-filled prejudice, brewed over centuries, still looms heavily over the global LGBT community.Take Taboo Yardies (dir. Selena Blake), for example, a harrowing documentary about life for LGBT people in Jamaica. Blake’s interviews with people in Jamaica are downright scary. The level of violent hatred -extending even to people saying they’d kill their own children if they found out they were gay – is beyond anything I’m used to witnessing, and the testimonies from gays and lesbians living on the island (with obligatory pixelated faces) are heartbreaking. Whilst there are very positive interviews in the film with Jamaicans both gay and straight now living in the US, and with a couple of psychologists based in Jamaica, all debunking (and perspicaciously analyzing) Jamaican attitudes to LGBT people, the most important man interviewed, the island’s prime minister (until 2011, but interviewed before he left office), trots out the same kind of putrid bigotry one hears time and time again from right-wing twits in America and the UK. At the end of the film I was left with an exhausting sense of hopelessness. We’ve come so far here, but for Jamaican (or Ugandan, or Nigerian, or Kenyan) LGBT people, the reality is close to nightmarish. What is also noted is that Jamaica’s anti-sodomy laws are a hangover from British rule of the island. The Empire never ended indeed. Taboo Yardies is a brave documentary, but does little to suggest things will change for the courageous, isolated, gay, lesbian and transgender people living in terror in Jamaica.

More uplifting was Facing Mirrors (dir. Negar Azarbayjani), a hugely effective emotional drama in which an ordinary Iranian woman is confronted with her own prejudices when she helps out (inadvertently, then against her will, and finally with conviction) a transgender woman who wants to escape to Germany in order to transition to being a man. Facing Mirrors forgoes overt political statements to concentrate on the emotions and experiences of its protagonists, and is filmed in a realistic style, mostly with hand-held cameras. The two main actors are excellent, especially Ghazal Shakeri as Rana, who expertly balances melodrama and understatement as her character goes from naive conservatism to acceptance.

Also touching on the much-covered theme of homophobia was short film Queer Beograd Border Fuckers Cabaret (dir. Jet Moon), a documentary about how radical, feminist queer performers in Serbia are fighting back against the intrinsic bigotry they encounter from all sides, including supposed allies on the left. It’s an eye-opening piece, sadly undermined quite a bit by weak production values and a tendency to rely on shoddily-filmed performance footage. A shame, but also a reminder that homophobia is not just restricted to Africa or the Caribbean, and in fact still festers in European society (see the 300,000 who demonstrated -violently- in Paris against gay marriage).

Films like Taboo Yardies and Facing Mirrors highlight how unfortunate people in places like Jamaica and Iran are if they’re LGBT. These are often countries in the UN or the Commonwealth, and yet their institutionalised hatred remains only mildly condemned by those who are supposed to uphold and enshrine human rights. Equally, all the above-mentioned films reminded me that more Tory MPs in the UK voted against gay marriage than for it, despite David Cameron’s attempts at modernisation. It would be too easy to think we can rest on our laurels: this is an issue for LGBT people everywhere. The gruesome spectre of old world hatred and bigotry haunts us all. ‘The Empire never ended.’ How’s about we make sure it does, soon?

We are not alone

By that, I do not mean that we lesbian, gay and bisexual people are increasingly surrounded by allies amongst straight people, although that was also made quite clear to me across the festival’s ten days, but rather that we have often overlooked the other members of queer society. How often do we, the majority of our minority, display true solidarity towards transgender and intersex people? The ‘Bodies’ section of the programme seemed to dwell at length on this issue, through a number of documentaries (and the occasional fiction) exploring themes of gender identity. Of course, we had the uproarious and frankly excellent I Am Divine (dir. Jeffrey Schwarz), an hilarious homage to Harris Glenn Milstead, aka Divine, cross-dressing superstar of John Waters’ best films and successful disco diva. It’s a bittersweet portrait of a unique individual who pushed back the boundaries of taste and acceptance and ultimately paved the way for a lot of drag performance as we know it. I for one will be eternally grateful to Divine.

But perhaps the strongest social and, dare I say it, political stance that Divine took was to present himself the way he did despite being overweight. This isn’t explored in the film as much as I would have liked. How often do we hear talk of ‘body terrorism’ in the gay (male) community? A lot. By refusing to be cowed into covering himself up when in drag, Divine set a marker down to us all.

I – unlike some in the film – do not feel it is appropriate to label Divine as ‘she’ or ‘her’, because Milstead was at pains throughout his career to stress that he did not want to be a woman, even though he dressed up as one. So, as enjoyable as it is, I Am Divine offers little insight into issues of gender (and yes, I know that was never the aim). Much more enlightening, in that sense, is Intersexion, a documentary by Grant Lahood, focusing on the opinions and experience of intersex activist Mani Bruce Mitchell and his/her friends.

I can honestly say that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen such an eye-opening documentary, and much of my assumed knowledge was proved to be false. I am ashamed to admit how little I knew about intersexuality before seeing the film, and my eyes were opened to the pain and discrimination intersex people are subjected to, from the moment they are born and parents and doctors decide to use surgery to impose a gender on people who, in terms of sexual organs, do not have a defined one. I recommend that all see the film, but suffice to say, the results of surgery are traumatic and agonising. And that’s before we get onto the stigma and prejudice most, if not all, intersex people go through. As one of the film’s interviewees, Esther Morris states, it’s like society is “trying to build a heterosexual”. It’s clear that, whilst the bandwagon of gay, lesbian, bisexual and, to an extent, transgender rights has gathered steam, intersex people are forced to live in the shadows or subsist on lies, because even LGBT people tend to reject someone who doesn’t have a clearly-defined gender.

Before the festival, a friend asked whether films about intersexuality should really be featured in the programme, as they didn’t “count” as gay, lesbian or trans. After seeing Intersexion, I can emphatically say yes. And for two reasons. Firstly, the vast majority of men and women interviewed in Lahood’s film lived as gay men or women, despite having some element of the genitals of the “opposite” sex from the one they chose to embrace. Secondly, and I think this is more important: gay, bisexual and transgender men and women spent too long as outcasts to do the same thing to others. Intersex people are still treated horribly, and if the LGBT community can help by lending its voice and support, then it should. Intersexion may be simply made, but it’s an eye-opening, affirmative piece of cinema.

Conservatism is killing the alternative

It’s like with British rock: the more the ‘indie’ bands (who aren’t really indie because they sound like Oasis or The Libertines and end up signing for EMI) get absorbed by the industry, the less radical and more banal it all sounds. The edge has been taken out of British rock, after 40-odd years of record-industry interference, and I’m not sure we can get the spirit of, say, Hawkwind or Gang of Four, back.

It would appear the same goes for us queers (and I apologise now to gay women, as this segment focuses mainly on the gay male experience which I, for obvious reasons, know better). I have already lamented the rise of conservatism among gay men on this site, but what I had not thought of is how the rise of the Lady Gaga-devoted, Thatcher- and Queen Elizabeth-loving, fashion-and reality TV-obsessed gay male would effectively do away with the gay sexual underground. And it’s happening. In the highly-anticipated Interior. Leather Bar., director/actor/all-round super-celeb James Franco notes that one of his professors had highlighted that the push for gay marriage has led to a normalisation that leaves gay people who are drawn to BDSM or cruising at an increasing risk of being marginalised, even denounced, by their own community. Interior. Leather Bar. sadly doesn’t build on this idea in a very successful way. Its premise is that directors and actors Travis Matthews and Franco wanted to recreate the mythical lost 40 minutes of hardcore footage from William Friedkin’s Cruising. Although the film is more entertaining than I was expecting, its focus on straight actor Val Lauren’s (faked) discomfort and watered down ‘hardcore’ footage ultimately means that its message seems confused and undefined. Unlike, say, the short Little Gay Boy Chris T is Dead, in which a young man explores the underworld of BDSM in Paris, intercut with footage of S&M and an arresting, Aktionist segment of alternative dance. It’s an uncomfortable 30 minutes, but it highlights quite neatly the conflict between desire and fear that lies at the heart of BDSM.

Before Interior. Leather Bar’s screening, two intriguing shorts were shown, one a brief history of the career of artist and pornographer Avery Willard (mentioned recently in Keep The Lights On), the other, Todd’s Gifts, an extract from a portmanteau project by Todd Verow focused on cruising. In the Q&A following Todd’s Gifts, both Verow and the short’s director Charles Lum lamented that cruising is in decline as gay people edge closer and closer to the mainstream. It’s an interesting point (echoed somewhat facetiously by John Waters in I Am Divine when he mentions that the period before homosexuality was made legal in the US was “kind of more fun”), and one that showcases a certain schism in the psyche of gay men, between the young and the, shall we say, more mature. In its brief seven minutes, Todd’s Gifts, and the premise of Verow’s final film The End of Cruising, throw up important questions: does mainstream acceptance by straight society engender conformity? Are (young) gay people turning on those that once relied  for pleasure on saunas and illicit sex on Hampstead Heath? Are we losing the frisson that made so many gay artists and activists push the boundaries of creative and political impetus? Of course, tying illicit sex and LGBT activism together is a long stretch, but all the above films made me wonder why the decline of one seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the similar mellowing of the other.

If the 27th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival taught me anything, it was that we are not done. In light of Taboo Yardies, let us not forget that, as both Labour and Conservative governments of recent years have played the populist card and tried to “crack down on immigration”, a number of LGBT people seeking refuge in the UK have found themselves at risk of being sent back to their home countries to face persecution, violence and even death. The debate over the festival’s name passed me by, but Intersexion reminded me that the queer (for want of a better word) community is vast, and not restricted to homosexual women and men. And, try as some might -in the wake of increasing improvement of rights here in the UK- to focus on pop songs, mortgages, reality TV, the chap on benefits next door or whatever, complacency and egotism will only harm the entire LGBT community as a whole, be it in Jamaica, Tehran or London. Solidarity got us where we are – that and an eye and ear for transgression. We still need that spirit. I was disappointed that more young gay men didn’t attend the festival (it’s curious to notice that young gay women were far more present, both among the public and the press), and can only put it down to indifference or complacency. We’ve got this far, but The Empire still stands.

2012’s Noises In The Ether: A Rum Music Special (December 13th, 2012)

Ok, so the title of this piece is also a bit of a shameless nod to my radio show, Noise in the Ether, but it’s also a neat and relevant way of describing how noise music has evolved in recent years, culminating in some thoroughly fascinating releases in 2012 that have taken the genre by the scruff of the neck and hauled it into new areas, maybe even into a new era.

Only last year, when asked to select my top albums of the previous 12 months, I included two harsh noise works: Werewolf Jerusalem’s monolithic 4CD set Confessions of a Sex Maniac and Vomir’s Application À Aphistemi. This was par for the course as far as I was concerned: harsh noise rules!

This year – nada. Zilch. Not one. Which is not to say that there haven’t been any decent harsh noise releases (Kevin Drumm’s Relief may not match the potency of Sheer Hellish Miasma, but it’s still a wonderfully gnarly little bastard), but rather that what is being done in new ways to noise is much more fascinating. In 2012, these new strains have finally started to take precedence over their traditional alternatives. And just like that, I’m actually using the word “traditional” to describe noise. I didn’t see that one coming.

“New” is a relative term, it should be noted, and a lot of noise’s recent evolutions stem from a certain amount of rear-view mirror gazing. It’s sometimes hard to imagine it now, but noise’s origins lie not in the sweaty underground bars where its harshest variants now get an airing, but rather in the heady experimentalism of the avant-garde – something that’s still being explored today.


Helm

Take Londoner Luke Younger, aka Helm, for example. Younger takes sampled and found sounds, a technique familiar to anyone who has dabbled in the world of experimental music, filters them through effects and joins them to gritty electronics in order to create a sound world that reflects the environment of London’s urban jungle. In approach, it’s not a million miles away from the likes of John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer’s Groupe de Recherches Musicales or the Futurists, with their emphasis on and interest in “regular” and “non-musical” sounds for musical creation; whilst the ultimate outcome evokes the immersive, sensually evocative musics of “cosmic” minimalists and drone artists such as Cluster, LaMonte Young or Morton Feldman, whose pieces often suggest a sense of place as much as sound processes. Helm’s Cryptography from 2011 felt like sonic experiments conducted with household objects or sheets of metal, but this year’s Impossible Symmetry (PAN) took things a level higher, with urban field recordings providing a tangible backdrop to rough, rolling industrial drone.

This approach is mirrored by Ohio’s Mike Shiflet, whose Merciless album (Type) takes the age-old noise/avant-garde trope of manipulating and distorting pre-recorded tapes as well as conventional instruments such as guitar and synthesiser, transforming familiar sound sources into walls of incoherent, belligerent, saturated noise. Both these artists (I’m tempted to call them “composers”) join the likes of Joe Colley in pursuing noise as a form of acousmatic music and musique concrète in the French avant-garde tradition.

It’s therefore appropriate that this year has seen three excellent reissues on Editions Mego of seminal Groupe de Recherches Musicales recordings, where the likes of Bernard Parmegiani (sounds of trains, water, furniture) or Luc Ferrari (the human voice) transformed everyday noises into musical compositions, many of them so jarring in texture as to fall at times into noise territory. Coincidentally, Mego also released Hecker’s Chimerization, which took the principals of Luc Ferrari’s voice manipulation on Presque Rien (not to mention works like ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’ by Alvin Lucier and Cage’s ‘Indeterminacy’) to particularly abrasive and sonically mangled levels.


Mats Gustafsson

Perhaps not surprisingly, another “out-there” realm where noise elements (saturation, dissonance, atonality) are still de rigueur is free jazz and improv, and for anyone who feels that need to have his or her ears given a right old kicking, you generally don’t have to look much further than saxophonists Peter Brötzmann or Mats Gustafsson, both of whom have released some wonderfully skronking stuff in 2012 – and I say that in full knowledge that both are much more sensitive and complex players than their reputations might have you believe.

Gustafsson is often the more overtly abrasive of the two, as demonstrated on the collaborative album between his band Fire! and Australian drummer/guitarist Oren Ambarchi, In The Mouth – A Hand (Rune Grammofon), where Ambarchi’s seething, feedback-drenched guitar noise is slammed into a squalling torrent of notes from Gustafsson, underlined by raucous, all-over-the-place drumming from Fire!’s Andreas Werliin. Gustafsson is more restrained on Baro 101 (Term), recorded with Ethiopian krar player Mesele Asmamaw and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, but still finds time to pepper the air with some wonderfully saturated notes whilst Asmamaw cranks the strings of his krar like someone stretching out a washing line to breaking point.

Brötzmann, meanwhile, delighted with two fantastic live releases this year, the jazz-heavy, exquisitely-performed Yatagarasu (Not Two Records) featuring Masahiko Satoh warping his piano and Takeo Moriyama on drums; and …The Worse The Better (Oto Roku) with Steve Noble and John Edwards. Both saw Brötzmann unfurling an arsenal of sax assault, from elegant jazz lines to barnstorming free blowing, with …The Worse The Better being particularly hard-hitting.

In a different style somewhat, Rhodri Davies blew the doors off any preconceptions anyone might have when it comes to harp music with his ear-shattering Wound Response (alt. vinyl) album, transforming his elegant instrument into a wall of crunching distortion. Improv and free jazz are too often seen as being too highbrow for noise fans, but if you really want to get a fix of full-on saturation, any of the above would easily satisfy your needs.

For listeners wanting a more traditional approach to noise, you can’t really go wrong with the Midwest scene that swirls around Wolf Eyes, but even those guys have started transforming the way they approach sound, with the forbidding atonality of Human Animal very much a thing of the past. Former member Aaron Dilloway released one of the year’s best noise records in the form of Modern Jester (Hanson), a titanic adventure taking in tape distortion and faltering percussion. Where previous Dilloway albums such as Bad Dreams were potent sonic assaults, Modern Jester is more nuanced, with a sly sense of humour, woozy harmonics and welcome experimental forays.

Mike Connelly, another Wolf Eyes alumnus, has meanwhile continued to explore the darkest recesses of the human psyche via his Failing Lights project, with Dawn Undefeated (Dekorder) a triumphant follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut and a world away from his more gnarly works as part of Hair Police. Eschewing harshness almost completely, Connelly’s tableaux are haunted by the atmospheres of horror films and sinister folklore, like more brittle, sickened takes on the hauntological explorations of Demdike Stare or The Eccentronic Research Council.

Nate Young’s solo music also functions on a more liminal level than what he’s done with Wolf Eyes, as he demonstrated during a concert at Dalston’s Victoria pub in the Summer, all murky synths, propulsive half-rhythms and bursts of unexpected static. All three of these artists seem to share an interest in the haunted textures and ectoplasmic sounds that lie dormant in the interstices between defined sounds. The results of their attempts to conjure them up – acting as musical mediums – are often fascinating, and always as troubling as anything emerging from the harsh noise scene they used to (perhaps reluctantly) represent.


William Bennett as Cut Hands

But the biggest transformation noise has been through of late has been its unexpected integration with dance music, as espoused by two of its most iconic figures. William Bennett needs no introduction as one half of power electronics pioneers Whitehouse, but his solo work as Cut Hands has taken his work in interesting new directions, integrating polyrhythmic percussion with excoriating electronic noise textures. This year, he followed up on his 2011 debut Afro Noise Vol. 1 with a more fleshed-out sequel named Black Mamba (Susan Lawly). Bennett’s approach is intensely physical, with fiercely metallic and jarring beats layered over mesmerising synth melodies. Live, he thrashes from side to side, eyes closed and mouth open, as disturbing footage of colonial-era Africa plays out behind him. In the best techno tradition, the highly rhythmic nature of Cut Hands’ music speaks to legs and arses as much as to the ears. It’s is nowhere near as brutally aggressive as Whitehouse, but Bennett’s unnerving performances and the troubling ambiguity surrounding the project’s imagery trace a line straight back to the provocation and belligerence with which one associates power electronics.

The same applies to Vatican Shadow, aka Dominic Fernow of Prurient fame, who has unleashed several releases this year, including a reissue on Type of his amazing Kneel Before Religious Icons tape and several albums and cassettes of new material, including Ornamented Walls (Modern Love) and Ghosts of Chechnya (Hospital Productions). Again, Vatican Shadow can’t hold a candle to Prurient when it comes to sheer aural assault, but that doesn’t mean that Fernow’s history in noise doesn’t seethe away beneath the surface rhythms. Vatican Shadow’s music (which could be seen as an extension of Fernow’s most recent Prurient album, Bermuda Drain) is centred on looped, repetitive drum machine beats in the tradition of Muslimgauze, British industrial techno artists like Surgeon and Regis and even Berliners like Porter Ricks and Basic Channel. These rhythms are overlaid with moody synth lines and – like Cut Hands – accompanied by dark, ambiguous imagery, in this case military iconography and jargon.

With both Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow, the short, punchy tracks seem well tailored for the dancefloor, but repeated exposure, especially live, highlights how much this new music owes to what both artists have done before, even if they now perform in clubs rather than warehouses or pub backrooms. The beats and melodies are monomaniacally repetitive, beyond anything most techno producers would deem conceivable, and what tunes one can detect are icy and bleak, dragged towards the shadows by sudden bursts of fuzz or metallic clangs, with none of the warmth one tends to associate with dancefloor-oriented music.

Instead, Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow (and, I hasten to add, Raime, whose debut album Quarter Turns Over a Living Line on Blackest Ever Black was less fierce than the other two, but still channeled some of the same spirit in marvelous ways), can be seen to be evolving noise in a semi-circular fashion, twisting it back towards the industrial aesthetics of the eighties while simultaneously dragging it forwards via techno and house. It perhaps a weird way to evolve, but damned effective. And let us not forget former Yellow Swan Pete Swanson, whose Pro Style EP (Type) has continued in the direction he hinted at on last year’s Man With Potential album, with jittering, seductive beats drowning under tidal waves of angry, glitchy electronic noise.

Taking all the above into account, it’s hard not to marvel at the journey noise has taken as it edges closer and closer towards something resembling mass public awareness. It’s not even unusual to hear traces of noise filtering into rock, pop, dubstep, hip-hop or dance: Ital’s Dream On has a definite noisy aspect to its ultra-bright synth explosions, Death Grips’ overdriven punk-rap occasionally evokes Lightning Bolt, and Holly Herndon’s Movement, another of the year’s top releases, is perched between noisy avant-garde explorations and full-on dance-pop. Even my own music as Frayed has been “tainted”, moving away from the monolithic harshness I initially embraced (and considered par for the course) on my first album in January in favour of more open, measured sounds and ideas by my fourth.

On the flipside, there’s always the lingering concern that if noise is completely removed from the grimy underbelly it has made its home, and set up for good in art centres and clubs, it’ll end up watered down to something aseptic and harmless, or elitist and high-minded. Noise is meant to be visceral and unsettling. But that’s a question for another day. Right now, as 2012 closes as a landmark year for the genre, noise is branching out, its feet still embedded in the backrooms of smelly pubs but with its eyes casting around for new ideas and new horizons.

A Quietus Feature – Fearful Parties: The Associates’ Sulk 30 Years On (September 18th, 2012)

For this lover of all things gnarled, rock, metal and punk, synth-pop presented a series of challenges and, once these had been hurdled, an even greater number of epiphanies. None of them were as colossal or significant than the moment I fell into the mad world of Sulk and found my appreciation of pop music in its entirety turned upside down. But that’s the effect Sulk will have on sensitive souls.

I actually owe Mojo Magazine a debt of gratitude for introducing me to synth-based music (beyond Kraftwerk, Bowie, Eno and prog) via a special edition on the genre released a few years back, although the love affair had started tentatively before then, via the enigmatic and archly beautiful sounds on Japan’s Tin Drum, a masterpiece of unusual time signatures, oblique lyrics and elegant polyrhythms that, combined with the band’s strong debt to Chinese music and culture, proved that synth-pop could be about more than bouffant quiffs and pop hits (that Tin Drum and single ‘Ghosts’ breached the UK top ten charts is as much a mystery as the album itself). Bolstered by this serendipitous find I slowly allowed myself to put aside my reservations about the occasional “tweeness” of many synth-pop bands, and delve into the strange universe of this oft-maligned sub-genre. Soft Cell, The Human League, Ultravox! (John Foxx era, natch), OMD, Depeche Mode, Visage, Yazoo: pretty soon all of these and more were lighting up my iPod and causing my synth-loathing then-partner to go spare as I danced around the living room, mouthing the words to ‘Fade To Grey’ or ‘Joan of Arc’.

But much as I loved Dare, Travelogue, Violator, Architecture And Morality and Ha! Ha! Ha!, none of the albums I discovered hit me with quite the same potency as the moment I first played Sulk, by Scottish duo Associates. Totally unaware of what lurked underneath its garish cover depicting Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie reclining on chaise longues under a lurid tropical canopy lifted straight out of Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company, I was unprepared for the explosion of ultra-bright synths that burst out of the speakers over high-speed drum patterns and throbbing bass. This was ‘Arrogance Gave Him Up’ and it would actually prove to be the most “ordinary” of the ten tracks on display, mainly because it’s an instrumental, and therefore bereft of The Associates’ greatest tool: Billy MacKenzie’s unbelievable voice. Like Soft Cell’s Marc Almond or Boy George, MacKenzie was an androgynous, sexually ambiguous character, but more than that, he was blessed with an astonishing set of pipes, being able to stretch from a low moan to screeching falsetto in a matter of seconds. As much as the arrangements are wildly brilliant and the tunes fantastic, it is Billy MacKenzie’s singing that makes Sulk.

‘No’ serves as the true gateway into Sulk’s strange netherworld after the gloss of ‘Arrogance Gave Him Up’, and it’s a thorny, frightening nightmare set to grim piano chords and a bass throb that sounds like a faltering heartbeat. “Tore my hair out from the roots/ planted it in someone’s garden/ Then I waited for the shoots” wails MacKenzie, evoking sheer insanity in just three lines before weaving a deranged narrative around the theme of self-harming. “No, no no! […] Tear a strip from your dress/ Wrap my arms in it!” he begs, the kind of lyrical and vocal soul-bearing guaranteed to raise hairs on the back on your neck (and am I the only one to hear a vague reference to Yoko Ono in there?) Even MacKenzie’s “other half” in Associates, multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine, has admitted to being baffled by some of his pal’s lyrics but, no matter how oblique MacKenzie gets, his words always succeed in painting evocative, and often unsettling, tableaux. Indeed, the first half of Sulk is one of the most shadowy and deliberately dark in modern pop history, even as it pretends to be a full-on pop extravaganza, traversed as it is by gloomy synth melodies, bleak lyrics and edgy, jittery rhythm patterns.

From ‘Bap De La Bap’’s bonkers industrial pop clatter and overdriven synths, to the sheer, unbridled hysteria that courses through the fast-paced ‘Nude Spoons’, via a slinky, deceptively upbeat take on ‘Gloomy Sunday’, side A of Sulk represents a suite of songs as brilliantly cohesive as any in rock or pop history. ‘Nude Spoons’ stands out in particular, with MacKenzie hitting unbelievable high notes and delivering a set of lyrics so cryptic it’s hard to know whether to laugh or recoil: “I wrote a note and dug it underground […] It lies there canistered with nude spoons euphoria.” You don’t really have time to ponder the meaning of it all, because Rankine’s blitzkrieg beats and hyper-charged synth riffs, allied to the funky bass lines of ex-Cure sideman Michael Dempsey, swallow you whole, leaving you swirling in a weird technicolour vortex accompanied only by MacKenzie’s untethered ululations. As for ‘Gloomy Sunday’, few singers since Billie Holiday have captured the song’s pathos in as confident a manner as MacKenzie.

Side B is, in the circumstances, a pleasingly becalmed and upbeat affair, although it still canters along at a similarly giddy pace. It also seems to reflect more clearly the legendarily hyperactive conditions surrounding Sulk’s creation. Unlike most bands’ much-repeated legends, the stories of excess and lunacy that quickly attached themselves to The Associates are – if one is to believe Rankine and Dempsey – completely true: they did indeed blow half of Sulk’s advance on luxury hotel suites (including one for MacKenzie’s whippets), top-of-the-range smoked salmon (again, for the dogs) and enough cocaine to give Iggy Pop and David Bowie a run for their money, before throwing the rest into making Sulk as opulent and extravagant as possible. Lead single ‘Party Fears Two’ certainly fits that bill, an oddball elegy to excess, albeit one tinged by a sense that all this coke and booze is so much hot air and empty pleasure. Behind MacKenzie’s cheerful, Ferry-esque croon, Rankine’s orchestrations are positively lush, a smorgasbord of glittering synths, treated horns and slinky guitar lines. ‘Club Country’, meanwhile, is straight-ahead synth-pop bliss, a track fittingly tailored for the dancefloor even as it skewers middle class inertia: “Refrigeration keeps you young I’m told.” Again, Billy MacKenzie reaches impossible heights with his delirious voice, whilst the infectious beats and glossy keyboards would make even the most reticent club-goer get up and shake his or her arse. ‘Club Country’ is easily equal to ‘Fade To Grey’, ‘Poison Arrow’ and ‘Antmusic’ as a slice of pure, catchy synth-pop, and deserved bigger success than it got. Equally, The Associates surely tapped into the genre’s promise of futurism better than most of their peers, with MacKenzie’s lyrics equal parts behoven to Ballard, Orwell and Gibson, all wrapped up in his own glitter-bomb aesthetic.

In 1982, and on the back of Sulk, The Associates looked poised to throw off their “also-ran” status and hit the big time, with Seymour Stein ready to make them huge stars in the US. Instead, all the aforementioned excess – which had probably obscured their image a bit at home – took its toll and Rankine split before a massive tour. MacKenzie soldiered on manfully for a few years, but the memory of Sulk -and the band’s now-mythical appearances on Top of the Pops that accompanied the album – quickly faded into insignificance, reduced to being relics of a “silly” era remorselessly buried by the eighties’ increasingly corporate, slick approach to pop creation. In a world dominated by Madonna and Duran Duran, there was little room for someone as esoteric as Billy MacKenzie, or for The Associates, and he and the band’s legacy would drift into relative obscurity until his suicide in 1997. It’s only now in the current culture of voracious nostalgia, that Associates are finding a new audience, and even getting name-checked by the likes of Bjork.

But such talk is so much hot air. You can wax lyrical about the whippets, the chocolate guitar, the cocaine and the tragedy all you want, the fact is that these are nothing more than snippets of what Associates’ story is all about. The truth, as obscure and outlandish as it is, rests in the psycho-pop grooves of Sulk, so much so that, as oddly “eighties” as it undoubtedly is, it also stands as one of the greatest albums of that or any decade. Bliss torn from madness indeed.

You can find videos to accompany this review on the Quietus’ site, here