Neil Young has been one of the most enduring artists of the last fifty years (alongside, in my opinion, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed), and one of the most important. Credited with inventing grunge, and trying his hand at more genres then any other major artist you could name (electronica, country, stadium rock, rockabilly, blues), Neil Young has always been a contrary maverick.
In the beginning...
Neil was born on the 12th November 1945, in Toronto, but moved to Winnipeg with his mother after his parents divorced. Having picked up a guitar in high school, Neil spent most of the early 60's in various bands - the Squires, the Jades, the Classics, and other garage-rock outfits - as well as playing more folksy material in Winnipeg's coffee houses. During this period, Neil met Steven Stills and Richie Furay, who were in a band called the Au Go Go Singers at the time. In 1965, Neil moved back to Toronto and formed The Mynah Birds with bassist Bruce Palmer and the legendary Rick James; they released one or two singles on the Motown label, but these came to nothing, and the band broke up.
Disillusioned with the Canadian music scene, Neil and Bruce decided to move to L.A., and so they took off in Neil's Pontiac hearse. While stopped for petrol, they bumped into Stills and Furay, and decided to form a band, with Dewey Martin on drums - Buffalo Springfield. Buffalo Springfield quickly became one of the foremost names in the country-rock scene, along with the Byrds, but they suffered from quite a clash of egos, between Young, Stills and Furay. Their second, and last, album, Buffalo Springfield Again, was recorded haphazardly, and the band were rarely all together in the studio at the same time, but it still contained some moments of genius - like Neil's three contributions, Mr Soul, Expecting to Fly, and the epic Broken Arrow. The band officially split in 1968, and Neil signed to the Reprise label as a solo artist.
Expecting to Fly
Neil's eponymous solo debut, released in early 1969, hardly set the world alight, but it bore promise of things to come. The album suffered somewhat from being over-arranged, but straight afterwards, Young met up with Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, who called themselves The Rockets. Neil persuaded them to change their name to Crazy Horse, and back him for his next album, the excellent Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which contained the three classics Cowgirl In The Sand, Down By The River and Cinnamon Girl. Straight after that, he accepted Stills' invitation to join one of the biggest "super-groups" of the 60's/70's - Crosby, Stills and Nash, who then became Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
After one album, Deja Vu, and a live album, Four Way Street, Young left CSNY, following more clashes of egos, to take up where he left off, recording and releasing After The Goldrush, which, along with hit single Only Love Can Break Your Heart, established Neil as a solo star. His next move was to recruit Ben Keith, Kenny Buttrey, Tim Drummond and Jack Nitzche to form a new band, The Stray Gators, to record Harvest, his first number one album, which included his only number one single, Heart Of Gold. Despite the back problems he was having at the time, Young also managed to spirit James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt from the set of a TV show they were guesting on to contribute backing vocals for Harvest; David Crosby, Stills, and Graham Nash also featured. But Neil soon grew sick of being a mainstream star, and circumstances forced him into the bleakest period of his career.
After the Goldrush
Neil's next album, the live Time Fades Away, recorded with The Stray Gators, was a commercial and critical failure; and then, both Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry died of heroin overdoses, prompting Young to record Tonight's The Night, one of the bleakest albums of his career. So bleak, in fact, that he recorded and released the almost equally harrowing On The Beach instead. The shambolic supporting tour attracted equal numbers of fans and morbid voyeurs, as Young was almost constantly drunk, or stoned, or both.
Neil's next project was Homegrown, a somewhat more commercial collection of country/folk rock. After recording it, he kicked back with his band and friends to listen to it - but he put on an old tape of Tonight's The Night by mistake. Listening to it, Neil decided to release Tonight's The Night instead, and Homegrown was shelved for good - although most of the songs made it onto other albums. By now, Young had gotten over his bad patch, and, after recruiting Frank Sampedro to replace Danny Whitten, recorded the up-beat, poppy proto-grunge of Zuma, which featured Cortez The Killer, a song that was banned for a time in Spain because it was seen to criticise Franco's regime.
Long May You Run
In 1976, Neil abandoned Crazy Horse again to record an album with Steven Stills; Long May You Run was credited to the Stills-Young band, but Neil lost interest and abandoned his partner halfway through the tour. The patchy American Stars And Bars followed in 1977; the album's highlight was another Neil Young classic, Like A Hurricane, which he later remade with a water-pump organ on MTV's Unplugged. 1978 saw Neil put together a three-lp "Greatest Hits" package called Decade, which featured some of the songs originally recorded for the Homegrown album; he also released another country-rock album, Comes A Time.
Neil really hit his stride again in 1979, with the Rust Never Sleeps tour. Back with Crazy Horse yet again, the RNS tour featured over-sized amps and other stage props, as well as roadies (which Young insisted on pronouncing "road-eyes") dressed in robes like Jawas from Star Wars, and huge, long, half-acoustic, half-electric sets. Nine new songs were recorded live, and had croud noises edited out of them, for Rust Never Sleeps - the album, which was half-acoustic and half-electric. Tht title itself was suggested by members of Devo, and the closing track (Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black), an electric version of acoustic opener My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)) namechecked Johnny Rotten, as well as being quoted by Kurt Cobain in his suicide note. The following live album, Live Rust, featured more of the same; acoustic beauty, coruscating guitar, and a funny reggae version of Cortez The Killer.
Throwing it all away
Having set out a blistering statement of integrity, and shown his punk credentials, Young's next release was the perversely right-wing acoustic Hawks and Doves, which was followed by the odd, heavy-rock Re*Ac*Tor, neither of which was received particularly kindly either by critics or by fans. Neil's next move was to jump the Reprise ship and sign up with the fledgling Geffen label, who promised him buckets of cash, and complete artistic freedom.
Promising complete artistic freedom to Neil Young is like leaving Michael Jackson in charge of a creche; it might've seemed like a good idea at the time, but now it's clearly a bad call. Neil's first release for Geffen was the confusing electronica of Trans, which included Transformer Man, Sample And Hold and a bloody odd vocoder-ised version of Mr Soul. Inspired by his attempts to communicate with his disabled son, Trans left critics and fans alike baffled; when Neil followed up with the 50's rockabilly-themed Everybody's Rockin' (with yet another backing band, the Shocking Pinks), it became clear that Neil Young records were now more of a cult thing, or an acquired taste, than ever before. His next two albums, Old Ways (a straight country album, recorded with The International Harvesters, who were a cross between Crazy Hourse and the Stray Gators) and Landing On Water (an odd, new-wave-y effort, often described as "the worst Neil Young album ever") pissed David Geffen off to such an extent that he tried to sue Neil for producing "unrepresentitive product" - i.e. his albums didn't sound enough like Neil Young albums!
Back to rockin' in the free world
1987's Life, a stadium-rock-y record recorded with Crazy Horse, was a little more promising, but Geffen had had enough of Young, who returned to the Reprise label. 1988's bluesy This Note's For You, recorded with The Bluenotes, was much more successful than anything Young recorded with Geffen, being critically acclaimed as well as gaining exposure on MTV for the satirical video made for its title track. The end of 1988 saw Neil reunited with Crosby, Stills and Nash for American Dream - rumour has it that Neil Young promised Crosby that he'd record a CSNY album if Crosby could quit cocaine. The album was critically mauled, and the quartet went their seperate ways again. Much more successful was Young's next album, Freedom, another Neil Young And Crazy Horse production, which went back to Rust Never Sleeps' half-acoustic, half-electric template, and contained Young's biggest hit in ages, Rockin' In The Free World. Freedom also showed Young's sense of outrage at some of President Bush's policies, deploring poverty and urban decay, among other things. 1990's Ragged Glory was a much less serious affair, being a fun, grungey album reminiscent of Zuma; Neil dragged Sonic Youth around with him for the supporting tour, giving them plenty of exposure, and gaining indie kudos for himself.
In 1992, grunge was just reaching its peak, and Neil Young's credentials as an elder statesman of the movement were impeccable, especially after 1989's tribute album, The Bridge, featured some of grunge's leading lights/influences (Soul Asylum, Dinosaur Jr, the Pixies). So, perversely enough, Neil decided to record the follow-up to 1972's Harvest: a soft, beautiful piece of work called Harvest Moon, which was also a huge hit. He made one of the most famous MTV Unplugged appearances yet in support of the album, and his unplugged performance was released as an album in 1993. In an attempt to recover some of the money they'd spent on Young, Geffen released Lucky Thirteen, a best-of compilation of Young's Geffen releases, as well as live versions of some of the tracks on This Note's For You.
He's always on someone's mind.
Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994 had a great effect on Neil Young, who was quite disturbed that Cobain had quoted Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black) in his suicide note. This lead him to produce Sleeps With Angels, with Crazy Horse; the title track being explictly about Cobain's suicide. Another large seller, Sleeps With Angels was hailed by some critics as a masterpiece; 1995 found Young touring and jamming with Cobain's arch-rivals, Pearl Jam, and they eventually recorded the album Mirrorball together, although Pearl Jam could not be mentioned on the album sleeve, for legal reasons, and so it didn't do as well as expected.
1996 found Neil rocking out with Crazy Horse again, on the somewhat underwhelming Broken Arrow; the subsequent tour was filmed by Jim Jarmusch, and was released as a film and live album as The Year Of The Horse. In 1999, Neil reunited with Crosby, Stills and Nash yet again for Looking Forward, and the quartet toured for the first time in decades, with Neil playing and singing as if he were half the age of his bandmates. In 2000, Neil released another country/folk-rock album, Silver And Gold - ploughing a similar furrow to Harvest and Harvest Moon, but not as successfully. The supporting tour was documented on Road Rock - Volume I.
Neil's latest effort, Are You Passionate, a bluesy, soulful affair recorded with Booker T and the MG's, never really registered with me, or many others. We're all still waiting with the long-promised box-set, which should include plenty of tracks from Neil's personal archive, as well as material from the albums he never released on CD - i.e. Journey Through The Past, Time Fades Away, On The Beach, American Stars And Bars, Hawks And Doves and Re*Ac*Tor, known as the Missing 6.
The missing six are now only the missing two - On The Beach, American Stars And Bars, Hawks And Doves and Re*Ac*Tor are now to be released on CD at long last.
Probably the best Neil Young resource on the 'net; contains lyrics, discography, articles, etc. covering the whole of Neil's career.
Not too much in the way of detail, but their Neil Young article was very useful in piecing together a timeline.
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