Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
After more than a dozen years with Reprise Records, Neil Young signed with Geffen Records and released five albums between 1982 and 1987. He covered a lot of musical ground during his short time at Geffen, but unfortunately his fans and critics seemed to agree that it wasn’t what they wanted to hear from him. In fact, Geffen sued him for making uncommercial music, but eventually they dropped the suit and allowed him to follow his muse. This era of his career may not have a great reputation, but after spending more than a week playing each of these albums multiple times, I discovered a lot of excellent music that often hid beneath the unfortunate production trends of the time.
His first Geffen release, Trans (1982), is also my favorite of this batch of albums. A lot of fans were (and still are) turned off by the abundant use of synthesizers and the processed vocoder vocals on a number of these songs, yet for me they add to the singular charms this record has to offer. The only song I was familiar with in ‘82 was a re-recording of his ‘60s Buffalo Springfield song, “Mr. Soul,” where the robotic take on the guitar riff ties it to the original version while clearly being a product of its time. The guitar solo, which is the only organic sounding portion of the song, really cuts through, and his original youthful lyrics sound less “clever” in this setting. “Little Thing Called Love” is a great little catchy pop song with some bluesy guitar work (not far from Eric Clapton’s early-‘80s sound). I love the bridge (“Only love puts a tear in your eye…”) and the Latin percussion is a nice touch. “Computer Age” features a pre-programmed drum track and new wave synth sounds (showing the influence of artists like Gary Numan and The Cars). The vocoder removes all emotion from his vocals, creating an interesting effect at lines like, “I stand by you or else we just don’t see the other.” It was revealed years later that this vocal approach was Neil’s way of attempting to communicate with his disabled son, adding a poignancy to certain lyrics that otherwise might have come across as simplistic. “We R In Control” is a driving, pulsating rocker with digitized voices and a dystopian sci-fi vibe to the lyrics (references to C.C.T.B., or Chemical Computer Thinking Battery, bring to mind the concept of machines taking over in The Terminator movies).
[Neil Young – “Transformer Man”]
“Transformer Man” somehow gives the robotic vocals & music a melancholy feel. It’s actually a tender love song set to futuristic music (“Every morning when I look in your eyes I feel electrified by you”; “Your eyes are shining on a beam through the galaxy of love”). You can hear real drums & guitars under the synthetic sheen of “Computer Cowboy,” which features a super cool, heavy guitar riff. This would probably sound amazing in concert with the band playing at full volume. “Sample And Hold” is a cool electronic song about a customer trying to purchase a robot (or sex doll?) over the phone. I still own Trans on vinyl, and that format features the shorter version of this song which I prefer since it’s much more concise than the expanded version. “Like An Inca” became an immediate highlight (whether it’s the 8-minute LP version of the nearly 10-minute expanded version). Featuring an infectious driving groove and a smooth guitar sound, it actually borders on soft rock as he relates tales of the ancient Inca culture from Peru. I traveled to that country a few years ago & spent time at places like Machu Picchu, and I believe his often mysterious lyrics capture the essence of that mystical place and the ancient Inca people who called it home.
The only song I haven’t already mentioned is “Hold On To Your Love,” a steady midtempo tune that’s pleasant & enjoyable, but not nearly as noteworthy as the rest of the album. Trans is certainly not for everyone, especially if you’re not a fan of synth-laden recordings of the early-‘80s, but now that we know his reason for choosing those sonic textures, I think it makes the music that much more enjoyable. If you’ve previously dismissed this album, I highly recommend giving it another shot. It’s as consistent as any of his best records.
He completely shifted gears for his next record, Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983), which found him paying homage to early rock ‘n roll, rockabilly and some jumpin’ blues/R&B with a group christened “Neil And The Shocking Pinks.” It’s an enjoyable listen but turns out to be the most minor entry in his catalog so far. Clocking in at under 25 minutes and including 4 covers among its 10 tracks, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a lighthearted excursion that he couldn’t have taken very seriously. The covers are all excellent choices. “Betty Lou’s Got A New Pair Of Shoes” is a Bobby Freeman song from 1958, and this straightforward version captures the essence of the original without adding anything to it. “Rainin’ In My Heart” was a Top 40 hit for Slim Harpo in 1961. I haven’t heard the original, but I would describe Neil’s take as a Fats Domino-style song with its New Orleans piano sound. “Bright Lights, Big City” is a Jimmy Reed classic from the early-‘60s that’s been covered by a number of artists. Neil gives it a midtempo funky & bluesy feel that makes it a highlight of the album. It’s hard to imagine a bad version of “Mystery Train,” a Sun Records song made popular by Elvis Presley, and Neil performs a reverent version of this classic.
[Neil Young – “Payola Blues”]
The only song from this album that got any significant radio play is “Payola Blues,” which I loved the first time I heard it in ’83. It’s a swinging original that pays homage to early rock ‘n’ roll DJ Alan Freed, who was undone by the record industry payola scandal but is still regarded as a legendary figure in rock history. The subject matter, where he complains that “I never hear my record on the radio,” is ironic since Neil never seems to care about having hit records. I love the “cash-oo-wadda-wadda” backing vocals.” Of the remaining tracks, only “Wonderin’” made much of an impression on me. There’s a nice walking bass line and subtle driving beat, and it captures the essence of those ‘50s Ricky Nelson records. Chris Isaak would find a lot of success with this sound a decade later. There’s not much else to say about this album. If you’re new to Neil’s catalog, I would recommend listening to everything else he’s done (at least up to this point) before spending your money & time on this. Without a doubt it’s a fun album, but also inconsequential, which is probably just as he intended.
Once again confounding fans & critics, Old Ways (1985) is a collection of traditional-sounding country songs (all but one of them a Neil original) that features contributions from Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. You really need to have an affinity for country music to appreciate this album, and fortunately I grew up listening to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash so this was a breath of fresh air for me. “The Wayward Wind” is the only cover song (it was a hit for several artists in the late-‘50s). It’s about a man with a traveling spirit, and the orchestral sweep makes it sound like the overture to a cowboy film’s soundtrack. It features nice Dolly Parton-esque vocals by Denise Draper. “Get Back To The Country” is hoedown country dance music with the “boingy” sound of the Jew’s harp. Featuring harmonies by Waylon and excellent fiddle work by Rufus Thibodeaux, it seems to be about returning to a simple life as well as Neil’s renewed love for country music. Willie adds his inimitable vocals to “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?,” a slow-paced, folk-based tune. He’s singing about the plight of “real” cowboys, “not the one that’s snortin’ cocaine…not the diamond sequins shining on TV.” My favorite song here is “Once An Angel,” a slow mournful shuffle with a tasteful arrangement that could’ve been a huge hit for country legend George Jones. It’s a gorgeous love song from a man who acknowledges his faults and truly appreciates his wife’s love.
“Old Ways” features nice guitar interplay between Neil (acoustic), Waylon (electric) and Ralph Mooney (steel). It’s a fun little song about trying to break bad habits, but “old ways got their way again.” “My Boy” is a lovely midtempo ballad with fantastic fiddle & banjo, and a weeping steel guitar. Here he’s addressing the feelings that parents have watching their child grow up so quickly. “Bound For Glory” has a walking groove and reminds me of Waylon songs like “Good-Hearted Woman.” I love the piano work, and Neil & Waylon blend their voices together simply & effectively. Waylon once again guests on “Where Is The Highway Tonight?” I really enjoy the vocal melody and excellent piano accompaniment above the slow shuffle & killer steel guitar. The other two songs not mentioned here are easy to listen to and fit in nicely, but they’re the only ones that didn’t jump out at me. Any album where 8 of its 10 songs are noteworthy has got to be a winner, so I highly recommend it unless you dislike this style of music.
Landing On Water (1986) is a strange addition to his catalog. The only musicians are Neil (guitar & synth), Danny Kortchmar (also guitar & synth, as well as co-producer) and Steve Jordan (drums & synth), as well as the San Francisco Boys Chorus on two songs. A Neil Young album with three synth players is not going to appeal to many listeners, and other than a couple of standout tracks, it didn’t do much for me either. “Weight Of The World” is a slightly offbeat synth-pop song that wouldn’t have been out of place on the radio back then. It features an engaging melody and, although the music is completely synthetic, it’s actually a very nice love song (“When I met you girl, I dropped the weight of the world”; “I was alone for all my life until you came my way”). “Hippie Dream” is the pinnacle of this album for me. It has a great repetitive synth-bass figure, big splashy percussion & stinging lead guitar, and surprisingly he seems to be dismissing his hippie past with Crosby Stills Nash & Young (“But the wooden ships were just a hippie dream”).
[Neil Young – “Hippie Dream”]
“I Got A Problem” has a less synthetic sound with a big 4-note riff and a heavy tom-tom groove. I really like the guitar sound and he shreds during his solo. “Pressure” features a claustrophobic, paranoid feel to the stabbing rhythm & vocal melody. The chorus is the catchiest part, alternating between the high-pitched “Don’t feel, don’t feel” and the lower group vocals of “Feel pressure from me/No pressure from me.” “The Violent Side” reminded me of something Mike & The Mechanics might have recorded, with its overproduced percussive arrangement. The best hook occurs at “Control…the violent side,” where the S.F. Boys Chorus really shines. The other songs have moments or sections that are decent, but mostly they come across as half-baked ideas or generic filler. I would probably include a couple of the songs I mentioned on a career-spanning anthology of Neil’s work, but the rest is mostly forgettable. I’m curious if there’s anyone out there who loves Landing On Water, or maybe even considers it his/her favorite Neil album. After all, one man’s “mediocre” is another man’s treasure.
Although Neil worked with the members of Crazy Horse, along with other musicians, on Trans, Life (1987) was the first album credited to Neil Young & Crazy Horse since 1981’s Re-ac-tor. Done in slightly by the continued production techniques of that era, there are a handful of very good songs as well as some that are less memorable. The piano & harmonica intro in “Long Walk Home” sounds like classic Neil, but then synths & programmed drums enter before the lovely piano-and-harmony chorus (“It’s such a long walk home”). This song sets a political tone that occurs throughout the album, questioning the state of America near the end of the Reagan administration (“America, America, where have we gone?”). “Inca Queen” is a stirring epic that got better with each subsequent listen. At just under 8 minutes it’s the longest song on the album, and during that time it takes the listener on a journey, both musically and lyrically (it covers similar ground to the earlier “Like An Inca” but has a much more spiritual feel). The excellent guitar sounds (12-string and nylon string, I believe) give the song an earthiness that’s in no way undone by the echo-y ‘80s drums. The lovely vocal melody and slow, somber tempo create a dreamlike atmosphere, and I even love the spoken word section (“Inca Queen has, Inca Queen has, Inca Queen has come”).
“When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” might succumb slightly to the booming drums & thin-sounding guitar, but this slow ballad with synth strings won me over anyway and I’d love to hear an acoustic version with real instruments. “We Never Danced” has a haunting piano melody with synth vocals, and Neil adds some nice falsetto. Heartfelt lyrics like “Hope it’s not too late, we were more than friends. I can hardly wait ‘til we meet again” would probably benefit from a more sympathetic production, but the message certainly gets through. I also really like the line, “If you don’t really know where you want to go, it makes no difference which road you take.” Of the remaining songs, only a few bear mentioning. Album opener “Mideast Vacation” is apparently sung from the perspective of a soldier at war, or possibly a spy looking for an enemy to fight. Sadly, what sounds like a big statement is lost in the over-production. “Too Lonely” is a fun pounding rocker with hints of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and includes a catchy hook at “She’s too lonely, she’s too lonely, she’s too lonely to fall in love.” “Prisoners Of Rock ‘N’ Roll” is a dumb but fun radio-friendly hard rock song with a wild, raw guitar solo and a decent hook at “That’s why we don’t wanna be goooood.” I wouldn’t recommend this album to anyone other than hardcore Neil Young fans, and even though I really enjoyed a few songs, only “Inca Queen” has continued playing in my head. The rest is occasionally very good but far from essential. It wasn’t the most auspicious way to bid adieu to Geffen Records; the company couldn’t have been too pleased when he returned to his old label and scored some of the biggest hits of his career over the next couple of years (and beyond).
I will revisit the first few albums he recorded during his second stint at Reprise Records this week, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on those sometime next week. I have a feeling there are a lot more fans of that era than the one discussed in this post, but I look forward to reading your comments on Neil’s Geffen years, positive or negative.