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?

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neilyoung

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

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

Early days: Buffalo Springfield, The Horse and CSN

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

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

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

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

Success

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

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

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

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

The Ditch and beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

neilyoungnow

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.

From the Vault: Live from a rusted-out garage – the (un)holy triptych of the 68-70 underground (Unpublished)

Live from a rusted-out garage – the (un)holy triptych of the 68-70 underground

These days, with “indy” apparently meaning more that a band sports skinny jeans, Converse and floppy hair, as opposed to any statement on said band’s financial status or musical style, it’s easy to forget that there once was a time when bands would scrape out an existence well out of the spotlight. These days, in truth, “indy” should mean the multitude of acts that don’t make into the pages of the NME and either remain internet phenomena or aren’t signed to anything more than a Type-like micro-label. The Libertines, Blur, The Kooks, Kings of Leon, The Killers? Not independent, no matter what the aforementioned toilet paper rag may claim. But between 1967 and 1970, it appears certain visionary bands were able to make real waves whilst flying very much under the mainstream radar. The internet has allowed a similar train to gain some momentum of late, but compared to those halcyon days, it’s very much hit-and-miss, with most promising oddballs eventually getting swallowed up by the corporate monsters.
Much of this was due to the psychedelic explosion that took America (Britain not so much – blame it on the domination of the likes of Decca, Polydor, the BBC and so on…) by storm. Suddenly, even more so than in the post-Beatles period, American youth had a true musical movement that reflected its values and tastes. Bands that could barely play, or had spent months noodling away on electric guitar in their parents’ garages suddenly became hit acts, and, in comparison to the age of “Love Me Do” and “She Loves You”, this music was louder, harder, wilder and more experimental. The term “acid-rock” became a staple way of describing the likes of Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. It didn’t have to be perfect. But it generally had to be loud. In an attempt to cash in on this new phenomenon, record labels big and small began scrabbling around and signing every West Coast band in sight, meaning the ’66-’71 period would see prodigious amounts of records hitting stores and radio stations all at once. Of course, some of it was dross. Some of it would be era-defining, multi-million-dollar-earning statements. And some records, whether on big labels or tiny indies, would go completely unnoticed, and yet end up having a more lasting effect on most of what came later in rock than the Beatles and even The Rolling Stones. Combined!

The Lenny Kaye-assembled compilation Nuggets is a great way to get a glimpse of this effervescent and overlooked explosion, from a more singles-orientated perspective, and it is an essential purchase for all lovers of garage-rock (as this nebulous sub-genre is perhaps best described – just), but there were also a handful of albums released in the immediate post-Surrealistic Pillow period (i.e. 1966 to early ’67) that also merit mention, none more so than the debut album by The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground & Nico, which came out in March 1967 and was promptly ignored. Much had been made of the band’s association with Pop-Art guru Andy Warhol and the mad, multimedia shows they put on. And let me just say this now, whilst I haven’t included The Velvet Underground & Nico in my titular triptych, it is nonetheless the most important album I will mention in this feature. The birth of art-rock, and a wondrous, terrifying and mind-blowing musical snapshot of the seedy underbelly of New York City, The Velvet Underground & Nico is quite possibly the most influential rock album of all time. That it sold so poorly only underlines its status as the underground album par excellence.

And yet… Maybe it stands too far apart and ahead of all competition, being almost impossible to categorise in its scope and vision. It also feels intrinsically linked to Warhol’s vision, and his desire to respond to what was coming out of California at the time. Not so much a garage-rock (loft-rock, maybe?) album but a dirty, sophisticated, New York version of Monterey Pop psychedelia (its closest cousin maybe the deceptively sunny psych masterpiece by Los Angeles quintet Love, Forever Changes, released the same year). The Velvets would take their vision into even more noncommercial and extreme directions, meaning The Velvet Underground & Nico is more an amuse-bouche of the underground rock genre (after all, it was intended to be a big deal, and only shit promotion from MGM, coupled with Warhol’s increasing disinterest, that caused it to sink), even though it set the scene.

Sitting awkwardly alongside such a magnum opus were the much less ambitious trio of The Seeds, The Deviants and The 13th Floor Elevators.

The Seeds were one of L.A.’s typically ramshackle acts (somehow, the San Francisco bands always seemed more starry-eyed, musically competent and politically-charged, whilst their L.A. cousins seemed more angst-ridden, mean and rough), propelled by lopsided organ and fuzzy guitar riffs. Above all, they had the sneery-voiced Sky Saxon as their leader, someone who could out-weird the likes of Jim Morrison and Arthur Lee. Saxon’s paranoid lyrics and high-pitched snarl reached their apex on A Web of Sound, released nearly six months before The Velvet Underground & Nico in October 1966. It’s a nasty, druggy album that was always doomed to fail, but which in many ways points to where rock would go ten years later with The Sex Pistols and The Clash: short, snappy rock tracks with nasty vocals and warped lyrics (meanwhile the artwork announces The Cramps). Even more immediately prescient was the side-long opus “Up In Her Room”, a gorgeously incompetent garage version of the endless jam epics that would characterise much of where psych-rock would go in the next two years. See? Even in 1966, garage-rock was ahead of the curve.

Even better were Texan band The 13th-Floor Elevators, a barmy, drug-fueled outfit who supposedly coined the term “psychedelic” (at least in rock terms) via the title of their debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th-Floor Elevators. Where The Seeds were so unkempt, and Sky Saxon so unnerving, that they were never going to trouble the charts, the inability of The 13th-Floor Elevators to crack the top 10 is a bit more of a mystery, were it not for the drugs at least. In Rocky Erikson, they had a singer who could match Mick Jagger for vocal ability and personality, and their songs were just the right blend of belligerent rock and hook-laden psych, with “Fire Engine”, “Roller Coaster” and the absolute masterpiece “You’re Gonna Miss Me” being nearly peerless. Of course, I’ve answered my own question, as Erickson’s legal troubles and the general vibe of menace and excess that surrounded the band would ultimately be their undoing. However, more than The Seeds, and almost as much as The Velvet Underground, The 13th Floor Elevators have become a bona fide cult band, their murky sound and sinister, warped riffs inspiring a generation of rock bands, including those that immediately followed their first flash in the pan.

The Deviants, meanwhile, hailed from England, which had remained remarkably un-edgy in its psychedelic explorations, especially once Hendrix returned to his homeland. English psych bands often had a pastoral vibe that has rarely aged well (except those that went all the way, such as Fairport Convention and Comus), but The Deviants, part of a Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill scene that would produce future members of Hawkwind, The Edgar Broughton Band and The Pink Fairies, were an altogether more abrasive proposition, with darker lyrics and harsh blues licks that made Cream look positively twee. Addled by excessive drug-consumption and general incompetence, The Deviants would never make many waves, but their debut album, Ptoof! was released in 1967, long before the freak-rock of Hawkwind would become a proper money-spinner, putting these guys right up there with the aforementioned bands as proper pioneers of the underground sound. “I’m Coming Home”, in particular, is a demented, blues-inflected slab of nasty stalker rock, whilst “Nothing Man” predicts the darker, sci-fi-influenced direction psychedelia would end up embarking upon, at least in some circles.

These three uneven, often musically basic records would have a lasting influence on punk and grunge, but ultimately seem like glorious (and gloriously weird) failures, hamstrung by drug excess and a lack of proper musical talent. But then again, that is part and parcel of what defines garage-rock, and by extension the sixties/seventies underground in its entirety: the low budgets make getting something truly transcendent that much harder to attain, with attitude being far more important than chops and virtuosity.

Back in America, one San Francisco act was stepping out of the trippy, flower power vibe of its peers and making up for its lack of musical nous ladle-fulls of attitude and volume: Blue Cheer. Forget Cream, Blue Cheer are the perfect power trio, and they practically invented hard rock on their January 1968 debut Vincebus Eruptum. Vincebus Eruptum is definitive proof, should you need it, that being able to flick out a Jimmy Page-esque solo for twenty minutes whilst simultaneously referencing Robert Johnson, Son House, Chuck Berry and Bach means fucking jack shit compared to being able to scream like a possessed devil and punish your six-string at full, ear-shattering volume. This Blue Cheer, especially their demented axe-man Leigh Stephens, twigged with bells on, and Vincebus Eruptum contains some of the most extreme and heavy metal you will ever come across, with old classics like “Summertime Blues” and “Parchman Farm” (retitled “Parchment Farm”, for some reason) given overload treatment, whilst “Doctor Please” must be one of the most overtly drug-influenced monstrosities released in the sixties. It’s a decidedly over-the-top and belligerent album, and all the better for it. You can be sure Iggy Pop and Mark Farmer were listening. And in my opinion, Vincebus Eruptum kicks the first 3, even 4, Led Zeppelin albums into the dirt. In fact, only Black Sabbath were doing stuff this heavy in the late sixties. And Blue Cheer got there before them all!

In the UK, the aforementioned Edgar Broughton Band delivered something similarly fucked-up and nasty and loud in the form of their 1969 debut Wasa Wasa, that took the Sabbathian doom-folk-blues vibe and added a dollop of acid-drenched fuzz and Broughton’s Howlin’ Wolf vocals for good measure. Wasa Wasa possibly has too many delusions of grandeur and hippy notions to really equal the underground vibe of Vincebus Eruptum, but it is just wicked and fucked-up enough to warrant mention here, and like the concurrent records by Hawkwind and Man, show the better side of the UK scene in the post-Beatles, pre-Bowie void years. It’s certainly more interesting than what Led Zeppelin (I’m not picking on them, I swear!) and Pink Floyd were doing at the time!

Volume and darkness seemed to be the going trend in the rock underground by this point. The idealism of the Airplane and the Dead, and the commercial triteness of Pink Floyd and the Beatles had become stifling, especially in the wake of Manson and Altamont, and those bands on the periphery of the “scene” were duly responding with bile and fury. Even some of the mainstream was going that way, with the Sabbath acting as a grim shadow to Led Zep and Deep Purple’s more fey strands of metal, whilst sinister and sophisticated King Crimson emerged as the most exciting band of the nascent progressive rock scene. And let’s not forget the dark turn the Rolling Stones’ music took in the wake of Brian Jones’ untimely passing. Hippiedom was in its death throes, commercialism was rearing its ugly head, but the underground was somehow making itself heard, and its vibe was permeating everything.

The MC5, a Detroit-based quintet of ex-hippies, pretty much distilled these divergent strands of rock music in 1968 on their live debut Kick Out The Jams. In many ways, it represents the apex of the hippy movement, in that, unlike the mostly passive Woodstock-ites, The MC5 were properly militant, directed with a fierce hand by John Sinclair, founder of the White Panther movement, and with songs expounding communist and revolutionary views and promoting a generally all-or-nothing ideal of social change. In these cynical times, it all seems a bit silly, but luckily the 5 backed such political ramblings with some fucking amazing hardcore rock’n’roll, with the twin guitar attack of Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and Wayne Kramer ripping into your ear drums, equally influenced by the punishing crunch of Blue Cheer and, more subtly, the blazing free jazz of Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler. Meanwhile, Rob Tyner was a vocalist extraordinaire, exhorting the crowd at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom with the energy and charisma of a religious preacher. There are times when listening to Kick Out The Jams that you actually feel rock’n’roll could change the world. Of course, the MC5 would burn out spectacularly, and the dream of a hippy revolution out of Detroit died, but again, the scream of those guitars did not go unheard.

One thing about Kick Out the Jams (and indeed the heavy blues of Blue Cheer and The Edgar Broughton Band or the basic formula of The Seeds), is that the structures and styles of the music are at heart nothing more than a modernisation, at maximum volume, of those of the r’n’r pioneers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Eddie Cochran. Once again, this predicted the trend of a few years later, when the UK’s proto-punks and pub rockers like Dr Feelgood updated old-school r’n’b to the general acclaim of the press and public. But, of course, this trend for such overt nostalgia (as that of Dr Feelgood) was predicted in an even more overt way by yet another celebrated garage-rock outfit, San Francisco’s Flamin’ Groovies. Their masterpiece was 1971’s Teenage Head, a veritable proto-punk classic, but they set down a marker even earlier with 1970’s Flamingo. A former jug band, the Groovies were rocked by seeing the MC5, as well as their psyched-out West Coast brethren, and responded by upping their amp volume exponentially. But at their core, they were ecstatic fans of Lewis, Cochran, Muddy Waters and Little Richard, and their main appeal is that they could rock out in true turn-of-the-decade fashion, with menacing Manson vocals and lyrics, but also had the jerky energy and camp of early rock’n’roll. Sadly, it never caught on, and whilst the Groovies would manage to go one step further with their follow-up, they would remain an influential footnote in the history of garage rock, and little more. Although, for the record, they left behind one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded: “Whiskey Woman”, which manages to out-Stones the Stones.

So what of my triptych? For whilst all of the above are excellent, ground-breaking albums, three masterpieces for me sum up what it means to be a proper, unfettered underground (or independent, or garage – you choose) band.

Of course, I could not let The Velvet Underground slip by with such a complimentary but only cursory mention of their first, superlative, album. For, as I have said in the past, The VU are the greatest, most important rock band that ever walked this timid earth, the only band to truly capture, in all its depraved glory, what it means to fucking rock, not just with a guitar but as a way of life. If their debut established that a rock band could also be smart and artistic, then once they had dispensed with the beautiful but intrusive presence of Nico (who would go on to create wonderful albums on her own, I must say, before Nico fans get on my back; I just think the best Velvets moments mostly happened after the German chanteuse had left), they truly flew, albeit in the face of what it meant to be a popular pop-rock band.

The result was White Light/White Heat, which erupted into the world in January 1968, the same month as Vincebus Eruptum. Talk about a double conflagration! Both The Velvets and Blue Cheer played at deafening volume, but where Leigh Stephens and co went for the bludgeoning effect, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Mo Tucker took the distortion, fuzz and clatter of their hard rock, and married it to probing, intellectual, humorous and sardonic lyrics, mostly written by Reed at his best. Meanwhile, the Tucker/Morrison rhythm section pound out relentlessly steady beats whilst sudden, piercing guitar lines, or shimmers of electrified viola arc out of the murk like rockets, joining the dots between Reed’s doo-wop/pop-rock roots and the avant-garde minimalism of Cale. Every track on the album is a wonder, from the awkward grooves of the title track and “Here She Comes Now”, to the manic, off the wall noise mess of “I Heard Her Call My Name”. Meanwhile, “The Gift” is an hilarious spoken word horror story delivered in hysterically deadpan fashion by Cale. But if any track defines and encapsulates the spirit of fucked-up, heroin-drenched New York punk-rock, it’s “Sister Ray”, possibly the best rock song ever recorded. As Reed mangles his guitar in a way that could make your hair go grey, for 17 blissful minutes, Cale punches out a daft series of moronic riffs on organ whilst Tucker pounds away on a single drum like she’s trying to tear apart the San Andreas fault and bury Californian rock for good. No band was doing rock like The Velvet Underground in 1968, and it’s fair to say quite a few people were listening, even if MGM, and the public at large, were not.

Luckily, Mo Tucker’s drums, as powerful as they were (and there have been few better drummers in the history of rock music), didn’t sink California into the sea, for if they had, we would have been deprived of the majestic garage-country of Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Such has been the Canadian’s celebrity (Artist of the Decade in the seventies, according to Village Voice), and the unparalleled success of his mellow 1972 country-folk album Harvest, that it’s easy to forget that, after the demise of his sixties band Buffalo Springfield, Young was a bit of an unknown quantity, much in the shadow of his Springfield acolyte Stephen Stills and with only a failed debut solo album to his name.
His meeting with L.A. garage rock quintet The Rockets was a moment of rock serendipity that has rarely been equaled. The rhythm section of The Rockets was made up of Danny Whitten on rhythm guitar, Billy Talbot on bass, and Ralph Molina on drums, and they combined unbelievable funkiness with unbelievable levels of incompetence, in a way that only Neil Young could love, and led to one of the greatest albums of the Canadian’s career: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969). The magic of Crazy Horse was that they allowed Young, a disturbed, fragile and angry folk-rocker, a platform in which to make his sound loud, without putting the kind of pressure on him that the Springfield did. Talbot and Molina were minimalist, but built rock-solid bases for two of Young’s most elegiac pieces: “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”. On these lengthy masterpieces, the drums and bass become a blank canvas for his guitar and voice. And what a guitar! What a voice! At one time, Young’s voice was considered so dismal that he wasn’t allowed to sing on his own tracks for the Springfield. Yet his sensitive, fragile warble elevates “Down By The River” or “Running Dry” to elegiac heights, the vulnerability adding to the doom-like vibe of the tracks, as if they were sung by a kid stuck in a closet whilst untold demons roam the corridors outside. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere brought soul into garage rock, adding an emotional depth that transcends the raw power and sturm und drang that characterises most of the above-mentioned music. Neil Young, especially with Crazy Horse, will break your heart. As for the guitar, well I have heard enough guitar solos to elevate a million souls to heaven, but no-one can beat Neil Young in his pomp, and he has rarely bettered “Cowgirl in the Sand”, as delivered to an unsuspecting world in 1969 on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Fuck Clapton, Page and Gilmour – no-one beats Neil Young when Crazy Horse let him fly.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere brought the hippy Topanga Canyon vibe into somewhere darker, more abstract, jazzier and grungier. Indeed, the look Young sports on the album cover would become the style of Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and other grunge icons nearly 30 years later. Less than a year after this album, Young would embark on a lucrative, but frustrating, path, as he joined the ego-fest of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, exposing his wondrously underground sounds to a wide -and appreciative- audience, and perhaps already showing how the “indy” rock world could be easily and tackily absorbed into the mainstream. Luckily, Young would be too slippery to obey market concerns, as his controversial mid-seventies output would emphatically prove.

Neil Young, when associated with Crazy Horse, took hippiedom out of flower power into the rusted garage, and made the Woodstock vibe loud. The Stooges took loud music out of hippiedom. They were less intellectual than The Velvet Underground, but songs like “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog”, from their debut, self-titled, album, demonstrated a similar interest in depraved and violent sex. But any subtlety, as encapsulated by Lou Reed’s lyrics or John Cale’s avant-garde leanings, was lost with The Stooges as a miasma of guitar noise and punishing rhythm engulfed any of singer Iggy Pop’s potential pretensions in a deluge of exquisite noise. The Asheton brothers, Ron and Scott, on guitar and drums respectively, were long-hired rednecks, with a vicious undercurrent that helped make The Stooges so violent and punishing that, no matter how their second album, Fun House (1970) strayed from the mainstream, it couldn’t help but get noticed. It’s that good.
Much of The Stooges appeal will always be down to front-man James Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, who, for all his bonkers stage antics (self-harming, nudity, swearing at the audience…) was very much the thinking man of the band, the lyricist, jazz-lover and friend of Bowie and Reed. But never underestimate Scott Asheton’s ability to hold a beat like a heavy metal metronome, whilst Ron’s scything, ever-soloing guitar (he had that remarkable talent of being both lead guitarist and rhythm) is like a coiled snake, scooting around Pop’s voice as he moans, roars, sneers and yelps. The Stooges defined a rock dynamic that moved away from the twin-guitar-with-vocals approach of the sixties bands, and back to pioneers like James Brown and Little Richard, where the voice and guitar don’t so much duet as duel. On “Dirt”, the pinnacle of Fun House, The Stooges lay aside their high-octane, full-throttle attack in favour of a dirty blues groove, whilst Ron Asheton’s guitar, with its peppering, never-ending solo, comes across like John Coltrane‘s sax. Yes, it’s that gorgeous. Iggy’s lyrics of self-harming and self-loathing are just the icing on the cake. “Dirt” proves that The Stooges could be subtle and smart, whilst the rest of Fun House saw them flexing muscles and battering the senses in all their garage-punk-metal glory. The Stooges were well ahead of their time, a true punk outfit, but with the personality of a post-punk band. They managed to predict both The Sex Pistols and PiL. Need I say more?

If anything, my (un)holy triptych perfectly demonstrate just how intangible “garage”, “indy” or “underground” rock can be. Lou Reed, Neil Young and Iggy Pop are all now mega stars, who have eased, perhaps reluctantly, into elder statesman territory. Such is life. The Stooges, Crazy Horse and The Velvets are now often the first bands on the lips of the latest band to be signed to Universal or Sony. The underground is now so vast as to be incomprehensible, whilst our old idols only make sense in reverse. Again, such is life. Or at least music. And with the endless horizons come new artifacts from decades long past: true underground and lost gems, such as Alexander Spence‘s Oar or Tangerine Dream‘s incredible debut, Electronic Meditation. Both came out in the period I’ve been describing in this feature, and in so many ways they go beyond even the heady heights of my triptych. But the trio I have ultimately chosen bridge the gap between noncommercial music and the mainstream, tearing angrily at the fabric of popular trends to take things, whether they knew it or not, to new levels. It would happen again with PiL, Joy Division, The Cure and Television, amongst others. The underground won’t leave the mainstream alone, and for that we should be eternally grateful, even if it makes no sense.

My ’66-’70 Garage Playlist:

1. The Seeds: “No Escape” (from The Seeds)
2. The Seeds: “Up In Her Room” (from A Web of Sound)
3. 13th Floor Elevators: “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (from The Psychedelic Sounds Of…)
4. 13th Floor Elevators: “Roller Coaster” (from The Psychedelic Sounds Of…)
5. The Electric Prunes: “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night) (from Nuggets)
6. The Velvet Underground: “Venus In Furs” (from The Velvet Underground & Nico)
7. The Velvet Underground: “Heroin” (from The Velvet Underground & Nico)
8. The Deviants: “I’m Coming Home” (from Ptoof!)
9. Blue Cheer: “Doctor Please” (from Vincebus Eruptum)
10. Blue Cheer: “Parchment Farm” (from Vincebus Eruptum)
11. The Edgar Broughton Band: “Death of an Electric Citizen” (from Wasa Wasa)
12. MC5: “Kick Out The Jams” (from Kick Out The Jams)
13. MC5: “I Want You Right Now” (from Kick Out The Jams)
14. Flamin’ Groovies: “Heading For The Texas Border” (from Flamingo)
15. The Velvet Underground: “The Gift” (from White Light/White Heat)
16. The Velvet Underground: “I Heard Her Call My Name” (from White Light/White Heat)
17. The Velvet Underground: “Sister Ray” (from White Light/White Heat)
18. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Cinnamon Girl” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
19. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Down By The River” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
20. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Cowgirl In the Sand” (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
21. The Stooges: “Dirt” (from Fun House)
22. The Stooges: “1970” (from Fun House)
23. The Stooges: “Fun House” (from Fun House)
24. Tangerine Dream: “Journey Through A Burning Brain” (from Electronic Meditation)
25. Alexander Spence: “Grey/Afro” (from Oar)