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Friday, 21 August 2009
Crosby, Stills and Nash "Demos" (2009) (News, Views and Music 41)
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“Everybody saying that music is love...” “Help us make some more...”
Crosby, Stills and Nash “Demos” (recorded 1968-71, released 2009)
Marrakesh Express/Almost Cut My Hair/You Don’t Have To Cry/Deja Vu/Sleep Song/My Love Is A Gentle Thing/Be Yourself/Music Is Love/Singing Call/Long Time Gone/Chicago/Love The One You’re With
Actually, it’s not such an old favourite this album – it came out at the end of June this year, but what with our computer breaking down and one thing or another we never got round to reviewing it, so the time seemed right to revive it for our ‘Woodstock’ special. Now, had this set come out even just five years ago it would have seemed pretty amazing – Graham Nash has been talking about putting a collection of demos together ever since he started cataloguing the vaults for the 1991 CSN box-set and we’ve been promised oodles of fascinating recordings sporadically ever since.
Finally issuing this set of some of the earliest CSN recordings seems like a perfect way to celebrate CSN’s 40th birthday then – but, alas, most of the really interesting material has already trickled out on various collections (the excellent though expensive Crosby and Nash box-sets for example) and what we’re left with here is the dregs of the studio vaults after Young refused access to his songs (some of which are out on his Anthology box set, though again not as many as we’d hoped). Technically none of these 12 recordings have been issued before, but if you have even some of the afore-mentioned sets some of these mixes sound near enough to repeats of previously released archive gems as to sound the same. (Deja Vu, Almost Cut My Hair and a slightly edited version of Long Time Gone all appeared on Crosby’s ‘Voyage’ set of 2006 – albeit the former demo runs much longer this time around, the demo for Music Is Love is just the released version unedited and running about 30 seconds longer and a slightly later demo of Marrakesh Express appeared on the re-issue of ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’ in 2005; that’s five recordings out of 12 for crying out loud!) Even the previously unheard demos – mainly the Stills songs, seeing as he’s the only member of the quartet yet to get his own box-set retrospective – sound pretty darned similar to the finished songs (perhaps if we’d had the demos of the electric songs instead of the acoustic ‘Singin’ Call’ and ‘My Love Is A Gentle Thing’ this set might have fared better). Nash’s demos, meanwhile, nearly all sound like out-takes rather than demos, given how stripped down his solo material often is anyway. If this was a bootleg you’d be slightly disappointed, albeit pleased at the one or two goodies on offer here. For an official release, this smacks of desperation and marks an unwelcome first instance of CSN failing to give value for money (well, OK, that’s assuming you find ‘American Dream’ and ‘Looking Forward’ at a very cheap price).
Record company Rhino are usually superb at sets like these, cramming them full of fan-friendly goodies and extending the running times as far as is humanly possible. For this set I can only imagine that their hands were tied or that unexpectedly good sales for Stills’ excellent ‘Just Roll Tape’ in 2007 forced the issue as what’s most annoying about this short, barely-half-hour set is what’s missing. Had CSN gone the whole hog and re-issued the ‘other’ previously released demos (Crosby’s exquisite Guinnevere, one of the highlights of the CSN box-set, Stills’ other charming attempt at the unfinished ‘My Love Is A Gentle Thing’ and the other extras included on the 1st CSN album re-issue) plus a few other ‘famous’ but unheard recordings (CSNY’s ‘Pushed It Over The End’, ‘Traces’, ‘Hawaiian Sunset’ ‘Little Blind Fish’ plus unheard recordings of, allegedly, ‘Prison Song’ ‘Human Highway’ ‘Wind On The Water’ and many of the Stills/Young album songs – see news and views no 33) this could have been the best CSN/Y release in 20 years. Even the sleevenotes are poor, with a coffee-mug stained front cover that tries to replicate the tape-reel back-to-basics feel of the ‘Just Roll Tape’ without the same reasons. The track listing is brief, too, to the point of covering up how many of these demos have been heard before. Even the inner shot of CSN gathered round a microphone is one that’s been used on the back cover of 1977’s ‘CSN’ and the box-set back front cover already (it is a great picture, though, summing up Crosby’s dreaminess, Stills’ intenseness and Nash’s blissfulness and saying more about the three men’s characters than most books on the trio).
There are highlights, though. Many many highlights. This is, after all, CSN one of the greatest bands on the planet if not the greatest bands and even the trio’s leftovers have a charm and importance lacking from other artist’s million-selling records. Not for the first time Stills is the shining member here. The ‘Just Roll Tape’ from 1968 reminded us all, I think, what a master Stills was on the acoustic guitar before electric amplifiers and Neil Young got in his way and urged him to concentrate on riffs and spliffs instead of chords and words. The amount of unreleased songs on that forgotten tape was ridiculous – the fact that songs sprinkled across the next six years’ worth of Stills’ work were already in place before CSN sang their first note together seems staggering in retrospect. There are no unreleased songs this time around but each are at least subtly different from their finished masters.
‘You Don’t Have To Cry’ is the first song CSN ever sang together and as such holds a high place in people’s reflections, even if its easily the most generic song on that first album (not to say its bad, it just might feasibly have been written by somebody else; the other nine songs never could). The version here is a 90-second extract with just the first verse and chorus before the song abruptly ends on a ringing chord. According to the sleeve-notes it dates from August 1968, just four months after the ‘Just Roll Tape’, and is in a similar fragmented-but-somehow-finished mould to those recordings. Stills sings falsetto on this recording, more or less the part that Nash sings on the finished product, which offers an interesting insight into how different this song could have been had CSN never met and already the song’s pop sensibilities are firmly in place. It’s frustratingly short though – like the Lennon Anthology, why is it the best out-takes are always the one that are just seconds long rather than the ones that last for hours?
‘My Love Is A Gentle Thing’ is a similarly fragmented song that was never completely finished and can be heard in a later, more polished form on the CSN box-set. However, this acoustic demo is more of a revelation than the other demo-songs previously heard, slowing down the tempo to a curious waltz-time trot and stretching out in a completely different direction after the first few notes. It sounds much better here than in its 1991 form, making you wonder why Nash passed over the recording for the box set back then, and Stills’ impressive playing is right at the fore-front of this song. You can hear lots of future Stills songs in this demo, from the descending down-riff from ‘Black Queen’ to the tempo for ‘Know You’ve Got To Run’, not to mention the laid-back pastoral beauty of ‘Singin’ call’ (sorry, ‘Singing Call’ – the ‘g’ has been re-instated on this record after going missing for 38 years).
Talking of ‘Singing Call’, this lovely, under-rated acoustic song is lovely to hear in any format, even though this now marks the third almost-identical version of it released to date (you can hear the original on ‘Stephen Stills II’, see review no 48, and a re-make on 1991’s ‘Stills Alone’). This version may well be the weakest of the three, with Stills getting to know the lyrics and missing the lovely harmonies and gentle percussion of the first version. It’s still mesmerising, however, with Stills at his blues-wailing best, desperate to get back to nature and ‘tell my brothers what I saw’. The best part of this ‘new’ version is the ending, when Stills finally dispenses with the niceties and ends the song with a roaring repeat of the chorus, strumming his guitar with such desperation it sounds as if its about to break.
Stills also ends the set with a stunning version of ‘Love The One You’re With’, which might be the highlight of the entire record. The song begins with Stills’ ‘goofy’ voice uttering ‘this is really a fun game!’ before embarking on a spectacularly funky acoustic reading of one of his best known songs. Now, I’m not as big a fan of this song as most CSN-ers seem to be, as its a bit too trivial for Stills’ usual style and is largely built on one note without the vast range of ideas that are usually packed into Stills’ mini-epics (it also stamps so close to Crosby’s lyrical territory as to be virtually on his toes), although even I admit that the rousing performance of the original takes the song to heights it probably doesn’t deserve. I much prefer this demo, however – this is Stills roaring the vocal with a passion he’ll rarely have again and replacing the somewhat awkward stop-start rhythms of the finished product with a massacring of his guitar, changing from chord to chord with wild abandon. Unlike the other demos here, this song sounds complete without the overdubs and makes you wonder why he ever bothered to re-record it – the definitive version of this song is right here in April 1970, all ready and waiting to take on the world.
Thereafter the Crosby and Nash songs are a bit of a mixed bag, more because we’ve heard these songs and recordings before than because of any fault with the demos. Nash’s ‘Marrakesh Express’ never really gets grooving and his vocal is too far off the microphone to register properly. It also badly misses the harmonies of Stills – something surprisingly few of the other demos do – and Crosby enters the song much too late. Having said that, it’s fun to hear an early, tentative version of a song that is about to become one of the best known songs Nash ever wrote and it’s clear that both Crosby and Nash are having fun with this song, even as early as January 1969.
‘Almost Cut My Hair’ would be jaw-droppingly stupendous had we not already heard this demo on ‘Voyage’. You see, this slow, dream-like demo couldn’t be further from the spiky, angry bitter rant that appears on CSNY’s ‘Deja Vu’ album and seems to share only the vaguest DNA with its finished cousin. It’s easy to see why Crosby changed his plans as this version’s five minutes seem to take forever (compared to the unedited final version’s nine minutes which still seem way too short) and Crosby’s vocal is, while still stunning, less raw and less passionate than on the final recording which just makes the recording of that song. Again, though, its a fascinating study of an alternate CSN universe which would have been worth the price of admission on its own – had we not already forked out £50 for the ‘Voyage’ box-set a few years back.
‘Deja Vu’ is a real curio – we’ve already been given one demo for this song on ‘Voyage’, but that version was a Crosby-Nash demo which formed the basis for the finished song. This is a much rougher, solo version of the same song with an extended running time that replaces the scat singing intro of the original with a scat-sung fade that goes on for hours. What’s interesting about this song is how ordinary and simple this song sounds without the magical harmonies, the elaborate production techniques or the sleepy haze-inducing middle section. Crosby’s tale of past lives and trying to get things right before another ‘turn on the wheel’ is a classic, open for just about every interpretation under the sun – and Crosby/Nash, CSN, CSNY, CPR and Crosby solo have given us some very different interpretations down the years. Here, though, the song is down to the barest threadbare bones and that’s not quite the angle that suits it best, interesting as it is. The best part of the song is that ending, where Crosby has obviously not worked out quite what he wants to do with the song yet and just improvises his way round the song’s (soon to be) instrumental passage, apparently unclear about what to do with it. This end segment runs for nearly three minutes and yet it neatly mirrors what the whole band are about to add to it in a year or so’s time – the only part missing is the end ‘we have all been here before’ section. Only, of course, we have all been here before – this makes for the sixth official version of the song yet to be released and is really beginning to scrape the barrel a little bit now.
‘Sleep Song’ is the most dispensable moment on the whole set. Not that it’s a bad song – Nash’s goodbye ode to his first wife is a sweet little romantic number that offered a breakthrough in Graham’s songwriting in two ways – it urged a move towards more autobiographical-sounding songs and managed to annoy the hell out of the other Hollies, who hated this song’s lines about the characters ‘taking off their clothes’. The finished version on ‘Songs For Beginners’ is a minor classic (see review no 46), but this version is identical in tempo, guitarwork, lyrics, melody, vocals, in short everything that makes hearing demos of previously issued work so rewarding. Only Nash’s scat-vocal middle section, in which he hums solo instead of using a multi-track machine, seems at all different and those 10 seconds are not worth issuing this new version for, however much I love the song.
‘Be Yourself’ suffers from the same problem – Nash’s finished version, also from ‘Songs For Beginners’, is similarly acoustic, although this version is at least nice to hear without the booming chorus of soul singers. Again this is a sweet little song that deserves to be better known, but this collaboration with Terry Reid is one of the few demos here that actually sounds unfinished and really benefits from the changes Nash made in the studio. Graham’s voice creaks and crackles like never before – not really a problem for a demo usually but it sounds really out of place on this otherwise immaculately sung set – and the only real points of interest are the occasional lyric change, such as this version’s ‘though you disguise what you see...your reality’ instead of ‘the mirror is free’.
‘Music Is Love’ is one of the more interesting moments of the set but it’s a bit of a cheat – this is the issued version of the record slightly remixed and given a slightly longer running time courtesy of a groovy percussion-led ending. Of course, this song isn’t really a demo at all – its Crosby messing around in the studio as a bit of a warm-up but Nash and Young loved the results so much they overdubbed harmonies, more guitar, a glockenspiel, vibes, percussion and a few other odds and ends as well. The finished product ended up opening Crosby’s first solo album ‘If Only I Could Remember My Name’ (see review no 45), but sadly what we have here isn’t Crosby’s original demo before the others made off with it (something I’m dying to hear) but a first attempt at a mix by Nash and Young, with their harmonies starting much earlier in the song and featuring a repetitive strumming part from Crosby’s acoustic before abruptly cutting off. This is nice to hear and very interesting after getting to know this track so well for the past 20 years – but why oh why wasn’t the Crosby-only version used? And surely there’s tracks that have more differences than this in the vaults still?
‘Long Time Gone’ is a Crosby-Stills demo from June 1968, back in the days when they were still working on the first record as the ‘Frozen Noses’ before Nash joined in the fun. It’s not quite the same as the Crosby/Stills demo first heard on ‘Voyage’ – but it near enough is, with the only real difference being that the song is taken at a slightly quicker lick. That version on ‘Voyage’ was a revelation – Crosby often said that there was an ‘awful’ version of the song in the vaults before Stills’ stunning new arrangement and Nash’s blissful harmonies promoted the finished recording to being one of Crosby’s career highlights (‘Those cats loved me so much they helped me find my voice!’) That version on ‘Voyage’ was it – lopsided, ragged and very very peculiar, it had none of the spooky ambience of the finished product and even though the lyrics were identical seemed to have none of the blistering anger and rage of the recording we know and love. Inspired by the death of Robert Kennedy in 1968, both of these two recordings must have been remarkably quick out of the blocks after Crosby wrote it – but each of them are miserably lacking in everything the finished version got right. But that’s how it goes – outtakes sets like these are an invaluable source in showing true fans just how much effort and skill went into the finished songs and horrors like these are actually more interesting than beautiful recordings that sound more or less the same. However, there’s no excuse for issuing two more-or-less-the-same stabs at the same arrangement within three years – that’s just going too far.
The last track to discuss is Nash’s evergreen ‘Chicago’. Unlike the other Nash demos here this is very different to the finished product, with it’s elaborate production and mass voiced choir. Unfortunately, it’s very very like the way Nash has performed it in virtually every concert since and this version doesn’t even benefit from some nice CSN harmonies. Nash’s basic piano work and gutsy, simple lyrics about how Stills and Young should join in with a Crosby-Nash benefit for the Chicago Seven is a nice piece of work, catchy but deep you could say, but here, it sounds like a monotonous drag that’s more likely to get the Chicago seven hung than set them free. The most illuminating part of the song is the ending with Nash ad lobbing ‘help us make some more!’ – OK, so he’s actually singing to Stills and Young, but this could just as easily be his modern-day self singing to us to get us to fork out for a CSN record once again.
But unlike every other CSN record made, there seems to be no purpose to this one, even a misguided one. We can kind of guess at the circumstances behind it. CSN don’t have a long-standing record contract any more, their concert sales aren’t enough to get them by and their back catalogue is woefully out of fashion (which is the fault of the public’s not theirs, I reiterate). We also know that David Crosby, particularly, is struggling for money after being hit by the Inland Revenue yet again for unpaid taxes (back in the days of the mid-80s when he was on the run from the law and spent all the money he had and more on drugs) and even had to sell his precious yacht The Mayan, source of many of his greatest songs and an icon for CSN like no other (he managed to avoid selling it in the 1980s, so he must be really in trouble if he’s sold it now). I’m sure every CSN fan would be more than willing to pay their share to help Crosby out but, sadly, this means the first ever sub-par album from the trio (as opposed to CSNY). If only Rhino had put out a ‘proper’ CSN outtakes set, re-issued the original tapes of abandoned albums like Crosby’s ‘Drive My Car’ from 1979, CSNY’s ‘Human Highway’ (1974), ‘Long May You Run’ (1976) or even the abandoned Crosby-Nash LP that became ‘Live It Up’ (1990) the cost would very much have been worth it. But the tiny trickle of rarities on this set compared to the sheer volume of unreleased recordings still in the vaults makes this a very sad way to mark 40 years of the most magical group. Having said all that, however, the music is still stunning, even in unheard form, and well worth seeking out for newcomer CSN fans who don’t want to fork out for the superior ‘Voyage’ and ‘Reflections’ sets. Let’s hope, though, if Rhino do continue to look back in the CSN vaults they find something a bit longer and a bit more interesting the next time around.
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