Friday, 4 July 2008
"Crosby, Stills and Nash" (1969) ('Core' Review #29, Revised Edition 2014)
Track Listing: Suite: Judy Blue Eyes/
Marrakesh Express/ Guinnevere/ You Don’t Have To Cry/ Pre-Road Downs// Wooden Ships/ Lady Of The Island/ Helplessly Hoping/ Long Time Gone/ 49 Bye-Byes ( UK and tracklisting) US
‘Sing the song, don’t be long, thrill me to the marrow!”
There are some albums that sound great. Occasional ones that look great. Others that are born great. Yet more that have greatness thrust upon them. And then there's albums like 'Crosby, Stills and Nash', record-breaking records that single-handedly spawned a new genre, united a generation and shined a candle in the darkness. You don't have to like or even have heard of this album to have been touch by it, for the ripples created by this isolated confessional-with-harmonies with its unique combination of achingly honest love songs and powerful demanding political songs is still being felt, inspiring anyone whose ever wanted to stand up and speak out against what was wrong. This is an important album in every pore that reinvents the wheel ten times across its many songs: the poppiest pop songs, the most political protest songs, the rockiest rock songs and the loveliest love songs, all of them coming with a unique twist whether it’s an intimacy that had never been heard before, a key tuning that had never been heard before or the seven minute magnum opus that begins it and which has more twists and turns than some artists manage in their careers. Usually when albums try to be this ambitious, especially on debuts, they fail because the artists involved don’t have the experience or they lack an easily identifiable sound to keep an album hanging together. On this album more than any other in their canon, though, CSN make the most of their unique position as easily recognisable members of three distinct and popular bands and the fact that their harmonies go together so very well, their signature vocal sound making all of these tracks sound like CSN songs no matter how different. And they are different: there’s little around in music of any era that sounds like the ten songs here and all three writers have very different tastes that for now at least complement rather than contradict each other. Well, the detractors say, other musicians had been doing at least something like this mostly acoustic record since the folk days and The Beach Boys had been putting down harmonies as complex as CSN's since 1962 while CSN is far from the first fully acoustic AAA album, never mind the first fully acoustic album ever released. But this album was a game-changer so successful and so complete that many people don't realise how many significant firsts are on this record because it helped shaped and redefine what music was going to be across the 1970s – even if CSN themselves won’t actually be there to steer that ship too often.
The biggest change is in just what exactly constituted being in a band. In the 1960s it had been simple. If you wanted to sing, you either played solo to your own accompaniment or if you wanted a bigger sound you had to join a 'band' - usually your mates from school or a bunch of musicians who have nothing in common with each other except a dream, a drive and a telephone number from the same area code. That's what David Crosby had discovered in The Byrds, where a combination of Roger McGuinn's icily firm hand on the tiller and songwriting competition from Chris Hillman and Gene Clark and Crosby’s own idiosyncratic way of seeing the world had seen him ostracised and pushed out by late 1967, with Croz declaring that it was such a horrible experience he never ever wanted to be in a band again. Stephen Stills was sympathetic: he'd been enjoying himself in the less mainstream but on-the-verges-of-fame-and-fortune band Buffalo Springfield, a conglomerate of strong characters who all started butting in on each other's territory and whose strong and sturdy future was scuppered by Neil Young leaving the band every five minutes. By the end of 1968 the Springfield was over and Stills breathed a sigh of relief having escaped the restrictions of the 'band' and determined to become a solo act without rogue bandmates getting in the way and clouding his vision. Graham Nash had a slightly different story: The Hollies (or at least singer Allan Clarke) represented friendship, the pair having been friends since a teacher made them sit together at primary school (for Americans: kindergarten) at the age of five. The band had far less power struggles in it too, being a nicely democratic unit until around 1967 when Graham found himself pulled by invisible strings to America, drugs and new ideas that couldn't be contained in a three minute pop single. With music flowing through his veins, he also resented an early 'buddy' songwriting deal where his two collaborators in the band got the credit on songs he wrote himself. All three men came with their own distinct sound, forged in three very different backgrounds: Crosby's rich languid upbringing in sunny California, Stills' militaristic family in variable Texas and Nash's deprived childhood in rainy Manchester. All three had vowed at least at some point during the course of 1967-68 that they would never ever be in a band again - they were through playing the music press games of acting the same, looking the same, singing the same songs and thinking the same things, with members liable to leave every seven seconds whenever they felt like it or allow you to be pushed out of a band you formed for nothing more than 'speaking your mind' (although in Crosby's case it was to a then-record crowd at Monterey Pop Festival about the Kennedy assassination and legalising drugs, both of which Crosby had 'forgotten' to clear with the rest of the Byrds first).
Put those three musical geniuses together, though, as happened on one memorable day in 1968 in either Mama Cass' kitchen or Joni Mitchell's living room depending whose telling the story (no one can agree on anything in this band!) and you had a sound that was bigger than anything the three men had experienced before; a sound with more dimensions and with more scope than any of their previous bands (we don't say that lightly: the fact that all three get their own AAA books should tell you a little something about how highly regarded that trio are with us). But suddenly all rules were changed: no harmonies (with due respect to the Beach Boys who came closest) had ever sounded quite that good before, with each member with their own distinctive sound and voice but sounding meant for each other. The trio also had significantly different songwriting voices from each other: Stills rockier/bluesier, Nash poppier/folkier and Crosby weirder that lesser talents would never have been able to 'balance' on the same small slab of vinyl. It’s as if CSN came with an extra layer or two that other bands, who sounded the same with roughly the same accent and influences and life experiences, couldn’t possibly match however talented. This was a band that (especially when Canadian Neil gets added too) were international not local, above local politics and a period in time – they represented a world movement of hippies who all wanted change and who were all far too talented, educated and opinionated to be dismissed as ‘mere’ pop stars anymore.
However, different and distinct as CS and N all were and are, they did take what was ‘good’ about being in a band. They were clearly a 'band of brothers' who wanted the same objective: to live in peace and harmony, in a world governed by peace and harmony, with a loved one living in peace and harmony. All these songs, though very different, add up to the same overall idea: that the world could be better if only we tried a little harder and learnt a little more, be it the political outer world or the romantic inner world. The journey on the ‘Marrakesh Express’ to see how the rest of the world live isn’t that far removed from the journey in time that is ‘Guinevere’ or the very modern rite of passage that is ‘Pre-Road Downs’. In the outer world too ‘Long Time Gone’ is very much a ‘present’ song of longing that could easily break out into the nuclear war of ‘Wooden Ships’ if left untamed. That's only the basics though: each template is changed around, modified and re-moulded on each and every song, leading to anger, frustration, impatience and at times all-out war (CSN records tend to be harder-hitting than most non-fans suppose, with that hippie idealism the end destination, not the whole of the journey). What's more - and despite the wild tales of arguments within the band that are legendary and, sadly, largely true - all three were always very supportive of each other, appreciating the strength to step out of songwriting boxes and go somewhere new (no one blinked when Stills came up with a seven minute love letter he wanted as the first track on the album; no one batted an eye lid when Nash became the first composer to ever include the word 'roaches' in a song lyric - a reference to drug paraphernalia back when it was still illegal as opposed to technically illegal; while Crosby's wordless chants and jazzy chord tunings – so mocked and scorned by The Byrds - were championed by Stills and Nash, especially Nash, for sounding so unique). There's a reason CS and N keep getting back together when The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield don't (The Hollies, of course, are still running to this day, just not with Nash): they belong together, backing rather than tolerating each other and believing rather than putting up with each other. If their creative differences mean they don't speak to each other for long periods of time then so what: this is a band with something bigger joining them together and with a sound too important not to be heard in tandem; its just that the electric currents the band produces are strong and inevitably can't stay together forever. Even the band name - the first since Peter Paul and Mary to invoke togetherness and separation - is a clever summation of what their new breed is all about: a collection of individuals working together for the good of the company but all with their own identities. As early as the second album CSN will be inventing another first: the atom that splits back into three again but knows in its heart, whatever words are spoken, that they cannot belong apart for long with so much music to produce. With the whole trio as expressive and honest as each other (the part that most critics miss: this band wouldn't work without all three being roughly at the same level of belief and fervour), but in very different ways, CSN records work on a different level to most mortal bands. While not every record is good (there are some atrocious releases in the 1980s 90s and 00s, often with Neil Young involved when the trio's sound becomes an even more different band), every record - especially these early ones - feature such levels of nuances about love, life and politics that hearing them at their peak rather spoils everything else in your record collection, with these songs if not always the very best then certainly the most 'wide screen' songs you can hear.
Future partner Neil Young came up with perhaps the best character analysis of the trio when speaking to the Telegraph in February 2008: each member of CSN were rebels in their own way – hence the clear vision of the group at times – but they did so in very different ways. While Crosby was into breaking rules and upsetting authority out of mischief and a sense of not wanting to be restricted, Stills used military precision and order and sheer hard work to prove that an alternative lifestyle could be reached, reasoning that things couldn't go on the way they were by making the alternative sound so good. Nash, meanwhile, was an intellectual who thought his way out, giving logical arguments for rebellion from society in general and with an especially keen ear and heart over injustices and unfairness. Neil, you could add, wasn't rebelling so much as working out the many shades of his multi-lingual personality, which changed colours and shades with every new wave of muse and simply rebelled from attempts to pigeon-hole his character, leaving him free to record what he felt like recording with the people he felt most like recording with on any given day (and if you’re a one-off like Neil you’re never going to just do what other people tell you to on principle). Put three such strong characters together and you get...well, in-fighting, inevitably and terribly, with arguments between each other larger and worse than all the ones the trio had had in their earlier groups. But in between you get a special kind of music: the sort that knows no boundaries, can go anywhere from cuban-ending love letters about doomed relationships to an Indian train service that runs to its own rules with all forms of life muddling together happily from varying backgrounds and Arthurian legends wrapped around modern sideways jazz licks that somehow sound ridiculously traditional and breathtakingly, awesomely new. And that's just on the first three tracks on this album (by Stills, Nash and Crosby respectively - they never do things in the 'right' order!) Taken together with an observer's eye for detail, people and motivations, plus a courage for outspoken-ness that punks would have given their entire collections of piercings for and an instinctive knowledge of vocal harmony and you have one of the most perfect albums in existence: one that goes in so many different directions at once, almost all of it new, but one that sounds as if it genuinely belongs together; three shades of the same brick that are all the stronger for re-enforcing the edges of the others.
That meeting at goodness-knows where followed mutual friendships between the group that put 'super' into 'supergroup' and in retrospect feels like a ‘fixed point in time’ where the three musicians kept bumping into each other. The Springfield were 'discovered' by Crosby's fellow Byrd Chris Hillman and the pair even collaborated on Springfield song 'Rock and Roll Woman', with Crosby filling in for Neil Young when the band took to the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival, while Nash loved both bands: Hollies song 'Carrie Anne' stated life as a rip-off of 'Mr Tambourine Man' - the two even rhyme - and adored the Springfield song 'Expecting To Fly', which inspired his own lovely sequel 'Wings'. Crosby and Stills had even made some demos together with half-an-era to working together (the duo was dubbed 'The Frozen Noses' by disc jockeys as their demos played on air were often accompanied by cocaine).Getting Nash on board was harder: while questions were coming up over the direction of his songs, The Hollies still very much wanted him whereas The Byrds had scorned Crosby and Stills had no band to go to. After a brief sojourn in London to rehearse material without American music papers watching their every move and a failed attempt to get onto the Apple Label (George Harrison told the group variously ‘you’re no good’ ‘we like you but we’re all full up at the moment’ or ‘you’re too good to be ‘lost’ on our label and tarnished with our problems’ – nobody agrees on this conversation either!) the trio recorded an album for Stills’ old American label Atlantic as boss Ahmet Ertegun had been so supportive of Stills and considered him a second child (Crosby was officially free of Columbia when The Byrds ripped up his contract, while Nash was 'swapped' for Springfielder Richie Furay and his new band Poco – I’d say both halves got a good deal there). This album then finally arrived after a lot of hoo-ha and speculation in the press about what the unheard-in-public trio might sound like, just in time for the summer of 1969.
It seemed destined to fail and in many ways its hard to forget just how brave this record was in a world far more used to bands going solo than reforming to work with each other: a new sound is always hard to get across but especially to curious fans who'd adored The Byrds, Springfield and Hollies and while there were three ready made fanbases in many ways there were also fans ready to put down whatever the trio did for not matching up to what were actually pretty darn good releases from all three bands recently (‘Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde’ is Roger McGuinn working out how to do The Byrds without Crosby and ‘Hollies Sing Hollies’ is Allan Clarke and Tony Hicks working out how to do The Hollies without Nash after both bands had had a lean 1968, while Buffalo Springfield outtakes set ‘Last Time Around’ is perhaps the best set of songs Stills had released yet). While Ahmet and a few other influential friends had realised straight away the importance of the band, most critics were waiting to pounce. Super-groups are an absolute sitting target for music critics then and now, because if any member falls even slightly below their former glories then it gives people any old excuse to criticise and lampoon them – plus few artists ever change radically enough to remain in the public eye for the lifespan of one group, never mind two or more. Yet so strong is this first album, so perfect is it a consolidation of all the themes and ideas the trio had touched on before but infused with something so invigoratingly new, that critics fell over themselves to heap praise on it. No other record encapsulates quite so perfectly what it meant to be alive in 1969, at the end of a decade that had already experienced more change than any other since the Industrial Revolution. All the hope, earnestness, fears, struggles and paranoia of the generation tuning into this album are reflected back to them, larger than life. 'Crosby, Stills and Nash' has something for everyone: the singalongs, the stinging rants, the cleverly constructed songs ('Helplessly Hoping' has one of the greatest lyrics of all, telling a full story despite being in alliteration throughout - a hard thing to pull off, as all attempts at alliterating actually accelerate alarming amounts of alienation among Alan's Album Archives alumni), moments of pure beauty, moments of pure strangeness and moments of pure madness along the way. Usually when we say 'something for everyone' we mean 'no one will like everything' but that's not true either: this debut record is as loved as it is because it's as consistent as it is, with every track a winner to someone but no tracks awful to anyone. Coming at the halfway point between the radicalised rebellion of 1968 and the community spirit of Woodstock (two months after this album's release), 'Crosby, Stills and Nash' is perfect for the times, resonating on every level: love, politics, philosophy and spirit. This album couldn't have been as successful in 1968 or 1970 (when CSN and Y accordingly make a very different kind of record) and it often loses out in the modern era when measured against the grander statement ‘Déjà vu’, but this album will tell you all you need to know about the sixties' final and in many ways it's most compelling year.
Public praise wasn’t long in coming either, with the band playing their second ever gig together by virtually taking over the Woodstock festival (they got all the praise in the next morning’s music papers, far more than the likes of Hendrix and Joe Cocker who only became ‘stars’ of the concert in retrospect, mainly thanks to the film). What’s more, back in the early days before they became better known for their egos, arguments and rapidly changing girlfriends the trio quickly became known as a ‘people’s band’, one who would speak up on behalf of the under-dogs and down-trodden in the world – in between wearing expensive fur coats, setting new records for ticket prices and blowing a small fortune on parties and drugs that is (nothing is ever straightforward with CSN). Forget the faults though (and there are plenty, with most of them commented on by CSN in song before anyone else noticed): over their forty-eight off-and-on years together and counting this trio has attacked as many no-go areas in politics, business and traditional romance as anybody, a rare case of rock royalty speaking out on behalf of their fans at any costs. If any musical group after the Beatles can ever claim to have changed the world in even a teensy-weensy way CSN were it; an attitude that maddens many people (Neil Young included) and change is certainly coming slow, with Nixon re-elected by a landslide as late as 1972 and Bush Jnr re-elected a second time despite CSNY singing 'Let's Impeach The President' most nights for a year (never mind the whole Trump debacle since the redraft of this review was written). But they certainly 'changed' me and my outlook on life and the CSN fans I meet (mainly dotted around the internet rather than physically on the streets) suggest I'm not alone. The injustice I fight in life is because of CSN. The beauty that I see in life is thanks to CSN. The brightness I find in life is thanks to CSN. Even if a lot of the headaches and the struggling bank balance is also due to CSN, that's a small price to pay.
Anyway back to this record. So why is such a heralded, loved album on this list of curios, oddities and forgotten gems? (editor's note: Alan's Album Archives started off as a collection of 101 'core' under-rated albums, of which this was number #29). Simply because the trio in general but especially this first album has fallen so badly from grace in recent years. That feeling of ‘we can change the world’ that flows through this album is terribly out of fashion nowadays, sounding dated first at the hands of heavy metal, then punk, then new wave, then rap, then I don’t know - probably something else modern I can’t pretend to have heard of or understand (a spice girls reunion probably, let’s blame everything bad on them again for now). CSN were also too successful for their own good, becoming so in tune with the ‘Woodstock nation’ that when the hippies upped and left around the time of Altamont (a hideous, vicious gig which CSNY and others on this list have almost-successfully written out of their history until websites like this one remind everybody they were there —sorry about that) they were binned at the first opportunity. By contrast soon-to-be-member Neil Young has had such a successful topsy-turvy career, riding out the tidal wave of changing fashions like some sort of chameleonic surfer, that CSN inevitably look stuck in the past by comparison simply for still holding the beliefs they did in 1969, by and large (heck, next to Neil anyone would look as if they were standing still). Things weren’t helped by the fact that CSN/CSNY self-destructed in the most public way possible after barely a year’s worth of music, both on stage and in the studio – proof of a simmering inter-band love-hate relationship that the blind musical press of the time couldn’t help but see as some sort of ‘failure’ given the trio’s lyrics about world peace and being kind to your neighbours. As for the break-up of the group, however, as early as the eve of the first album’s release all three members were talking about how they would probably drift apart and do things solo as well as together. Aware from the first that they would often clash, the loose CSN/Y name left the way open for them to do solo, duo, trio or quartet-records, depending on the mood of day, and leaving them free to go ‘wherever the music takes us’ (Crosby’s words). Critics, used to dealing with bands with proper names like the Beatles and the Beach Boys still haven’t got their heads round this revolutionary idea even now, not understanding how three or sometimes four men could walk away from easy millions simply because they felt like recording on their own for years at a time.
But fashion and music are often each other’s worst enemies, robbing future generations of some of the greatest music ever made simply because people are too embarrassed to dip their toe into the water and try a neglected band’s catalogue out for themselves because it isn’t ‘cool’ (or because they're suffering from 'ugh, my mum and dad listened to them once' syndrome; equally much great younger music is passed over by elders who think music for modern generations is only suitable for modern ears - much of it is, of course, but not all of it by any means). Forget the future story and how things turned out later on though – on this album the trio are all at their best, reaching heights un-recognised until then and writing some of the most honest intimate confessional songs, some of the most accurate social commentary and some of the greatest crafted recordings of anybody’s career. This first album is truly stunning, with nearly all of CSN’s best known songs gathered together in one place, played virtually single-handedly by ‘Captain Manyhands’ Stills, with some great drumming from Dallas Taylor: the only additional musician here, which is ridiculous when you consider that both Crosby and Nash tended to defer their instrumental duties to their workaholic partner and that this album is really the work of just two men (Nash’ acoustic on ‘Lady Of The Island’ is the only exception, plus Mama Cass adds some harmonies to ‘Pre-Road Downs’). More than any of their other records this is Stills’ baby and he shines like never before or since, with a truly gorgeous guitar sound that manages to be both peaceful and turbulent all at once whilst his touch of arranging genius makes the bare bones of the others’ material (like ‘Long Time Gone’ especially) come alive.
There's not much of a theme on any CSN record, which tend to track what was happening in all three writer's different lives at the time like an aural diary shared by three very different people. This album though has a half-one, suitable for a trio longing to break out of their respective prisons: freedom (at least one side one). 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' is a seven minute Stills epic promising a happier life for poor Judy Collins if only she would quit worrying about the living and start the loving, with all details insignificant against the fact the pair were meant for each other (her on-off relationship with Stills will be a major feature of this book for the next several hundred pages, long after she leaves him). 'Marrakesh Express' is a literal journey to destinations new, part holiday, part refreshers course in what the rest of humanity looks like, inspired by a Hollies tour of India where Nash bonded with the third-class passengers, smoking illicit substances while his colleagues enjoyed a beer down the posher end of the train. 'Guinevere' is a Crosby song about three different women (at least one of whom is Joni Mitchell), all of whom weave a magic spell that reverberates across the ages, without restrictions of time (a theme further explored in the title track of  'Deja Vu'). The simplistic 'You Don't Have To Cry', the one song that sounds like it belongs to an earlier era, is perhaps the most telling lyrically: Stills' partner (surely miss Judy again) lives her life to time-kept rules and realisations, a 'reality that quite nearly killed me' and makes both her and the 9-5 listener 'crazy and old before your time'. 'Pre-Road Downs' is a fond farewell to Britain from Nash, now dating Joni Mitchell, and promising that he'll be back soon. Unlike Hollie songs of parting, however, this one is joyous: in his mind he can see the world separately to the way other people can and yet still get back together. 'Wooden Ships' is a Crosby/Stills collaboration with Jefferson Airplane's 'Paul Kantner that's a sci-fi drama about escape from world war three, refugees from both sides realising that they have a peaceful future ahead after one 'accidentally' smiles at the other and they become friends (the narrative literally takes place on the water, wooden ships retreating both to a place of safety and back in time to when cultures mingled rather than competed).
From here-on in the album makes an about turn though, a coda that will haunt all the other records in this book as things start to pull in different directions and things start to fracture (a regular CSN theme). 'Lady Of The Island' is more about safety, a love song about a night of romance related in every last detail - but even this daring song is about 'freedom' of a sort (submitted to The Hollies, the band rejected it for being too 'graphic'!) 'Helplessly Hoping', too, is the start of a run of songs about being trapped: a romance that can never be, related in poetic terms. 'Long Time Gone' is very much a panther pacing about its cage, Crosby's indignant outrage at the shooting of Robert Kennedy and a second 'good man' shot down, a song that manages to unite short-term despondency with long-term hope. Finally, Stills' '49 Bye Byes' is a 'bye bye' song about breaking up, but related in such glorious high-flying vocal acrobatics it's hard not to grin. Both the narrator and his partner know they're 'playing' and that they've said goodbye too many times, despite the '49' reasons the narrator pedantically writes down as to why they should break up ('all of them good ones', yet 'all of them lies'). That’s the debut album then: for six songs its perfect for its times, full of the summer of optimism to follow the summer of love, but also full of the come-down afterwards to help fans navigate the more difficult 1970s to come. That's a lot of ground for any album to cover, yet CSN always cover it well, managing to create a record that's both united and eclectic (no mean feat: Neil Young's 'Freedom' is the only other AAA record to come close).
Just to show I’m not immune to criticism however, the listening experience of this album was always a bumpy ride and has actually got worse, not better, over time with each re-issue. The mix of this record is horrible, being murky and unclear and the bass (overdubbed by Stills) is at times so loud and overbearing that it makes everything close to un-listenable, a situation that’s only marginally better on the much-trumped ‘re-mastered’ CD (for some reason these tracks - especially the outtakes - sound a lot better on the CSN box set, despite the fact it came out about ten years before the latest CD issue of this album). That's a major shame because if this record sounded a tenth as good as it actually is, I firmly believe that more people would fall in love with it (the fact that it comes at the start of most chronological best-ofs like the box set and 'Carry On' puts people off reaching for the other discs too). Surely a better mix can be made today, with the technology available? And why was it so bad in the first place? Stills had hung around Springfield sessions long enough to do better, even with so many additional overdubs compared to his first band (there is no actual production credits on the original record, but Stills was most in charge; the Springfield's 'Special Care' which was a dry run for this album and on which Stills plays everything bar the drums, as on most cases here, is crystal clear too, suggesting it was some other reason). Note, too, that the un-credited ten second excerpt of Crosby singing 'Come In My Kitchen' originally sandwiched between the last two songs, is missing from all editions of the album from 2006 onwards, at the request of writer Robert Johnson's estate. Honestly, I don't see what the problem is: give the man a credit and a songwriting royalty and re-instate it - how can anyone object to a spot-on imitation that adds much character to the record and lasts all of ten seconds? Crosby's vocal (which bootlegs reveal came only after much pleading from Stills for him to do his 'party piece', complete with false starts and protests that 'no man - if I start doing that voice, I'm going to end up getting stuck in it for the whole day!') is a delight, summing up both the bluesy roots and the new self-deprecating humour of this new collaboration.
The album cover too perhaps does too good a job at summing up this album’s down-home simplicity and underplaying the rock royalty that made it. The picture was shot before the band had fully agreed on their name after they spotted a run-down house with a couch outside it in Laurel Canyon. It was perfect for the ‘in your living room modern troubadour’ vibe of the album and CSN look as if they’ve just got out of bed, each one dressed in the style that will come to represent them in the eyes of many fans forever: Crosby is in Indian tassles, Stills is in brown (I suspect he has a beloved American Football T-shirt on underneath his coat too) and Nash is in faded jeans. Only the trio are the ‘wrong’ way round because they didn’t yet know which was the ‘right’ way – the photoshoot has just kind of happened, with Stills climbing in the middle, Crosby posing alongside him and Nash perching on the roof of the sofa. Once the trio had finally decided on their name they were sent back by Atlantic to re-take the picture – but found to their shock that the house had been knocked down by a bulldozer. The record label tried to have the picture reversed, but Stills was anxious that he would be seen playing guitar ‘left-handed’ and his pals would get the wrong idea and the trio refused to budge over the cover. So that’s how it appeared with ‘Crosby’ and ‘Nash’ sitting under the ‘wrong’ names, as if the trio are so close that they’re interchangeable. This will have repercussions, especially when Crosby and Nash are told by fans how much they enjoy each other’s songs, but both then and now has become something of a funny anecdote, a story to tell fans because no other supergroup would spend their all important first album posing in front of a dilapidated house that would have to be pulled down. In case you’re wondering who the figure behind the glass doors on the back cover is by the way, it’s Dallas Taylor – the band weren’t quite sure if he was fully ‘in’ the band or not. In retrospect it’s a surprise the next album didn’t have Neil half hidden up a tree!
To sum up, for any of my friends and family I have bored to death with music and anecdotes about this band over the past two decades, I’m sorry. No, really sorry – there can’t have been many 11 year olds who tried to turn their rap and boyband celebrating friends onto hippie harmonies over and over and lived. To you readers for having to limp through what's - even by our standards - a long introduction, I'm sorry too but there's so much to this tale it couldn't be told any shorter (well it could, but what's the fun in that when there's so much to say?) There’s just something about this band so perfect, so magical, so beautiful, so in harmony, so we’re-going-to-change-the-world-and-make-a-difference important about CSN that I end up speaking in hyperbole even thinking about them. All I can say is get yourself one of their albums from this list – if you share even one iota of the same tastes that I have then you will love me forever. Sorry, there I go again, but honestly it’s impossible not to sing the praises of a band that took up The Beatles’ late 1960s mantle and did more for music in eighteen months than most bands achieve in a whole forty-year-plus career. Yes CSN weren't built to last and lately there's been more bad than good. But in the early days there really was no one better. With glorious voices straight from heaven and rock credentials straight from hell, CSN were like no other band, from the way they combined all the strands of music they brought to the trio from their previous groups, to the uncompromising experimentation they brought to groundbreaking songs, to the sheer bravery of much of their political material to the stupendous three-part harmonies that wraps up all that angst and anger up into a ball of comforting cotton wool. That sound, much copied but never equalled, has never sounded better than here on one of only two (maybe three?) albums where CSN truly came together as brothers and equals. They opened my eyes, delighted my ears and enriched my soul and still do, many a long year after I first heard them. No other album demonstrates this better than their first, noble of brow, sensitive of ear, fire of belly and warm of heart; in other words this is a very special album indeed.
It’s getting to the point where I really don’t know what to write anymore, for some AAA songs defy description. Most new bands try to grab their listener in slowly with a short, snappy piece that’s straightforward and catchy. Well, [10b] Suite: Judy Blue Eyes is snappy and catchy alright, but it’s also a seven-minute magnum opus with no real chorus (barring the repeated but hardly commercial line ‘you make it hard’ that is, although even this hook vanishes after the second minute or so). Judy is an acoustic epic by Stills, with three or four songs condensed into one surprisingly cohesive acoustic whole, with a Cuban-language coda as an added kick at the end. sets the tone from the first notes of the trio’s career, even though it’s a song so highly personal that it wasn’t even meant as a song at all when it was written but a letter between Stills and paramour ‘sweet’ Judy Collins trying to settle differences and work out where the pair should best go from here. A complicated song for a most complicated relationship (not so much love and hate as fire and ice), this lyric wasn’t written to be a ‘song’ and rather than adapt it and dilute his thoughts Stills makes his music switch with every gear of his feelings, sticking to the irregular metre of his words to better reflect the complexity of his feelings and adapting the music to fit. Which it does quite brilliantly as in turns the song blossoms from confused depression to aching yearning, to bluesy desperate pleading, to suicidal despair, to glorious hippie utopia, with a singalong finale in Cuban to tie hint at a still possible happy tomorrow. Most love songs give you one thing or maybe two but Stills goes through the whole cycle of passion here, caught between hopefully asking ‘what have I got to lose?’, desperately sighing that without Judy ‘I’m going to fly away’ and trying to show us how brilliantly things could be with one of the best CSN harmony punches on the line ‘thrill me to the marrow’. Judy is, if you hadn’t guessed the ‘ruby throated sparrow’, the songbird who so fascinated and infuriates Stills so (and who has already been depicted as a ‘Bluebird’ singing blues songs on a Buffalo Springfield tune from 1967; Stills may also be making a comment about her ‘flightiness’). Stills has her but doesn’t quite have her yet – he’s chased her, loved her and adored her but still she flies away from him, the muse that’s always just out of reach. So this song is effectively the open-hearted Stills trying to put his cards on the table, the key line here being the plea ‘be my lady!’ as he asks her to love him not as a distant worshipper but as a boyfriend.
History will go on to show that this is a bad idea, that when Judy and Stephen finally get together they lose it completely and she ends up breaking their relationship off, dating actor Stacey Keach by the end of the year (though Stills still figures he has a chance until at least the first Manassas album in 1972). But at least it gave Stills one of his greatest songs in which he gets to show off like never before as he becomes a peacock musician, writing musically to his strengths as he switches from rock to folk to blues (his hollering on the line ‘it’s my he-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-art’ will send shivers down your spine!) and playing some quite ridiculous jaw-dropping guitar. The lyrics (which Stills was too embarrassed to actually post but which he figured another songwriter would ‘get’ if he turned it into art and ‘mailed it through the record business’) are also very Stills – the line ‘I am yours, you are mine’ makes this song sound like one about possession and ego, but its qualified with the rejoinder ‘you are what you are’. Go your own way, says Stills on this track – just as long as you know you are breaking my heart in the process. This song also kick-starts a common CSN theme of mis-communication, with the lover of the song urging the narrator on come Friday and Saturday, but abruptly telling him to leave come Tuesday. Stills’ narrator clearly doesn’t know how to react – cue the many lurches of genre and tempo on this song – and he harangues both himself and his lady before quietly slipping in the line ‘and I love you’ in the middle of the song, almost as if it’s a given and Stills doesn’t need to say it. CSN’s often indistinguishable three-part harmonies are also way and above anything heard in rock up to that time – and yes, that does include archive favourites and harmony experts the Beach Boys, Beatles and Hollies – sounding like one voice throughout, as it’s three for one and one for all, Crosby and Nash living and dying alongside their partner. For my money, no three voices have ever had the range of style, dynamics and timbres that these three very different voices have and still sound this perfect when taken together and the fact that the threesome have already progressed from pop to blues to folk to bluegrass in the space of one song proves their vocal talent from the first. With all this going on, it’s easy to forget about the instrumentation, but Stills’ acoustic playing is never better and the rumbling bass (also by Stills) for once on this record isn’t mixed so badly it gets in the way of the song. Deservedly one of the trio’s best known pieces – partly thanks to a ragged performance in the Woodstock film, later doctored in the studio – ‘Judy Blue Eyes’ is the perfect self-assured ambitious start to any album, never mind a debut. However for me the slightly more laidback alternate take on the CSN box set might yet have the edge.
A bit of Crosby gibberish later and we’re at the station. [18a] ‘Marrakesh Express’ is another well known folkie delight and CSN’s first hit single. Typical Nash, he goes on a much-needed superstar holiday on a break from The Hollies in the summer of 1968, only to give his first-class seats to some local poverty-stricken passengers so he can mingle with Marrakesh’s peasant classes and see life through someone else’s eyes. What he sees there ends up paying for many more first-class seats in the future, as it inspired a catchy song that both describes what he sees around him (‘animal carpet wall to wall, African ladies five foot tall and blue’) but also hints at something more. The Hollies recorded this song too (an abandoned take surfacing on bootleg not long ago) and it’s cute, a travelogue that’s good natured fun. CSN’s version, though, is a ‘trip’ in many more ways, becoming much more about escapism. Maybe it’s the song’s presence on such a political album but it feels like a call-to-arms for hippies that they don’t have to live their lives in a 9-5 humdrum being stuck in the office all day when there’s a whole world to explore, with each part full of its own customs, traditions and ways. A tourist he may be, but this narrator feels the ‘pull’ of Marrakesh and its people and feels far more in common with him than his pub-drinking bandmates back home. ‘All on board the train!’ is the cry, at first to Nash’s narrator and then to us as he asks us to step onboard to, ready to be taken to who knows where with the train a metaphor for any amount of exciting trips open to forward-thinking hippies in the late 60s. ‘Had to get away to see what we could find’ Nash sings, his curiosity getting the better of him as he tries to ‘blow the cobwebs from the corners of my mi-mi-mi-mind’.Note too the fact that he swaps the currency of capitalism (‘I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there’) with the currency of hippiedom (‘I smell the garden in your ha-a-a-a-a-a-ir!’) In retrospect, then, it’s hard not to see the last song Nash wrote for The Hollies and the first of his own he sang with CSN as being about his transfer from rainy Manchester to sunny California, polar opposites in more ways than just the weather. No wonder he sounds so excited by it all. The song too is the stepping stone between the delightful bounce of The Hollies and the bigger feel of a CSN song. Stills’ twin guitars, just slightly out of synch offer up something that’s just a little bit dangerous (far more so than The Hollies ever managed), while Crosby’s harmony is mixed very loudly, while this journey into the unknown sounds as enticing as only Nash can. Much loved by fans but much derided by critics, this is the poppier side of CSN, nicely complementing the rather more serious tracks going on around it.
We step off the train and back in time for [13b] ‘Guinevere’ - the proper spelling and the one CSN wanted to use, but was mysteriously written with two 'n's on every version of the album up until 2006 - which is one of David’s finest and most well known songs. This song takes the listener through a beautiful Arthurian legend (did you know Camelot was thought to be in Carlisle?!), although really it’s a timeless song about timeless beauty and a tranquil scene that could be in any era, the old always being compared to the new as if the same magic from days gone by is still here today. The couple can never love openly but tell their love by ‘drawing pentagrams’, while the shy narrator tries to get her to ‘see me’ before plucking up the courage with the belief that ‘we shall be free’ (that word again). The song even sounds as if it belongs to an entirely different time, featuring some of the most other-worldly and complex harmonies of all time as Crosby doesn’t so much sing as soar, ebbing and flowing over a gentle multiple Stills guitar special and CSN in the background weave their way around the song. The song benefits from another of Crosby’s completely unique guitar tunings which gives the track much of its other-worldly sound, making everything sound as if its breaking through from a different dimension. Crosby has always been uncharacteristically cagey about who this song was written for, but has said that the song was indeed personal for him, admitting that two of the song’s verses were written about memories of his time with late 60s girlfriends Joni Mitchell (verse three; discovered by Crosby but soon to be the girlfriend of Nash, keep up this gets complicated!) and Christine Hinton (verse two—much more on her later), although the inspiration behind the song’s first verse has always been kept tantalisingly secret. The narrator returning to his boat at the harbour is also obviously Crosby himself, who had in fact only just purchased his schooner The Mayan with the money he got from the end of his time with the Byrds. Crosby falls in love with ‘her’ when she thinks she’s alone and ‘no one was watching at all’ and compares her to Guinevere from tales of beauty past, but when their eyes meet their love is real and present and they ‘sing in silent harmony’, their lives attune. ‘We shall be free!’ the song ends, an intimate moment turned into a universal cry. Beautiful, haunting and - thanks to the strange tuning Crosby often uses for his songs - quite unlike anything else written up to that time, ‘Guinnevere’ is a delightful song in every sense, as lovely as the ladies who inspired it.
[15b] ‘You Won’t Have To Cry’ was the song Crosby and Stills were singing at that party, wherever it was, and shows Stephen was just as skilled at writing commercial ditties as Graham. The song is, naturally enough, a stunning showcase for CSN’s three-part moving harmonies and if they sounded this good the night of that infamous party then, well, no wonder all three singers knew instantly that their lives had changed that night. In truth, though, the song sounds a trifle unfinished and is more of a delicate catchy Buffalo Springfield hangover than a full-blown CSN epic but – as a look through our Buffalo Springfield book ‘Flying On The Ground Is Wrong’ will tell you - that’s no bad thing either. Another song written for Judy Collins, Stills worries about her sadness and the impact it has on his. He worries about his muse: she still cares about what other people think of her and is ‘living a reality I left years ago – it quite nearly killed me’. Rushed around, living the popstar dream, Judy may have been older than Stephen by three years but he sounds like a concerned elder brother, urging her that chasing money and fame is not where it’s ‘at’, a life full of ‘telephones and managers and where you’ve got to be at noon’. Ha noon – Stills probably hasn’t even gone to bed by noon! ‘The difference’ he sighs ‘between me and you…is that I have time to cry’ and it’s a ‘message’ to non-hippies at home too: he may not be happier, he may not be wealthier, he’s probably not healthier and he’s definitely no wiser but even a workaholic like Stills has time to give into his emotions and really feel them. It’s not just a selfless song though: his future and his emotions are tied up with hers, as she is the one who leaves him to cry while she gets on with her day pretending nothing has happened. For all its pop sweetness this song was clearly written soon after a fight too and tidied up later – the long held vowels sound like shouting or sobbing, while the lyrics are still full of hurt pride, which will be a characteristic of all Stills’ love songs for suite Judy. An under-rated song and a fine showcase for some CSN philosophy (gently laughing at their friends for being under the rule of managers, bosses and ‘crazies’ while the narrators run free), this song is only a lesser track in the sense that it is more conservative than its much more famous siblings and an awful lot simpler but like the rest of this debut album it’s also very charming.
 ‘Pre-Road Downs’ is a most peculiar song, the first that Nash wrote after moving to America. He’s picked up on the local parlance of Laurel Canyon and seems to think nothing of fitting his new drug lifestyle into song, perhaps excited by the fact after years of keeping it hidden from the other Hollies (this song is notorious as the first to ever use the word ‘roaches’; bet Pete Docherty can’t even spell it). A song about departing but how when one door closes another one opens, it has him embracing the past and who he was but realising that his Englishness will never really leave him and he can embrace the future too. It’s not really a ‘down’ song at all but one bristling with possibilities, including the romance in the second verse which could be about Joni but may too be about ‘love’ in a non-sexual sense and is probably far more about CSN. ‘I’ve waited a year for you’ sounds like Nash’s message a year on from the party when he sang with Crosby and Stills while his promise that ‘I’m going to make my love with you’ is surely more about ‘making sweet music together’ in a different sense. Nash counts down the time till he can be free, the ‘hotels and midnight coaches’, the magical mythical deadline after which he could turn into a pumpkin or be transformed like a butterfly (it’s probably no coincidence that this both the title and the theme of Nash’s last Hollies record out in October 1967). ‘I pray with you to stay with me forever and we’ll make it work!’ he cries, as if he already realises that the trio aren’t going to stay together forever, but he’s too confident and ambitious to ever truly doubt the excitement and energy rippling through the room. Listen out for band friend Mama Cass adding some lovely (if lowly mixed) harmonies and Stills’ backwards guitar track which adds a great deal to the track, despite sounding as if its floated in from another song altogether. Another of the album’s simplest songs which worked rather better in concert as a heavy expressive slab of rock urgency rather than here where it’s still mostly sweet.
Side two finds the album back on inventive top form though, thanks to [12b] Wooden Ships – a three way writing partnership between Crosby, Stills and (un-credited on original copies) The Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner (In a hilarious piece of misunderstanding exactly what the free love late 1960s American music scene was all about, songwriters weren’t usually allowed to collaborate with others who belonged with different publishing companies in the 1960s– so most of them did anyway and diplomatically gave up their credit, as Kantner did here until finally getting his name in print come the CSN box set of 1991). This song’s science-fiction drama is unique in the CSN universe where honesty is usually the rule of the day, not role-play. In a nutshell, the story of Wooden Ships is set in the future when a nuclear war has devastated the country (what country, we never learn). Afraid of what might happen next, two fugitives from opposite sides of the war happen to flee by boat to the same island where one happens to smile at the other and they become friends, each dreaming of starting a new life together modelled on peace instead of Bush-like dreams of colonisation and exploitation. The song’s nothing like as a twee as its plot-line however: Wooden Ships is a haunting, often brutal song with jabbing guitar riffs, a morse code organ part that desperately tries to break down the communication barriers between the two sides before its too late and a paranoid power Written first by Crosby on The Mayan based on a sign he saw at the unlikely setting of a church (‘If you smile at me I will understand, because that is something everybody everywhere understands in the same language’), it branched out from being a song about similarities between different religions and became a song about shared experiences by races and across continents. Nash was already in the band by the time this song was written (though Young wasn’t yet) giving CSNY a very cosmopolitan international point of view. Paul Kantner turned up that day and finished off the song with Croz, as the pair discussed the possible future of the planet and their favourite science fiction writers (Crosby: Arthur C Clarke; Kantner Robert Heinlein). Between them they came up with the idea of an atomic war, something which had obsessed Kanter across 1969 (the Airplane album ‘Crown Of Creation’ is full of it and includes his own version of this song) and Wooden Ships is much more Airplane-like than CSN however, sounding like a first draft for Kantner’s up-coming Blows Against the Empire project on which Crosby and Nash guest. However oddly enough the song’s harshest verse about radiation and death was added at a later date by Stills who felt the song needed an extra taste of realism – for years I’d assumed that was Paul’s handiwork given that he blows up the Earth at least three times in the course of his own songs. What’s particularly CSN like is the ending (bashed out by Crosby and Kantner together) where people from both sides of a war end up fleeing together in wooden ships just like The Mayan and starting a new life of happiness and tranquillity together away from the cruelty of the Governments. The two groups had much in common, however, and this song is still strong on CSN themes throughout, especially the chorus that seems to come from nowhere and finally unites the sides in glorious harmony. Interestingly, Crosby and Stills handle each other’s lines for much of the song, perhaps in a display of the ‘one side recognising the other’ message heard in the song. Heard in the context of Vietnam and the Cold War, this must have been thrilling stuff – heard now in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan this tale of friendship between two enemy bases still takes some beating. CSN at their storytelling peak, dreaming of future hippie Utopia while tackling horrific present-day problems head on. It’s the performance that lets this one down sadly, with Stills overdubbing at least one factor too many, as his busy bass overbalances the song, although his manic morse code stabbed organ crying for help in code is a touch of genius.
The pretty  ‘Lady Of The Island’ is one of Nash’s occasional acoustic soul-baring songs; with Graham being bowled over by one of any of his numerous partners in the late 1960s (like Guinnevere, Nash has said this song is about several people, although for a second time Joni Mitchell seems the most likely candidate – what other album contains love songs for the same woman by two different writers?) and is one of the loveliest fragile songs its composer ever wrote. Again it’s a song The Hollies turned down flat as its very risqué for its times as Nash woos and seduces his ‘lady of the island’ (which may well stand for America as a whole or perhaps a holiday in Hawaii where Nash will later make his home). Nash captures the intimacy of the exotic encounter as a new love doesn’t burn but glows, like the fireside he and his girl stand in front of (it’s worth comparing this to his ‘breakthrough’ Hollie song ‘Rain On My Window’ where love also blossoms in front of a roaring fire, so perhaps it’s from further ago in Graham’s past?) Nash says that the couple ‘knew’ from the minute they saw each other that they’d be here now having sex as he describes the ‘pressure in my chest’ when she breathes next to him, the feelings he has when she disrobes and how their bodies were the ‘perfect fit’ as they wrap around each other. The event is so intimate that even the light from the fire ‘refuses’ to go into the intimate parts of her bodies, a line that particularly outraged the other Hollies! ‘I never want to finish what I’ve just begun’ Nash sighs, making it clear that this escape is going to be permanent and that this is an age-old relationship, not a short-lived fling. A perfect picture of the first burning glow of love, Lady Of The Island is one of the surprisingly few romantic love songs Nash ever wrote despite his wrongful ‘twee balladeer’ image in recent years, although as ever its unconventional and for its time risqué lyrics mean its also a very Nash-type song too. The performance is nicely intimate too with only two men on a song that was only ever intended as a demo till Nash decided that Stills couldn’t possibly add anything that wasn’t already there. Crosby and Nash’s unrehearsed scat singing in the middle section (there was only ever one take of this song!) also points to the spooky interaction between these two true soul-mates which will come into its own later in the decade and shows what Nash could never have had with The Hollies: a companion who instantly got what he was up to and added some touches of his own that helped make the song come alive without getting in the way. An under-rated song.
Stills’ fingerprints are all over [11b] ‘Helplessly Hoping’ though, an experiment in alliteration that ought to be too intellectual and too knowing for its own good, but in fact its heartfelt words tell a great story. Stills started it as long ago as college (a 1968 recording can be heard on the ‘Just Roll Tape’) and wrote is an exercise in writing to a strict form that sadly he never tried his hand at again and it is indeed far greater poetry than anything I ever studied at school, showing off one of Stills most under-rated talents, that of a wordsmith who can so much so beautifully with so little. A lonely needy lover scares off her prospective partner through her seriousness and longing, only for him to regret his hasty re-action, pausing outside her window debating whether to go back in. Confused, he ponders whether he should keep going or hold back but he realises not what she is saying to him but what she is telling him, hidden behind her actions – the perfect setting for a song that’s all about coded messages and words that don’t usually appear in love songs telling a story. Stills probably returned to this piece through his relationship with Judy Collins as he stands poised by the stairway, wondering whether to go back in or not but recognising that she too is ‘lingering, saying she is lost’, ‘choking’ on the word ‘hello’ she can never quite bring herself to say. He worries instead that he hears a ‘goodbye’ but she’s really just lost, as scared by the hugeness and scariness of their love and its implications as he is. This beautiful song is given added weight by contrasting the loneliness of the characters with three-part CSN vocals at their most solid and together, the middle eight perhaps reflecting the fact that the narrators aren’t just dealing with their own personalities but what happens when they get together, the magic and chemistry that neither of them controls (‘They are one person, they are two alone, they are three together – they are for each other’). So empty and sparse is this track that you can hear every slight breath-in or hesitation by the trio of singers, who turn in one of their most intimate and impressive performances here (i.e. one of the best harmony recordings by anybody at any time). Stills especially excels himself here, turning in a believably cautious lead vocal and coming up with this song which is impressive and accomplished even by his high standards, poetic yet still so relatable (Stills keeps the alliteration up for every single word barring two or three lines in the chorus too – faux crow-loving poet Ted Hughes can’t even make his poems rhyme following the opening couplet!)
Just as you think the album can’t get any better along comes Crosby’s [19b] ‘Long Time Gone’ – by contrast to the last two track’s intimate romanticism, this song is heavy and claustrophobic, with the sound wound as tight as it will go without breaking. The track was written as a poignant memorial for Robert Kennedy on the night he was assassinated as well as all the other world figures who died throughout history trying to make the world (possibly) a better place. Back in 1968 Croz had just been kicked out of The Byrds for – amongst many other things – commenting on the JFK conspiracy during the band’s big chance at the Monterey Pop Festival, but here the conspiracy is no longer up for debate but suffocating all of us. The bad people don’t want good to win and like many a Crosby song they hold all the cards – the power, the wealth, the media, the support. By Crosby standards this song is depressed (replacing the original arrangement’s slow-burning anger, as heard on Crosby box set ‘Voyage’), each chord change finding us slipping further and further down the keys away from where we should be going. But it’s not full of total despair as the song rallies, first with Crosby’s agonised cry that we can put this right if ‘we have the guts to…speak your mind if you dare!’ and the middle eight that works upwards against the song that declares that ‘don’t you know the darkest hour is always just before the dawn’. Stills too forces the song on with a separate middle eight, not so much sliding on his own swampy organ part as forcing the song to stand still and take stock as he argues that its ‘a long long time before the dawn’. Unlike his songs for The Byrds, which often tried to be heavy but just sounded like pop songs with the tempo slowed down or speeded up, Crosby finds the perfect back-up band in Stills, Nash and Dallas Taylor and turns in one of his best ever vocals in this passionate, powerful song (‘You cats helped me find my voice!’ he’s meant to have cried after the playback). Crosby sings in a lower key than normal here a million miles from his ‘cheeky but sweet’ persona with The Byrds and that really adds to the menace of the song, as does Stills’ brooding riposte at the end of every chorus and his equally brooding organ-work, which surges in and out of the mix at key moments throughout the song, desperately trying to give this restless track the stability it needs. Stills also contributes a very Hendrix-ish guitar solo that adds much to the song’s feeling of outrage and rebellion only just being kept in check. (or should I say a Stills-ish sounding solo that Hendrix went on to copy and elaborate - the two guitarists had been best friends back in the days when neither were very well known and I hear more than a little Buffalo Springfield in Hendrix’s work). Both Crosby and Stills work their socks off in this track, with one of Crosby’s best ever vocals complemented by the perfect surging, worried backing track hastily re-arranged by Stephen when the bluesy original just wasn’t working. Stills’ work on this track – playing everything bar the drums – is true evidence of how well-suited the three members of CSN could be to working with each other when they fully believed in the end product and the end result is a passionate glorious piece of music that reminds one of the high water marks of the CSN canon.
Stills just has time to wrap things up with yet another of his medleys about Judy Collins and [16b] ‘49 Bye Byes’ is a typically ambitious, typically spot-on song with a full on CSN onslaught at the song’s end making for a rousing singalong ending. The song’s narrator starts off singing sadly about how the pair are incompatible for nigh-on forty-nine reasons, seeing them in his head as reasons to not get it together with his girl before shaking his head sadly and telling the listener that in fact he knows they are destined to be together and that although all 49 reasons are ‘good ones’ they are all of them lies in his eyes. A second verse recounts how the pair are ‘the woldest of friends’ and that they’ve been through the worst of things together – the only thing left needed is a coat of paint and ‘fences to mend’. Or at least that’s what he is saying to himself, but a tutting organ part seems to squabble with him and after a quick solo we’re onto a third verse where ‘it’s over – they left in the Spring’. She disappears with the ‘drifter’ (Stacy Keach again?) looking for ‘beautiful things’; Stills can’t deny her that because he truly loves her, but he is tormented by it. ‘I let that man play his hand, I let them go how was I to know?’ Stills sighs, more angry with himself than anyone. ‘Nobody left to please’ he sighs, but the one line on this album that sounds like it should be about escape is really a trap and after a gap we’re left to go back round that verse again until we get to that line a second time and Stills just keeps on going, crying out that it’s ‘gone wrong, feeling’s gone, time has come’. He still can’t come to terms with it but he doesn’t want to hold back the woman he truly loves either so after a wordless wailing cry we’re on to a whole second song. ‘Bye bye baby, write if you think of it maybe’ he cries. ‘Know I love you’ he finally says, after multiple albums of trying to say those very words, as Crosby and Nash become the ultimate back-up band, Crosby stretching out for an ear-catching held note on the ‘love you’ and Nash twisting his vocals rounds Stills for an improvised rant that runs for several sentences onto to end with the accusatory lines he promised he would never say: ‘Tell me who do you love?’ Stills’ resolve finally breaks as he tells her ‘that’s not my woooooah lady’ and telling her she’s seeing things through a ‘cat’s eye’. He waits for an answer expectantly but fails to get one, as the song instead peels off into a crashing wail of instruments that sounds like Stills banging his head against a wall. This exciting end is exemplary; breathlessly exciting as the singers extend each line for hours, unwilling to come to the hard decision to let the character go, the trio creating one of the greatest minute-sections in the trio’s canon in the process. The two songs stapled together on this track – ‘49 Reasons’ and ‘Bye Bye Baby’ – seem to have absolutely nothing in common, being first sad then triumphant, piano based and guitar based and slow and fast respectively. Yet somehow the two pieces meet perfectly in the middle, with a slightly silly but nevertheless graceful organ/guitar lick holding the whole thing together. One last burst of passion, it does feel odd that this most happy and hippie of albums ends on such a sad and dejected note, but even that will point the way forward to the songs to come on ‘Déjà vu’ as Stills licks his wounds even further. Stunning stuff bookending the album with another song about Suit: Judy Eyes’ that makes it clear that, even with a Cuban singalong, the ways of love are mysterious has no easy answers.
No wonder the word ‘supergroup’ was coined for CSN, pretty much the first of many bands to be made up of already successful musicians and setting levels that others just couldn’t follow. Not just consistent, this debut album is consistently great, exploring new avenues in music for the first time and delving into both personal and social psyches with aplomb and sympathy, not to mention with stunning three-part harmonies. Every track breaks new ground somewhere whether its by giving us more than we’re used to hearing or less and all of it rings true – the love songs, the politics and the weird stuff. Never again will CSN be quite this daring and quite this consistent all at the same time, while this album’s Stills multi-overdub-fest sound gives it a feel that no other albums, even in his solo catalogue, can match. Warm but sometimes cold, real but often imaginative, daring but also accessible, sweet but by turns often sour, this is a magical album that’s as deep and detailed and as full of endless possibilities as we always hoped music would be one day before we grew up and The Spice Girls came along. The world truly was there for the taking back in 1969 and I doubt there will never be a band this influential, pioneering or downright perfect ever again. Excuse me, I think I’ve got something in my eye….