Archival Release: Neil Young, 1989’s ‘El Dorado – EP’ Originally Only Released In Japan & Australia

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I just saw that Neil Young has recently released a curious artifact from his vaunted Archives. It looks like he finally released the Eldorado EP. I guess I should say “re-released” the EP. It was originally released in April of 1989 but only in a limited release and only in Japan and Australia. One has to wonder if Young was touring that part of the world at the time and needed to get something out for the fans to buy. I don’t know why he would have held the EP back from general release, but hey, it’s Neil Young. I don’t know if the recent decision to release Eldorado was tied to Record Store Day but I suspect it was. For years I’ve been hearing about El Dorado in hushed and reverent tones. People talk about it on music forums like it’s a well known part of the canon. While I’d heard of it, I’d never actually heard it – which I’m sure it was heavily bootlegged – or even knew what tracks were on it. I just knew that there was some overlap between the EP Eldorado released in April of 1989 and Neil’s great comeback LP Freedom which was released in October of 1989.

Thinking back on 1989 I realize for those of us who came of rock n roll age in the late 70s, the 80s were a tough time to become a Neil Young fan. I won’t say it was easy to become a Neil Young fan in the 70s but it was certainly easier. If you were 10 or 15 years older than I was, it would have been a natural thing to get on Neil’s bandwagon. He had the rock pedigree – he’d been a founding member of the Buffalo Springfield, launched a solo career, teamed up with his on-again/off-again backing band Crazy Horse and then joined Crosby Stills & Nash to become CSNY. In the early 70s he released some of his most popular, accessible work like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After The Gold Rush and Harvest. While the Ditch Trilogy (Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night) may not have been as commercially successful as his earlier solo stuff those albums are still counted amongst his greatest works. If you were a fan you likely dug those albums.

If you started listening to rock n roll in the late 70s or early 80s, you started listening to what was then current. It was harder to get on Neil’s bandwagon at that point. Comes A Time was a great album but you didn’t hear a lot of mellow Neil on the radio in my hometown. You were probably under the impression that “Lotta Love” was a Nicolette Larson song. You might occasionally hear “Like A Hurricane” or “Cortez The Killer” on the radio but Neil never caught my attention. I heard the common complaints, “his music is a bummer,” or “he can’t sing” (much like I used to hear about Dylan). Sadly, I probably fell into that trap. I’ll admit, Young’s album most influenced by punk, Rust Never Sleeps did catch my ear. I really dug “Powderfinger” and “Pocahontas” even if I couldn’t always follow the lyrics. “Hey Hey, My My” was a guitar freakout that I liked. I remember Billy Joel on 20/20 at the time complaining that his songwriting was too complex and he played “Hey Hey, My My” on the piano as an example of something simple yet catchy. I don’t know if he was making fun of Neil but knowing Billy, probably. While at that point, still in high school, I began to think more highly of Neil, I still wasn’t on the bandwagon. It was hard in the late 70s or early 80s to jump on that bandwagon despite Rust Never Sleeps and the accompanying concert movie that always seemed to be at the midnight movies with Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same playing in the next theater.

His next few albums, Hawks And Doves and Re*ac*tor both slipped by without me noticing. The years when I was graduating high school and going off to college – years of great musical expansion in terms of my collection and awareness – the bottom dropped out for Neil. Trans was (and remains for me) unlistenable, Everybody’s Rockin’ was a rockabilly album and Old Ways was gasp, country. Not a good time to jump on anybody’s bandwagon. Although I remember an ex roommate dropping by a party I was having at my parents house after he’d been to see Neil on the Everybody’s Rockin’ tour and he raved. Still I was unmoved.

Then a very fortunate thing happened for me. I met a guy named Drew who turned me onto a bunch of great music that included Neil Young. Before I knew it I owned Decade a three LP greatest hit retrospective that I believe set the stage for the box set cottage industry. In college I became very backwards focused. Rather than just listening to what was current, I began to dig deeper into the back catalogs of bands I liked. It was the 80s but I was focused on bands from the 60s and the 70s. I knew more about the Faces and Led Zeppelin than I did about Motley Crue or Def Leppard. They were fine bands who ironically I discovered 10 or 15 years after their heyday. Since college, I’m always busy looking in the rearview mirror instead of at what is current. I’ll probably be bragging about listening to Cage The Elephant in like a decade. I went from lukewarm on Neil to very into him. I devoured his back catalog but wanted something more, something current. Around this time he released Landing On Water. I bought it used and quickly sold it back to them. I began to consign Neil to the annals of history in terms of being a viable act.

But as Neil often does, there began to be signs of life. I’m one of the few people who really dug his reunion LP with Crazy Horse in 1987 Life. Yes, I’m that guy at the all night party back then urging someone to put on “Inca Queen.” It was after that album he left Geffen Records who had sued him for “purposely making un-commercial music,” and re joined Reprise (a label founded by Sinatra by the way). His first LP for Reprise was a blues genre exercise, complete with a horn section, This Notes For You. I loved that record and I know I’m the only one who did. That album came out in 1988 and it seems Neil was finally done with genre exercises and pissing off his record company. He was ready to record a real album. A real Neil Young album.

It’s hard to overstate what a great comeback 1989’s Freedom was for Neil Young. It was certainly the best album he’d done since Rust Never Sleeps. The album was book ended with an acoustic and electric version of a song (just like Rust) “Rockin’ In The Free World.” The electric version is one of his greatest songs. It was eclectic but this time in a good way. “Crime In The City” and “Someday” – both great songs – were left overs from This Notes For You complete with horns. “Crime In The City” is a great, gritty epic track. “Someday” is an oddly worded hopeful track. “Too Far Gone” was a beautiful ballad that dated back to his aborted LP Chrome Dreams in the 70s. The album is a combination of rockers and quieter acoustic numbers. Linda Ronstadt shows up to sing harmony on “Hangin’ On A Limb” a track about a seemingly doomed love affair and “The Ways of Love” another beautiful acoustic track. This is not only one of Neil’s best albums, it’s one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded.

Which all leads me to this previously limited release EP, Eldorado. It came out six months prior and was perhaps meant to be a teaser for the upcoming Freedom. It’s credited to Neil & “the Restless,” Chad Cromwell on drums and Rick “The Bass Player” Rosas. I’m delighted to see it finally released, but then I’m a completest. Two of the five songs, “On Broadway” a cover song and the title track of the EP, “Eldorado” were both put on Freedom exactly as they are here. There is a third track, “Don’t Cry” that ended up on Freedom as well, albeit edited. “Don’t Cry” was always a creepy, harrowing breakup song to me. It’s about a guy who helps his girlfriend pack her stuff and take it to the car. “Don’t cry my sweet girl, nothing I say is written in stone.” The narrator is hedging his bets. The thing that made this song feel somewhat menacing was Neil’s freak out guitar work. He’s singing in a reassuring manner but pounding out notes on the guitar. It’s all very dissonant. It’s a great song but man what he does to his guitar strings should be illegal. Apparently at the insistence of Niko Bolas who produced Freedom and Frank Sampedro, Neil’s erstwhile guitarist in Crazy Horse, Neil agreed to edit out about 45 seconds of his guitar fury on the song. So the version on Freedom is slightly different than what you find on Eldorado.

Why the interest in Eldorado if three of it’s five songs are repeated (basically) the same on Freedom? There are two tracks that didn’t make Freedom and have never been released before. Again, I’m a completest but I really like these two unearthed tracks. The first track on the EP is the unreleased “Cocaine Eyes” and it’s just a great, lost Neil Young rock song. It’s an anti drug song but unlike “The Needle And The Damage Done” this song rawks. “Ain’t a day goes by, I don’t burn a little bit of my soul.” I think its about overcoming an addiction to coke, but then it’s vague enough to make you wonder if the guy actually got past cocaine. “You lost the race once again, my old friend.” Maybe he’s talking to Crosby? The guitar solo at the end is a slashing, classic Young solo. The other previously unreleased track is “Heavy Love.” It’s another great galloping rocker of a song. “Inside your head I’m singing, inside your heart I dig for more.” The song ends with a loud crash of drums or what may be Neil pounding on the strings. It just sounds like something is exploding…  If I’d have heard either of these songs – prior to hearing and loving Freedom – I’d have probably been ready to proclaim that Neil was back!

I will warn you before you run out and buy this EP, it will probably be included in Neil’s supposedly upcoming Archives III. Before Archvies I came out I bought several of Neil’s live LPs that ended up in the box set. I was pissed about that. I figured why get the box, I own half of it already? While I did purchase a few of the discs that were included in Archives II, at least this time I went in with my eyes open. I would definitely recommend everyone check out the two newly released tracks and if you haven’t done so, for the love of all that is holy, please pick up Freedom at your earliest opportunity. Trust me.

Cheers!

Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Second Great LP In A Row, ‘Barn’

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“So, welcome back, welcome back
It’s not the same
The shade is just you blinking”

– Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “Welcome Back”

I’ve never been one who is known for his Christmas spirit. At one point, some might have even called me a “Grinch.” I like to think I’ve gotten better about it since the Rock Chick, er “Mrs. Claus,” came along. I’ll tell you one thing, there’s nothing that makes me feel better and perhaps more festive than a great rock and roll band like Neil Young and Crazy Horse putting out an amazing new album, Barn. It’s all I’ve been listening to this week and let me say, Neil is on a roll.

It’s amazing to think that Neil first recorded an album with Crazy Horse – Danny Whitten, guitar; Ralph Molina, drums; and Billy Talbot, bass – in 1969. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was a complete change of direction from Neil Young’s solo debut the Buffalo Springfield-ish Neil Young. It had his first real hit, the great riff-rock tune “Cinnamon Girl.” The  album featured a couple of Neil’s most famous, long guitar work outs. “Down By The River” was over 9 minutes long. “Cowgirl In The Sand” was over 10. I think that album was the one that has always made me feel in my gut when I see Crazy Horse, there’s gonna be some loud guitar. When I was exiled to Arkansas after college, I used to play the title track, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” at top volume. Man, I hated it there… met some great people though. 

Rather than follow up the successful Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with another album with Crazy Horse, Neil joined Crosby Stills and Nash (creatively renamed Crosby Stills Nash and Young) for Deja Vu. Neil has followed his muse where ever it has taken him in terms of collaborations. The CSNY thing didn’t last, in terms of recording albums together anyway, and Neil was soon doing solo albums. For his next solo record, After The Gold Rush Neil still used members of Crazy Horse (although it was not a Crazy Horse LP) and he brought in a hot shot young guitarist Nils Lofgren who he promptly had play…piano. Neil would continue on with his solo career without doing anything formal with Crazy Horse for several years. On their own, Crazy Horse did put out a great debut LP, Crazy Horse. I think part of the reason Neil didn’t reunite with Crazy Horse during that period was Danny Whitten’s decline into addiction. In 1972 Whitten became a drug casualty and it fueled some of Neil’s darkest work.

It wasn’t until 1975’s Zuma that we saw an official “Neil Young & Crazy Horse” LP from these guys. By then they’d replaced Whitten with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar. I don’t think they could have found a more perfect replacement for Whitten, in terms of his chemistry on guitar with Neil. Neil said he hired Poncho because he had really killer weed which seems to be a good reason to hire a guy in a band. They continued that guitar “workout” tradition with songs like “Cortez the Killer.” Young always said he just played better guitar with Crazy Horse. “Like A Hurricane” certainly springs to mind as an example…

Neil would continue to work with Crazy Horse off and on through the early 80s. He’d do an album with them, then off to the Stills-Young Band, then back to Crazy Horse, then a completely solo thing. He stopped working with them for a while in the mid-80s, his creative nadir. It’s perhaps no coincidence that he’d hit his low point because he’d gotten away from that Crazy Horse base. Finally in 1987 he did reunite with Crazy Horse for Life, which should have made my list, B&V’s True Confessions: The Dirty Dozen – 12 Albums That Only I Love… Time to Re-Evaluate?. It wasn’t until 1990’s masterwork Ragged Glory that Neil rediscovered the power and the glory of Crazy Horse. Everyone should own that album. From then on he’d work with Crazy Horse about like he did in the 70s, he’d bring them in every other album.

But then after 2003’s Greendale (a tour I mistakenly took the Rock Chick to) Neil and Crazy Horse drifted apart again. The theatrical nature of that Greendale show was not the concert to try and turn a person on to Neil Young but I digress. It wasn’t until 2012 that we’d see another Young LP featuring Crazy Horse. To make up for lost time they put out two LPs that year, Americana and then Psychedelic Pill. There are many who complain that Psychedelic Pill suffered from Young’s inability to edit and many lament the loss of his long time producer David Briggs who could have curbed Neil’s proclivity for long songs, but I loved it. “Driftin’ Back” was almost a half an hour. The Grateful Dead would envy that guitar jam. “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like A Giant” were both over 16 minutes long. If you like squalling, loud guitar jams, I’ve got your LP for you.

After Psychedelic Pill, it seemed it might be over for Crazy Horse. Neil started doing albums and tours with the Promise of the Real guys. Sampedro actually up and retired. I sort of drifted away from Neil’s new music and started focusing on his archives. But just when I thought it was over, Nils Lofgren to the rescue. In 2019 Neil pulled Crazy Horse back together. Joining Neil, Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums) would be erstwhile sidekick Nils Lofgren on guitar and yes, piano. Nils had some time off from his gig as Springsteen’s E-Street Band’s “most over qualified second guitarist.” The resulting LP, Colorado was the first new Young music that I connected with since, well, Psychedelic Pill. I called that album a good Neil Young album but maybe not a great one. Having gone back and listened to the whole thing this week, I think I was too reserved. It’s a great record.

For the first time, maybe ever, Neil has returned to working with Crazy Horse for a second album in a row, the new Barn. This is a really great album. I expected some real guitar fireworks between Neil and Nils when they did Colorado, and there was some of that, but I think Nils helps bring more structure to Crazy Horse than Sampedro did. He plays piano and even accordion and provides Neil with the perfect backdrop instead of that old jam until we get tired ethos. As was the case with Colorado, the topic foremost on Neil’s mind is the environment and the climate crisis we all face. Some might say he’s becoming more strident, but I think of it as Young being more urgent in his songwriting as the situation merits it. He also sprinkles in love songs to show there is hope. Neil’s nickname, for his vocal delivery has always been Shakey. I think at this stage you could change that to Craggy but as I said on the last LP, if you’re complaining about Neil’s voice at this stage you’re probably not a fan anyway.

While guitar jams are what you think of with Crazy Horse, the LP opens with the first single, the beautiful acoustic hymn for the environment “Song of the Seasons.” I love that Nils plays accordion on this song. Although it’s been said that the definition of a gentleman is a person who knows how to play accordion but chooses not to… I reviewed that song when it came out, see the link above, so I won’t go into it. “They Must Be Lost” is another great acoustic track with that signature Neil harmonica. There are a couple of great country-rock vibe tracks that I dug. “Shape of You” is the first of those and it has a rolling, lilt to it. It’s a groovy love song. “Tumblin’ Through The Years” mines that same field and may be one of my favorite tracks. I may have to include some of this on my “Rockers Going Country” playlist.

I love that acoustic, country rock style stuff, but fear not there is plenty of rock n roll guitar here. “Heading West” is a great riff rock travelogue song. I can feel the movement west in the song. It feels like you’re riding in a car or a train. “Change Ain’t Never Gonna” is a great State of the Union protest song. Nils plays a barrel house piano on that one. “Canerican” is Neil’s personal statement and is a very garage rock style song. “Human Race” is my favorite of the harder rocking songs. It’s all squalling guitars and ominous warnings about the climate. “The human race is run…” The centerpiece of this album, for me, is the song quoted above, “Welcome Back.” It’s a 8 and half minutes long. It’s Neil squealing out guitar notes over sparse backing. It has that haunted feeling that tracks on Tonight’s The Night had. Neil sings in a lower register, like a man who is delivering bad news. It’s a gripping, epic tune and that guitar raises goosebumps on my arms. It’s like Cassandra on the beach, issuing a warning that is ignored.

The album ends with “Don’t Forget Love,” a hopeful note. It’s like a message to remember as you’re around family for Xmas and your older relative mutters something fascist, or your hippy college cousin utters something socialist, rather than get mad, remember that we’re all family and we all love each other…or we used to anyway. It may sound a little 60s in attitude, but maybe we could all use a little of that these days.

Barn is simply put, one of the best records of 2021. I highly recommend everyone checks this one out. It’s the kind of LP that B&V was founded to extol. I hope everybody has a great holiday season – whatever holiday you choose to celebrate, or bemoan in my case. It’ll be another quiet one here at B&V but I get to see my daughter for a few days and that makes everything better.

Happy Holidays and as always, Cheers! (If you’re celebrating, remember, don’t drink and drive folks. Even I follow that rule).

Neil Young & Crazy Horse Return With New Song, “Song Of The Seasons,” From the Upcoming ‘Barn’ LP

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*Image taken from the internet and likely copyrighted…

I can’t really say that I benefited from the whole “lockdown” thing. I thought perhaps it would be a chance for me to get into some kind of physical shape. I could take the time off the road, a small break in my itinerant professional life and I don’t know, start jogging. Maybe I’d lift weights for that super toned and “cut” body. There were plenty of projects I could have taken on. Perhaps I could have gone all arts and crafts-y with a nice scrap-booking project. I could have, for once and for all, conquered my insomnia. I might have taken up juggling, archery or fencing. Maybe I could have finally put in that sewing room for the Rock Chick… although she doesn’t sew and has no interest in the textile arts. Sadly, none of that really happened for me. I ended up just sitting around the house drinking whiskey and listening to rock n roll. I’ll certainly never describe that time the way Mellencamp (with Springsteen) sang recently as “Wasted Days.” There’s nothing wrong with listening to rock n roll.

One guy who seems to have put his lockdown time to good use is Neil Young. Man, that guy has been busy. I recommend everybody check out his Archive site, https://neilyoungarchives.com/, the guy is putting out all kinds of music over there. It’s a wonderfully curated look at Neil’s entire career. He’s put out a number of great live albums recently both solo acoustic and with his once and future backing band, Crazy Horse. He was finally able to sit down and concentrate on finishing the epic, 10-disc Archives Vol. 2. I was delighted to finally get my hands on that. Truly a highlight of the year. While it took him eleven years between Archives Vol 1 and Archives Vol 2 he’s saying on his website that he was able to focus during the lockdown and will actually be releasing Archives Vol 3 in 2022. Neil has promised releases in the past, so we’ll all have to wait and see…

More exciting perhaps (for me) is that Neil announced a while back that he was releasing an LP of new material this year. Due in December this year, the new album Barn once again sees Neil teaming with Crazy Horse. As I’ve mentioned in these pages before, like Eric Clapton (Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Cream, Derek & the Dominos), Young has played in a lot of different bands. I had forgotten that one of his earliest bands was the Mynah Birds with Rick James on lead vocals. They played Motown style stuff. I had known about that but had forgotten it completely until I saw the recent Rick James documentary. Strange bedfellows indeed… Neil of course went on to play with Stephen Stills in both the Buffalo Springfield and CSN (Y). He then began his solo career with a number of different backing bands: Crazy Horse, The Stray Gators, and the Bluenotes to name but a few.

Crazy Horse has always been my favorite of Neil Young’s bands. As Neil himself has said, “I just play better guitar with Crazy Horse.” Crazy Horse actually began as a band named The Rockets until Young stole most of the band away and dubbed them with the new Crazy Horse moniker. They were: Ralph Molina on drums, Billy Talbot on bass and Danny Whitten on guitar. Sadly Whitten passed away from mixing valium and booze… Whitten was eventually replaced by Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar. Jack Nitzsche played piano with them for a while and guitar virtuoso Nils Lofgren has been in and out of Crazy Horse over the years. I’m not sure Young has ever had a guitar foil quite like Sampedro. Poncho would lock down the rhythm and Neil would play some of the most soaring solos. Sadly, a few years back Sampedro announced his retirement.

Over the last 8 or 9 years Neil had released a number of middling albums. I just couldn’t connect with them. Really, Psychedelic Pill with Crazy Horse in 2012 was the last LP that actually caught my attention. As has been pointed out by a few of my readers, that album could have probably benefited from some editing by Neil’s late producer David Briggs… Although I dug the 27 minute opening track… In 2019 Young surprised me by pulling Crazy Horse back together to record Colorado. In even better news, Nils Lofgren who had been playing with the E Street Band for many years was going to join Crazy Horse again to replace the retired Sampedro. I thought that was going to be even more of a guitar freak out… but it turns out Nils actually provided more musical structure than guitar foil. Colorado, to me, seemed to be a great little meditation on the environment. It wasn’t a great Crazy Horse album like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere but it was certainly a really good one.

I was delighted to see that Neil’s upcoming record Barn turned out to be another Crazy Horse LP. Neil is such a musical nomad he rarely uses the same band twice. Once again he’s backed by his old pals Molina, Talbot and Lofgren. The new song is called “Song of the Seasons.” Much like on Colorado, Nils isn’t playing guitar on this track, he’s playing… of all things… an accordion. I told the Rock Chick – who it must be noted is neither a Neil Young, Nils Lofgren, Springsteen or accordion fan – that Nils was playing accordion and not guitar and she said, “Nobody uses Nils the correct way Nils should be used,” nodding her head. I can’t lie, the accordion actually makes the track.

The track starts with some of Neil’s iconic harmonica work… it almost reminds me of the Young classic “Old Man.” Then the acoustic guitars start strumming and Nils’ accordion comes in. Neil’s voice sounds a little fragile. Like much of what Neil focuses on these days in terms of subject matter on “Song of the Seasons” his concern is the environment and Mother Nature. I dig the sentiment of the opening stanza, “Looking through a wavy glass window, In this old place by the lake, And the colors of the falling leaves I see nature makes no mistake.” It feels like autumn in this song, I almost feel I need a sweater. And yet, as with most things Neil it’s more complicated than all that. There’s a love story woven through the song… “Song of the seasons coming through me now, like the wind in your hair, we’re so together in the way that we feel we could end up anywhere.” I feel that way about the Rock Chick… He even has a nice word for the Queen and her late husband. It’s just this beautiful acoustic, down home mediation where Neil can see the whole world from his rustic front porch. The track lasts over six minutes but the melody is so addictive that you’ll think it was too short. I hear this and feel like there’s a fire in the fireplace and sawdust on the floor… maybe a few cold beers open on the table…

I really dig this tune, it pulled me out of my Beatles’ Let It Be Super Deluxe trance I’ve been in and I knew I needed to share. I’d love to hear one of those good ol’ guitar blasting epic tracks that Neil was known for with Crazy Horse. God knows, Nils is a great guitarist for him to play against. But I also love acoustic Neil. My favorite song from Colorado was the opening track, the acoustic strummer “Think of Me.” This track reminds me a little of that but that folksy accordion, with the acoustic guitar and harmonica just move this little lilting track along. It’s a great song and fills me with a lot of excitement for the upcoming Barn. It’s Neil Young. It’s Crazy Horse… with Nils. What could go wrong?

Cheers!

Review: Neil Young, ‘Archives Vol. 2 (1972 – 1976)’ – An Epic Deep Dive Into The Ditch Trilogy And Beyond

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“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 covered the period that 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 follow up that covered the mid 70sNeil 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 singing backup 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 those 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 being 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.

Review: Neil Young’s ‘Homegrown’ – The Lost Masterpiece, In The Vaults 45 Years

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It was a little too personal…it scared me.” – Neil Young on not releasing Homegrown

While I’m like most of you out there – a huge music fan – there is something about the inner music geek in me that gets really pumped for the release of a “lost album.” By lost album I mean a record that an artist has recorded and for whatever reason decided to keep in the vault instead of release to the public. There’s a lot of reasons for shelving an album that’s already “in the can,” as the saying goes. Usually it’s the record company… the dreaded suits. It almost always gives the unreleased record an enormous amount of mystique. Ryan Adams completed Love Is Hell and when his record company refused to release it the word on the street was that it was “too dark.” Naturally that led the music geeks and Ryan Adams’ fans to clamor for its release…too dark, yes please! The record company finally relented and it was released. It’s a really good record… but uh, I’ve heard darker albums. Put on Big Star’s third album if you want bleak.

Typically an artist (or a band) will gather to write and record a group of songs. When they have enough tunes or perhaps better said, a cohesive group of songs, they release an album and go on tour. Rinse, repeat. There are those artists who are so prolific they record more than enough songs for the album. They record until the creative well is dry before stopping and going on tour. They pick the best tracks and leave the rest in the vault or save them for the next album. The aforementioned Ryan Adams is merely one of those type of artists. There are several others like Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young who had such an overflowing creative font that they have vast amounts of unreleased music. All of that unheard music leaves the music geek in me wondering… what’s going on in that vault and how do I get in there to listen? I’ll bring my own beer… These deep and full vaults are what bootleggers live for.

While there are many artists with a ton of unreleased tracks in their vaults it’s still a bit more rare for an artist to go through the entire creative process to record a full album – finished production and completed down to the track listing – and then rescind the record. Springsteen sent a single disc version of The River to the record company and changed his mind and pulled it back. While most of those songs got on the final 2-LP album, the original single disc version was still of interest because of the unreleased track “Cindy” and the rockabilly version of “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch).” Prince pulled The Black Album and released the tepid Lovesexy. The Black Album, which was eventually released, was purportedly too X-rated to be released. It was widely bootlegged and finally saw release.

While pulling back an entire LP is rare, I would have to say the king of recording an entire album only to put it on the shelf is Neil Young. He’s got more unreleased full albums than any artist you can name: Chrome Dreams, Toast with Crazy Horse, Homefires, and Oceanside Countryside to mention but a few. Finally, through his superb Neil Young Archives, he’s started releasing some of these albums. The famous Hitchhiker recorded in 1976 just came out in 2017 (LP Review: Neil Young’s Album From His Vault, ‘Hitchhiker’). It seems at long last one of Neil’s most famous unreleased albums, 1975’s Homegrown has been released after 45 years of sitting in the vault. It was worth the wait.

Now as a “warning label” I have to echo a comment I got a few weeks ago on my post on the first single “Try” (New Single: Neil Young’s “Try” From the Long Awaited Vault LP, ‘Homegrown’), from a reader, “Introgroove.” Neil is about to release his second box set of vault material, Archives, Vol. 2 in late summer/early fall. He’s teased the release of this follow-up to 2009’s Archives, Vol 1 for quite a while, so we’ll see if it comes out… As a warning, some of these archival releases are probably going to be included in Archive Vol 2. During the build up to Vol 1, Neil released a series of previously unreleased live LPs which I snapped up. When Vol 1 came out I was crestfallen to find that all 3 LPs I’d purchased (including Live At Massey Hall, Live At the Fillmore East with Crazy Horse, and Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury Hall) were all in there. I wasn’t going to buy them twice. We’re 11 years down the line and I’m willing to take the leap for the studio stuff, but I wanted everyone to know these will probably be in the box set if you want to wait. The inner music geek in me won this current argument and I’ve been turning up Homegrown since last Thursday.

Homegrown has a storied history. It was recorded toward the end of Young’s darkest period marked by the three albums known as “the Ditch Trilogy.” Hearing Homegrown makes me wonder if we’re going to need to recalibrate that to The Ditch Foursome. Neil became a world wide superstar after the release of his landmark country-rock album Harvest. Neil didn’t react very well to his new found fame. He hired a band of mostly session musicians who he didn’t get along with, took them on the road, turned it up loud and recorded his next album, the first of the Ditch Trilogy, Time Fades Away (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP). Prior to the tour, he had to fire guitarist Danny Whitten, his only friend in the band, because Whitten’s drug use was out of control. A day later, Whitten was dead from a lethal combination of drugs and booze. Young was guilt-ridden and depressed… and he did what artists do, he turned his grief and anger into music… while drinking a ton of tequila. I avoid tequila. I’m either gonna fight you or kiss you when I’m on tequila… and possibly both at the same time…

It’s been said that the Ditch Trilogy was a reaction to his new found fame and his inability to deal with that success. It was certainly also a chronicle of the personal problems he was going through including but not exclusive to Whitten’s death. In many ways the music could also be seen as a metaphor for the angst felt by the 60s generation as they watched their ideals and idealism slowly die away as the greed and narcissism of the 70s took over. The greatest artists always seem to be an antenna for what’s going on in the world (subconsciously or not) and one has to wonder if Young was just overly tuned into that.

In ’73 Young recorded the masterpiece Tonight’s the Night but the record company didn’t want to release it. It is a truly bleak record but I love it. In early 1974 he released On the Beach which isn’t much more cheerful. That summer he went on tour with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for a stadium reunion tour. At the end of ’74 and early ’75 he recorded what would become Homegrown. The album is all about the end of his relationship with Carrie Snodgress who’d inspired many of his great songs including “A Man Needs A Maid.” They’d had a child together, Zeke. But things had finally ended and Neil recorded Homegrown to chronicle his heartbreak. At the last minute, Young pulled Homegrown and decided to release Tonight’s the Night instead. I’ve heard two stories on why he made that decision: a) he had a listening party and people liked Tonight’s the Night better or b) Rick Danko of the Band told him he should release Tonight’s the Night instead of Homegrown. I can’t imagine a group of people at a listening party picking the former so my money is on the Danko story. Neil has always said Homegrown was “too personal” to be released.

Homegrown then sat in the vaults for 45 years. For once we can say that Neil was holding on to a true masterpiece. Even on the first listen this record had the feeling of an instant classic. That may be because we’ve heard some of these tracks before as Neil put many of them out on other records “as is” or slightly altered. “Homegrown” rerecorded with Crazy Horse and “Star of Bethlehem” (as is) both came out on American Stars N Bars. “Love Is a Rose” came out on the compilation album Decade. “Little Wing” came out on Hawks And Doves. I really like hearing these songs in this album setting which is what Neil originally intended. Making Homegrown, for me, an essential Neil Young album.

The break up theme is established immediately on the opening track “Separate Ways.” It’s a mellow, acoustic track that reminds me of “Out On the Weekend.” Levon Helm of the Band plays drums on this track and he’s just extraordinary. “We go our separate ways lookin’ for better days sharin’ our little boy who grew from joy back then…” Heartrending stuff. The next track, “Try” strikes a more hopeful tone and has quotes from Snodgress’ quirky mother throughout. “Mexico” is a stark ballad set to piano, where Neil tells his son goodbye as now he’s a “travelin’ man.” “Love Is A Rose” sounds like a sweet ballad but really is a “swearing off love” song. “Little Wing” and “Star of Bethlehem” make more sense as the last two tracks on this album vs the way they were sort of tossed onto other LPs. “Kansas” is a short, acoustic song where Neil seems to be singing to a groupie with whom he’s sought some comfort. As someone who was a fool for love and suffered through more than what I consider my fair share of breakups, I’m knocked out that Neil could put almost a full album worth of heartbreak together and make it so emotionally affecting. (Or is it effecting? I never know…)

There are lighter moments. The title track, an ode to growing your own pot isn’t as heavy as the version on Stars N Bars and has a more rustic feel here. “We Don’t Smoke It” is a bluesy vamp of a track… I’m sure it’s fun to hear live. “Vacancy” is probably the heaviest rockin’ tune on the album but it does carry that break up theme. It’s the one angry moment in a collection of classic Neil laments. “I look in your eyes and I don’t know what’s there.” He goes on to sing, “You come through in the weirdest ways.” True frustration seeps into the core of that song. “White Line” a track that was rerecorded with electric guitars by Crazy Horse is acoustic here with a fantastic bit of guitar work by the Band’s Robbie Robertson. You forget how virtuoso all those guys in the Band were. I love this quieter version of the track.

The only track here that should have been left off is “Florida.” It’s a weird fever dream of a song. Its a spoken word piece where Neil rambles about hang gliders in a downtown area of a city in Florida… maybe Miami? As he’s speaking someone is dragging a wet finger over the rim of a glass. While I don’t dig it, my wife’s cat got up, meowed at me and left the room when it came on… I think he hates it and he’s pretty open-minded. I can’t imagine dogs liking that track either. Including “Florida” here just gives us a snapshot of where Neil’s head was at back then. He would soon come out of his funk with the release of Zuma in 1975. Although with tracks like “Stupid Girl” and “Drive Back” perhaps by Zuma his grief had merely morphed to anger.

I’m certainly glad we got this important document from one of Neil’s darkest and yet most interesting periods. Somehow as we all face these current heavy times, it makes me feel better to get this dark little postcard from Neil…like the post office just discovered it and finally all these years later delivered it. It’s as if it’s saying to me, it was dark back then but it got better. It always gets better… it can’t get worse?

Be safe out there. Wear your masks. Cheers!

 

 

B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums

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“Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved, See my heart I decorate it like a grave” – Alice In Chains, “Down In A Hole”

A few weeks ago I posted a playlist about heroin, entitled “Chasing the Dragon,” B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin. When I was compiling that playlist I ended up thinking a lot about Alice In Chains and their best album Dirt. Yes, I’m with everybody else in thinking that Jar of Flies was their creative peak, but that was an EP like Sap (another great bit of music), not a full blown album. When doing a playlist about heroin it’s hard not to think about Alice In Chains and their late lead singer Layne Staley who died of an overdose. When I put that list together I realized that I had put not one but two Alice In Chains tracks on it, both from Dirt. I really dug those two tracks on the playlist, “God Smack” and “Junkman.” I hadn’t listened to that whole album in quite a long time and so with those two tunes bouncing around my skull, I had to put it on. I love that record, but I realized about halfway through…this is an unrelentingly dark album. Why they didn’t just name it Smack I’ll never know.

It slowly began to dawn on me, I really like music on that dark edge. It wasn’t always that way. When I first started listening to rock and roll on KY/102 and then later when I started actually buying and consuming music, my tastes ran to the more upbeat. I wanted something that “RAWKED!” Van Halen, Boston and ZZ Top were amongst my early purchases. I wanted that good time, party music. I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to listen to anything acoustic. I think most of my friends’ musical tastes ran in that same direction. We were all young, testosterone driven maniacs. What’s that phrase, “young, dumb and full of cum.” My friend Drew and I used to joke that our pal Matthew’s record collection when he got to college was all heavy metal with one Fleetwood Mac album thrown in. His fixation on Kiss back then still baffles me. For my  part, heavy metal did play a big part in all of my early listening from Black Sabbath and Judas Priest to AC/DC.

I have to admit, looking back, that even then I was a sucker for a good ballad. I would have never admitted to liking sad songs back then… no, no, give me songs about chicks with a guitar solo. My first Springsteen album purchase was The River and while I loved “The Ties That Bind,” “I’m A Rocker” and “Out In The Street,” I was really, really into “Drive All Night.” The mellow tunes drew me to that album as deeply as the rockers. It’s hard to explain. You could say I was always secretly drawn to great lyrics, hence my early interest in Dylan, but I don’t think that tells the whole story. I was that odd person who could relate to songs about broken hearts and sad endings to relationships before I’d even kissed a girl let alone had a girlfriend. Maybe I was slightly depressed as a kid and thus I had this feeling that my heart was already broken from a very early age. No one ever really wants to share the dark parts of themselves, especially when you’re young. There are just some of us who feel things more deeply and life itself can break your heart sometimes…

In college I started to branch out in terms of musical tastes and that’s when I started to buy some of the darker music in my collection. I mean, in truth,  it’s not all “dark,” some of it is just sad or melancholy music. It seems even at that tender age I was like Tom Waits who famously said, “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” In the old days, when things weren’t going well, I’d put on some mellow, generally sad songs and hearing these artists sing about their heartbreak and losses made me feel, well, less alone. Someone else out there had been through what I was going through now and survived. Of course, you can take the sadder end of the musical spectrum too far sometimes. After one break up, my friend the Accountant (who lived three floors below me at the time) came up to my apartment and I was listening to some funeral dirge, moping about when he said, “Say man, uh, maybe all this downer music is affecting your mood… do you have any Van Halen you can put on?” The Rock Chick used to pretend to weep every time she caught me listening to Ryan Adams.

I realize that now may not be the time to share this particular list of albums. Many of us are feeling isolated and alone (B&V’s Pandemic Playlist – Rock n Roll To The Self-Isolation Rescue). If you’re prone to depression, I would suggest maybe avoiding these albums until we’re all free to walk outside without looking like extras on the set of the television show ‘E.R.’ I know the Rock Chick feels like I do, stuck at home and slightly bored. I take my life into my hands every time I go downstairs… like they say about a blowout football game when the teams start taking cheap shots at each other, it’s getting a little chippy down there. I have always either found solace in these records, or they’re just kick ass albums that everyone should hear. Take the gold where you can find it.

  1. Alice In Chains, Dirt – I’ve already talked about this album above, but it’s truly AIC’s finest full length album. “Down In A Hole,” “Rain When I Die,” and “Them Bones” are all great tunes. It’s clear the theme of this album is heroin. The only lighter moment is the song “Rooster” about Jerry Cantrell’s father surviving the Vietnam War…if you can consider that upbeat?
  2. Nirvana, In Utero – This album was certainly Cobain’s reaction to being named the “voice of his generation.” They were trying to shrink the size of their fan base by recording some really abrasive music. You don’t record a song like “Rape Me” if you’re trying to bring people onto the bandwagon. “Heart Shaped Box” was the tune that actually turned me around on Nirvana. Something clicked for me when I heard it. I still love that song even with lyrics like, “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” While some of the tracks on this LP are impenetrable, “All Apologies,” and “Pennyroyal Tea” are amongst their best. The art work told you all you needed to know about this record. I bought it in a used CD store downtown by the bar Harlings and it took me to the rest of their catalog.
  3. Pearl Jam, Riot Act – I may be wrong about this but at one time this was Pearl Jam’s worst selling record. It’s no coincidence that the first three albums on this list come from the Grunge era. That generation came of age on lithium (hence the SiriusXM station by that name that plays the music of that era). This is a later record by PJ and I’ve always considered it a bummer from start to finish. There are a few light moments like the humorous “Bushleaguer” about George W. Bush (“born on third, thinks he got a triple,” a line I use often). I’ve been listening to this album again and while it’s intense, it’s still a damn good Pearl Jam record.
  4. Big Star, Third/Sister Lovers – Big Star’s Alex Chilton was so disillusioned about the music business and Big Star’s failure to connect with a larger audience, he holed up and recorded this set of despondent songs. It wasn’t released until years after they broke up. There still isn’t an agreed to, official running order of the songs. “Thank You Friends” drips with sarcasm. “Holocaust” is despair exemplified. Big Star was a band I didn’t discover until after in life, but man I’m glad I did.
  5. John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band – Lennon’s first proper solo album after the implosion of the Beatles. He’d been going to Primal Scream therapy and the vocals bear that out. He often goes from a whisper to a scream. “Mother” is haunting. Songs like “Isolation” and “Working Class Hero” reveal a pretty jaundiced world view. I love the song “God,” where he lists the litany of things he doesn’t believe in any more… until he ends with just he and Yoko…”I believe in me, Yoko and me.” I like this album significantly more than Imagine, but that may say more about me than John Lennon.
  6. Nick Drake, Pink Moon – Drake was another artist I came to later in life. In his short tragic life he only recorded three albums. Pink Moon was his third album and it was a departure from his two power-pop albums that proceeded it. Pink Moon is just Drake’s vocal and an acoustic guitar. He was despondent his career didn’t take off but he largely refused to ever play live… He died shortly after this album came out from an overdose on antidepressants. I think that says it all.
  7. Neil Young, Tonight’s The Night – One of Young’s famous “Ditch Trilogy.” This is one of my absolute favorite Neil Young albums, if not my favorite. Drowning in despair, guilt and tequila after he fired original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who then died of an overdose, this is Young at his most raw and emotional. This album knocked me out the first time my friend Drew played it for me and it continues to do so today.
  8. Elton John, Blue Moves – People forget how huge Elton was from 1970-1975. This album isn’t dark but it’s certainly laced with a ton of melancholy. Many people feel it was Elton feeling sorry for himself after the backlash he got for admitting he was Gay. The 70s were at once a freewheeling and closed-minded time. I think he was just feeling some fatigue after 5 tumultuous years. He was bound to have some kind of let down… It’s not a great album but it’s a good one. It’s a double-LP and probably suffers in the shadow of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that preceded it by two years. The second album is particularly down. This album has the saddest song ever recorded, “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word.” I’ve got my own story about that song…but again, we can’t share all the darkest parts of ourselves.
  9. Lou Reed, Berlin – This is the bleakest, most despondent thing I’ve ever heard. Reed’s concept album about a couple (Jim and Caroline) who are German drug addicts. It’s got some great songs, “How Do You Think It Feels,” and “Caroline Says I” amongst them. But this is hard one to get through. It has grown on me significantly over the years but there is no fairy tale ending here… I dare you to listen to the song “The Kids” and not be haunted by it…
  10. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska – I was a huge Springsteen fan in high school. I had all of his albums up to that point. The River had hooked me. Then I went away for that difficult freshman year in college. I struggled my first semester due to some self-inflicted wounds (love gone wrong). I got home at Christmas and was in the mall when I saw that he had a new album out. Ignoring the stark imagery of the front cover, I thought, here we go The River 2.0. When I dropped the needle on the album and heard the stark, depressing title track I remember having the opposite feeling of the joy I felt when I heard The River for the first time. I liked “Reason To Believe” and almost immediately dug “Atlantic City,” but it took me years and years to come to appreciate this collection of songs about outlaws, losers and outcasts. Everybody feels left outside of society here. It’s a masterpiece, but I’d sure like to hear the “Electric Nebraska” – the version of the album recorded with the E Street Band… maybe we can hope for a boxset…

There you have it, my top bleak, depressing albums. Sometimes you’ve got to go dark. Again, if you’re prone to depression, you might wanna wait on these records. I’ve always loved these albums and I hope you do too. If there are albums like this that you’re into, please let me know and I’ll check them out! Otherwise, sit back, put one of these on, pour something dark and murky and contemplate…

Stay healthy and safe out there. Cheers!

B&V’s True Confessions: The Dirty Dozen – 12 Albums That Only I Love… Time to Re-Evaluate?

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“This is no social crisis, this is you having fun…” The Who, “Another Tricky Day”

We’ve all made mistakes in our lives and we’ve all had to learn to live with those bad decisions… Here it is, only day 2 of the enforced “Stay At Home” order and I suddenly feel the need to unburden myself of all my sins. Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t left my house since nine days ago and the only sins being confessed to here are musical in nature. All other sins… well, those records are sealed until 25 years after I’m gone and forgotten. While I was always someone who people confided in, I must say this confessional mood seems to be catching. I’m hearing all sorts of sordid things. I just had a friend admit to me that he saw the Little River Band in concert. Everybody loves the Little River Band but no one will ever admit to it. Ironically, I happen to have an almost sentimental attachment to their song “Reminiscing.” There, now I’m on record as an LRB fan…more confessions. The Rock Chick admitted to me this morning, for the first time in our marriage, that she saw Molly Hatchet in concert but doesn’t remember much of it… We’ve all been there (The 10 Concerts I Should Have Skipped). I’m still trying to wrap my head around her being at a Molly Hatchet concert but that’s my issue to contend with.

We’ve all made those musical mistakes. You’re standing in the record store and you have Pat Benetar’s Precious Time in your left hand and Beggars Banquet in your right hand and you end up leaving the store with the Benetar “saving” the Stones’ classic for another day. That is sadly based on a true story. Sigh. Not that there’s anything wrong with Pat Benetar but I didn’t buy Beggars Banquet until I was in college, years later (and I’m the Stones freak?).  We all have albums that we’re perhaps embarrassed about now. Maybe the album is “of its time” so to speak. I actually had a Bryan Adams record (Reckless) for a long time that I bought in the 80s. Or perhaps a relationship or friendship led you to a bad choice. I had a TLC’s CrazySexyCool for a while based on the recommendation of an adamant squeeze I had back in the day. Not every woman I dated had the Rock Chick’s impeccable taste in music.

For the most part, as a “serious” collector I’ve culled through my collection and weeded out the outliers. I try to keep everything, vinyl or CD, that I’ve ever owned but being married has forced me to thin the herd. Every time we move I find myself selling at the Used Record store vs buying… although I’m usually a sucker for that “store credit” gambit. I sell off a certain number of albums and come home with a few new ones… it’s just the circle of life. Being cooped up at home these last few nights has sent me looking through my vinyl collection yet again. I discovered a few albums that, I must confess, I just love but have less than stellar reputations. Either the critics were “meh,” or fans didn’t buy the albums but I did. Since I only write about stuff I like – God knows there’s enough negative bullshit in the world – I am often accused of being a tad “over positive” about certain artists and albums. I have to tell you, I’ve really enjoyed listening to these albums over the last few nights. These just might be albums that need a reappraisal. I asked the Rock Chick if she had any albums she loved and no one else did and she said, “I love Oasis and let’s face it nobody but me and (her friend) Rich likes them.” Rich is the one who always asks me at parties I throw to “put on some Oasis.” Although oddly, on those occasions I’ve been at his house, he never seems to play Oasis.

While only one of these albums is truly embarrassing, the rest are solid if not spectacular as some of the entries in the respective artists’ catalogs. Not every album can be Every Picture Tells A Story or Who’s Next. If you’re a career type of artist – one worthy of following an entire catalog – there will be ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys. Since nobody is really going anywhere for a while, put one of these on and dig a little deeper into the catalogs of these great artists. We all have guilty pleasures… these are mine.

  1. The Who, Face Dances -I will always be fond of this, my first Who album. “You Better You Bet” was huge on radio and I bought this record on the spot. With Kenny Jones (formerly of the Faces) on drums and Townsend’s guitar seemingly missing this doesn’t really sound like anything that came before it but I still love this album. “Another Tricky Day” is the perfect antidote for today. “Daily Records” is the nicest statement of purpose in all of rock and roll. “How Can You Do It Alone” about masturbating is funny. The Entwistle songs, “You” and “The Quiet One” both rock with that Who grit. There’s a lot to like here.
  2. Fleetwood Mac, Mirage – Sure, this was a pretty good seller, but after the epic success of Rumours and wild experimentation of Tusk this album seems like a retreat. I am drawn to the melodies and harmonies on this record. Stevie Nicks’ tracks are the gold, from the hit “Gypsy” to the country-rock of “That’s Alright” to the shimmery, sexy track “Straight Back” she could do no wrong. While none of the Buckingham tracks were “hits” I really like a lot of what he’s doing here on tracks like “Empire State,” and “Oh, Diane.” It’s a quiet little pleasure.
  3. The Rolling Stones, Black And Blue – This is basically a recording of the auditions being held for Mick Taylor’s replacement. While many guitarists tried out for the Stones – Peter Frampton, Jeff Beck amongst others – they finally settled on Ronnie Wood. This album is criticized for being a bunch of jams and reggae stuff but that’s what I like about it. The two ballads, the only tracks that required them to actually write a song, are two of my favorite Stones’ deep tracks – “Fool To Cry” and especially “Memory Motel.” In college a friend asked me if this album was any good and I said, no. I would amend that answer to yes, if your expectations for another Exile On Main Street are properly leveled. This is a fun record and “Hand of Fate” is an awesome rock song I’d love to hear live.
  4. Rush, Caress of Steel – I don’t know why this album doesn’t get more love. It’s really the precursor of 2112. All of side 2 is one track, “The Fountain of Lamneth.” It’s a fabulous epic. My all time favorite Rush deep track ends side one, “The Necromancer.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted that song…”weakening the body and saddening the mind.” The playing is impeccable. “Bastille Day” became a mainstay of their live act. This is a great Rush album that the critics savaged.
  5. Led Zeppelin, In Through The Out Door – It had been almost three years since Zeppelin had put out Presence and in that time my rock and roll awakening had occurred. I already owned Led Zeppelin II and IV (or Runes) and was eager to hear new, contemporary Zeppelin. The record industry was pinning its hopes on this album and Tusk to bolster lackluster sales. I think a lot of people were disappointed in this record but I wasn’t. Presence was such a heavy album – really shepherded by Bonham and Page – but both of those guys were in the serious throes of addiction by the time they recorded In Through the Out Door that Plant and Jones took over. The result was a mellower, more synth/keyboard oriented album. “In The Evening” is one of my all time Zep favorites. “Fool In The Rain” showcases Bonham’s still formidable drumming. I love the bluesy last track, “I’m Gonna Crawl.” God knows where they could have gone from this… alas.
  6. Rod Stewart, Blondes Have More Fun – Ok, I’m embarrassed I still like this album. I actually sold the vinyl, thus was my shame. But then I bought it again on CD. It’s a truly guilty, guilty pleasure. It’s Rod’s disco album, the record that burned the bridges with his old fanbase. I didn’t buy it for the disco camp of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy.” I liked “Ain’t Love a Bitch,” I was always a sucker for ballads. “Dirty Weekend” and the title track are Chuck Berry/Rolling Stone riff rockers. I dig Rod. This is my big confession today.
  7. Jackson Browne, Lives In The Balance – After the failure of Lawyers In Love, Browne decided to get deadly serious about politics. Set that aside, these are great songs. “For America” remains a favorite of mine. The title track, “Soldiers of Plenty,” and “Lawless Avenues” all sound like dispatches from the nightly news set to guitar. The one intimate love song, “In The Shape of a Heart” is one of Browne’s most endearing songs. This isn’t for everyone, it kind of depends on your political feelings…
  8. Eric Clapton, Behind The Sun – People will shudder when I say Phil Collins produced this album. Well, he did the initial sessions but the record company rejected it. They brought in some songwriters and Ted Templeman to shore it up. That troubled history sounds like a disaster, but I dug this record. “Forever Man” remains a huge favorite. “Tangled In Love” is a great rock tune. “Same Old Blues” is an epic at over 8 minutes long. I even like the cover of “Knock On Wood.” Blasphemy? Perhaps.
  9. Neil Young & The Bluenotes, This Note’s For You – The 80s were terrible for Neil Young. He first showed signs of creative life on 1987’s Life with Crazy Horse. Then he did a 180 and put out a horn driven blues album. The blues has always been a great showcase for guitar and I love Neil’s playing on this album. I even bought the live album of this tour, put out 30 year later (Review: Neil Young, “Bluenote Cafe” (Live)). “One Thing” is the ultimate breakup song. “Married Man” is a funny upbeat track. Whether he’s playing a mellow, sad blues or a horn-drive rave up, this is a fun record. The blues will always win out for me.
  10. Roger Waters, Radio K.A.O.S. – My college roommate Drew and I may be the only two people in the world who bought this album. I really dug the title track. Clapton plays guitar on this album and joined the tour as well. If you ignore the bizarre narrative, you can really get into songs like, my favorite, “Who Needs Information,” or “Home.”
  11. Queen, A Kind Of Magic – My college roomies and I were big fans of the Sci-Fi thriller, ‘Highlander.’ This is basically the soundtrack to that film with the addition of “One Vision” which I think was from anther movie. Queen was on the downturn in America, but this is a bunch of great music. “Who Wants to Live Forever” is a great ballad. The production is very much “of its time” but this was the first sign Queen would come back from Hot Space. 
  12. CSNY, American Dream – Neil Young committed to CSN that he’d record another album with them, the first since the live album Four Way Street, if Crosby could get clean. After the much publicized police chase and incarceration, Crosby emerged clean. The bill came due for Neil. People’s expectations were for Deja Vu 2.0 and yes, this album disappoints from that perspective. I loved the title track and bought the album. Crosby’s “Compass” is a wonderful, confessional track. I love Stills and Young working together and have since the Buffalo Springfield. They spark up a little guitar battle in “Drivin’ Thunder.” Stills shines for me on “Glad That You Got It Made.” Graham Nash’s “Never Say Goodbye” is a tune that used to make me mist up. It’s gorgeous.

I get that many of these might not be your cup of tea. You never know… you might discover something you like in this pile of records. If there are “guilty pleasure” albums for you out there, let me know what they are in the comments as I may want to check those out. I’m open to anything during this time of social distancing!

Stay safe and healthy out there! And remember, as the Who sang, “this (really) is no social crisis…this is you having fun” listening to music.

 

How The Biggest Bands In the World Reacted Musically to Punk Rock in the 70s

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I don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about that whole Grunge era in the 90s lately. I think the whole Grunge thing was the last musical movement that I actually got caught up in. On my first date with the Rock Chick, back in my swashbuckling bachelor days, we actually talked about music and she said, “I hate that Kurt Cobain destroyed everything that came before him.” That was sadly a very true statement. When Cobain came along – and lets face it, it wasn’t just him, there was an army of bands who came with him & Nirvana, like Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, the Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden (to name a few of my favorites) – he laid waste to everything that came prior.

The Rock Chick went on to say that day, “I liked some of those hard rock, hair-metal bands like Motley Crue, Van Halen and Cinderella. You just don’t hear that kind of music any more.” Talk about love at first conversation. This was our first date! My heart throbbed, but enough of that mushy stuff. It wasn’t only those “hair bands” who bit the dust in the wake of Grunge, everybody went down. Billy Joel crawled off to write symphonies. Bruce Springsteen decided he was John Steinbeck with a guitar. Grunge shook rock and roll to its foundation. Grunge was rock and roll stripped of its artifice, more primal and visceral in nature. Gone were drum machines and synths… enter guitar, drums and a whole lot of angst. No hair spray or frankly, bathing needed.  The Rock Chick, ever adaptable, did morph into a huge “alternative” rock fan, the offspring of Grunge if you will. One door closes, another opens as the saying goes.

Of course, this isn’t the first musical wave to rise up and challenge the established order. Punk rock, which one could describe as the pierced, demented grandfather of Grunge, was just as primal and visceral, if not way more so. Both punk and Grunge, to my uneducated ears at least, seem to strip away layers of polish that had accumulated on rock and roll and get it back to that four or five guys (or gals) in a garage bashing out tunes kinda vibe. Punk, rather than express the angst of Grunge, had more of a social protest angle to it. Punk bands, especially out of England were protesting the economic and social conditions they found themselves in and it challenged the somewhat complacent rock establishment. There was an almost nihilistic bent to it that made it dangerous. Of course, I was really, really late getting on the punk bandwagon…

Here in the middle of America, we didn’t hear a lot of punk music on the radio… Not even American punk from New York like the Ramones made it on the radio here. I can remember in the late/mid-70s sitting on the couch at the house one Sunday night and my dad was watching 60 Minutes. They did a segment on the English punk movement. They showed a bunch of young kids, a little older than I was, with safety pins piercing their nose or cheeks. They had Mohawk hair cuts and wore a lot of leather. They were all slamming violently into each other on the dance floor, not unlike a rugby scrum. My father, whose sensibilities on everything are firmly rooted in the 50s, looked over at my brother and I with a look that I now realize can only be described as… fear. I felt that he had the strong urge to jump up and cover my brother’s ears and perhaps backhand me… Looking at me, in his mind’s eye, he probably saw my hair morphing into a Mohawk… a safety pin springing magically out of my cheek. He knew how drawn I was to rebellion.

For my part, I was just as terrified. The 60 Minutes crew shot the live footage at the punk concert – a Sex Pistols’ show – and didn’t do anything to mix the sound. It sounded like harsh, frightening noise with a crazed singer screaming at people. They didn’t play any studio stuff. The old farts on that show just marveled at Johnny Rotten singing “God Save the Queen.” They actually had subtitles to highlight what I’m sure they considered subversive lyrics. This was a sign of the coming apocalypse… To me, it just sounded awful. I need a little melody. It took me years – like 20 years – to finally buy a Clash album. It was a revelation. I quickly picked up the Ramones and the Stooges. Those are some of my favorite punk rock bands. At last, I finally picked up Never Mind the Bollocks, from the once scary (to me) Sex Pistols only about 10 years ago and it’s awesome. Very simple, straight forward guitar rock. As Lou Reed said, “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” But as my friend Doug told me once, “Every punk rocker knows Lou Reed is an asshole.”

Punk rockers challenged the established rock acts that were already ensconced on the top of the world, the Rock Stars. Rock n roll had gotten bloated. There were Art Rock bands doing 15-minute, multi suite tracks like Rush or Yes, that almost had more in common with classical music than rock and roll. There were strings and overly polished production. Rock had gotten fat and comfortable. Along came punk to shake things up, and thank God it did. Instead of destroying everything that came before it like Grunge, a curious thing happened… the established rock bands, for lack of a better word, absorbed the energy and vibe. Although I’ll admit some of the artists ignored punk: Dylan had found Jesus, Bowie was over in Berlin doing his thing, Steely Dan’s jazz-influenced bubble never burst and hard rockers like Black Sabbath and AC/DC didn’t change a thing. But so many rockers were influenced by punk.

I’ve compiled the following list of some of my favorite band/artist reactions to the punk movement. At the time I’d have hardly known the stylistic change in music came from punk rock, but you live and learn.

  1. Queen, News Of The World – Queen was just coming off two albums of long, complicated music (A Day At the Races, Night On the Town) and were already considering a shift to shorter, more stripped down tracks. While recording News, the Sex Pistols were in the next studio… Freddie Mercury ran into Sid Vicious (who he had been calling Sid Ferocious) and Sid asked, “Have you succeeded in bringing ballet to the masses yet?” Queen, and Freddie especially had been the target of the punk’s ire, and he replied, “We’re doing our best, dear.” Queen went into the studio and delivered a stylistically adventurous LP with tighter, shorter tracks. Sure, “It’s Late” was six and a half minutes long, but what a guitar riff. The crowning glory was Freddie and Brian May’s double-single response to the punks – “We Will Rock You” (their statement of purpose) and “We Are the Champions” (Freddie’s fuck you to them). The lyrics, “no time for losers, ’cause we are the champions” were pretty clear.
  2. The Rolling Stones, Some Girls – The Stones totally absorbed the punk ethos on this album. Of course on tracks like “Miss You” they also absorbed the disco thing too. Mick always picked up on what was now, and Keith keeps them centered and connected to their roots. Songs like “Lies,” and especially “Shattered” were stripped down with rocking guitar. No strings, no fat, just awesome. On “Respectable,” they even mocked the punk’s criticism, “Well now we’re respected in society, We don’t worry about the things that we used to be.”
  3. The Who, Who Are You – No one was more disturbed by the punk’s criticism than Pete Townshend, who saw a lot of the early Who in the punks. Who Are You was seen as a return to form for them, with loud guitars and bombastic drums. Townshend’s title track was directly addressed to the punks, “who the fuck are you?”
  4. Pete Townshend, Empty Glass – So obsessed with the punks was Pete, he continued to write songs about them on his first “proper” solo album. “Rough Boys” sounds like he wants to be friends with them. On “Jools and Jim” he complains, “they don’t give a shit Keith Moon is dead.” From his interviews lately, it sounds like Pete doesn’t care either…
  5. Neil Young, Rust Never Sleeps – Nobody dug the punks as much as Neil Young did. The punks seemed to wake Neil from the torpor he was under at the time. The first half of this album was acoustic but the second half is a bunch of blistering guitar workouts. He revamped a heavily bootlegged “Sedan Delivery” and speeded it up so it was very punk. Both the opening and closing, variations of the same song, “Hey Hey, My My” were addressed to Johnny Rotten.
  6. Iggy Pop, New Values – Iggy’s first band, the Stooges was highly influential on the punks… not as much as the Ramones as I understand it but even now hard rock guys from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Guns N Roses cite Raw Power as an influence. I didn’t hear it until a few years ago and yes its great. I wouldn’t have understood it at 13. With all that adulation how could Iggy not jump on the punk bandwagon and release this album, collaborating with old Stooge, James Williamson and Scott Thurston who believe it or not ended up in the Heartbreakers. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em Iggy.
  7. Bruce Springsteen, Darkness On the Edge of Town – Springsteen had been locked in a legal battle with his first manager since Born To Run. He was already pissed off so the punk ethos probably fit the songs he was writing. If you listen to The Promise, the box set for Darkness, many of the tunes sound like the natural progression from Born To Run, but Springsteen opted to only include dark, guitar-centric tracks here. Sonically it’s miles away from his breakthrough album and remains one of my favorites… well, it remains amongst almost every Springsteen fan’s favorites.
  8. Billy Joel, Glass Houses – Like Springsteen, Joel coopted the punk energy and took a stylistic left turn from his previous album, the E-Street-ish 52nd Street. Punchy, guitar-driven tracks like “You May Be Right” and “Sleeping With the Televison On” dominate the album. Like Iggy, if you can’t beat them, absorb them!
  9. Fleetwood Mac, Tusk – Lindsey Buckingham was so afraid of repeating himself after Rumors, and so enamored with the “fuck it” attitude of the punks he decided to take Fleetwood Mac in a totally different direction. I love Tusk, although it was seen as a failure at the time. I’m sure the band struggled as Stevie was delivering songs like “Sara” and Christine McVie with “Over and Over” and Lindsey countering with the punky “It’s Not That Funny,” or “What Makes You Think You’re the One.” Buckingham took a lot of liberties with the record and it makes it all the more interesting.
  10. Paul McCartney & Wings, Back To the Egg – McCartney is the most confounding entry here. I really liked Back To the Egg, McCartney’s attempt at doing more upbeat rock and roll again. I think he really wanted to absorb some of that punk energy but he just couldn’t commit to it through an entire album. I thought “Old Siam Sir” was rocking. But Macca just can’t help himself, he’s gotta go with soft, gauzy ballads like “Arrow Through Me.” I look at this one as a lost opportunity. But hey, it’s McCartney, he can do what he wants.

As I sit here, only 1/3 of the way through the annual “Dry January” I can’t help but think I need a little punk energy to get me going… If you feel that way during the doldrums of winter, put one of these albums on and see where it takes you.

Cheers!

LP Review: ‘Colorado’ the Return of Neil Young & Crazy Horse With Nils Lofgren!

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When I heard that Neil Young was reuniting with Crazy Horse to record an album, I’ll admit, I got excited. It was the most interest I’ve had in something new from Neil since, well, his last album with Crazy Horse, the epic Psychedelic Pill in 2012. When I heard that Nils Lofgren was going to be stepping in as the other guitarist I was doubly excited. Nils first played with Neil on After the Gold Rush, although for reasons unclear Neil had the then 17-year old guitarist play piano instead of his chosen instrument. This was clearly a reunion and album to be excited about. While I’m sure those Promise of the Real kids who have been playing with Neil of late (they’re Willie Nelson’s sons) are great guys, they ain’t Crazy Horse.

I have to admit up front, it wasn’t until college that I got into Neil Young. My college roommate Drew was into Young and I ended up buying the three-album greatest hits package, Decade (a huge investment in those days). That purchase led me to a lifetime appreciation of Neil Young and the great music he’s put out. Neil is a bit like Clapton in that he’s played with a lot of different bands. He started with Stephen Stills in Buffalo Springfield, went solo, recruited Crazy Horse as a backing band, joined Crosby Stills Nash, put together another back-up band called the Stray Gators and then went solo again. He even briefly joined Stills’ band for one album as the Stills-Young Band, Long May You Run. The grass doesn’t grow under Neil’s feet.

I was in a bar recently (shocking) and someone asked me if Crazy Horse was Neil’s version of Wings, McCartney’s backing band from the 70s. “Christ no,” I exclaimed with perhaps a bit too much passion. Who else is going to teach the children about rock and roll? Crazy Horse, or more accurately the musicians who make up Crazy Horse, began as an L.A. band known as the Rockets. After the mixed reaction to his first solo album, post-Buffalo Springfield, and after jamming with the Rockets, Neil recruited members Danny Whitten (guitar/vocals), Ralph Molina (drums) and Billy Talbot (bass) to back him on his second album, the jammy Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. He renamed them, Crazy Horse. There were other members of the Rockets who I guess didn’t seem to realize that Neil had coopted the band, but with a song entitled “Running Dry (Requiem For the Rockets)” you can’t say he didn’t warn them.

They toured to support the album and the guitar solo’ing was epic. I advise everyone to check out Live At the Fillmore East from Neil’s archive series as documented proof. But then Neil jumped into CSNY. On his next solo album, After The Gold Rush, Young kind of combined Crazy Horse and the CSNY backing band. Greg Reeves played bass (from CSNY) with Ralph Molina on drums (from Crazy Horse). Throw in Lofgren on piano and you’ve got Neil’s first masterpiece. It couldn’t have been more different than the long, extended jams on Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere. That album had long, guitar workouts like “Cowgirl In the Sand” and “Down By the River.” Gold Rush had the epic “Southern Man” but it was mostly acoustic/piano ballads.

After that Young recorded Harvest and suddenly our idiosyncratic singer/songwriter was a Superstar. His subsequent record, Time Fades Away (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP), was seen as a repudiation of that superstardom. During the rehearsals for that tour, Young was trying to enlist Danny Whitten from Crazy Horse to play second guitar, but Whitten was struggling too much with heroin addiction. Neil eventually had to fire Whitten, who was found dead later that night of a valium/alcohol mix that has claimed so many.

Despite that, Neil carried on with Crazy Horse on Tonight’s the Night. Nils stepped in on guitar. Jack Nitzsche joined on piano. And really, Neil has been playing with Crazy Horse, off and on, ever since. There have been various members over the year, but the guys who played with Young the most were Molina, Talbot, and guitarist Frank Sampedro, who Young supposedly hired because he had good weed. Regardless of why he hired Sampedro, he’s been one of Neil’s greatest guitar foils over the years. The chemistry those guys have is amazing. These four guys have put out some amazing albums over the years: Ragged Glory (a must-have, classic from 1990), Sleeps With Angels (94), and their last outing, 2012’s Psychedelic Pill. 

I loved Psychedelic Pill. I remember seeing Neil interviewed around that time and he said something like, “I just play better guitar with Crazy Horse.” I give credit to Sampedro. The songs on Psychedelic Pill evolved out of long, extended jams. There are three songs that run, 27:36, 16:49 and 16:27 respectively. Damn. Listening to those long guitar workouts evokes listening to classical music as much as rock and roll… well classical music played by really loud instruments. When I heard that Sampedro had retired, I wondered if that was the end of Crazy Horse… Enter Nils Lofgren, guitar virtuoso. I thought, well this album is going to be another jamming, guitar-fest. As with everything with Neil, I was in for a surprise.

Colorado, the new Neil Young and Crazy Horse album isn’t anything at all like Psychedelic Pill. This is, for the most part, a collection of tight songs, with only one long jam. The tracks run from 2:45 to around 6 minutes, save for “She Showed Me Love,” which runs over 13 minutes. The album was recorded up in the mountains, in Colorado, hence the name. Molina, Talbot and Neil Young are, as mentioned joined by Nils Lofgren on guitar, piano and vocals. I’ll admit again, this album was nothing of what I expected. It’s muted and somewhat somber. The theme is pretty obvious – Neil has turned his concerns to the environment (long a concern of his) and climate change. I don’t hear any current bands taking up the mantle of writing protest songs so it’s left up to the man who wrote the greatest protest song ever, “Ohio,” to step up and do it. Nobody else is writing lines like, “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own…” And folks, we are definitely on our own when it comes to climate change.

I’ll be the first to tell you this album is no masterpiece. But I’ll say it’s a strong Neil Young and Crazy Horse album. It’s the strongest thing he’s done since their last outing. I’m not trying to knock Promise of the Real, and I hear they’re great live, but I just haven’t connected with any of Neil’s work with them. Like Joe Strummer once said, and I’m obviously fond of repeating, “Never underestimate the chemistry of four guys in a room.”

The first track I heard on XM Radio in my car was “Rainbow of Colors.” Like most of the reactions I’ve seen, I did not react well. It comes off as an anthem, much like “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” from Ragged Glory. It comes off as more of a hymn than a song. I have to suspect that played live with people singing along, it’s much more effective. It’s really the only song on here that I would call a “clunker.” Neil’s voice has aged and it creaks a bit here and there, but if you’re complaining about Neil’s vocals at this stage in the game, you’re probably on the wrong train.

The best moments on this album are the acoustic ones. “Think of Me” is the opener, and it’s an upbeat acoustic track that competes for the best track on the album. The other track that I think is a standout is “Green Is Blue” a heartfelt ballad which serves as requiem for the environment. Those two tracks are worth the price of admission here. “Milky Way” is an acoustic-based love song and it’s another great track. Album closer “I Do” is another affecting, stripped-down, quiet ballad and is a perfect end. I like “Eternity” until the backing vocals start singing “clickety-clack” to sound like a train. We get it from the drums, it’s about a train. “Olden Days” is a great mid tempo thing led by Neil’s guitar while he sings about seeing an old friend (or perhaps a lover).

The rocking songs are bit of a mixed bag. “She Showed Me Love” is the 13-minute epic. The she of the title is, of course, Mother Nature. I can’t tell if lines like “I saw Mother Nature pushing Earth in a baby carriage” are Neil joking about how old he is, or just awkward. The guitar work stretches the tune and makes it interesting to me. “Help Me Lose My Mind” is a track that sounds like a grunge rocker from the 90s, something Nirvana might have done. I like the line from that one, “I have to get a new television…to make the sky look like the Earth is flat.”  “Shut It Down” is a glorious noise, it almost sounds like Punk rock. Neil sings that track with an urgency.

Again, this album is not a Neil Young & Crazy Horse masterpiece, but it’s a damn good album from these guys. Fifty years removed from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, its nice to see Neil turn back to Crazy Horse and record such a strong record. The chemistry between them and with Nils is still something to behold.

And lets face it, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to “shut the whole system” down every now and again…

 

 

LP Review: Neil Young & The Stray Gators’ Live ‘Tuscaloosa’ From the Archives

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Neil Young has once again opened his vaunted Archives and released a live album, Tuscaloosa, from a show in Alabama on February 5, 1973. Say what you want about Neil Young, but to go down to Alabama and sing the song “Alabama” with lyrics like, “Make friends down in Alabama/I’m from a new land/I come to you/And see all this ruin/What are you doing Alabama,” you have to admit he’s got some church-bell sized balls. I’m surprised he didn’t double down and play “Southern Man,” his other scathing indictment of the south. “Alabama” and “Southern Man” were the tracks that inspired southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd to write the response, “Sweet Home Alabama.” You have to remember in Alabama in 1973, other than the use of automobiles, it was still 1866. It’s a wonder Young made it out of the state alive.

Neil Young’s “archive game” is amongst the best. Only perhaps Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen have released more archival music than Neil Young has. I can only hope Prince and Tom Petty follow the path blazed by those guys. Of course Petty’s extended, double-album version of Wildflowers has been held up indefinitely by a lawsuit between his daughters and his second wife. Even Prince’s screwed up legal situation pales in comparison to that stuff going on, but I digress. If you haven’t, you should really check out neilyoungarchives.com. There is a subscription fee, if you’re really into Neil, but there is also some free content. You can pretty much find everything he’s done out there.

The 1973 tour was in support of Neil’s biggest album yet, his commercial breakthrough, Harvest. The hit from that album “Heart of Gold,” made Neil Young the most improbable of superstars. It’s pretty clear how uncomfortable he was in that kind of bright spotlight. When he introduces “Heart of Gold” on this album, he mentions that he turned down the offer to let it be used in a commercial. He says he and the band were going to re name the song, “Burger of Gold.” It draws a laugh from the crowd, but you can tell Neil is bothered.

The Harvest tour was fraught with problems. During rehearsals for the tour Neil had to fire his old friend, guitarist Danny Whitten (the leader of Crazy Horse) because he was so messed up on drugs and booze. The night after he was fired, Whitten was found dead of mixing booze and valium (aka diazapem). Neil felt a crushing amount of guilt. To make matters worse, his backing band, the Stray Gators – Kenny Buttrey on drums, Tim Drummond on bass, Ben Keith on pedal steel and slide guitar, and Jack Nitzsche on piano – were all session players instead of musicians Neil knew (well, he knew Nitzsche). Buttrey demanded the then-unheard of sum of $100,000 to play on the tour, to make up for lost studio session money and the rest of the band soon stuck their hand out. Neil said yes to the demand but it pissed him off royally. Anger on top of guilt made for an explosive combination. All of that added to his discomfort with being a superstar made for a less than ideal atmosphere. Then someone turned  him onto tequila, which he drank copiously on the tour. They knew which drug to legalize when they ok’d tequila. When I drink tequila, and I never drink tequila, I’m either going to fight you or try to fuck you and many times, both at the same time. Stick with bourbon, it’s safer.

The legend goes that the crowds who showed up to see Neil on the Harvest tour, expecting an evening of acoustic strumming and hits were surprised and horrified by the raucous and loud playing of the Stray Gators. Neil didn’t make it any easier for them by choosing to play a bunch of new, unheard-of-at-that-time songs as he had decided to record this whole train wreck. It was his goal to cut his next album live on this tour and to take a stylistic left turn, to get out of the middle road where he’d found himself and head into “the ditch.” As I listened to Tuscaloosa, the first two-thirds is just what the crowd expected – acoustic tracks, played faithfully. It’s only that last bit where the Stray Gators turn it up to 11 and play a bunch of unheard, new tracks. I have to imagine the crowds were at least initially happy with their evening but then it took an odd turn.

The shows on that tour usually started off with Neil doing an acoustic set, which he’s often done since. He comes out with an acoustic guitar and plays “Here We Are In the Years” from his first album. Then he sits down at the piano and plays “After The Gold Rush.” I have to think, at roughly 45 minutes long, this album is a truncated version of the concert. I’ve read he left a couple of songs from this concert off the record, just because he’s Neil Young, and the rest of the show wasn’t even taped. Neil is nothing if not mercurial.

Overall I’d tell you I really like this record. If you compare it to his last archival live release, Tonights The Night Live, (Review: Neil Young’s ‘Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live’) they are vastly different. There is a dark mood that hangs over this concert album. The tensions with the band are palpable, if just under the surface. It’s clear on Tonights The Night Live, where he’s backed by his pals in Crazy Horse, he’s happier and having a lot more fun. The staggering thing is that album was recorded only 7 months after this album in TuscaloosaOne might describe this album as a tad brooding.

The middle of this record, after Neil plays his brief 2-song solo set, is really brilliant. The Stray Gators come out and play one of my all time favorite Neil Young deep tracks, “Out On The Weekend” and it’s just stellar. I’d never heard it played live before and they nail it. Ben Keith on pedal steel really shines on this part of the set. During the lead into the song “Harvest,” Neil introduces the band with all the warmth of a “Dear John” letter. “Harvest,” “Old Man,” and the big hit “Heart of Gold” are all played well and the crowd seems to really enjoy that part of the set.

And then, like someone flipping a light switch the band blasts into “Time Fades Away.” That songs first lyrics are amongst my favorite Neil Young lyrics, “Fourteen junkies, too weak to work…” The guitar solo from Neil during “Time Fades Away” is monumental. I have to wonder why he didn’t use this version on the album of the same name. The Gators continue jamming on a host of newly written stuff that probably did baffle the crowd, but still sound great here. It was an awesome night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Look Out Joe” which Neil dedicates to returning Vietnam vets, “New Mama,” and the final track, “Don’t Be Denied” would all end up coming out later on either Time Fades Away or Tonights The Night. The versions here are great if not a tad shambolic. I like my rock and roll messy and Neil and the Stray Gators certainly deliver. The only track that the crowd would have known during this electric part of the set is “Alabama,” which again, what balls Neil had to play that song deep, deep into that southern state.

I do love that Neil introduces “Don’t Be Denied,” one of his most autobiographical, vulnerable songs as being about “an aspiring folk singer…” By this point in his career, Neil was a little past aspiring. This concert album is an interesting look at a pivotal and fascinating part of Neil Young’s career. Eventually tensions between Neil and the Stray Gators would lead him to fire Buttrey and bring in Johnny Barbata to play drums. He also brought in Graham Nash and David Crosby to do backing vocals… he must have needed some friendly faces. That line up is the one that ended up on the follow-up album, (the first of the legendary “Ditch Trilogy”), Time Fades Away (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP).

Check this album out and be sure to check out the Neil Young Archives. Fair warning: you can get lost in there…

Cheers!