Ruminations on TV Shows, Comics, And Music
As I've previously mentioned, I'm not a Neil Young expert. I'm coming to this discography from ap lace of ignorance. I know those influenced by him more than I know why he influenced them. Yes, I'm familiar with his 70s hits, and his 90s resurgence but I had no idea who he was in the 80s.
There's a reason.
Neil Young went through some shit in the 80s. He was given a contract with "complete artistic freedom" and he took advantage of that. And his albums tanked. Most of them aren't awful, they just aren't traditional Neil Young albums. It's like if U2 went direct from Joshua Tree to Zooropa. It's jarring. So jarring that his label tried to sue him for breach of contract, claiming his 80s output was "musically uncharacteristic of (his) previous albums". They lost. They even apologized for the lawsuit, after the fact.
The albums that make up this reimagined album are Re-ac-tor, Trans, Everybody's Rockin', and Landing On Water. Apart from Everybody's Rockin', none of them are bad albums. They're just neither excellent, nor Neil Youngish. But they're creative, and each of them has at least a couple of good songs. Everybody's Rockin' has one fun song and one good song, but its Hey Remember The 50s Rockabilly Sound was stale forty years ago, and hasn't aged any better.
But there's something charming about the combination of these styles into one eclectic, hard to pin down album.
It's definitely the 80s in NeilYoungland. Check out the synth beats on People On The Street. This ain't your guitar strumming champion of the people. Oh, wait, here comes that reedy voice, and he is trying to get you to help the homeless. Ok, so this is the familiar Neil Young, and while this is the band Crazy Horse, which have played with him before, they sure do sound different. The background vocals on the chorus sound very soft rock/r&b 80s, though I couldn't name a band that they sound precisely like.
We continue with the Computer Age sound. Though this song also has Young's guitar fingerprints alongside the synth chords. I can't decide if the main vocals on this track have been hit with a little echo but the background vocals have absolutely been vocoded to the stratosphere. Why is Neil Young suddenly on vocoder? According to Young, he was having trying to reconcile the fact that his son, who has cerebal palsy, couldn't speak, and so he was toying with making his own communication more complicated.
Touch The Night hits us with some heavy guitar at the beginning before tossing in a boys' choir and synth. But then, there it is, the unmistakable Neil Young vocals that could have come from any point in his discography. This song follows the metaphoric trajectory of "Computer Age", as we've got a bunch of traffic and highways scattered throughout the lyrics of both songs. Apart from the synth touches, this absolutely could have come out of his late 70s output and not confused any of his fans, or his record label.
That's also true of the next song, Ra-pid Tran-sit, which is all guitars. He pitches his voice a bit lower for some of the vocals, and includes a stutter to the beginning of each non-chorus line but it's, otherwise, classic Neil Young, and comes before the Geffen records debacle, but it fits nicely on this album.
Most of the albums that Geffen records didn't like, I quite enjoy. They definitely aren't hits, and I prefer them as background music than albums that I'm going to give my full focus. The exception is 1983's Everybody's Rockin', which is, at its core, a terrible record. A nostalgic for the 1950s "rockabilly" album. I'm glad Young had fun recording it, and touring behind it, but it is a slog to listen to. Wonderin' is one of the two tracks on the album that I don't mind, as it really sounds more like a Neil Young song in the style of the 1950s, rather than Neil Young trying to recreate a 1950s sound. As an anomoly on this eclectic album, I think it's great.
There's a nice little clanging bell that brings us back from the 1950s to the 1970s/80s guitar rock of Southern Pacific. The lyrics, about a rail worker being let go because of his advancing age, is vintage Young.
Like An Inca is just enjoyable Neil Young guitar rock. He doesn't strain his voice up, the way he does on many of his tracks, which gives the song a much more relaxed vibe. Especially with the background vocals.
Writing the descriptions of this album, has me realizing how much I do enjoy his more traditional work to the experimental phase. A majority of the songs on this Musically Uncharacteristic Of (His) Previous Albums, really aren't that uncharacteristic. They're musically satisfying, and include alterations to the 1960s/1970s Neil Young formula, but I don't find them all that jarring. I'm surprised more of them weren't hits for him.
Ok, I know why Kinda Fonda Wanda, another of his 1950s style songs wasn't a hit, but it's a ridiculous and fun song. I've trimmed the second verse off because the lyrics are novelty-style and thematically repetetive, but I enjoy the core joke of the song. Young isn't often known for his sense of humor. But it's clearly there. This is also a nice breather, as it's about a minute and a half, while the previous song was nearly ten minutes long. Twiddly-dee!
I Got A Problem gives us heavy guitars, and a drum beat that would make Phil Collins's heart flutter. This is another song about having problems communicating. Yet the song, itself, from lyrics to the limited instrumentation, is crystal clear in its meaning.
The synth is back for Bad News Beat. So are generic love lyrics. But they're catchy, and very, very, very New Age 80s. You could definitely imagine this as a Cars song with Neil Young on vocals. It's not the same kind of fun as "Kinda Fonda Wonda" but it is light, and just sounds warm, like it could be in the background of a beach montage scene in an 80s action film. Right up until the breakdown, which is remarkably spare.
You can hear Kraftwerk's fingerprints all over We R In Control. Young's conspiracy theorist's wet dream theme song. All the lyrics are vocoded. Instead of a beach scene, this is an all-night scene where you flash across a city stopping at the inordinate amount of sinister looking, suit and sunglassed government employees, spying on the general public with no moral qualms.
We close out the album with a piano nostalgia song. Get Back On It is somewhere on the border of the Everybody's Rockin' album, and Young's 70s output. It does transition to an electric guitar ending, and will bring us into the next evolution of Young's music.
Putting together this reimagined discography has been more difficult thatn I imagined, but more fulfilling to suss out. This is my third, and I think final, attempt at the second album in the discography. Unlike the first album, which sprawled over Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and Youg's solo work, this album is 100% Neil Young. It contains both his most successful period, and then his darkest period. I've shrunk four of his solo albums into an album that I love. I haven't changed the tracks much since my first draft, but the order has had to be rejumbled as the first draft didn't quite click for me, and the second draft seemed wonderful when I was mixing it but when I listened to it the next day it sounded awful.
This collection sounds, to me, like the prototype for Tom Petty's late 80s and 90s work, as well as the best Ani Difranco albums. They're not fully acoustic, but most of them sound like they were originally played on an acoustic guitar and then slowly expanded into fuller sounds. The songs are all pretty short, and they're catchy. When there are background harmonies, they sound sometimes fun, occasionally haunting, but always necessary, and not the result of overproduction.
The crux of this album is, of course, Harvest, which is the strongest popular Young album of the era. Personally, if I had to choose a full actual 1970s album by Young to listen to, it would be Tonight's The Night, but I understand why Harvest is more popular. What I don't understand are the people who told me I would enjoy After The Gold Rush. Even the "classic hits" on that album just sound off to me. Politically, I definitely fall on the Neil Young side of the Neil Young/Lynyrd Skynyrd divide (Which actually lasted only about a year before Young and Lynyrd reached an agreement that "Southern Man" is politically well-intentioned but kind of a garbage song. "Sweet Home Alabama" slaps) but musically I just don't enjoy the production or the lyrics from After The Gold Rush.
I don't know for sure, because, again, I'm learning what I like about Young as I make this discography, but I *think* this will probably be my favorite of the Neil Young albums, with the possible exception of his mid-90s output. It just Sounds like the mid-90s rock that I listened to in high school, even though it was made in the early and mid-70s.
The kick of the drum, the harmonica, the laid back vocals. Out On The Weekend could have been the first track of Tom Petty's Wildflowers, my favorite Petty album. It's got the country twang in moderation, over the soft acoustic rock. It's just a summer day drinking lemonade (or beer, should you choose) on a porch. Not your porch. The porch of someone you enjoy spending time with, but also enjoy time away from. This is a breezy conversation before you get up to shake hands, maybe hug, and then leave.
Old Man is one of Young's first super hits. Linda Rondstadt and James Taylor (who also plays bajo on the track) are his background vocalists for a catchy, navel-gazing song. This is one of those songs that I don't know if I like it because it's got a really catchy melody or because I've heard it in the background of movies, TV shows, and playing on the radio when I was younger, many times. I couldn't have told you that I even knew this song until I was putting the album together and thought "How do I know all the lyrics to this song?" I also enjoy how it
flows directly into Tonight's The Night, which embodies everything I love about Southern rock. As with Young's best work, the harmonies, provided in this track by The Santa Monica Flyers, are exquisite, the bassline is a touch too ferocious for the soft vocals, but somehow it works. The raggedy piano coming in is divine and makes me wish I was at a piano bar in Memphis. Young's lead vocals waiver back and forth toward the microphone and he plays around like he's at an open mic, not at a recording studio. I was completely unfamiliar with this song (or anything from the album it comes from) when I started this project, and it's now one of my absolute favorite Young tracks.
One of Young's absolute classic hits is Heart Of Gold. The soaring harmonica, the kick drum, the ... you know what ... everything I said about the first track, it's like that, only up another couple of notches. Its association with Zaphod Beeblebrox and infinite improbability also makes me love it even more than the harmonica riffs. And once again, we have Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor in the background.
Borrowed Tune is a sweet piano ballad that just sounds like every mid-90s ballad, but it arrived twenty years early. Hearing it now makes me want to listen to his contribution to the Philadelphia soundtrack. I think it's a thousand times better than "Lady Jane", the terribly clanky Rolling Stones song it borrows the melody from.
If you like a good, moody song played on a Wurlitzer, then hoo buddy, See The Sky About To Rain was written for you. I could see an instrumental version being in pretty much any 1990s Indie film. It could almost have come from REM's Automatic For The People.
Motion Pictures on the other hand, sounds like a slightly countrified version of pre-Kid A Radiohead. A B-side of OK Computer at least. If I'd encountered it, I definitely would have been listening to this song with the lights out in high school, being sad for the sake of being sad. I think much of this album appeals to me because it sounds like the type of music I might have put on when I was feeling down as a teenager/early twenty-something, but I would have felt better after the album is over. There's a real hope to these moody downers.
While I'm comparing Young's 70s output to the 90s work it inspired, Don't Let It Bring You Down is a Screaming Trees masterpiece released out of time. I bet this one more than one of Anthony Bourdain's mixtapes in the 80s and 90s.
Getting back to the piano rag with the scorching Southern guitar, Speakin' Out has The Most 70s lyrics I've heard in a long time. This is a stoned hippie jam with a 70s piano undertone that's polite enough to cut itself off after about five minutes.
Albuquerque gave me the most trouble with this album. I couldn't figure out where to put it. This is the dirty track on a quiet Tom Petty album. Or so I thought. It's really only the opening bass crunch that made it so hard to place. So I buried it in the mix as the outro of "Speakin' Out" fades into it. The song ascends into something between a Southern Rock jam and a Progressive Rock jam. The chorus is almost alien, as it just doesn't seem to fit over the melody, even though it's just echoing the guitar pattern.
I let New Mama cut through the ending for another straightforward acoustic song that could have been a Crosby Stills Nash And Young song. I let it fully play out to its gorgeous ending before
Lookout Joe lopes onto the album. This is definitely a late-album sing-along tune. It feels like a moment about to end. It's a fun Stray Gators song.
The penultimate song brings us back to harmonicaland, with Young lamenting about how he's not joining in his friends who are out having fun. Although, as we've heard throughout the album, his friends' fun is killing them while Oh Lonesome Me is sitting sadly, but alive, at home.
Closing out the album is another absolute classic, the song from which this reimagined album takes its name, The Needle And The Damage Done was a song I'd seen/heard referenced dozens of times before ever hearing the actual song. It was the name of a Nirvana bootleg I owned. It's a gorgeous song about loss, and it allows us to fade out with some audience applause, as it's from a live performance.
So far, my reimagined discographies have been catalogs of some of my favorite artists. People I've listened to since high school, or, in the case of The Weeknd, since I first heard their music. I'd listened to their albums repeatedly, and had a pretty good handle as to which songs would flow into which other songs, what shared a key, or a beat, or which syncopation would make a cool transition. While I was working on the Pearl Jam discography, there were several tracks that they made with Neil Young. I *think* I like Neil Young. I like what I've heard from him, but I'm far from an expert. He comes from the time period where my dad was really into music, but my dad is more Motown and the Beatles than Righteous Brothers and Buffalo Springfield. Also, when I was in middle school one of the classic rock stations had an ad that swung at the other classic rock station, playing snippets of Neil Young, America, and Simon and Garfunkel while a voice said something akin to "Some classic rock stations think these songs rock. Not us, we only play Real Rock And Roll not your dad's wuss rock." And then they'd play Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" or Nelson's "After The Rain". I wondered if the DJs were making fun of the idea of Testosterock, but then I never did hear Neil Young, America, or Simon and Garfunkel on that station. But so much Rush.
I keep meaning to give the Young discography a focused listening but I've never gotten around to it.
That ended Saturday. I had all of the albums already on my harddrive, including his work with Crosby Stills and Nash, and Buffalo Springfield. It was just a matter of sitting down and absorbing it.
I'm still not at an expert. This is going to be a discography for people, like me, who want to know more Neil Young music, but are okay with not listening to all of the over fifty albums that he's been a part of. I had to really skip around his early discography because I really don't enjoy the soft rock of that period. Whether it's the lingering effect of that radio ad from the early 90s or that it's the sort of music from the soundtracks to a million terrible movies. The three Buffalo Springfield albums made me wonder if I even liked music anymore. But there were at least two tracks from each album that I really enjoyed. This first album is what I've cobbled together from them.
I am going to skip a ton of "classic tracks" and hits. I'm sorry. If you're already a Neil Young fan, you know them, and don't need me to tell you what's good and what's not. This is for the people who feel like they should know more about Neil Young but aren't 100% sure that they need to.
The Beatles weren't the only group making experimental rock and changing the game, but they were so successful at their endeavors that any time I hear a 1960s band being creative with production or string overdubs, I think of it as being Beatlesque. Expecting To Fly is a Buffalo Springfield song that feels like it would fit right into a White Album B-sides collection. It's fake fade out then resurgence of strings before it properly dissipates is like a symphonic easy listening "Helter Skelter". I think it's a pretty good intro track, even though it is Not Indicative of the rest of the album's sound.
Crunching out of that track is Neil Young's greatest achievement. Ohio. Not appearing on an official album until it the Greatest Hits collections started, Young recorded this with Crosby Stills Nash And Young when the Kent State shooting was fresh. I tend not to enjoy protest songs, as they usually have sentimentality or else a false call for a revolution that they're not prepared to be involved with. I didn't know anything about the Kent State shooting when I first heard this song. But it made me ask questions. The guitar is way to hard for the vocals (and it's not really that hard) but you can feel that, at least in Young's vocals, he's more interested in the urgency and sincerity of the lyrics than the harmonies.
Keeping with the CSNY era, but with more a of a focus on the harmonies, we get Deja Vu. Young is only on guitar and background vocals here but that was one of his main roles in his early career. He was only the occasional frontman, often for Stephen Stills (in both Buffalo Springfield and CSNY). I'm not going to put many non-Young fronted songs on this album, but I enjoy this one, and it is fun to hear Young slightly further down in the mix.
The Last Trip To Tulsa is the first pure Neil Young song on this album. Stephen Stills isn't anywhere on this track. Just Young and his guitar, when he's at his most intimate best. I do have a hard time hearing this and not thinking of Jimmy Fallon cosplaying as Neil Young in the early 2010s. But this is classic Bob Dylan style singer songwriting. There's a distinct narrative focus rather than verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus. He even goes meta with talking about being a folk singer, which is the most folk singery thing folk singers do. Also, like several Dylan tunes of the 1960s, it could be cut in half and be a much more interesting song. But folk singers tend to be novelists compared to pop singers' flash fiction. The quality of recording makes this feel like a particularly good open mic performance rather than an album track but this contributes to the authenticity that Young seemed to always strive for.
We move from guitar to the piano but we keep the ballady storytelling as Here We Are In The Years builds us back into a full band (though it is from Young's first solo album). It almost feels like a Carole King song, and the paino pushes us right into the next track,
Our House. This is one of the few CSNY songs that I'm very familiar with, although I did not know it was a CSNY track until I listened to their first album this weekend. I put it on because it was so familiar and catchy, if very cheesy, and didn't notice until I was writing this paragraph that Neil Young is completely absent on this track. No vocals, no guitar. He sat this Graham Nash song out. Oops. I really enjoy Young but I guess, if I'm going to subscribe to his authenticity, I should include at least one song from this period that feels like a snub. I promise that all future albums will contain Neil on every track. This song is catchy but it ain't "Ohio".
Returning to the focus of Neil, is The Loner. This was Young's first solo single. It doesn't have the breathiness of some the other Young vocals so it feels more in-step with the guitar here. This is a more relaxed song than "Ohio" both in its writing and performance but it's clearly the same artist.
Neil Young and his contemporaries are often credited with creating the Southern Rock genre. Not country but adjacent to the already existing country scene but with more of a Rock focus. I Am A Childis a pretty good indicator of that style. It's a Buffalo Springfield track with Young on lead vocals, and a twang to the guitar, and a bit of country sounding harmonica.
And while we're on Buffalo Springfield, you can not have an album with any Buffalo Springfield and not have For What It's Worth (Stop, Hey, What's That Sound) on it. Young isn't on vocals here, but his echoey guitar is what makes this track a classic. Those two reverberating notes make up for the fact that whatever is happening in this song ain't exactly clear.
The guitar intensifies as Young retakes the vocal spotlight in the Buffalo Springfield track Mr Soul. I believe it's illegal to even make an imaginary Neil Young album that doesn't have a song where he talks about how dissatisfied he is with the music industry. It would be like me working a shift in a comic book store without complaining about the kind of people who buy comic books. I haven't included every Neil Young Buffalo Springfield song, as some of them are ... not his best work. But this one is head nodding good. I even let it fully fade out.
Cinnamon Girl is another crunchy guitar riff song. This is the first song on this album with Crazy Horse as the backing band. Young's tenor is such a weird contrast to the guitar on this track (as is often the case with his earlier, electric guitar focused songs) but I love that disparity enough that I'm including this song, despite its really forgettable This Is About A Girl lyrics.
I say that, and then immediately include another song about a girl. This time it's a Country Girl, and it's a ballad instead of a rocker. It's got Crosby, Stills, and Nash on backing vocals and other instruments but it's definitely a Neil Young song. It doesn't have the narrative focus of his solo work. It's more about evoking a feeling than telling a story, but I like it as a bit of an echo of the opening track, even though it's a completely different band (except, well, Young and Stills). I find the background vocals get really sour near the end, and I'm not sure whether its intentional. THis is another of the rare songs where I allow it to completely fade out before the next track, though this is more because I couldn't find a track that meshed well with the ending rather than that I thought listeners needed a moment to bask in the ending.
Another CSNY song, Carry On carries us toward the closing track. It's actually the opening track from the first CSNY album, and is made up of two unreleased Buffalo Springfield songs. I'm not sure how much Young is involved in this track. If he is present vocally, he's buried in the mix.
We close out with a solo piece, The Old Laughing Lady. This is along the lines of "Last Trip To Tulsa" as there is a clear narrative to the story, and Young gets his sentimental croon on. It also ends with background vocalists singing the word "Ohio" which feels like a callback to the second track, though it was written a couple of years earlier.
I enjoyed putting this together, but I'll admit that I'm more excited about the next few reimagined albums, as I think Young got better as his career went on, which is rarely the case with musicians who find early success. Next up is the era where he was most popular, and I'm guessing it will result in a much more focused album.