Plagued by technical problems and performance issues, it is a wonder that this self-titled debut sounds as good as it does. However, in the grand scheme of things, this marks the end of Neil Young’s early, more derivative work before his more distinctive and unique sound erupts on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere which would be released some months later. Neil Young follows the same style of writing and performance that Young had been employing both as a solo artist in local clubs and coffee houses and with the band Buffalo Springfield (more on them in later posts). There is a debt to the production standards set by The Beatles but, underneath it all, there is something awkward about many of these particular songs which suggests that despite Young’s love of the Fab Four, this was not a method of working that he was overly comfortable with. Considering The Beatles released the epic and exhilarating “white” album at the same time as Young released this album, it was obvious that they were still upping the ante when it came to studio albums and everyone was still playing catch up.
At the end of the summer of 1968, Young was setting off on his solo career following the break up of Buffalo Springfield earlier in the year. Their final album, Last Time Around, had come out in July in order to finish off the group’s contract with Atco Records. However, since those recording sessions Young had already been writing more and more of his own original songs, now all he needed was a sympathetic record label and studio. The first was not much of a problem considering the success of Buffalo Springfield and Reprise Records took him on willingly, helped by Young’s manager Elliot Roberts who also represented Young’s friend Joni Mitchell on the same record label and favourable words from the respected producer Jack Nitzsche (Roberts had managed Buffalo Springfield but was fired by Young a few weeks prior to Young leaving the group, he wanted Roberts to be free to take him on as a solo artist). This is a far cry from Young’s audition for Elektra Records in 1965 following the dissolution of his first band, The Squires (also more on them in later posts) where Young was turned down. Elektra’s decision was apparently aided by Young’s ramshackle performance resulting from him turning up with an electric guitar and an amp but no working cable to connect the two together. Incidentally, both songs Young demoed for Elektra became fan favourites in later years.
With a record label behind him, Young just needed someone to record him. Using his advance money from Reprise, he moved into Topanga Canyon where he would meet his first wife Susan Acevedo who worked in a local restaurant. They would marry in December of that year and she would introduce him to the other residents in the neighbourhood. This particular area seemed to be a magnet for creative individuals with previous, contemporary and subsequent residents including Woody Guthrie, Jim Morrison, Dennis Hopper and even Charles Manson. Another Topanga resident, David Briggs, crossed paths with Young out on the roads of California. Briggs had picked up Young as a hitchhiker the year before in Malibu and the pair quickly (i.e. before the end of the trip!) not only became friends but realised they could work together.
One producer was not enough though and as Jack Nitzsche also wanted to help Young get his songs down on tape. Nitzsche had previously worked with Buffalo Springfield, helping them craft some of their most psychedelic songs. On Neil Young, he produced and did a number of other tasks including arranging and even writing the instrumental “String Quartet from Whiskey Boot Hill” (a great piece but personally I feel it does not fit in at all with the rest of the album). Nitzsche also brought Ry Cooder into the mix on guitar; someone who though competent as a guitarist but apparently had little regard for Young's music.
Briggs and Nitzsche represent two very different styles of recording with Briggs being a no nonsense, all-in-the-performance type of guy (“Stay simple. No one gives a shit about anything else.”) whereas Nitzsche trained under Phil Spector and was used to dealing with big arrangements where more is more. As a result, their respective influences seem to pull Young in two different directions at the same time, creating a split within the album where open, honest performances are buried under too much instrumentation. Neither producer was wrong (both being essential to Young’s later development) but the chemistry seemed to be off on the finished product.
The idea of a finished product leads to another issue with Neil Young as two finished products exist. The first, released in 1968, was the first mix of this album processed with an experimental technology that would allow a stereo mix to be played on a mono hi-fi system. The Haeco-CSG encoding system did allow for such backwards compatibility but at the expense of sound quality (“I don’t know how they were stupid enough to go for it” quipped Young in an interview on KSAN radio at the time). This was one of Young’s first battles with the industry over sound quality (and unfortunately not the last), remixing some of the songs and removing the Haeco-CSG processing for the album’s second edition. The second edition would modify the cover too, the original being a full portrait of Young by Roland Diehl (an artist friend of Acevedo’s who also lived in Topanga Canyon). The cover image was cropped and “NEIL YOUNG” in giant letters was placed across the top. This simple change made an electric, psychedelic image of Young becoming one with the landscape into something vaguely apocalyptic and threatening (it looks like a fire burning behind him as he looms over Los Angeles). Regrettably the CD edition retained the cropped version of the artwork though the original was restored on the HDCD reissues in 2009. (Interesting side note: the artwork used for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was originally going to be used for Neil Young.)
Getting to the most important aspect of the album, the music sticks out as strange in Young’s back catalogue (and this being a man who has dabbled in so many styles over the years). The opening track, an instrumental by the name of “The Emperor of Wyoming” (a nod to Briggs who was Wyoming born though the piece was known at one stage as “The Emperor of Israel” according to Nitzsche’s notes for the string arrangements) is the closest we ever get to the sound that would be recognisable as Young’s country style and it would have fit well on an album like Comes A Time. Instead, there are large echoes of Buffalo Springfield’s classic songs like “Expecting to Fly” and “Broken Arrow” in terms of style, arrangement and theme mixed in with the gentler, folky side that Young had been cultivating at the same time. “The Loner” could easily pass for a Buffalo Springfield rocker akin to “Mr. Soul” but there is a greater depth to the lyrics compared to “Mr. Soul” (not to denigrate “Mr. Soul”!). Young’s relationship with Susan Acevedo was complicated and his recently diagnosed epilepsy both contributed to a sense of isolation (is that “perfect stranger” the altered state of a seizure?). On “Last Trip to Tulsa”, Young evokes a strange, unsettling world where he is at once a cab driver, a woman and a dead soul in a surreal situation that would have made Franz Kafka proud.
“Last Trip to Tulsa” is also one of the few tracks on the album where Young’s voice sounds like it belongs on the record. Young was still uncomfortable with singing in the studio (compare his vocal takes on this album with his confident performance on the live album Sugar Mountain which was recorded around the same time) and he had to be helped get into the right headspace with alcohol or drugs. On other songs he sounds strained or unwilling, on “If I Could Have Her Tonight” he sounds completely uninterested in this semi-mythical woman despite the sentiments of the lyrics. It does not sound like Young is in control of his own songs here. The cluttered arrangements do not help with this feeling, for example the hysterical backing vocals on “The Old Laughing Lady” make Neil Young sound dated in a way that many of Young’s later albums would never feel (though doesn’t the organ about 2 minutes 15 seconds into the song sound like a precursor to the melody of “Down by the River”?); as he commandeered later recording sessions, he would forge a music that was timeless yet sounded like it was older than the hills.
Listening to the alternative mixes of some of these songs (mostly courtesy of other Neil Young nerds online), the idea that a more stripped down version of Neil Young would work better is reinforced. The cake is over-egged and it is too bad that Young did not go for a more restrained arrangement on these recordings. Take the aforementioned “Here We Are in the Years” for example, in the original 1968 mix the climax of the song sounds fantastic and understated before dissolving into a gorgeous outro that resolves the song perfectly. In comparison, the mix from the second (and all subsequent editions) adds more punch to the drums during the climax that detract from the rest of the elements. Worse again, it simply fades out without any warning. Didn’t someone say something about fading away at some point? Hear the original mix in the YouTube video below:
Other intriguing alternatives surfaced in Archives Volume One, namely alternative mixes of “What Did You Do to My Life?” and “I’ve Been Waiting for You” (one of my personal favourites from this album) from the Neil Young sessions and a roughly recorded live take of “I’ve Loved Her So Long” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. In all cases, these alternatives outstrip the album versions, highlighting how even the overdubbed songs could sound better with a different mix or, better yet, no overdubbing at all in the case of CSNY. The live solo recordings from the first volume of the Archives (Sugar Mountain and Live at the Riverboat) also shows that the songs from this album have the power to burn bright when allowed to be sung loudly from the heart with no overdubs allowed. Young seemed to feel this at the time: “If I don’t do it while I’m laying it down with the guys, I don’t want to hear about it. […]Too much overdubbing, I did enough for a lifetime.”
I feel like I am being too harsh on what is after all a good album. When the production style works, it is immense. As Young sings “I don’t care if all of the mountains turn to dust in the air” on “What Did You Do to My Life?”, it sounds incredible as all of the song’s elements coalesce. Yet, when weighing the album up with later works, I do feel it falls short because it is a transitionary phase for Young. From here he will leave behind much of the musical baggage of Buffalo Springfield and retain far more control over his songs than previously possible. Furthermore, his songwriting will become less spaced out and more earthy, even when it feels like the music is leaving this planet. Neil Young was a necessary stepping stone in his development as a solo artist but unlike many artists where the first album features the best ideas at their most raw, for Young his debut was a clearing of the system before really firing up. The songs were there, it was all just a process of finding the right method of capturing them. By furthering his working relationship with both Briggs and Nitzsche, he would find far better outlets for his creativity in the years to follow.
Images from the Discogs entry for Neil Young (accessed 29th December 2012). David Briggs quote from Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young (2012). Neil Young quotes from audio files found on Archives Volume One (Blu-ray; 2009); see disc 2 Topanga 1 (1968-1969). Neil Young is available on Reprise Records on CD, HDCD and LP.