Monday, 4 June 2012
Neil Young "A Treasure" (2011) (News, Views and Music 147)
Neil Young and the International Harvesters “A Treasure” (2011)
Amber Jean/Are You Ready For The Country?/It Might Have Been/Bound For Glory/Let Your Fingers Do The Walking/Flying On The Ground Is Wrong/Motor City/Soul Of A Woman/Get Back To The Country/Southern Pacific/Nothing Is Perfect/Grey Riders
Neil Young famously told us in 1985 that ‘old ways can be a ball and chain’ and yet that’s exactly what he did with ‘Old Ways’, one of his least successful albums in the eyes of most fans where the traditional country styles sounded hokey and forced. For years now we ‘Geffen Geeks’ have wondered what the records from Neil’s ‘lost’ phase might have sounded like if they weren’t so, well, lost: there aren’t many of us who’d claim Neil’s troubled time in the 80s (when Geffen actually sued Neil for ‘not making albums that sounded like Neil Young’, despite the fact that the ‘real’ Neil Young is split into many hundreds of different people) to be his best work, but there’s a real depth and poignancy there that’s missing from some of his better known 60s, 70s and 90s recordings. I’ve been patiently waiting for Neil’s ‘Archive’ series of releases to finally get round to this era, because hearing these troubled songs in a new setting away from the restrictions of the time and genre really allows these songs to breathe on bootleg. And now, after some pretty lifeless acoustic shows from 1968 and 1972 and an electric Crazy Horse from 1969 on a bad night comes the first truly revealing album in the series, featuring no less than seven previously unavailable songs. It’s like hearing what ‘Old Ways’ should have sounded like, before the long troubled background of that record (which we’ll be delving into later) got in the way and this alternate glimpse into a decidedly more rock and roll oriented country sound is so superior to the finished product you wonder why on earth the album turned out as badly as it did. But then Neil Young is famous for leaving some of his best songs (and even some of his best finished albums) lying by the side of the road in his desperate haste to race towards the next destination his muse takes him. It’s fantastic that with releases like ‘A Treasure’ we get a glimpse of how great these albums should have been.
We owe this album’s existence to Ben Keith, Neil Young’s longest-term sideman and colleague who played pedal-steel guitar in every Neil Young band except Crazy Horse, from the earliest ‘Harvest’ era to the ‘International Pineapple Trans Band’ and ‘The Shocking Pinks’ (he’s also ‘Grandpa’ in the film version of ‘Greendale’ – the Neil Young film, obviously, not the Postman Pat movie in the works!) Keith, who died in 2010, helped out a lot with the ‘archives’ projects and picked out this album from Neil’s huge array of tape boxes and mixes over the years, telling the guitarist that these tapes from on tour in later 84 and early 85 were ‘a treasure’. And a treasure they are for any Young fan whose ever read the rave reviews of the International Harvesters on tour or whose read the long list of unissued tracks, wondering what they must sound like: ‘Amber Jean’ ‘Grey Riders’ ‘It Might Have Been’ ‘Let Your Fingers Do The Walking’ ‘Soul Of A Woman’ and ‘Nothing Is Perfect’. All of them are unreleased on record, although Neil can be seen singing the last song at Live Aid (typical Neil – everyone else uses the occasion to plug wither their new work or their back catalogue, CSN included, but Neil’s writing a song none of the public will get to hear again for another 26 years). How strange that Neil should have passed so many songs of quality by – no, not on the albums, we fans are used to that (there are whole albums from the 70s that never came out!) – but just think how enticing Geffen compilation ‘Lucky 13’ might have sounded with some of these songs attached to it! Not that every track here is great – not all the unissued tracks live up to their reputation after so many years of speculation and the six remaining songs on the album are a completely random throw of the dice around Neil’s then-recent past rather than fan favourites, but we haven’t had this many ‘new’ things to get excited about since the ‘Archives’ box set – and this single CD is around £100-£150 cheaper.
Of course these songs were always intended for release originally, back in the days when Neil was so annoyed at Geffen’s rejection of his original ‘Old Ways’ record that he vowed to make nothing but country records from now on ‘so that they can’t sue me for making records that are unrepresentative – because from now on this is all I’ll be known for!” This was a particularly brave statement to make seeing that South American country radio stations still had Young on a black-list at the time (for ‘Southern Man’) but then country hasd always been an influence on Neil’s work, from his records with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY to Harvest. Still, ‘Ols Ways’ had gone further into the genre than ever before, further than most country singers dared to do in fact, with its pedal steels, fiddles, jews harps and duets with country legends. It certainly went too far for me. But ‘A Treasure’ suggests that whatever came next would have been a lot more special and a lot less generic. The maudlin but evocative ‘Depression Blues’ and a first version of CSNY’s bleak austerity song ‘This Ole’ House’ would most likely have ended up on a second ‘Old Ways’ album, along with a handful of rejects from the first Old Ways album and the six offcuts here. Taken as a whole, you have to say this album would have been by far and away the better of the two (even with some truly awful songs as per all the Geffen albums) and to some extent exonerates Neil’s sudden conversion to all things traditional and country, as this ‘second batch’ of songs suits Neil much better (at the time, of course, Neil vowed he would only make ‘country’ records into his old age – although in the end country turned out to be just one more of the many styles Neil used in the 80s). Ironically, for all Neil’s tales that country music was ‘honest’ and ‘built for the long term’, the finished ‘Old Ways’ album is probably the most un-Neil Young like record ever made, full of hokey songs about always loving the country and protecting the humble farmer (Neil’s background being in an industrialised part of Winnipeg, Canada!) This second, unfinished album, by contrast, finds Neil more at home with himself and with his genre, less suffocated Of course all that might have changed in the studio (even the ‘Old Ways’ songs sound better here live), but there’s more of a direction here and the songs about family and religion sound more believable and far less patronising than before. On ‘Grey Riders’ Neil even sounds edgy and dangerous again, something he hadn’t sounded like since 1982’s ‘Trans’ (and even then it passed most people by), making the Neil Young of 1985 a much more likeable, interesting figure than the one in 1984.
Indeed, I’ve been scratching my head over what on earth happened to Neil Young during the time of the first album. Whilst Neil’s allegiance to the hippie ethos of peace love and flowers was always fluctuating at best (he may have written the world’s most damning Richard Nixon song ‘Ohio’, but he wrote the most sympathetic Nixon song – ‘Campaigner’ – too), the Neil of this period is downright scary. Only 15 years after damning Republican president Nixon to high heaven – and just 20 years before damning Republican president Bush junior with ‘Let’s Impeach The President’ - Neil spoke out in favour of Ronald Reagan, claiming that nuclear missiles were good things for America to have (precisely because other countries were too scared too challenge the USA’s might), that America should keep itself to itself and not lift a finger to help ‘lesser’ countries and most shockingly that all welfare supports should be stripped out of 1980s America. One rock critic, Dave Marsh, even wrote an impassioned article about how ‘Neil Young killed my dad’ (because he was forced to work without a disability pension and died at the age of 57). Worst of all, Neil even went off on a homophobic rant about the homosexuals who ‘work at my local shop and handle my potatoes’ which just so isn’t the tolerant, freedom-pursuing character we’ve come to know and love down the years. In short, Neil Young was never as unhip or as un-liked as he was in 1985 and he actively seemed to be distancing himself from the young thriving music scenes of the day, usually seen hanging out with even older timers like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings in stark contrast to the late 70s (when Neil was virtually the only artist from the 60s to approve of punk from the start) and the 1990s (when grunge and Neil’s Nirvana links meant he was ‘cool’ again), having convinced himself that only country, the ‘oldest’ genre’, has a future for him now. If old ways are a ball and chain then Neil Young was shackled in 1985 and how.
There are excuses of course. It’s easy for us to look back from the post-Berlin Wall world and say ‘aggressive arms are a stupid way to go’ knowing full well the situation will take care of itself. Neil may also have been naive, ascribing more American values to the red white and blue than the majority of real born-and-bred Americans (not uncommon in Canadians who later live across the border). Or he may have just been in a foul mood that day. We’ve covered before on this site, in review no 84 (‘Trans’) and news and views no 56 (‘Life’) how badly Neil was hit by the birth of his son Ben, born with cerebral palsy and the intense 24 hour hands-on approach both he and wife Pegi were forced to undertake for the first few years of his life, with all the pressure, dedication and guilt that entailed and speaking sensibly to a media representative looking for a quote is almost definitely the last thing a tired and confused Neil wanted to do. Seeing his young song struggle with no help whatsoever may have been the deciding factor in that uncharacteristic whinge against welfare (which, like so many media images, is manipulated – fraud counts for just 0.0005% of cases you know). The whole Geffen law suit thing didn’t help either, with Neil a much more troubled and angry soul than he had been in his more mellow 70s phase. The first version of ‘Old Ways’, an album never heard bar two tracks that made it to the second version, had turned sour in the time it took a Geffen official – Eddie Rosenblatt – to call it ‘too country’ (it couldn’t possibly have been as country as the second version. Or so we hope anyway lest it come out some day). Or it may have been that the infamously chameleonlike singer was simply hanging out with the wrong people. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson are as country as it gets, big stars who were fading and desperately needed the publicity of someone like Neil on their side and Neil’s attempts to sound like them on the duets on ‘Old Ways’ are amongst the biggest mistakes of his career, the complete opposite of what honest to goodness country is really about: honesty. With his name mates out of the picture, Geffen off his back (Neil re-worked his contract by asking for less money and the freedom to do what he wanted – surely the only time a recording artist has ever asked their company for a reduction in salary!) and ‘Old Ways’ finally released in some form (if not entirely to everyone’s liking) ‘A Treasure’ is a much better second attempt at making an all-out country album precisely because Neil isn’t trying to sound like anyone else but him.
It also fits the ‘get back to the country’ theme of Old Ways rather better. Neil was obsessed with going back to his roots in this period, just at the point when every other musician was busy discarding their roots and trying to go all modern and technological. Neil did that too on ‘Trans’, of course, but it speaks volumes to me that an album based on Neil’s rockabilly roots should be followed by an album based around his country roots (including many cover versions of songs he heard in his childhood) and then a another noisy generic rock album that’s kind of his teenage years in a way. By mixing up songs from Neil’s early history (‘Flying On The Ground Is Wrong’) and songs about his new born family (‘Amber Jean’) with ‘Get Back To The Country’ ( a sort of ‘Get Back’ played with jews harps and fiddles) Neil disagrees with his statement that ‘old ways can be a ball and chain’ – and comes up with what would have been a more interesting and innovative record all round.
Like many of Neil’s 1980s albums these songs that sounded so lifeless and self-aware on record sound confident and brittle when heard live. A lot of that is down to the band: ‘The International Harvesters’ was a name first given to the ‘Harvest’ band and many of them return for this live set, with semi-big names from the country world like Spooner Oldham and old friends like Ben Keith, singer Anthony Crawford and bassist Tim Drummond on hand to help the songs along. Best of all, true country players Hargus Robbins and Joe Allen add their great authentic sound to proceedings and yet sound far more comfortable on these rock-country hybrids than Willie or Waylon ever did (in true country mode, they couldn’t sound like anyone but themselves). By trying to tell the story of country less and the story of Neil Young more ‘A Treasure’ sounds like a much better bet all round and a clear signpost towards the end of Neil’s ‘covering up’ phase (that lasts from 1980s ‘Hawks and Doves’ right up to 1988’s ‘Freedom/Eldorado’) where he created arguably his most honest songs after a decade of hiding away from himself. As it happens this album never came out because of a curious incident in mid 1985 when, after vowing never to play rock music again, Neil went to sleep watching a rock film on TV (some sources say its The Who biopic ‘The Kids Are Alright’) and woke up with a pounding angry rock riff in his head, awaking his interest in all things loud once more. Ironically the follow-up LP ‘Landing On Water’ is even worse than ‘Old Ways’ and further proof that Neil Young was hiding away from writing about his experiences and views in music (the heartbreakingly cynical ‘Hippie Dream’ aside), so it’s even more of a shame that such a cracking bunch of unfinished songs should get cast aside for such drudgery.
Not that every song here works well. ‘Are You Ready For The Country?’ is perhaps the most forgettable song from one of Neil’s most forgettable albums ‘Harvest’ (yes its Neil’s best-selling, but very few fans think its one of Neil’s best works). ‘Let Your Fingers’ and ‘Soul Of A Woman’ are a little bit patronising, in the same vein as the horrid ‘Bite The Bullet’ from ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ and need a lot of work before they’d take fire in a recording studio. ‘Motor City’ is a disgracefully immigration-heavy rant about Japanese cars on sale in the USA (and changed from Germany as per the original; neatly forgetting the fact that American cars sell well in Japan and Germany too) that’s easily the worst song from the not-that-hot ‘Re-Ac-Tor’. Finally ‘Nothing Is Perfect’ lives up to its name all too well, a hokey country ballad that’s the closest in style to ‘Old Ways’ here (though still better than a good half of that awful album). There’s also nothing here up to the standard of ‘Misfits’, the one true gem from ‘Old Ways’ that at least dared to be different (a little too different, given that this is a song about Muhammad Ali in a space station we’re talking about here).
But equally ‘Grey Riders’ knocks the socks of anything on all the ‘Geffen’ albums bar Trans, a gloriously smoky scary song with an open structure that could have seen it become another ‘Cortez’ or ‘Hurricane’ had fans got to hear it as many times in concert as those stalwarts. ‘Flying On The Ground Is Wrong’ is a glorious surprise, after so many years hidden away as a song on the first Buffalo Springfield album and heard here with the author ‘properly’ re-instated on vocals (Neil’s unusual voice was considered too ‘un-commercial’ by the powers that be of the day, who gave the song to Richie Furay to sing). ‘Bound For Glory’ and ‘Get Back To The Country’, two songs from ‘Old Ways’ that sounded tired, hackneyed and pointless on record now have a bit of life about them, with Neil’s vocals sparkling and obviously him instead of the bad country impressions that made it to the record. ‘Amber Jean’ is a sweet little song dedicated to Neil’s daughter (two years old at the time of this version), whose birth was a tough time for dad and mum after two boys born with differing strengths of cerebral palsy (she’s been perfectly healthy all her life and is now quite an ecological activist, being painted by her dad as the character ‘Sun Green’ in the curious 2007 concept album ‘Greendale’). Best of all ‘Southern Pacific’, a rollicking train song rather thrown away on ‘Re-Ac-Tor’, sounds magnificent here with the band doing a mighty good impersonation of a diesel engine (Neil is, of course, a huge train fanatic and has a barn full of models – many of which he helped design during his association with the model company Lionel, including many adaptations designed especially for disabled children to use). That’s a ratio of five to seven good songs to bad: higher than most Neil Young albums and impressive for an unreleased set.
Until Neil finally releases his acoustic shows from 1989, his unfinished ‘Chrome Dreams’ album from 1977, his unfinished ‘Island In The Sun’ from 1982 or any of his shows with Otis Redding’s band Booker T and the MGs (1993), ‘A Treasure’ remains the highlight of the Neil Young archive series. It’s also infinitely better than the album s recorded either side of it (‘Old Ways’ and ‘Landing On Water’), although sadly tells us more about Neil’s fall from grace in the mid 80s than it does about this album. Still, if you’ve been burnt by those two albums as much as I have then this album is a wonderful surprise and after a fairly nondescript start to the ‘Archives’ series really is a treasure!
The album starts with ‘Amber Jean’, Neil’s song of love for his new born daughter (who turns 30 next year I believe!) On first listening things aren’t too promising: Neil starts the song with a hokey ‘this one’s for you, honey’ and the backing is so Nashville with its pedal steel guitar washes and double fiddle attack you half expect this song to be another Willie Nelson duet. However the song itself is lovely, sporting a wonderfully yearning melody and some typically prescient Neil Young homespun philosophy in its lyrics: ‘still some corns that might get tossed, still some lines that ought to be crossed, still some love that hasn’t been lost, there for you my Amber Jean’. When you understand the difficulties Neil and family faced in the 80s and the illness and therapy programmes they had to work through those lines say a great deal, about Neil’s determination to get back in charge of his music and indeed his muse, going back to push back boundaries instead of coasting and the fact that he can still love despite being ‘worn out’ from the demands on the Young family’s time. ‘Amber Jean’ is kind of a sister song to Neil’s ‘Already One’ from ‘Comes A Time’ and ‘My Boy’ from ‘Old Ways’ – which is fitting because this is about the sister to those two songs about Neil’s sons Zeke and Ben. Neil clearly relates ‘country’ with ‘family’ as all three have similar vibes and backing tracks and the message that whatever ills the future might bring their dad will always love them. Enough to elicit a big ‘aaah’ then, even though the backing is still a little too country for me and the Harvesters sound a bit sleepy here. Full marks to Anthony Crawford’s high falsetto harmony, though, which mixes as well with Neil’s wobbly vocals as his more famous harmonisers Nicolette Larson and Linda Rontsadt’s did.
‘Are You Ready For The Country?’ was one of the lesser moments on ‘Harvest’, which isn’t one of Neil’s better albums no matter how many millions of copies it sold. Part threat, part promise, it’s an unfocused gangly song that has more in common with Neil’s angry rock attacks on the music business like ‘Mr Soul’ and ‘Walk On’ that it does with country music. The musician narrator of the song tries to tell his story to us but it’s a rather generic one, with a preacher trying to bring him to salvation and a drug pusher trying to take him to sin (I’d love to have heard Johnny Cash sing this one as its virtually his story – he sang two NY songs over the years, ‘Heart Of Gold’ and ‘Pocahontas’ but never this one alas!) Heard here, with a country band playing rock rather than a rock band playing country, it sounds much better than before, with a fiddle solo and a bottleneck guitar solo that makes much more sense than Neil’s electric guitar playing as heard on the record. The band clearly know the song well, too, and turn it in with a much snappier, bouncier pace than the sleepy original. As we said above, this song is Neil’s version of ‘Get Back’ and like The Beatles song it features a great beat, fantastic riff and glorious playing – but not much going on in the heart of the song which is all filler apart from the chorus. Of course it wasn’t time for Neil to go ‘country’ after releasing this the first time round in 1972 – he got into rock and roll instead, recording his ‘doom trilogy’ and only really getting back to where he left off with ‘Harvest’ on the much superior ‘Comes A Time’ six years later (see news and views no 29).
‘It Might Have Been’ is a fascinating song, one which to the best of my knowledge never made it out on bootleg or was ever returned to past this 84/85 tour. It’s probably the most country song Neil’s written to date too, sounding like a cover version with Neil’s pub singer vocal, fiddle solo and simplistic lines about letting a good thing go. The opening couplet ‘the saddest words of tongue or pen are these four words ‘It Might Have Been’ is a strong opening for a song and although the rest of the lyrics are just filling in the rest of the lyric there’s a really clever structure top this song, which flowers out into a warm harmony-driven chorus and an almost honky tonk shuffle middle eight that bridges the gap between the two quite nicely. I could have done without the squeaking fiddles and like many of Neil’s most country songs it would have sounded better still done as rock, but this song and performance are far too good to have gone unheard for all these years and are the equal of anything on ‘Old Ways’ (possibly barring ‘Misfits’).
‘Bound For Glory’ is the first of two songs actually from ‘Old Ways’ and although far from Neil’s best moment the song definitely suits the looser, more stripped back arrangement here than the syrupy one on record. On the record country legend Waylon Jennings gets to sing along and although his vocal might have suited this record solo it sounded terrible when joined by Neil’s lead – thankfully its only Young and Crawford who sing here. Apparently the song came to Neil when he was on his tour bus in 83, the tour before this one, with the melody arriving complete and Neil rushing to a typewriter he kept at the back of his bus to fill in the words. He later called it his favourite moment on the ‘Old Ways’ record – I can’t say its mine, but I’m warming to this ‘second’ version a lot more than the first, which sounded all false and artificial. A song about a husband and wife parting and then making up, there’s feeling in the song that their destiny is together and that if only they could stop their human frailties (he ends up dating a hitch-hiker and she a trucker, in true country style) getting in the way they’d be ‘bound for glory’. Like the original, this song is way too long and features at least two too many repeats of the chorus, but while no masterpiece it’s nice to hear this song done properly by a band really behind the material (the ‘Old Ways’ version, by contrast, sounds like a load of drunken friends ‘playing’ at being country singers – and failing).
‘Let Your Fingers Do The Walking’ is another unreleased Neil Young song and – while far from the best of Neil’s assorted unissued songs – its welcome to have it on out shelves in legitimate form at last. It’s a song with a theme and arrangement more akin to ‘Comes A Time’, especially the title track which shares the same walking pace tempo and fiddle playing. This is one of Neil’s occasional story songs, about the early pioneers and settlers in America and the contrast with today (which doesn’t fare well by comparison). Neil’s occasional sexist lyrics get the better of him here (‘a man had his own way...while talking to a woman’) although its really a song about not knowing your place in a world where the rules are changing all the time. This could have ended up a serious song, but somewhere along the line became another Neil Young joke, with a chorus about the narrator being listed in the phone directory under ‘broken hearted looking for good times’. The distance between the couple when they phone each other becomes a metaphor for the distance between their relationship (again! If I ever do an AAA article on this theme it’ll have to be at least a top 100!), he’s ‘hung up’ but she’s ‘disconnected’. There’s also a very poor lyric about his beloved ‘giving good ‘phone’. Hmm. At least the tune is nice though, somehow managing to sound like every other country song written since the year dot and yet still strangely Neil Youngish at the same time and with a very pretty chorus that recalls that great unissued (for five years or so) Neil Young song ‘Love Is A Rose’.
‘Flying On The Ground Is Wrong’ was written when Neil was just 21 and in the middle of his first great run of form, appearing on the first eponymously titled Buffalo Springfield record way back in 1966. Richie Furay had the dreamy voice in that band so it was him who got to sing it, but it’s Neil’s composition and suits his more vulnerable, more eccentric voice well. In many ways this is a Dylan-ish song with the tune very much written to fit the lyrics, but the vulnerable youth looking for love aspect is very much the Neil Young of this period, with the title basically an apology for being happy and having ideas above his station, with his excitement after recognising a fellow ‘loner’ getting the better of him. The pedal steel on this version is a neat touch, tugging at the heart strings of the hapless narrator who can’t seem to do any right, but its the yearning, counterpointed middle eight that makes this song (‘sometimes I feel like just a helpless child...’), promising to change by lowering his horizons. There’s also an interesting final verse about the narrator lost in the city, caught in the ‘glare’ of city lights that illuminate nothing and so the narrator simply gives up chasing after his prey figuring she’s too ‘dark’ to care for him back anyway. No one’s ever said anything about this song’s origins (Neil especially) but I sense a bit of Neil’s fellow Winnipeg compatriot Joni Mitchell about this song, with a similar emphasis on shaky images and a line about the partnership not working despite the fact that ‘you’re from my side of town’. In which case what did Neil think when Joni ended up with first Crosby and then Nash?! Clever indeed, this early song fits the country genre as well as it did the pop of the original and proves what a timeless song it really is. A nice addition to Neil’s canon.
‘Motor City’ though is, alas, a huge mistake. A big bludgeoning piece of whinging and casual racism on ‘Re-Ac-Tor’, it’s turned into a weedy country song full of casual racism here. Basically the song is about the patriotic American narrator’s response to an advert saying American cars are no good – though interestingly the studio record’s put down of German’s cars is replaced by Japanese cars in concert. Further lyrics reveal why the narrator’s so upset (he used to work in a car engineering factory in Detroit till he lost his job), but by Neil’s own high standards this is unsubtle, one dimensional stuff indeed. The live version fares better, if only because Neil sings the song in a more mocking, less patronising way and plays a truly blistering electric guitar solo which sounds as out of place in this countrified, brotherly family setting as his cars now seem in the US of A. I do miss Crazy Horse’s harmonies, though, which at least added a bit of colour to the song and the same irritating chugging electric guitar riff is still sadly present (this song would sound much better – and much more menacing – taken at a faster trot I think). It’s also a sort of sister song to ‘Long May You Run’, Neil’s ‘other’ song about cars (specifically the hearse he drove in the early to mid 60s back when it was all he could afford!) and both songs have another thing in common: they’re both among the worst things Neil has ever released!
‘Soul Of A Woman’ is another unissued song and probably for good reason this time. A sweet little verse with a bluesy strut and some oddball lyrics about how a man and woman needs each other, it could have become the basis for a good song, but Neil’s on automatic pilot here and the song never really progresses from this main riff. ‘You can’t help nobody unless you help yourself’ runs the second verse and ‘the perfect combination since the world began’ goes the chorus – and that’s about it, over and over; there’s nothing really to see here you won’t get done better elsewhere. There’s also more examples of Neil in his sexist phase here – she keeps him warm at night, she keep shim ‘satisfied’; you wonder what wife Pegi had to say about those lyrics! You have to say, though, the International Harvesters sound surprisingly at home on what is really a blues song not a country one and the fact that this recording is of any interest at all is down to the great players here (Anthony Crawford is, again, the star of the recording). Not bad for an outtake, although it would have been a mistake if released at the time I fear.
‘Get Back To The Country’ is the other song off ‘Old Ways’ and in one fell swoop its gone from being my least favourite song on the album to the best. Where the original is slow and ponderous, with cloying fiddles and comedy jews harp being played throughout throughout, this version is played at a rat-a-tat pace and is led by a banjo which is a neat touch (most people seem to hate the sound of banjos but not me – The Hollies have brainwashed me into liking them over the years). Heard at such a pace this song about getting back to your roots sounds even closer to ‘Get Back’, with the same incessant riff that won’t shut up and the same enjoyable feeling that the music could go anywhere. Genuinely exciting rather than forced, Neil sounds like he means it this time around which is a bonus given that this song is a very personal one, with Neil looking back on his youth who ‘got lucky in a rock and roll band’ but always knew he’d end up writing country music (actually the country stylings don’t really show up till Neil tackles ‘Oh! Lonesome Me!’ on ‘After The Goldrush’ in 1970 but never mind...) There’s also a second verse about being part of a ‘band’ who live and breathe for country music and are simply updating the old days when people used to gather round campfires (although like a gypsy the touring wagons roll after every gig). Again there’s also no Waylon Jennings around to spoil the mood – although again its the harmony between the pair that didn’t work (a solo Jennings version would have been pretty special, especially done like this).The only down side is that, being played so fast this time around, the performance is so short (an extra verse would have gone down well here, Neil!) Not one of Neil’s best songs by any means, ‘Get Back To The Country’ is the surprise of the album, transformed in every way a song can be and whilst it still isn’t my favourite Young song it sounds one heck of a lot better than it used to. Full marks to the International Harvesters for ‘getting’ this song in a way the ‘Old Ways’ bunch never could, despite the millions of dollars and dozens of players taking part.
Similarly ‘Southern Pacific’ sounds better in every way, even though it always sounded like one of the better songs from ‘Re-Ac-Tor’ to start with. Freed of the Crazy Horse cacophony of sound, the Harvesters really bring out the subtlety in this remake of ‘Casey Jones’ forced into retirement (see our review of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Workingman’s Dead’, news and views no 138, for more on this character). We’ve already seen how trains are a huge hobby for Neil and like many of his ‘train’ songs here the metaphor is the passion and drive for whatever you have in life: unfortunately in this song it’s about a train driver who only lives for his trains being told the service has to cut back and ‘Mr Jones we’re going to have to let you go’. Basically, it’s a song about getting older, facing your ‘own steep decline’ and watching younger people overtake you – Neil was all of 36 when he wrote these words and they suit the slightly older, country feel of this version (when Neil was 40) much better, with some very descriptive lyrics of the noble engine threading its way through South America. Many writers have commented on how mournful trains can sound (Ray Davies on ‘The Getaway’ and Paul Simon on ‘Train In The Distance’), but few sound as mournful as this slower version of ‘Southern Pacific’, especially the heavily extended instrumental section with both Neil’s guitar and Joe Allen’s fiddle playing mimicking the screech of a train on the tracks and the hoot of the whistle. It’s a very atmospheric record this one, with Neil really getting into character with his call out on the end section ‘Southern Pacific...no 945...Arriving track no 7....Get your baggage ready...’ Try as I may I can’t find any mention of a specific 945 engine, but knowing Neil there probably is one out there – he certainly knows his stuff about trains! The song may have been revived by Neil (after four years of never being played on tour) after the news in 1984 that the Southern Pacific Railway was being bought up by Santa Fe Industries in 1984, which might account for this new version’s melancholy air and frustration. The highlight of the whole album for me, with a promising song finally making good on the promise of the rather rushed and simplified rock version on ‘Re-Ac-Tor’. arve
The personal sob stories so often told in the country genre clearly work well for Neil – but alas his attempts to use country music to embody a whole generation/species are less successful across this album. ‘Nothing Is Perfect In God’s Perfect Plan’ is a woefully clichéd song and its simplified religious guff is especially hard to take after so many anti-religious Neil Young songs down the years (‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’ ‘Soldier’ ‘Southern Man’ ‘Song X’ etc). Basically its a pre-cursor to ‘This Ole’ House from CSNY’s ‘American Dream’ via Neil’s own ‘Depression Blues’, telling the tale of a simple family who don’t despair over the hardship they feel in life because they know God has big plans for them. There’s one great line in the song (you just have to ‘look in the shadows to see’ that things aren’t perfect – and if we all has a perfect world we’d get lazy and take God’s love for granted; OK if you’re just having a slightly difficult time but is that really true of the homeless, the hungry and those who have their livelihoods and families wiped out by disease, war and natural disasters?) Occasionally when Neil does these sorts of songs he does them ironically, but there’s not a trace of that here with possibly the most traditional country arrangement of the record – only one line rings wrong here and that’s the line about having soldiers ‘so strong they can bury their dead’. Is that sarcasm about them being strong – or simply that emotionally they are strong? Some viewers may know this song from Neil’s Live Aid performance (it never came out on record) and it made for a typically jarring note – while everyone else was singing songs of cautious positivity here’s Neil telling us we don’t really have a problem with world hunger and genocide and that God intended it all. Thankfully this version is tighter and less naive-sounding, despite being a live recording as well, but that doesn’t make the sentiments any easier to take. Some unissued Young songs should stay that way – sadly after an album where the new songs are by and large the best this one’s a big fat turkey.
The album ends with the one true classic addition to the Young back cataloguer ‘Grey Riders’. The last song added to the tour, it’s noticeably edgier and noisier than the other songs here and suggests that the story about Neil ending the tour when he woke up with rock music in his head was probably apocryphal. It’s great to hear Neil’s ‘old black’ guitar screaming at full pace and the band as a whole really come alive on this song about mysterious hooded figures walking ‘outside the window’. These figures play a large part in Young mythology and can be seen in Neil’s film ‘Journey Thru The Past’ (part documentary, part dream sequence, part social protest, all of it weird) and in his later album ‘MirrorBall’ on the track ‘Big Green Country’. We never get a resolution to this song, which simply sees these odd grey riders float past and onward to their own tasks unspeaking, but the feeling of threat is the same as in Neil’s ‘Aztec’ songs when a great culture is overthrown by the Eurpoeans. The setting seems to be present day, though, what with the mention of ‘windows’ and domesticated pets: is this Neil’s vision of a future invasion? Whatever the lyrics are about this is a wonderful sounding track with a typically grungy guitar riff on the verses turning into a catchy tour de force guitar lick at the end of each chorus. After some 40 minutes of largely acoustic sounds the sheer sound and scale of this sound is magnificent and the tension going into the extended finale is as intense as on any of Neil’s rock guitar workouts. Why this song never made it to an album is a mystery – much less country than the other songs here it would have fitted in well on ‘Landing On Water’ or ‘Life’, whilst being better than pretty much all songs on both albums. Talked about by Neil Young fans for years and sampled by ,many of us on scratchy sounding bootlegs, it’s great to have this gold carat classic out there properly at last!
So, overall, what we have here is a bona fide treasure chest; the box might have aged, some of the contents seem like they’re missing and there’s maybe only eight or so pieces of eight here. But even if it isn’t the greatest treasure ever found, by Neil or anyone else, the very fact that these treasures have been unearthed at all is fantastic and you can forgive the fact that the treasure is incomplete and damaged round the edges. We fans have known for years that Neil has one of the best collections of a musician’s own works in the business and its great that finally we’re getting to the real jewels in his crown, rather than the ones that will sell better and feature Crazy Horse or songs from Harvest. The ‘Old Ways’ album isn’t that well known as Neil Young albums go and largely for good reason and as a result this fourth ‘Archive’ album doesn’t seem to have sold as well as the others – but if you’re a true Neil Young fan like me who wants to own everything then is an essential purchase, not just a collection filler as were the other three. Let’s hope the Archive series continues (it’s been quiet so far this year) because there’s better still to come – and ,marvel again as to how Neil Young can be so prolific that there are 60-odd solo albums out there to buy as well as three Springfield and five CSNY ones and still Neil has about half as much again sitting in his vault. This guitarist/singer/composer is a treasure indeed and, like Casey Jones, sending him into retirement when he still has so much passion, drive, energy and things to say would be a travesty.