“Heart of Gold – This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” – Neil Young, from the liner notes of his superb greatest hits LP, Decade.
I have been extremely impressed with some of the archival releases we’ve seen over the last few years doing B&V. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful sets we’ve seen from Tom Petty and Prince who both released some great stuff from “the vaults” last year – Tom Petty: ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest – Deluxe Edition (4 CDs)’ – A Petty Masterpiece Lovingly Revisited and Review: Prince, ‘Sign O’ The Times – Deluxe Edition’ – An Embarrassment of Riches respectively. However, with Petty and Prince there’s the sad undercurrent that both artists passed recently in an untimely, surprise fashion which has allowed the guardians of their estates to cull through the archives for those releases. With all due respect to those artists, nobody has an “Archive game” like Neil Young. I love what Springsteen has released over the years, in particular Tracks and all the live vintage concerts he’s released (especially from 1978). Similarly, Dylan’s Bootleg Series has been full of spectacular finds (Dylan’s Bootleg Series – A User’s Guide). All of that has been great, but Neil Young’s archive stuff truly ranks right up there with them, if not above them. The thing that is astounding to me is that all three of those artists – Bruce, Bob and Neil – are still alive to curate the archives which makes it more fascinating. We get their perception and take on their history.
Springsteen has, of late anyway, been focused on releasing vintage concerts in their entirety from 1974 to the 2010s. There are rumors that Tracks 2 is in the works for 2021 in lieu of a tour. Dylan has done that as well, releasing singular concert documents but he’s also released batches of unreleased material usually covering a certain time period in his career. I actually think Neil started all of this with his superb “greatest hits” package Decade from 1977. Neil eschewed any formulaic “greatest hits” record and turned it into a 3-LP vinyl set that was more career retrospective than greatest hits. It culled tunes from almost every LP he’d done up to that point, over the previous decade (hence the name) with the Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, with Crazy Horse and solo. He included deeper albums cuts but more importantly he included a handful of unreleased tracks. I have Decade on vinyl… I bought in college as it seemed like the right place to start my Neil Young collection and I cherish it. I think the make-up of Decade is what inspired Dylan to put out his first box set, the brilliant Biograph, which was made up of hits, deep cuts, unreleased stuff and live tracks… hmmm, sound familiar? And, as I’ve said before, Biograph launched the “box set” industry. It begat Crossroads (Clapton) which begat Storyteller (Rod Stewart)…but perhaps I’m getting off track here. Suffice it to say you wouldn’t have Clapton combining his work with the Yardbirds, John Mayall, Cream and Blind Faith on one big box if Young hadn’t given him the idea on Decade.
There were rumors dating back to the early 80s that Young was going to do Decade II. For years I’d heard he was “working on it.” I think at some point the technology changed and the ability to pack a box set with 10 or 12 CDs appealed to Neil. It allowed him to really dig into telling the retrospective story of his career. Eventually he shelved the whole Decade II project in favor of his Archives series. Eventually he even launched an archive website, https://neilyoungarchives.com, that is simply astounding in the depth and breadth of material. There’s a subscription fee, but if you’re into Neil, it’s worth it. Finally in 2009 Neil released The Archives Vol 1 1963 – 1972. It not only contained discs dedicated to one concert but it also, like Decade, had previously released cuts – “hits” and deep cuts – alongside previously unreleased material. It’s kind of a blended approach of Springsteen (concerts) and Dylan (previously unreleased/released from a specific period) mentioned above. The sound quality is so good it may induce weeping… Vol 1 had stuff from his first band, the Squires…but I was disappointed it didn’t have any material from the Minah Birds, his Motown cover band that featured Rick James. It covered much of the same time period of Decade. I was excited about Vol 1, but in the lead up, he kept releasing live albums and I kept snapping them up (Live At the Fillmore East (with Crazy Horse), Live At Massey Hall and Live At Canterbury House) and when it came out I was surprised and disappointed to see they were all included in the box set. I didn’t want to double buy all of this… (The same thing happened with Vol 2 and I failed to warn people about this to my shame, but I’d forgotten). I was also slightly turned off by all the previously released stuff. I owned all of that already. Vol 1 covered some of Neil’s most popular work including stuff with CSNY and his biggest selling LPs, After the Gold Rush and Harvest. In the end, I chose not to buy Vol 1. The hefty price tag was also an inhibitor at the time.
While it could be argued that Vol 1 was really Neil’s commercial zenith, I was always more attracted to his work in the 70s that came after that. I was eagerly awaiting a Vol 2. Neil is not a man who worries about deadlines so it took 11 years for him to release the next major set, Vol 2. Some of you may be wondering why I’m only writing about this now as the release date was Nov 20th, 2020. Yes he put out Vol 2 last year but it was a limited “collector’s” release of 3000 copies for $250. I love Neil Young, but hey man, even I have a limit. On March 5th he’s actually releasing a more reasonably priced (but still expensive) “retail” version. Only then will everybody have a chance to buy the physical copy or download music from the box set. Seeing the track list, I bit the bullet and purchased the physical copy, which I’m still waiting for but it came with a download. I’ve spent the last two weeks in a Neil Young 1972 to 1976 haze. Vol 2 didn’t cover the 10 year time frame of Vol 1, such was Neil’s huge output in the 70s, it only goes from 72 to 76, but what years those were.
Vol 2 picks up right where Vol 1 left off, the latter half of 1972 right after Harvest. Neil did not react well to the enormous, breakout success of Harvest (Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame), it freaked him out. He formed a band of session musicians in New York to tour behind Harvest. Drummer Kenny Buttrey demanded $100k in payment, to make up for missed sessions and the rest of the band followed suit. Neil said, in the original, deleted liner notes of Decade, “Money hassles among everyone concerned ruined this tour and record for me but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while.” He’d hired Crazy Horse’s guitarist Danny Whitten to join the band – he probably needed a friend in the band – but Whitten was lost to drug addiction and couldn’t pull it together, he couldn’t remember the songs. Neil fired him and a day later Whitten died from mixing booze and valium (not quaaludes as Rolling Stone reported at the time). Neil, freaked out about being a superstar, feeling intense guilt about Whitten and at odds with his backing band made for an… explosive tour. Young had discovered tequila, which even I refuse to drink. Add to that the angst of the death of the ideals of the hippy dream and Nixon’s reelection and it made for a heavy time for Neil. On the tour, instead of an evening of laid back country rock like “Heart of Gold,” Young was rocking out to tracks like “Time Fades Away” with it’s famous opening line, “Fourteen junkies too weak to work…” Naturally Neil brought along a tape recorder and that’s how he recorded the follow up to Harvest, a unique approach.
That’s exactly where Vol 2 starts, with the material from Time Fades Away (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP). It was recorded in 72, released in 73 and it is the first in what is now called “The Ditch Trilogy” based on Neil’s quote (above) from Decade. Neil has never really liked Time Fades Away, and I think it’s telling there’s only really one song from that album on disc 1 of Vol 2. There are a number of unreleased songs on the first disc, subtitled ‘Everybody’s Alone.’ “Letter From Nam” opens the set (a track he redid and released as “Long Walk Home” on Life). He does a great acoustic version of “L.A.,” that perhaps he should have subbed in for the version on the album. “Come Along And Say You Will,” and “Goodbye Christians On The Shore” are two great unreleased tracks. The disc ends with a version of “Human Highway” with Crosby, Stills & Nash from their aborted studio followup to Deja Vu. Supposedly, in 1976 when they made another attempted stab at a new studio album, Neil became frustrated and was said to have erased Crosby & Nash’s backing vocals on this track and the others they recorded… it’s the thing of legend but apparently that’s not true. I have to wonder if there’s been any interest from that camp to try and reassemble that album, which was tentatively titled Human Highway… I can dream. Disc 2 is the previously released concert album from the Time Fades Away tour, Tuscaloosa, reviewed here, LP Review: Neil Young & The Stray Gators’ Live ‘Tuscaloosa’ From the Archives. Including the live album with the unreleased material really gives us a feel for where Neil was as 1972 waned.
Disc 3, subtitled ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is just that – tracks from the album Tonight’s The Night. The angst and despair Neil expressed on this album is irresistible to me. While Time Fades Away and Tonight’s The Night were sort of designed to destroy his commercial standing and the expectations that went with it, they’re still stunning records, favorites amongst his fans. Although they sold abysmally. I’ll willingly admit here that “Albuquerque” and “Roll Another Number” rank among my favorite Young tunes. There is a tasty unreleased track where Joni Mitchell shows up and Neil and the boys play her “Raised On Robbery.” Why it’s here is anybody’s guess. I’m the rare fan whose not crazy about Joni, but I dig the track. Disc 4 keeps the focus on the Tonight’s The Night period with another live concert, Tonight’s The Night Live At The Roxy, Review: Neil Young’s ‘Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live’. While Neil recorded the album in 1973, his record company refused to release it until 1975 but the fans react enthusiastically to all the tunes and Neil almost sounds… happy?
Disc 5, subtitled ‘Walk On’ takes us to 1973-74 and the sessions for the third installment of the Ditch Trilogy, and another of my favorites, On The Beach. He throws in the Decade track “Winterlong” which was recorded at the time but not included on the album. There’s also a great version of the unreleased track “Traces.” Like Tonight’s The Night, this album didn’t sell very well so it makes sense that he’d include most the tracks from the album with this box. There’s always been this feeling that all truly brilliant art comes from pain. I would suggest that this album is proof of that. I like that this disc is entirely dedicated to the sessions for On The Beach. While it’s received a positive critical reevaluation, it’s time it gets a commercial one as well. Again, there isn’t a Neil Young fan worth his salt who doesn’t revere this album.
Disc 6, subtitled ‘The Old Homestead’ focuses on 1974. Neil reunited with Crosby, Stills and Nash for what was at the time the biggest stadium concert tour ever. They spent most of the money they made on coke, but it was a great tour. There are a couple of tracks from the tour here that didn’t make the great live album they put out a few years ago, 1974. For the most part though, this disc is all stuff that Neil recorded by himself with an acoustic guitar or piano. Towards the end we find a reconstituted Crazy Horse with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on second guitar. I love the way Sampedro and Young’s guitars intertwine. This disc may be my favorite, there’s so much unreleased here. Or versions that were unreleased like “Homefires” and “Love/Art Blues.” “L.A. Girls and Ocean Boys,” one of his more famous unreleased songs, about his break up with actress Carrie Snodgress is here as well. Neil goes through all of the emotional hell of the Ditch Trilogy only to find his girlfriend/baby mama has cheated on him and they break up. The guy couldn’t get a break in the 70s but man did it fuel some of his greatest music. None of the solo, acoustic stuff here sounds like a demo, these are fully realized songs.
Disc 7 is the recently released vault album that Neil pulled in favor of releasing Tonight’s The Night entitled Homegrown (Review: Neil Young’s ‘Homegrown’ – The Lost Masterpiece, In The Vaults 45 Years. Again, I don’t know how I didn’t include a warning that this album was going to end up in the next box set when I reviewed it so if I enticed someone to buy an extra copy of the album, I’m sorry. I do love this album and wish it had been released a long time ago… we might be saying Ditch Quartet. Undecided whether to release this album or Tonight’s The Night, Neil played both for a group of friends and on the advice of the Band’s Rick Danko he chose Tonight’s…
Disc 8, subtitled ‘Dume’ focuses on 1975 and the great Zuma album. This was another great record that was a commercial disappointment but it showed signs that Neil was moving on from grief. He’s got Crazy Horse along for the ride on most the tracks. There’s an early version of “Ride My Llama” which eventually appeared on Rust Never Sleeps in a completely different version. Its interesting to hear tracks that were released later in different forms. Every session for each album has a distinct sound and the songs that are recorded and rerecorded tend to take on the sound of the sessions for which the versions are recorded which is an interesting glimpse into Neil’s creative process. Another “famous” unreleased track, “Born To Run” is here… no, it’s not Springsteen’s track. An early version of “Powderfinger” is here. I like the Rust version better, it’s truly definitive. There’s a full band version of “Pocahontas” here and again I think the acoustic version is definitive. I think Neil generally makes the right decision as to when a song is finally right. Zuma is at heart a break up album with tracks like “Drive Back,” “Pardon My Heart” and “Stupid Girl.” Neil was moving on from grief but it appears he chose anger as his next predominant emotion.
Disc 9, subtitled ‘Look Out For My Love’ is another great collection of songs. Many stem from the Stills-Young album. There are versions of the tracks I mentioned above, that have Crosby and Nash singing harmonies that Neil legendarily purportedly erased, notably “Ocean Girl,” “Human Highway” (again) and “Midnight On the Bay.” I have to admit, I like these versions even more than the ones that Neil released with Stills. “Like A Hurricane” one of Neil’s most epic guitar jams is here…recorded but unreleased until 1977. There are a number of tracks who wouldn’t see the light of day until Comes A Time. It’s another favorite disc in this collection of 10 CDs of music.
Disc 10, the final disc, subtitled ‘Odeon Budokan’ is a live album of sorts. The first half, all acoustic Neil, recorded at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. The second half, with Crazy Horse and full on rocking, was recorded in Budokan, Japan. I love all live Neil and I think this music has been widely bootlegged. I was glad it was included but couldn’t help but wish that maybe Neil would have included an additional disc of studio stuff… 1977, anyone?
I’ll admit you have to be a bit of a Neil Young fanatic to dive into this 10 disc boxset, but man is it rewarding. It’s an immersive way to get into and understand Neil as an artist from 1972 to 1976. I highly recommend this set to any Neil fan but to hose who are more novice Neil fans, this is a way to learn about him. To me it’s his most tumultuous, rawly emotional period but also one of his most rewarding. While I love his Gold Rush/Harvest stuff, I guess I’m just more fascinated in the ditch… you really do meet more interesting people there. I can’t wait until Vol 3 where we’ll ride out the 70s and the dawn of the 80s…
Stay safe and more importantly stay warm. If you’re in Texas, my thoughts are with you.