Neil Young 101
By Matt Ashworth and Gabe Baker
Here at Nada, we firmly deny individualism and strongly support oppressive social conformity. Unbeknownst to you, our loyal reader, we have conducted extensive clandestine market research into every aspect of your private life. We will eventually use this knowledge to further our nefarious purposes. Don’t believe us? Think we’re just another pack of wanna-be Rolling Stone writers churning out a half-ass e-zine that will only be seen by pus-oozing cretins who misspelled “teen sluts” in a Yahoo search?
A small demonstration of our powers should cause all you unbelievers to soil your collective shorts. Our research has conclusively demonstrated that, when it comes to Neil Young and his music, you can be neatly categorized as a member of one of three groups.
The first group consists of folks, we’ll call them ‘grad students’, who should probably drop Neil 101 from their schedule, and enroll in a more advanced course. (This does not mean stop reading.) This group already knows and loves Neil Young. They have most of his albums, or at least know which ones they like and why, and they have probably seen him in concert at least once. These guys get pretty annoyed when today’s alterna-teens (most of which have never heard an entire Neil album) spew unfounded praise upon their grizzled hero, and they sure as hell don’t need Eddie Vedder to tell them that Neil rocks.
The second group is our target audience, the undergraduates. These folks know of Neil as an enormous influence on rock music. They have heard his name uttered by everyone from Thurston Moore to Snoop D O double-G. They’ve heard a few songs from Harvest and Rockin’ in the Free World on the classic rock station in their home town. However, they are a bit intimated by Neil’s huge catalog; with over thirty albums it’s hard to know what to purchase. This category of fan really wants to proudly say, “I like Neil Young,” because they know that to do so and mean it is coolness itself.
Now the third type don’t know anything about Young, they barely recognize his name, and aren’t so sure they even give a damn about hearing another old guitar-toting fart. These tykes need to hit the books, or they will have no chance of passing the Rock SATs that they are all so stressed about. Now all three need this article, but for different reasons:
Grad students: This is a refresher course for you at best. We look forward to your constructive criticism.
Undergrads: You of all people need this the most. We know that you have been embarrassed in the past when a true fan sniffed out your bandwagon allegiance to the Church o’ Neil. Your shallow knowledge is understandable, as Young’s vast catalog and expansive career can seem overwhelming to a novice.
Young-uns: We implore to continue, you need all the help you can get. You basically don’t know shit and are a very uncultured person. Society begs you to better yourself. We can help you…if you let us.
NEIL 101 Syllabus
I. Welcome to Neil 101
In order to get a handle on the stunning scope of Mr. Young’s work, we’ll start with a couple compilations. The overview will also allow the less dedicated student to obtain a shallow understanding of Neil’s greatness, before dropping out to mow their neighbors’ lawns while listening to Live on a battered Walkman.
Live Rust (1979)
Start here. One of the best live albums in rock history, Live Rust’s acoustic Side A captures the delicate beauty of Neil’s ballads, while the electric Side B showcases Neil’s searing, off-key guitar work that laid the foundation for grunge. Live Rust captures the schizophrenic nature of Neil’s body of work, and is an excellent summary of the first ten years of his solo career.
A massive 35 song set that was originally released as three LPs, Decade is a comprehensive overview of Neil’s early solo career, and it includes several tracks from the mighty Buffalo Springfield. Although Decade is an excellent choice for those who want a more complete summary then that provided by Live Rust, the album’s sheer bulk can be daunting, and it also contains a bit too much filler.
II. Neil’s Career.
For the purpose of this course, Neil’s albums will be divided into four categories: strung-out, epic, rock and country.
Of course, these categories are arbitrary and meaningless, especially when applied to perhaps the most stylistically diverse artist in rock history. In each category, I’ll recommend a few of Neil’s best works in that general vein. Purchase the top pick in each category, along with Live Rust or Decade, and you’ll be taking your first steps toward Neilvana. Purchase all the recommended selections, and you’ll be cooler than all your friends.
Strung-out. Neil Young expresses pain more eloquently than any artist I’ve ever heard. The common thread among these albums is an overwhelming expression of harsh emotions: anger, pain, despair, resignation.
Tonight’s the Night (1975)
Neil’s masterpiece, recorded in the wake of two friends’ heroin overdoses . Perhaps the most harrowing album ever recorded, Tonight’s the Night exposes alt-rock crybabies as whiny spoiled brats. Listen to this album carefully, several times, and you will be a better person.
Sleeps with Angels (1994)
The modern counterpart to Tonight’s the Night. Sparked by Kurt Cobain’s suicide, SWA’s songs are clastrophobic. With less then a handful of guitar solos on the album, SWA maintains a brooding, relentless atmosphere throughout. While some critics and long-time Neil fans were less then impressed, I find SWA entrancing and completely unique.
On the Beach (1974)
The precursor to Tonight’s the Night works much the same ground, but without the same overwhelming impact. Beach depicts a burnt-out post-hippie Southern California nightmare, so maybe the lack of focus was intentional.
Epic. As in, “on a grand scale.” These albums are a fascinating amalgam of fantasy, folk tales, American history and rock n’ roll. A mixture of big rockers and folk ballads, the songs congeal to form a completely unique exploration of American mythology.
Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Masterful. Neil’s second greatest album. The image of “Marlon Brando, Pocahontes and me” sitting at a campfire talking of “the white man, and the first TV” exemplifies the Neil’s epic style. Rust also contains the grunge’s birthplace, in the harsh crunch of “Hey, Hey, My, My.” The scope of this album absolutely defies categorization.
Zuma (1975) and American Stars n’ Bars (1977)
These albums are similar in spirit to Rust Never Sleeps, and nearly as good. Both albums are a fine mix of electric and acoustic. While Zuma is more consistent, Stars ‘n Bars is still essential, if only for the magnificent “Will to Love.”
Rock. Neil kicks ass on guitar jams, especially when backed with the dinosaur stomp of Crazy Horse. Feedback and fucked-up solos all around. This is classic rock in the best sense.
Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969)
Neil defined his rock sound on his second album. “Down By The River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” are everything that is good about classic rock, while “Cinnamon Girl” is Neil’s best single ever. This album is noisy and beautiful, without ever seeming tedious.
Ragged Glory (1990)
This album demonstrated that Neil and Crazy Horse can still turn it up to 11. “Fuckin Up”, “Love to Burn” and “Farmer John” all rock with the same power as “Cinnamon Girl.” If only the Stones aged so well. (By the way, the Ragged Glory tour was my Neil baptism. Going in, I was more excited to see Sonic Youth open the show, but by the time Neil finished outfeedbacking Thurston, I knew what rock was.)
Country. While country influence can be heard on all of Neil’s albums, it’s more prominent on these albums then most. However, these selections again show how silly it is to try to pigeonhole Young’s work. Fierce rockers rage alongside the beautiful country-folk tunes that ground these albums.
After the Goldrush (1970)
Along with Tonight’s the Night and Rust Never Sleeps, After the Goldrush is one of Young’s finest studio albums. Every track, (with the exception of the overblown classic rock rant “Southern Man”), is wonderous. The title track showcases Neil’s warbling, off-key vocal style to magnificent effect. Again, no artificial category can contain this album.
Harvest Moon (1992)
A sequel to Neil’s most popular album, Harvest (1972), it’s much superior to the original. While Harvest produced the hits “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold”, the only truly great song from the album was “Needle and the Damage Done.” The songs on Harvest Moon hold up much better under repeated listening.
So there you have it, scholars. Buy the albums and study up. There will be a final, and Cliffs Notes won’t help at all.