One of the most adored rock artists, guitarists and singers of all time, Neil Young inspires a devotion that reminds you of the true meaning of “fanaticism”. Born in 1945, in Toronto, Canada, he found fame when he relocated to Los Angeles in 1965. Ostensibly setting out to hook up with Stephen Still, Young made the journey in a converted hearse with friend Bruce Palmer. By chance, Stills spotted the pair in a traffic jam and the trio began playing with Richie Furay and Dewey Martin as Buffalo Springfield.
Young’s for that group, ‘Mr Soul’, ‘Expecting To Fly, and ‘Broken Arrow’, were in the confessional folk style that Young then made his own on a string of classic albums in the late 60s and early 70s. However, renowned for having a contrary side, Young didn’t always stick to that template. His on-going work with Crazy Horse often rips up the rulebook and goes for broke – one of the reasons why Young was dubbed The Godfather Of Grunge.
As one of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, he achieved superstardom but always seemed happier ploughing his own furrow. Young’s prolific output (it’s not unheard of for him to release several albums in one year; and then there’s a litany of unreleased projects) stretches from an eponymous debut to 2016’s polemical Peace Trail, and encompasses many a groundbreaking work, among them After The Gold Rush (1970), On The Beach (1974), Tonight’s The Night (1975) and Live Rust (1979). Most of his albums have gone either gold or platinum, and his status is such that he’s been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame twice, as a solo artist and with Buffalo Springfield, while he also holds the Orders of Canada and Manitoba.
Neil Young’s self-titled debut was full of good songs – ‘The Loner’, ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, ‘The Last Trip To Tulsa’ – but suffered from a muddy mix. However, the hastily assembled follow-up, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, credited to Neil Young And Crazy Horse (Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina), was an unqualified triumph thanks to favourites the likes of ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘Down By The River’ and ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’. Young’s trademark high tenor – a haunting instrument in its own right – and his searing guitar work made him stand out, but it was After The Gold Rush, released a few weeks before Stephen Stills’ solo debut, that convinced us we were in the presence of genius. Among the highlights, the apocalyptic title track, the fire and brimstone ‘Southern Man’, the thrilling ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’ and the elegiac ‘Birds’ continue to exert their hold.
Its follow-up, Harvest (1972), was even more successful thanks to the inclusion of ‘A Man Needs A Maid’, ‘Heart Of Gold’ (a US No.1 single) and a soft folk-rock sound that also reflected his rootsier material, notably on ‘Are You Ready for the Country?’. On that song, recorded with backing group The Stray Gators, Young coined a post-Area Code 615 variation on the Nashville sound.
Released the same year, the soundtrack album Journey Through The Past, with its chilling Ku Klux Klan cover, contains archive music and one new song, ‘Soldier’, which later found wider release on the 1977 compilation Decade. The following year saw the live release Time Fades Away. Like Journey…, the album has been long out of print, and was completely different to Harvest. Having tasted fame and fortune, Young then claimed he’d “headed for the ditch” rather than remain “in the middle of the road”. That was also the case with 1974’s On The Beach and the following year’s Tonight’s The Night, albums which gained him a reputation for a visceral pessimism (or, depending on your view: realism). ‘Ambulance Blues’ wasn’t for the faint hearted, while the tour that accompanied Tonight’s The Night was a surreal experience, scorched on the retinas of those who saw it as Young performed a bitter suite inspired by the recent fatal heroin overdoses of Crazy House guitarist Whitten and old pal and roadie Bruce Berry.
Also issued in 1975, the Crazy Horse-bolstered Zuma – and, in particular, its standout song ‘Cortez The Killer’ – coincided with a period of ferocious roadwork. After a detour into a collaboration with Stephen Stills, Long May You Run (1976), American Stars’n’Bars (1977) showed that Young hadn’t been without inspiration on the highway: ‘Like A Hurricane’ and ‘Will To Love’ ushered in a sonic upgrade.
Released eight months apart, in October 1978 and June ’79, respectively, Comes A Time and Rust Never Sleeps were chalk and cheese: the former is down-home and features JJ Cale, the latter addresses the changing musical landscape in a post-punk world. The track ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)’ was the bumper-sticker moment, and the attendant Live Rust album hammered home the Crazy Horse credo.
1980 ushered in a more experimental – and, to some, problematic – period. Hawks & Doves dipped into the already formidable archives to include some previously unreleased material, while the new wave (ish) Re-ac-tor and the occasionally baffling Trans found Young on recharge.
Now on a new label, Geffen, the rockabilly pastiche of Everybody’s Rockin’ proved that Young would continue to do whatever he wanted. Naturally, it was followed by a country album, Old Ways, with Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson on board, which was itself followed by another recession-era heavyweight, Landing On Water.
This Note’s For You and Freedom saw Young’s commercial fortunes return by the end of the decade. Heading back to the garage, he opened the 90s with Ragged Glory and the ear-splitting live double-album Weld, during which time Crazy Horse were louder than most heavy metal acts. Arc was a feedback-drenched companion release pieced together from the same shows, and then, 20 years after Harvest, Young revisited the country template for Harvest Moon, whose key cut, the autobiographical ‘Dreamin’ Man’, rolled back the years to 1970. 1994’s Sleeps With Angels also referenced earlier work (in this case, the downbeat Tonight’s The Night) along with the Kurt Cobain, who had quoted ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black’ in his suicide note. Now firmly hailed as the Godfather Of Grunge himself, Young teamed up with Seattle heroes Pearl Jam for Mirror Ball, which included ‘Peace And Love’, co-written with the group’s singer, Eddie Vedder.
Saddling back up with Crazy Horse, yet another new phase in Young’s career came with the jam-based Broken Arrow (1996) before the underrated Silver & Gold (2000) His soul side emerged on Are You Passionate?, on which Young teamed up with Stax icons Booker T & The MG’s, with whom he had toured, to create his most R&B work.
The conceptual Greendale, a kind of audio musical novel and movie, was a further surprise, but Prairie Wind nodded to Young’s Canadian roots. And yet he remained creatively restless. Key albums thereafter include Living With War, his reaction to the Iraq crisis, and the dense textures of Chrome Dreams II, which Young himself likened to After the Gold Rush.
With his live archive now spouting an album a year, Young returned to the studio for Fork In The Road and the highly regarded Le Noise, produced by Brian Eno collaborator Daniel Lanois. Heading for 70, young delved even further back into the past for Americana, a collection of standards the likes of ‘Clementine’ and ‘This Land Is Your Land’, along with an arrangement of ‘God Save The Queen’, a song that Young had sung in grade school back in the day.
Released in 2012, the sprawling double-album, Psychedelic Pill, had brilliant moments, with the nuggets ‘Ramada Inn’ and ‘Walk Like A Giant’ evoking the lysergic era, but it was once again followed by a covers album. A singer-songwriter homage, 2014’s A Letter Home featured songs by Bruce Springsteen, Gordon Lightfoot, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin and others.
The same year’s Storytone emerged during a turbulent personal period, as Young split from long-time wife Pegi and lamented his luck with a sweep of symphonic folk. The conceptual The Monsanto Years quickly followed and included the barbed ‘A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop’, revealing an anger that still burned on 2016’s Peace Trail: another in a long line of latter-day state-of-the-nation addresses..
Whatever Neil Young does, he does whole-heartedly: even his mistakes are larger than life. That’s what you want from a proper artist. Long may he run.
In the 15 months between the release of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After the Gold Rush, Neil Young issued a series of recordings in different styles that could have prepared his listeners for the differences between the two LPs. His two compositions on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Déjà Vu, "Helpless" and "Country Girl," returned him to the folk and country styles he had pursued before delving into the hard rock of Everybody Knows; two other singles, "Sugar Mountain" and "Oh, Lonesome Me," also emphasized those roots. But "Ohio," a CSNY single, rocked as hard as anything on the second album. After the Gold Rush was recorded with the aid of Nils Lofgren, a 17-year-old unknown whose piano was a major instrument, turning one of the few real rockers, "Southern Man" (which had unsparing protest lyrics typical of Phil Ochs), into a more stately effort than anything on the previous album and giving a classic tone to the title track, a mystical ballad that featured some of Young's most imaginative lyrics and became one of his most memorable songs. But much of After the Gold Rush consisted of country-folk love songs, which consolidated the audience Young had earned through his tours and recordings with CSNY; its dark yet hopeful tone matched the tenor of the times in 1970, making it one of the definitive singer/songwriter albums, and it has remained among Young's major achievements. William Ruhlmann
Neil Young's most popular album, Harvest benefited from the delay in its release (it took 18 months to complete due to Young's back injury), which whetted his audience's appetite, the disintegration of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Young's three erstwhile partners sang on the album, along with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor), and most of all, a hit single. "Heart of Gold," released a month before Harvest, was already in the Top 40 when the LP hit the stores, and it soon topped the charts. It's fair to say, too, that Young simply was all-pervasive by this time: "Heart of Gold" was succeeded at number one by "A Horse with No Name" by America, which was a Young soundalike record. But successful as Harvest was (and it was the best-selling album of 1972), it has suffered critically from reviewers who see it as an uneven album on which Young repeats himself. Certainly, Harvest employs a number of jarringly different styles. Much of it is country-tinged, with Young backed by a new group dubbed the Stray Gators who prominently feature steel guitarist Ben Keith, though there is also an acoustic track, a couple of electric guitar-drenched rock performances, and two songs on which Young is accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra. But the album does have an overall mood and an overall lyric content, and they conflict with each other: The mood is melancholic, but the songs mostly describe the longing for and fulfillment of new love. Young is perhaps most explicit about this on the controversial "A Man Needs a Maid," which is often condemned as sexist by people judging it on the basis of its title. In fact, the song contrasts the fears of committing to a relationship with simply living alone and hiring help, and it contains some of Young's most autobiographical writing. Unfortunately, like "There's a World," the song is engulfed in a portentous orchestration. Over and over, Young sings of the need for love in such songs as "Out on the Weekend," "Heart of Gold," and "Old Man" (a Top 40 hit), and the songs are unusually melodic and accessible. The rock numbers, "Are You Ready for the Country" and "Alabama," are in Young's familiar style and unremarkable, and "There's a World" and "Words (Between the Lines of Age)" are the most ponderous and overdone Young songs since "The Last Trip to Tulsa." But the love songs and the harrowing portrait of a friend's descent into heroin addiction, "The Needle and the Damage Done," remain among Young's most affecting and memorable songs. Words: William Ruhlmann
Following the 1973 Time Fades Away tour, Neil Young wrote and recorded an Irish wake of a record called Tonight's the Night and went on the road drunkenly playing its songs to uncomprehending listeners and hostile reviewers. Reprise rejected the record, and Young went right back and made On the Beach, which shares some of the ragged style of its two predecessors. But where Time was embattled and Tonight mournful, On the Beach was savage and, ultimately, triumphant. "I'm a vampire, babe," Young sang, and he proceeded to take bites out of various subjects: threatening the lives of the stars who lived in L.A.'s Laurel Canyon ("Revolution Blues"); answering back to Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose "Sweet Home Alabama" had taken him to task for his criticisms of the South in "Southern Man" and "Alabama" ("Walk On"); and rejecting the critics ("Ambulance Blues"). But the barbs were mixed with humor and even affection, as Young seemed to be emerging from the grief and self-abuse that had plagued him for two years. But the album was so spare and under-produced, its lyrics so harrowing, that it was easy to miss Young's conclusion: he was saying goodbye to despair, not being overwhelmed by it. Words: William Ruhlmann
Written and recorded in 1973 shortly after the death of roadie Bruce Berry, Neil Young's second close associate to die of a heroin overdose in six months (the first was Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten), Tonight's the Night was Young's musical expression of grief, combined with his rejection of the stardom he had achieved in the late '60s and early '70s. The title track, performed twice, was a direct narrative about Berry: "Bruce Berry was a working man/He used to load that Econoline van." Whitten was heard singing "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown," a live track recorded years earlier. Elsewhere, Young frequently referred to drug use and used phrases that might have described his friends, such as the chorus of "Tired Eyes," "He tried to do his best, but he could not." Performing with the remains of Crazy Horse, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina, along with Nils Lofgren (guitar and piano) and Ben Keith (steel guitar), Young performed in the ragged manner familiar from Time Fades Away -- his voice was often hoarse and he strained to reach high notes, while the playing was loose, with mistakes and shifting tempos. But the style worked perfectly for the material, emphasizing the emotional tone of Young's mourning and contrasting with the polished sound of CSNY and Harvest that Young also disparaged. He remained unimpressed with his commercial success, noting in "World on a String," "The world on a string/Doesn't mean anything." In "Roll Another Number," he said he was "a million miles away/From that helicopter day" when he and CSN had played Woodstock. And in "Albuquerque," he said he had been "starvin' to be alone/Independent from the scene that I've known" and spoke of his desire to "find somewhere where they don't care who I am." Songs like "Speakin' Out" and "New Mama" seemed to find some hope in family life, but Tonight's the Night did not offer solutions to the personal and professional problems it posed. It was the work of a man trying to turn his torment into art and doing so unflinchingly. Depending on which story you believe, Reprise rejected it or Young withdrew it from its scheduled release at the start of 1974 after touring with the material in the U.S. and Europe. In 1975, after a massive CSNY tour, Young at the last minute dumped a newly recorded album and finally put Tonight's the Night out instead. Though it did not become one of his bigger commercial successes, the album was immediately recognized as a unique masterpiece by critics, and it has continued to be ranked as one of the greatest rock & roll albums ever made. Words: William Ruhlmann
Having apparently exorcised his demons by releasing the cathartic Tonight's the Night, Neil Young returned to his commercial strengths with Zuma (named after Zuma Beach in Los Angeles, where he now owned a house). Seven of the album's nine songs were recorded with the reunited Crazy Horse, in which rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro had replaced the late Danny Whitten, but there were also nods to other popular Young styles in "Pardon My Heart," an acoustic song that would have fit on Harvest, his most popular album, and "Through My Sails," retrieved from one of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's abortive recording sessions. Young had abandoned the ragged, first-take approach of his previous three albums, but Crazy Horse would never be a polished act, and the music had a lively sound well-suited to the songs, which were some of the most melodic, pop-oriented tunes Young had crafted in years, though they were played with an electric-guitar-drenched rock intensity. The overall theme concerned romantic conflict, with lyrics that lamented lost love and sometimes longed for a return ("Pardon My Heart" even found Young singing, "I don't believe this song"), though the overall conclusion, notably in such catchy songs as "Don't Cry No Tears" and "Lookin' for a Love," was to move on to the next relationship. But the album's standout track (apparently the only holdover from an early intention to present songs with historical subjects) was the seven-and-a-half-minute epic "Cortez the Killer," a commentary on the Spanish conqueror of Latin America that served as a platform for Young's most extensive guitar soloing since his work on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Words: William Ruhlmann
After 20 years, Neil Young finally decided to release the sequel to Harvest, his most commercially successful album. Harvest Moon is in some ways a better album, without the orchestral bombast that stifled some of the songs on the first album and boasting a more diverse overall selection of songs. Harvest Moon manages to be sentimental without being sappy, wistful without being nostalgic. The lovely "Unknown Legend," "From Hank to Hendrix," and the beautiful "Harvest Moon" are among Young's best songs. Only the overlong (11 minutes) and oversimplified "Natural Beauty" hurts a beautiful album that proudly displays scars, heartaches, and love. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
In the 15 months between the release of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After the Gold Rush, Neil Young issued a series of recordings in different styles that could have prepared his listeners for the differences between the two LPs. His two compositions on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Déjà Vu, "Helpless" and "Country Girl," returned him to the folk and country styles he had pursued before delving into the hard rock of Everybody Knows; two other singles, "Sugar Mountain" and "Oh, Lonesome Me," also emphasized those roots. But "Ohio," a CSNY single, rocked as hard as anything on the second album. After the Gold Rush was recorded with the aid of Nils Lofgren, a 17-year-old unknown whose piano was a major instrument, turning one of the few real rockers, "Southern Man" (which had unsparing protest lyrics typical of Phil Ochs), into a more stately effort than anything on the previous album and giving a classic tone to the title track, a mystical ballad that featured some of Young's most imaginative lyrics and became one of his most memorable songs. But much of After the Gold Rush consisted of country-folk love songs, which consolidated the audience Young had earned through his tours and recordings with CSNY; its dark yet hopeful tone matched the tenor of the times in 1970, making it one of the definitive singer/songwriter albums, and it has remained among Young's major achievements. Words: William Ruhlmann
Having re-established his reputation with the musically varied, lyrically enraged Freedom, Neil Young returned to being the lead guitarist of Crazy Horse for the musically homogenous, lyrically hopeful Ragged Glory. The album's dominant sound was made by Young's noisy guitar, which bordered on and sometimes slipped over into distortion, while Crazy Horse kept up the songs' bright tempos. Despite the volume, the tunes were catchy, with strong melodies and good choruses, and they were given over to love, humor, and warm reminiscence. They were also platforms for often extended guitar excursions: "Love to Burn" and "Love and Only Love" ran over ten minutes each, and the album as a whole lasted nearly 63 minutes with only ten songs. Much about the record had a retrospective feel -- the first two tracks, "Country Home" and "White Line," were newly recorded versions of songs Young had played with Crazy Horse but never released in the '70s; "Mansion on the Hill," the album's most accessible track, celebrated a place where "psychedelic music fills the air" and "peace and love live there still"; there was a cover of the Premiers' garage rock oldie "Farmer John"; and "Days That Used to Be," in addition to its backward-looking theme, borrowed the melody from Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages" (by way of the Byrds' arrangement), while "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)" was the folk standard "The Water Is Wide" with new, environmentally aware lyrics. Young was not generally known as an artist who evoked the past this much, but if he could extend his creative rebirth with music this exhilarating, no one was likely to complain. Words: William Ruhlmann
Anyone who has followed Neil Young's career knows enough not to expect a simple evening of mellow good times when they see him in concert, but in 1973, when Young hit the road after Harvest had confirmed his status as a first-echelon rock star, that knowledge wasn't nearly as common as it is today. Young's natural inclinations to travel against the current of audience expectations were amplified by a stormy relationship between himself and his touring band, as well as the devastating death of guitarist Danny Whitten, who died of a drug overdose shortly after being given his pink slip during the first phase of tour rehearsals. The shows that followed turned into a nightly exorcism of Young's rage and guilt, as well as a battle between himself and an audience who, expecting to hear "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold," didn't know what to make of the electric assault they witnessed. All the more remarkably, Young brought along a mobile recording truck to capture the tour on tape for a live album and the result, Time Fades Away, was a ragged musical parade of bad karma and road craziness, opening with Young bellowing "14 junkies, too weak to work" on the title cut, and closing with "Last Dance," in which he tells his fans "you can live your own life" with all the optimism of a man on the deck of a sinking ship. While critics and fans were not kind to Time Fades Away upon first release, decades later it sounds very much of a piece with Tonight's the Night and On the Beach, albums that explored the troubled zeitgeist of America in the mid-'70s in a way few rockers had the courage to face. If the performances are often loose and ragged, they're also brimming with emotional force, and despite the dashed hopes of "Yonder Stands the Sinner" and "Last Dance," "Don't Be Denied" is a moving remembrance of Young's childhood and what music has meant to him, and it's one of the most powerful performances Young ever committed to vinyl. Few rockers have been as willing as Young to lay themselves bare before their audience, and Time Fades Away ranks with the bravest and most painfully honest albums of his career -- like the tequila Young was drinking on that tour, it isn't for everyone, but you may be surprised by its powerful effects. Words: Mark Deming
Neil Young's second solo album, released only four months after his first, was nearly a total rejection of that polished effort. Though a couple of songs, "Round Round (It Won't Be Long)" and "The Losing End (When You're On)," shared that album's country-folk style, they were altogether livelier and more assured. The difference was that, while Neil Young was a solo effort, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere marked the beginning of Young's recording association with Crazy Horse, the trio of Danny Whitten (guitar), Ralph Molina (drums), and Billy Talbot (bass) that Young had drawn from the struggling local Los Angeles group the Rockets. With them, Young quickly cut a set of loose, guitar-heavy rock songs -- "Cinnamon Girl," "Down by the River," and "Cowgirl in the Sand" -- that redefined him as a rock & roll artist. The songs were deliberately underwritten and sketchy as compositions, their lyrics more suggestive than complete, but that made them useful as frames on which to hang the extended improvisations ("River" and "Cowgirl" were each in the nine-to-ten-minute range) Young played with Crazy Horse and to reflect the ominous tone of his singing. Young lowered his voice from the near-falsetto employed on his debut to a more expressive range, and he sang with greater confidence, accompanied by Whitten and, on "Round Round," by Robin Lane. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was breathtakingly different when it appeared in May 1969, both for Young and for rock in general, and it reversed his commercial fortunes, becoming a moderate hit. (Young's joining Crosby, Stills & Nash the month after its release didn't hurt his profile, of course.) A year and a half after its release, it became a gold album, and it has since gone platinum. And it set a musical pattern Young and his many musical descendants have followed ever since; almost 30 years later, he was still playing this sort of music with Crazy Horse, and a lot of contemporary bands were playing music clearly influenced by it. Words: William Ruhlmann