Cover Versions, Get This!, Live!

Beach Bummer

I’ve kinda lost my way a wee bit with Neil Young. I bought Le Noise, 7? 8? years ago, played it once then filed it on the shelf alongside all the other inessential Neil albums of the time. Chrome Dreams II, for example. Or the live one that came out around 2001 and included a couple of tracks as yet unavailable elsewhere (I think). Without reaching for either of them, I doubt I could tell you a single track on them. Jeez – I can’t even tell you the name of one of them. You buy things out of blind loyalty to an artist and that’s what happens.


I’m also out of touch with where his Archive series is up to. Are we still just on Volume 1 of the sprawling, all-encompassing Blu-Ray only release? Like many here, I suspect, I’m quite happy to admit I liberated the best of that release via one of the many Torrent sites that clutter up the darker corners of the internet. Some of the stuff probably ended up featured in posts on Plain Or Pan too. And those first couple of live shows he released on his more budget-friendly Neil Young Archives Series – the Massey Hall and Filmore shows – are essential for any and all fans of raggedly-plucked acoustic rock and ragged and raucous sprawling rock music. A quick trip to Wiki tells me there are around a further half dozen such releases, no doubt all good, but I just don’t seem to have the time to invest in them. Sorry Neil, although I’ll probably get around to Hitchiker at some point soon. It does float my boat in all the best ways; vintage mid 70s material scrubbed up for these days? Sounds great.

                                  V Festival

Why though would you want to seek out a ropey live recording featuring Neil and his International Harvesters when you could be diving headfirst instead into his self-proclaimed ‘Doom Trilogy’? Neil, never one to conform to expectations was at an all-time career high with 1972’s Harvest album. Building on the themes and musical styles of its predecessor After The Goldrush, Harvest spawned an actual hit single, with the lilting cowboy balladry of Heart Of Gold seemingly assuring Young his place at the top table of FM-friendly pop alongside other chart-bothering acoustic balladeers such as Paul Simon and Don McLean. Instead, Young yanked hard on the steering wheel and, in his own words veered into the ditch.

“ ‘Heart Of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”

Interesting right enough. Friends ravaged by drugs. Failed relationships. Death. Despair. The end of the 60s ideal. Recommending Reprise Records sign this hippyish new singer by the name of Charles Manson…..


Young took the path less travelled, wrote the songs he wasn’t expected to write and ended up with a trilogy of fantastic albums. Much of this music achieved mythical, cult status as the years grew, due in no small part to  Young willfully deleting the key albums and, in the advent of the CD era, refusing to have them released on the shiny new format. Citing the poor sonic quality of the format (according to Neil, compared with vinyl only about 5% of the recorded music makes it from the CD and out of your speakers. The other 95% is a flattened, compressed version of the real thing), Neil Young hates CD with a passion. He’s analogue all the way, which is why if you can track down original vinyl copies of On The Beach, Time Fades Away and Tonight’s The Night you should buy them forthwith and revel in the tunes in the grooves.


On The Beach is easily one of my favourite albums of all time. Hardly a ringing endorsment from a barometer of hip opinion such as myself, but it truly is a terrific LP. Years ago my sister went a trip to New York and when she asked if I’d like her to bring me anything back, I replied that I’d hate to think she’d find a copy of On The Beach and not buy it. She only went and did. A first issue, Reprise Records release, with the famous psychedelic printing on the reverse of the cover too. An astonishing present.

Hardly a rollicking good time, On the Beach is the sound of depression, paranoia and nervous breakdown. But if it’s self-indulgent, self-obsessed music you’re after, look no further. Charles Manson, the young hopeful he’d suggested to Reprise had by now commited his heinous murders. Young sings about it in the scratchy, jittering Revolution Blues, assisted by The Band’s Rick Danko and Levom Helm on bass and drums and David Crosby on rattly and erratic rhythm guitar.

Neil YoungRevolution Blues

It’s the sound of anti-commercialism in every way. Downbeat, downplayed and downtrodden, Vampire Blues is an eco anthem before such things were considered, Young bemoaning the way the oil industry bore into US soil with scant regard for people or place. “I’m a vampire, baby, sucking blood from the earth,” he sings, a million miles away from Heart Of Gold and the Hot 100.

Neil YoungVampire Blues

Side 2 is even bleaker. Opening with the album’s title track, it starts in slow motion and, as the side progresses, gets slower still. To call it moody and introspective would be too kind. Dylan is moody and introspective. The Smiths are moody and introspective. Even Eurythmics can be moody and introspective. ‘Here comes the rain again’ and all that jazz. But side 2 of ‘On The Beach‘? Listen to it late at night with the lights dimmed low and a fine malt in your hand and you may just never make it upstairs to bed.

Neil YoungOn The Beach

The title track is a gorgeous, chiming ode to despair. “I went to the radio interview….I ended up alone at the microphone.” sighs Neil. “I think I’ll get out of town.” This is the same optimist who, only a few months earlier, had been singing  “I want to live, I want to love, I’ll be  a miner for a heart of gold.” Not now daddy-o. By the time you reach ‘Ambulance Blues‘, the album closer, Neil’ll be informing you that we’re all just wasting our time, “pissing in the wind“. Apparently, side 2 was originally to be side 1 and only at the last minute was Neil convinced to switch it around, something he immedialtely regretted. It means though that the album opens with the jaunty Walk On, a curveball as it turns out, before the mood of the album takes hold. If the album had been released as Young had intended, how many folk would’ve made it all the way to side 2?

*Bonus tracks!

Here’s Mercury Rev’s faithful reworking of Vampire Blues. I remember reading at the time that the band had planned to record the entire On The Beach album and add a track at a time to the b-side of future singles. Did they ever complete this? Seemingly I’ve lost my way with Mercury Rev too.

Mercury RevVampire Blues

Here’s Nina Persson of The Cardigans in her A Camp guise doing a terrific version of On The Beach at the Hutsfred Festival a few years ago. I’m sure this has appeared on Plain Or Pan before, but if you missed it first time ’round…

A CampOn The Beach

Get This!

Rizzla Kicks

Or, if you prefer, Crosby’s Still Hash ‘n Guns

If I Could Only Remember My Name is the title of David Crosby‘s first solo LP. I like to think it’s so-titled because Crosby always seemed to be lightly toasted; a joker, smoker and midnight toker who always appeared just on the wrong side of  frazzled. With his impish grin and walrus moustache, he’s always been a cartoonish figure, a happy hippy, a furry freak brother for real. His police mugshot from 1980 certainly adds fuel to the fire. This is the man of course who wrote ‘Almost Cut My Hair‘.

david crosny mug shot

Despite – or perhaps as a direct result of this – If I Could Only Remember My Name just so happens to be a spectacular album.

Recorded at the beginning of the 70s, it’s the sound of Laurel Canyon looking inwards for inspiration. The personnel reads like a who’s who of all who were responsible for creating music in cosmic Ca-li-for-ni-aay; Joni and Neil, Jerry Garcia, half of Jefferson Airplane, the odd waif and stray moonlighting from Santana, they all combined talents over the course of the album, creating a super-stoned marker for the future of singer/songwriters everywhere.

February 1969, California, USA --- Musicians David Crosby (left), Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash travel to Big Bear Lake. --- Image by © Henry Diltz/CORBIS

The album is full of peaks and troughs, with fragile, Nick Drakeisms one moment making way for soaraway CSNY-ish harmonising vocals the next and delicately plucked acoustics that take a bell-bottomed step aside in favour of tastefully amped-up electrics. Wordless vocal passages, Gregorian Chants as sponsored by Rizzla, weave in and out like lightly-blown butterflies in a summer field. It’s a distilled microcosm of late 60s/early 70s, a fine balance of carefree troubadour tormented by inter-band tension.

12 Jul 1970, USA --- Musician David Crosby smokes a cigarette while Neil Young looks on. They are in a backstage bathroom. --- Image by © Henry Diltz/CORBIS

With it’s sandpaper-smooth acoustic guitars and a hot-wired electric guitar forever on the point of teetering over the edge, second song in, Cowboy Movie, is the lo-fi scratchy half cousin of Neil Young‘s Down By the River. It’s over 8 minutes long, and not a second of the story, a metaphor for the in-band fighting that was going on at the time, is wasted.

David CrosbyCowboy Movie

 

David CrosbyTraction In the Rain

Traction In The Rain rings with brightly strung, wonkily-tuned acoustic guitars, a close-miked, half-asleep vocal and tumbling harps. Very 70s hippy-shit. And very nice, man.

If this has whetted your appetite, the album is well worth buying. I think you’d like it.

 

 

Hard-to-find

Neil Young. He’s a bad boy. 

Aurora Borealis, the icy sky at night, Paddles cut the water in a long and hurried flight, 
from the white man to the fields of green. And the homeland we’ve never seen.’

What a terrific, scene-setting opening couplet.

 neil young 70s

It’s from Neil Young’s Pocahontas, although I expect you probably knew that already.

Pocahontas is, as you might’ve worked out, Neil’s ode to the indigenous Native American Indians and their massacres at the hands of the U.S. cavalry. It’s one of many stellar compositions that clutter the highways and byways of Neil Young’s archives.

Rust Never Sleeps version:

The song has its genesis in the early 70s and has been subject to all manner of tunings, keys and arrangements, from solo ham-fisted piano versions to the drop D acoustic ballad that defines its only official releases to date, on 79’s Rust Never Sleeps and on 1993’s MTV Unplugged LP. I love the 12 string version on the latter release.

MTV Unplugged version:

neil young 77

My favourite version though comes from the unreleased Chrome Dreams album. Chrome Dreams could well have been Neil Young’s most era-defining LP of the 70s, had he decided not to bin it, and many of its tracks. Some of them would end up on future releases – Like A Hurricane on American Stars And Bars, for instance, and Look Out For My Love on Comes A Time, but as a studio album (and sequenced to perfection) Chrome Dreams would’ve been a cracker.

Outtakes of Pocahontas remained tantalisingly out of reach, before the advent of the World Wide Web, when previously mythical bootlegs suddenly became as easily available as ordering oranges online from Tesco. What a wonderful thing!

The version of Pocahontas from Chrome Dreams is classic Neil, driven by a winning combination of major and minor chords, hammer ons and pull offs and Young’s trademark clunk-a-thunk fingerpicked rhythm, all topped off with the distinctive high, reedy vocal. “Whiny Neil,” as my wife would say.

Chrome Dreams version:

I prefer to think of his voice in a similar way to whisky – first time you try it, you don’t particularly like it, but as you age, you come to appreciate the reliable warmth and beauty of it. Either that, or it gives you heartburn, a thumping sore head and a dose of the boaks, I dunno. He’s brilliant, though, ol’ whiny Neil, isn’t he?

neil young 70s 2

I’ve always thought of Neil Young as a bit of an original. The music he plays has so many obvious influences but he’s a true trailblazer in so many ways.

Imagine my surprise then when, a few days ago, the iPod shuffled out Carole King‘s He’s A Bad Boy.

 carole king

It‘s standard teen girl fare about falling in love with the wrong kinda guy. The melody though….. and the chord pattern….not to mention the wheezing, asthmatic harmonica solo…..it was Pocahontas, reimagined as a plaintive girl group heartbreaker!

Except, it wasn’t. Given that Carole King wrote her song in the Brill Building in 1963, around a decade earlier than Young ‘wrote’ Pocahontas, we’d be more accurate saying that Pocahontas is He’s A Bad Boy reimagined as a folky, political ballad. Neil Young – just like the white man who stole from the Natives – he’s a bad boy indeed.

carole king bad boy

Cover Versions, demo, Hard-to-find, studio outtakes

Three Little Birds

I’m just about finished Neil Young‘s autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace. It’s an annoying read, but now I’ve come this far, I need to finish it. I love old whiny Neil, I really do, but his book goes about dispelling the myth behind the man faster than the man himself was able to hoover up the white stuff backstage during The Last Waltz. The chapters jump from one time and place to another time and place and back again with random abandon (which I don’t mind) but the content therein just bores me. There’s just not enough background information on the kind of stuff I’d expect most Neil Young fans to be interested in.

 young høyde

For every “The day I wrote Cinnamon Girl…” you get half a dozen finger-pointing one-sided arguments on the benefits of the electric car Neil’s been designing for the past 390 or so years. For every “We had a lotta fun, I got another STD” tale of woe you get a step-by-step account of his shopping trip to Costco. Really! For every “Oh man! Let me tell ya about this one time in the Springfield…” you get seventeen lectures on the rubbishness of mp3s.  Indeed, ol’ Neil’s got a big shout for himself. He’s offered to help Apple improve the sound quality of their music files and much of his book reads like a particularly crass advertorial. He takes folk out to his car (always a ’51 this or ’67 that, never a B-reg Cortina) and plays them music through his self-designed PureTone/Pono audio system that he hopes will become the leading portable audio player on the market. Whatever, Neil. Just tell us more about the Ditch Trilogy and your guitar sound on Weld, and much, much less about the movies for Human Highway and Prairie Wind.

Much like his music, where great album is followed by mediocre shelf clutter (for every pearl, there’s a Pearl Jam, perhaps?), so too his story alternates between revelation and exasperation. He does admit that he shelved too many good albums in the 70s at the expense of at-best average ones. Maybe he should’ve got himself an editor who could’ve told him likewise about the output of his writing.

neil young shades

Young wearing yer actual After The Gold Rush jeans.

Press ‘Play’ to hear groovy 60s Reprise Records radio promo ad.

At the end of the 60s, Neil Young found himself living in Topanga Canyon, overlooking the Pacific Palisades in the Santa Monica Mountains. A liberal, boho-rich 60s community of artists, actors and assorted creative types, it lent itself perfectly to Young’s own creative, carefree spirit. Here, he would pen many of the songs that would later become staples of his catalogue and live set. Sugar Mountain. I’ve Been Waiting For You. Helpless. Tell Me Why. Only Love Can Break Your Heart. All materialised in some form or other in this period. Not bad going for a 24 year old song writer. Amongst his ouvre during this time was Birds.

neil young wasted

Birds  (Neil Young early version from Topanga Canyon)

Birds is not that well regarded in what is undoubtedly a gold-standard catalogue, but it should be. Eventually appearing on his 3rd solo outing, 1970’s After The Gold Rush, Birds found itself sequenced mid-way through side 2, sandwiched between acoustic Neil nugget Don’t Let It Bring You Down and the electric Neil ‘n Nils Lofgren guitar duellin’ When You Dance You Can Really Love. Birds is a great wee song; downbeat, introspective and yearning with a terrific backing vocal from the assembled Danny Whitten (who’d be dead from heroin in 2 short years), Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina, old partner in rhyme Steven Stills and the afore-mentioned 18 year old wunderkid Nils Lofgren.

Birds (After The Gold Rush album version)

Hands down even better is the mono single released to promote the Gold Rush album. A markedly different version from the piano-led album version, the single places greater emphasis on shimmering electric guitars and richly plucked acoustics without losing the soaring, whisky-soaked, weed-smoked 4-part harmonies in the chorus. And it’s all over in barely more than one and a half extraordinary minutes. Most folk know Birds from the album, but the mono single is where its at…

Birds (mono single version)

A few weeks ago, when the news of HMV’s decline was made public, I found myself shamelessly plundering their website for keenly priced booty. Top of my wish list was Neil Young’s Archives Project, the catch-all, multi-disc labour of love that had been assembled by Young himself after trawling years of tapes from his own archives. At £200+ a pop it was one box set I could never justify purchasing. I’d already acquired it via other means (I’m sure you know what I mean) but the real deal offers updates via the web and enough interactive material to satisfy even the keenest of Rusties. Sadly, HMV had none to sell, so the mp3s above are taken from my own slightly more dodgy archives. Be careful not to play them too loud, though, or old Neil will be round in his car, the ’62 Chevy perhaps, or the ’78 Jensen, to make you listen to how they should sound on his latest hi-spec audio player. And he’ll probably charge you $250 for the meet-and-greet privilege. Hippies, eh?

Neil Young reprise promo

*Bonus Track!

From the throwaway and listened-to-less-than-once-before-being-filed-away-waste-of-his-time-and-my-money Studio 150 covers LP (phew!), here’s Paul Weller, in full-on white man sings Otis guise doing a fine version of Birds. Perhaps a reappraisal of Studio 150 is required.

Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Live!

The Tie’s The Limit

Listening to the radio whilst driving up combinations of the M5, M6 and M74 yesterday on a gruelling 9 hour trip from the sunny South of England I was reminded hourly of the sad death of Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins. As I drove home I wrote in my head the words here that fire forth from my fingers.

The Hurricane

Like many people in the 80s, I was gripped by the TV spectacle that was the snooker. Not snooker. That was something else. No, ‘the’ snooker. That’s how we referred to it. A game brought back from the dead-end of the working man’s club and the seedier side of life was arguably as big then as the English Premiership is nowadays. Instead of your Rooneys and John Terrrys, it was your Reardons and Terry Griffiths that were the household names in those days. Alex Higgins was different to his contemporaries in every way. Rough, ready and rakish, he brought punk attitude to the tables. He refused to wear a bow tie (de rigeur in those days) as he claimed it itched his neck. He  head butted a judge when asked to provide a urine sample. He took drugs. He smoked at the side of the tables. He drank like the ubiquitous fish and he played fast. Very fast. Hence the ‘Hurricane’ nickname.

The Hurricane came out the traps like a bolt of electricity. You know those short, short gaps between the songs in a Ramones live set?  He could muster up a double figure break in roughly the same time. Remember too, that this was the era of table bores like Steve Davis. A Rick Wakeman keyboard solo could’ve passed in the time it took Davis to consider all possibilities and all angles before lining up one of his defensive shots. Higgins was all about death or glory. If he was a rock star, he’d have been like Keith Richards or The Clash or Them the New York Dolls or any of those bands who meant it 100%. His life was snooker and snooker was his life. He earned and spent an estimated £4 million in his liftetime. Spent the lot. Drugs, drink, gambling, you name it. This time last week he was living in sheltered housing, penniless, toothless and 6 stones in weight, snooker cue-thin. A tragic waste of a life. Look at the picture above and remember him like that, eh?

The Music Bit

Here‘s Neil Young doing a live verson of Like A Hurricane. Taken from the excellent Rock ‘n Roll Cowboy 4 Cd bootleg, I’m not sure where it was recorded, but it’s a cracker. Neil Young, Crazy Horse and a million amps turned up to 11.

Cover Versions, Double Nugget, Hard-to-find

Sounds like Bowie? Oh Yeah!

The Shadows Of Knight were a genre-straddling garage punk band from mid 60s Chicago. Taking their cue from The Yardbirds, The Who, The Stones, The etcs etcs blah blah blah, they are as well known on the northern soul scene for ‘Shake‘ as they are on the garage circuit for their feedback soaked version of Them’s ‘Gloria‘. Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets album included this, their version of Bo Diddley’s ‘Oh Yeah’.

shadows-of-knight

A garage stomper of a track, guitars drop in and out of the mix. The rhythm section takes it down. The singer whispers. The rhythm section section takes it up again. The singer screams. The guitars scream. The girls in the audience probably screamed as well. David Bowie was clealry taking notes. The similarity between Oh Yeah and Jean Genie is bordering on the criminal. But you knew that already.

Has anybody seen Kosher Pickle Harry?” ask The Premiers at the start of Farmer John, their 1964 universally accepted garage classic. Welding the rhyhtms of Louie Louie and Wild Thing (of course) onto a standard 1950s croon-fest proved a success, given that this track reached the giddy heights of number 19 on the charts before the group disappeared from view forever.

the premiers

Farmer John is seemingly recorded live at some Animal House type frat house party. Girls whoop and cheer, everyone sings the backing vocals and a rocking good time is seemingly had by all. In fact, the track was recorded to 3 tracks in the studio before the band invited their pals in to hear the record for the first time. The engineer at the desk used the 4th track to record the sounds of the studio party and mixed it across the top.

Neil Young liked this track so much he took to covering it live in concert at the start of the 90s. He turned it into a bucketful of grunge and sucked the life out of it, but, hey hey my my, if he hadn’t covered it, I’d never have gone out of my way to dig out the original. So a backhanded ‘thanks‘ to him for that. And remember folks, as the saying goes, “If you dug it, it’s a nugget!”

Hard-to-find

Neil Young Is A Cunt #2

Yep. He’s still one of them. The release of his long-talked about ‘Archives’ series is just around the corner. Well. September. But if like me you’ve been waiting 10 or so years for this, September is but a hold-your-breath moment away. Should be great. Cannae wait etc etc blah blah blah.

And there the joy ends. 

‘Archives’ will be released solely on Blu-Ray. That’s right. Blu-Ray! You can’t listen to the discs on your CD player. But you can play them through your telly. You would expect the box set to cost a fortune anyway, but Blu-Ray! Blu-Ray! That’ll make it super-expensive! How many people own the hardware? Does old whiny Neil have shares in the company that makes it? I think he must. Blu-Ray might sound better, but to yer average ex-hippy turned bank manager, will it be that much of a difference? Will the high notes ring that wee bit clearer? Will the harmonies soar that wee bit further? Will you notice the sound of plegm on harmonica that wee bit better? I don’t think so. I don’t believe Blu-Ray can be that fantastic. Especially listened to through your telly. Old Shakey knows the hardcore fans are going to buy the discs and the equipment to play it on but he really has gone about the release of ‘Archives’ in all the wrong way. Total contempt for his quickly reducing fanbase.

He should’ve released it as a vinyl box set. Maybe include an old Betamax tape of a classic Fillmore East show or something. Stick in a couple of packets of those cigarette papers he sold at his concerts a few years ago. Maybe even a plectrum. I’d be straight out to buy that box set. Just as well we live in the digital age. Some enterprising kind soul will no doubt work out how to .flac or mp3 the whole series and we’ll all have them by Christmas anyway. Fingers crossed. If you can’t wait that long here’s a couple of Elektra Demos recorded in New York, 1965 to tide you over. Just Neil and his acoustic guitar. On low-rate, low quality mp3. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. It’s all Blu-Ray round these parts nowadays mate. Have you tried googling ‘Archives Be Damned’? Prepare yourself for a download frenzy.

Sugar Mountain (1965 demo)

Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing (1965 demo)

The Rent Is Always Due (1965 demo)

When It Falls, It Falls Over You  (1965 demo)

Ah’m-a gonna rip you off!

Neil Young has also been called a cunt here.