Neil Young is one of the greatest giants that 20th century popular music produced. He began as a singer-songwriter, then flirted with psychedelia, and was one of the pioneers of country rock, besides anticipating the thunderstorms of noise rock and grunge. He was admired by musicians as far apart as James Taylor and Nirvana, Emmylou Harris and Sonic Youth, making him one of the most influential musicians in history. From Guitars Exchange we want to take advantage of his 75th birthday to review 10 of our favorite songs from a legendary career that has lasted seven decades.
Cinnamon Girl (1969)
While starting to record his first solo album, Neil Young, Young came across the Rockets in August 1968 at Whiskey A Go-Go in Los Angeles. After liking what he heard he decided to invite them to record his second album with him; those who accepted were Danny Whitten, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot who would become Crazy Horse, his main accompaniment band for the rest of his career.In early 1969, Neil Young had a very high fever and while burning up at over 39º he wrote four of the fundamental songs of his career, Cinnamon Girl, Down By The River, Cowgirl In The Sand and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; the song that would give title to his first album with Crazy Horse. As if this mythical element was not enough, when he went to record these songs he was in possesssion of the guitar that would mark his sound for the rest of his career, the Gibson Les Paul Goldtop '53, painted black, which we all know as 'Old Black'. Together with her, connected to a beloved Fender Tweed - and to Crazy Horse - she would deliver the song that best defines his career. This marvel, whose guitar work sounds like grunge, was made in the year 69 and contains one of Young’s most beautiful melodies, as well as a magnificent solo with an unfathomable note; and all this in barely two minutes of electric magic.
Hey Hey, My My (1979)
Late 70's punk came as a slap in the face for some rock stars who had moved away from reality and into their luxurious mansions. But Young took up the gauntlet and responded with the same ferocity, dirt and distortion as the new generation to prove that Elvis' death hurts, "the King is gone but is not forgotten," and that rock & roll still had some way to go, "rock & roll will never die," fanned by the flames of Johnny Rotten and his Sex Pistols. The new generations understood this and an heir to both, Kurt Cobain, someone equally inspired by the Pistols and Young, ended up using a part of the song in his suicide note "it is better to burn out than to fade away". It is a phrase and a path that was not well received by many of his generation pals, including John Lennon, who thought that it was an invitation to glorify the young dead, although Young has always been ambiguous about that. What is clear is that this spit of rage and electricity is one of the great songs of his career.
Rockin' In The Free World (1989)
The 80's were not especially kind to Young, like many of his generation pals, but just when the decade was about to fade away the Canadian returned in style, anticipating grunge, and consolidating his role as the Godfather of the genre with this wonderful song. In a case similar to Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA, many people did not understand that this song was a criticism of the recently inaugurated administration of George Bush senior. So much so that decades later, Young became embroiled in litigation with Donald Trump, who has repeatedly used the song at his rallies despite repeated protests by Young, a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders.
Like A Hurricane (1977)
Recorded in 1975, although released in 1977, this electric ride sees Young meet Crazy Horse to get pure gold out of his 'Old Black'. It is possibly the song that most faithfully reflects his live sound, something that has made him play it on, practically, all his tours since its release. The most beautiful love song of his career, it joins an irreproachable chorus with some of Young's best moments as a guitarist, mixing distortion, rage and beauty in equal parts.
Heart Of Gold (1972)
Heart Of Gold is one of the most important songs of his career, not only is it his biggest commercial success, reaching number one on the charts in 1972, but it signalled the beginning of a key period of his career, the well-known ‘trilogy of the ditch’. Young himself wrote this about the song: "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". Even so, nobody can deny the beauty of this piece of soft rock that sounded like Laurel Canyon from all four sides. It was not for nothing that James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt appeared doing backing vocals, with a harmonica work that is very close to Dylan.
Despite not being one of his great classics, this song is one of my personal favorites from Neil Young's songbook; a gem in which two of his best facets are combined, the Godfather of Grunge and the pioneer of country rock, to which we must add that close to doo wop ending that makes this song a marvel of enormous magnitude. It is incredible how well his distorted guitar sounds with the pedal steel and a melody that could have been signed by Roy Orbison himself. It is in addition one more example of how Young keeps some songs for ‘the perfect moment’ (it is not necessary to forget that, for example, the magnificent Don't Cry No Tears, which opened Zuma in 1975 was one of his first compositions, dating from 1964) and Winterlong had already appeared in some Crazy Horse concerts in 1970, as you can hear it on Live at the Fillmore East. However the Canadian did not record it until 1974, the same day as Walk On, and then did not use it until he produced his wonderful compilation Decade in 1977.
Old Man (1972)
Another of the reasons that made Harvest the best-selling album in the Canadian’s history, Old Man is a country rock wonder in which Ben Keith's steel pedal blends perfectly with James Taylor's six-string banjo and Young's Martin D45 (given to him by Stephen Stills) in one of his most memorable choruses.
Down By The River (1969)
The definitive jam of Neil Young's career and one of his first collaborations with Crazy Horse. Listening to this song one can understand what Young saw in them as his communication with all three is amazing, especially with Danny Whitten who puts the perfect rhythm work for Young to shine with the 'Old Black'. Whitten sticks to the rhythm with his Gretsch White Falcon plugged into a Fender Bassman, but gives the song a funky point, with a cleaner sound, while Young is able to expand with his beloved distortion.
On May 4, 1970, Nixon's National Guard ended up shooting into a crowd protesting the Vietnam War at Ohio's Kent University, killing four students. Soon after, Young wrote one of his most inflammatory songs: "Tin Soldiers and Nixon's Coming, We're Finally on Our Own, This Summer I Hear The Drumming, Four Dead in Ohio.” By May 21, he had already taught the song to his colleagues David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash and the four entered the studio to record it, with Young and Stills engaging in their own particular dialogues on the guitar (that is, if we listen to the live versions with Stills and his Firebird and Young with his Gretsch White Falcon) and Crosby unraveling at the end by calling out "Four!", "Why?" and "How many more?" that sound like funeral cries. In early June, a month after the incident, the song was already on the street and resounding in everyone's ears.
After The Gold Rush (1970)
I couldn't finish this list without adding some of the songs from my favorite album of Young's career. I could have chosen almost any of his songs, from the acoustic Tell Me Why, to the electric rides of Southern Man and When You Dance I Can Really Love, or the exciting Only Love Can Break Your Heart or Don't Let It Bring You Down, but in the end I decided on the title song that shows us the most austere side of the artist. It has little more than his voice, a piano and a small but exciting, solo on a horn. Of course, with a song like this, little more is needed...