The Back Catalogue of Neil Young : Part One

"Print this out and take it on a train journey or something; the journey is a long one, but it'll be worth the ride."

 

Neil Young's been making music for nigh on 40 years, so there's a lot to get through. But where should I start? I could tell you which of his albums I think are must buys, which are recommended and which are for collectors and fanatics only; in other words, those albums that should be avoided by everybody with an ounce of common sense. I could do that, and I will, but I'm also going to do this chronologically as I think that if you have the money, following Neil's output chronologically is the best way to buy his music. If you start at the beginning and work through, you'll get an idea of just how bizarre and rewarding his journey has been as an artist. The only thing you can ever rely on Neil for is that his next album will be radically different to his last. You never know what guise he'll appear in next, whether it be Country Neil, Godfather of Grunge Neil, Soul Man Neil or Electro Neil. All of these guises, and more besides, have appeared over the years so picking up a Neil album always gives you that 'Lucky Dip' feeling. You really, honestly, never know what you're going to get.

 

If, however, you can't afford to buy his entire catalogue, then you need to choose wisely and you'll need some help. Look no further. From the hearse to the ditch, from Geffen to Greendale; I'll talk about it all in here. In fact, you may want to print this one out. Sit back and relax, 'cause this will take a while.

 

 

PART 1 : Mort's lifespan. From the Hearse to the ditch and back out again.

 

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD : Buffalo Springfield - released December 1966

In the beginning, there was a hearse. But that's a story I don't have time to go into; except to say that this is the start of the on/off creative relationship between Neil and Stephen Stills. Neil was pretty much just a guitar player in the band at this point, although there are 4 songs written by him here, including the fabulous Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing. Almost everybody knows Stills' For What It's Worth but the whole album is a delight. The Springfield were trying to be the American Beatles and thus it's an album of three minute pop songs. It's worthy of a place in any collection, but whatever you do – buy the MONO version, the Stereo version is atrocious. The band don't like it and you won't like it either. 

 

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD : Buffalo Springfield Again - released November 1967

After being together for little over a year and a half, the writing was already on the wall for the Springfield by this point. This is the album where Neil Young the solo artist was born as far as I'm concerned. Or at least the idea of him. You can feel Neil starting to flex his muscles here. The ego battles between Stills and Young are legendary and most of them root from this album. It contains three of Neil's best songs, Mr Soul, Expecting To Fly and Broken Arrow. Mr Soul and Expecting to Fly are so good, they still appear as staples in Neil's live sets today. Mr Soul is simply one of the most electrifying songs ever written and contains the one note solo that thousands have copied but never surpassed. As for Broken Arrow? Well, if this isn't an ego trip I don't know what is. It's basically 8 songs in one and although the parts are cut and pasted together in a rough, somewhat heavy handed fashion, the arrogance and confidence inherent in the writing and the arrangement carry it through. I'm not entirely sure how it works, but it does. The rest of the album's not half bad either, but Neil's songs stand out by a mile.

 

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD : Last Time Around - released August 1968

The band had already broken up by this point and this was put together by the record company (always a bad sign). The band disowned it, but it's not at all bad. It contains I Am A Child after all, another live staple of Neil's.

 

NEIL YOUNG : Neil Young - released August 1968

Neil says this album is 'overdub hell' but again, it's just him flexing his muscles. It's the sound of Neil and producer David Briggs experimenting in the studio. It's also the sound of Neil trying to find his own voice (vocally that is) and despite the fact that it's really over produced it contains The Loner and I've Been Waiting For You so it's still recommended.

 

Retrospective : Best of Buffalo Springfield – released March 1969

A hits package put together by the record company. Yawn.

 

NEIL YOUNG AND CRAZY HORSE : Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere – released May 1969

For many, Neil's crowning glory and that's hard to argue with. This is Neil and the original Crazy Horse line up; Ralph Molina on Drums, Billy Talbot on bass and Danny Whitten on guitar. It's true to say that Neil's never sounded quite at home with a band as he was with this Crazy Horse line up. Neil and the band kick up a storm on this album and the energy and sheer joy of playing that floods out of the speakers is wonderful to behold. Cinnamon Girl, Down By The River, Cowgirl In The Sand, three of Neil's most well known songs, they all live here. Plus you get the jaunty, catchy title track which has the best Na na na backing vocals of any song. EVER! This is the first essential album of Neil's career.

 

CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG, Dallas Taylor and Greg Reeves : Dejà vu – released March 1970

The very first supergroup and the first great album of the 1970's. There aren't many Neil songs on the album but Helpless is there and that's more than worth the price of admission alone. On Helpless Neil's voice is cracked and broken, like he's singing it after having been up all night crying. Haunting and absolutely stunning it's a great counterpoint to the lighter aspects of this album, like Graham Nash's Our House, for example. In amongst the harmonies that made the CSN sound so special, Neil's characteristic whine and direct style of playing guitar added a volatile, darker chemical to the light, free loving hippy vibe that CSN had built up. His influence is everywhere, from the electrifying guitar work (check out Woodstock) through to Crosby's marvelous Almost Cut My Hair, which is filled with passion, anger and regret. I doubt the song would ever have made it onto a CSN album without Neil being there. Sure, they recorded most of it separately and the whole idea of the group blew up in their faces before it got very far, but having four egos of this magnitude in one band, fuelled on cocaine and tequila was just asking for trouble. Nevertheless this is a really great album. Hell, even your Grandmother will like it, and that's not meant as an insult.

 

NEIL YOUNG : After the Gold Rush - released September 1970

Another album hotly disputed by fans as Neil's greatest work. I don't necessarily agree with that, but it is damn good. Sadly, it's also the album where his voice is in high squeal mode, which won't be to everyone's taste. If you're one of those people who thinks that Neil has a horrible voice (there are some crazy people out there!) then you'll hate this album. You can't deny the quality of the songwriting on here though. Forgetting Cripple Creek Ferry, which has too much of a novelty value for me and Neil's depressingly downbeat cover of Hank Williams' Oh Lonesome Me, you're treated to a handful of Neil's finest moments. Tell Me Why, After The Gold Rush, Don't Let It Bring You Down, Birds, When You Dance I Believe In Love and more. The imagery supplied by the lyrics is exemplary, From 'silver spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun' through to the gambler tipping his hat aboard the Cripple Creek Ferry, Neil's on top form here. Of course I can't mention this album without referring to Southern Man, which contains one of my favourite guitar solos ever. There's more passion, energy and feeling in those few repeated notes than in twenty other songs put together. If he didn't squeal so much this would be his greatest album, hands down.

 

CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG : 4 Way Street – released April 1971

Like I said earlier, CSN&Y imploded pretty soon after they began, but when they were on form, they were something special. This live set is a pretty decent record of them doing what they did best. Play music. For fans only really, but worth the investment.

 

NEIL YOUNG : Harvest - released February 1972

Neil's biggest selling album, by a country mile. This is the first album of Neil's that I bought, as is the same for many people I'm sure. It's the album that contains his biggest hit, Heart Of Gold but that's not its greatest selling point as far as I'm concerned. Made whilst suffering from a chronic back ailment in Nashville with friends James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and a bunch of Nashville session musicians that Neil nicknamed the Stray Gators; it contains some of his finest work as well as some of his most overblown. The Needle and the Damage Done and Old Man are two of my all time favourite Neil tracks and there's also the fantastic Words (between the lines of age), Harvest and Out On the Weekend. Unfortunately there's also A Man Needs a Maid, which even the London Symphony Orchestra can't rescue. I know a lot of fans that have turned their back on this album somewhat but I still hold it dear. This was the place where I started my Neil collection, and it's not a bad way to start I can tell you.

 

NEIL YOUNG : Journey Through The Past – released November 1972

This is possibly the hardest album of Neil's to track down. I say that because I still haven't managed to do so. It's a soundtrack album to a film of the same name that Neil made. The album was bizarrely released a full year before the film was ever screened. Apparently the film is a complete shambles and the album not much better, but if you're a fool like me, you'll keep searching.

 

NEIL YOUNG : Time Fades Away – released October 1973

Fans of the film Almost Famous should recognize the cover even if they've never actually laid eyes on it before, thanks to Cameron Crowe's delightful little homage. Time Fades Away is a live album, but that description doesn't do it justice. After the success of Harvest, Neil's 'audience' were hoping for more of the same. They were looking for another Heart Of Gold; what they got was a Heart Of Darkness. Time Fades Away was an album of all new material recorded live on tour, (something that was almost unheard of at the time) where his voice is broken and croaky and the guitars loud, ragged and loose. This was no Harvest Part II.

 

Let's pause for a little background, shall we. After the success of Harvest, Neil booked a tour that would visit over 60 cities in less than three months. During tour rehearsals the band noted that Danny Whitten's drug problems had escalated to a point where, in an attempt to kick his heroin addiction, he was taking a cocktail of other drugs to compensate. As such, it became clear that Danny would not be able to tour and so he was fired from the band, given an airline ticket and fifty dollars and told to go home. Danny died the next day of an overdose, having used the money to score a hit.

 

With the tour about to start Neil and the band reluctantly agreed to go ahead with it. Halfway through the tour, Neil's voice began to give out. Without the vocal support of Whitten, Neil had to handle most of the vocals himself and as the tour wore on the grief over Danny's death, coupled with the strain of touring, took a hold of Neil and thus the sets became more ragged, raw and angry. On top of this, the crew demanded more money, (Seeing full arenas every night must have made them greedy). In an attempt to save the tour Crosby and Nash were called in after a short break to help with the vocals and rhythm guitar parts for the back end of the tour. All in all, it was a tour Neil and the band didn't want to be on and a tour that they would all rather forget. So of course, Neil released an album documenting it.

 

The album has a dark mood, you can almost sense the tension surrounding the band as they play. It's harsh and it's totally uncompromising, not least in its erratic running order. It doesn't flow as an album, every song seems to crash into one another, fighting each other for supremacy. It's a portrait of an artist, and a band, unravelling. It's not an easy listen, but it is truly remarkable. Despite the chaos that surrounded the tour and the album, it contains two absolute classics, Don't Be Denied and Journey Through The Past, the song that was written initially to be the title song of the film, before Neil realized it had absolutely nothing to do with it.

 

In the liner notes for Decade (which we'll come to later) there's an oft used quote where Neil says, "Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch." Time Fades Away is the sound of him careering off the road at high speed and falling into that ditch.

 

This is a remarkable album, long since deleted on vinyl and still unreleased on CD. It's considered to be the Holy Grail as far as Neil collectors are concerned and I can tell you, it's more than worth checking out if you can find a copy. Just don't go searching for another Heart Of Gold.

 

NEIL YOUNG : On The Beach – released July 1974

After falling into the ditch, it took Neil a while to get out. On The Beach is where he started to pull himself back together. It is a marvellous album, containing some of Neil's most important work. It's easily one of his better albums and was thankfully re-released on CD not too long back, so you don't need to go hunting in flea markets for it any more. As far as I'm concerned, you need to have this album; it's as simple as that. From the lively opener Walk On; Neil's retort to his critics, "They do their thing, I'll do mine;" all the way through to the long, rambling, epic closer Ambulance Blues the album is never less than thrilling.

 

With Crazy Horse supplying the shuffling beat, Walk On gets things off to a lively start. Then comes See the Sky About To Rain, a beautiful song that Neil plucked from his already sizeable archive of unreleased tracks. Just listen to Levon Helm's drumming on this, it's delightful! Neil's voice is also at its most tender here. Next comes the threatening Revolution Blues, based around Neil's meetings with Charles Manson. When he sings ´Well, 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' you can't help but feel threatened. With The Band's Rick Danko and Levon Helm producing and David Crosby supplying some fantastic, frantic rhythm guitar, this is one of Neil's finest moments, without a doubt, and it doesn't lose any of its bite, no matter how many times you hear it.

 

For The Turnstiles is the closest Neil's come to a traditional folk song. A sweet little song about the love of baseball it's a welcome come down after Revolution Blues. With some nice twangy banjo backing him up Neil strains to find the notes on this tune, which is way out of his vocal range. That doesn't matter though as it helps to give the song a naïve atmosphere and as such makes it a much more rewarding listen than it ever should be. Vampire Blues is a joky little 6 bar number that rounds off the old side 1 quite nicely. It's the worst song on the album, but I still love it and it's one I often sing to myself in the shower as it's so much fun. Just be glad you can't hear THAT version.

 

Side 2 is a lot more somber. It only holds three songs but it is one of the greatest album sides ever created as far as I'm concerned. On The Beach is a slow, dragging number that seems to take an age to get going but by the time it's finished you'll really wish it would go on forever. Motion Pictures (for Carrie) is a song Neil wrote on the road. In the lyrics he's pining for the country life but it's in the music that this song's beauty is found. It sounds extremely relaxed and just kind of meanders along, not really going anywhere. Which, of course, is perfect for the subject matter. Neil's harmonica adds a kind of whispered, laid back quality to it also. Finally, you get Ambulance Blues, which is one of Neil's most impressive songs. I won't go into detail about it, as it's something you should just discover for yourselves, but Rusty Kershaw's fiddle playing on this is amazing.  Trust me, you NEED to buy this album.

 

NEIL YOUNG : Tonight's The Night – released June 1975

Tonight's The Night was actually recorded not long after the tour for Time Fades Away was completed, but was shelved. In 1975, or so the story goes, Neil played his new album Homegrown for some friends. After the album finished they sat around chatting but left the tape running. Tonight's the Night was on the end of the reel and after hearing it then, Neil decided that it was a better album than Homegrown and so Tonight's the Night was released instead. The full Homegrown album, incidentally, has never been released.

 

If Time Fades Away is Neil falling into the ditch and On the Beach is him coming to terms with being there, then Tonight's The Night is the point at which he was at rock bottom. This is an ASTONISHING album. Neil and a few friends holed up in a small studio for a few nights, got high on Honey Slides (a mixture of honey and marijuana apparently) and fiendishly drunk on tequila and just decided to have some fun. Still grieving over the loss of Danny Whitten and another close friend, Bruce Berry, the band paid tribute to their friends in the only way they knew how, through music. This is the most passionate and emotional Neil's ever been on record. His voice is shot. Completely. He's just way off pitch. But it doesn't matter, because the feel is there, the emotion is there and the intensity is there. In fact, this is the most intense album Neil's ever made. It confronts you head on. It doesn't try to please you; it's just pure, raw emotion.

 

The tracklisting was put together by Neil's manager, Elliot Roberts and the inclusion of Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown is an inspired choice. The song was recorded a couple of years earlier but what makes it's inclusion so special is that the lead vocals are handled by Danny Whitten. In the midst of Tonight's The Night, you get a sense as to why this guy was (and probably still is) missed so much. There may be more than a few wrong notes played on this album but there isn't a bad note on it, if you know what I mean. True, it's one of the most 'in your face' albums ever created, and it bows to nobody, but if you're prepared to meet it head on and really listen to it you'll discover why I believe this to be one of the finest albums ever created. Every person that hears it will take away something different from it. Like I said, it's astonishing, but you still need to approach it with caution.

 

NEIL YOUNG AND CRAZY HORSE : Zuma – released November 1975

The rebirth of Crazy Horse, now with Frank 'Poncho' Sampedro taking Danny Whitten's place on guitar. People may mourn the passing of Whitten and look back on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere in awe but there's no denying that Sampedro stepped into his void and created something special. Zuma is a great album. It's loose and sounds like it was recorded on the hoof, which it probably was and it sparkles with energy and life. Made around the time when his marriage to Carrie Snodgrass was failing, Neil's in spiteful, selfish mode. Just take notice of the lyrics in Barstool Blues and Stupid Girl. Zuma is one of Neil's most consistent albums. Through My Sails, with Crosby and Nash on backing vocals seems to be tacked on at the end but every single song on here is one to cherish. From the relaxed, shuffling beat of Don't Cry No Tears through to the amazing Cortez the Killer.  Apparently, Cortez the Killer is cut. It seems that Neil and the band played this take but the reel ran out and had to be changed half way through, thus missing out on a full verse. As soon as they'd finished playing Neil said, "That's it, that's the take!" only to go crazy when he found out about the error. According to legend the song was spliced together from the two reels, thus eliminating the verse and creating the song that we all know and love and is considered to be one of Neil's finest works. Zuma is an essential buy.

 

THE STILLS, YOUNG BAND : Long May You Run – released September 1976

Reuniting with his dear friend and Nemesis, Stephen Stills, Neil followed up Zuma with this album. Apart from the title track, Neil's delightful tribute to his old hearse, Mort, there's not that much to recommend here. It's not bad as such, but following on the heels of what I consider to be the best four back to back albums released by any artist, it has to be seen as a bit of a duffer.


Words and photograph : Damian Leslie