Monday, 6 April 2015
Neil Young and Crazy Horse 'Re-Ac-Tor' (1981)
Neil Young and Crazy Horse "RelAclTor" (1981)
Oplerla Star/Surfler Joe and Moe The Sleaze/T-Bone/Get Back On It//Southlern Paclilfic/Moltor Citly/Raplid Translit/Shots
"Past the angry tide, the mighty diesel whines"
Sometimes you don't need to know about the background to an album to appreciate it (something which admittedly makes our website look a bit pointless, so we tend to brush over that a lot of the time!) Sometimes a lot of the history behind a project is so well documented that it's hard to avoid - like the Lagos adventure that seems to be the whole point of 'Band On The Run' despite not providing a note of musical influence or the message behind an album like 'The Wall' which is writ large in the record's packaging, lyrics and illustrations. And then there are other albums which made absolutely no sense at the time, scattered full of 'clues' which only a small percentage of an artist's fanbase was ever going to notice and even less were going to be able to work out. 'Relacltor' - dotty spelling and all - is one of the latter albums which at the time made collectors everywhere go 'what the?' on first playing and perplexed us for many many years until Neil was ready to talk about it. In many ways I still don't think he's fully talked about it - 'RelAcltor' is one of those albums doomed to remain a mystery until the day he dies (or the day music does - I'm not sure which will come first to be honest). So what possible event in Neil Young's life could make him turn out eight of the most mindless, hulking, overblown, noise and humungously big albums of not just his career but anyone's?
The fate of a little boy. Specifically Neil's little boy Ben. Born in 1978 to the cosy warm family sound of the 'Comes A Time' record, Ben was by now three years old and his mum and dad were beginning to get a bit concerned. Neil had already had one son born with Cerebral Palsy, Zeke, born to second wife Carrie Snodgrass and noticed a lot of similarities with his toddler, who like his step-brother just wasn't doing the other things that other children did. After denying this at first - what were the odds of having two children born with the same complaint to the same father by different wives? - the doctors began to latch on: yes Ben had the same illness, but it was a much stronger form and he would probably never be able to speak (Zeke has more recently been re-diagnosed as suffering from a brain aneurism sometime in the womb - the same complaint that will fall his father in 2005).
Naturally worried, the Youngs vowed to do whatever it took to make their son better. Unfortunately for them their first choice turned out to be the worst thing for both them and Ben: an intensive 14-hour-a-day programme designed to help with Ben's co-ordination and help him to walk. This took place at the family 'Broken Arrow' ranch under supervision and pushed both Neil and wife Pegi near the point of collapse: the change of going from blissful newlyweds to coping with a baby is hard enough for any couple, but this change was so intense, with the couple's lives now centred firmly round their son, with a programme that made them feel guilty for taking a few minutes off. What's more the programme wasn't 14 hours a day of playing or talking to their son - it was pushing him on relentlessly, forcing the poor lad to do something his body just wasn't built to achieve and where his struggling and effort any idea was clearly painful but not resulting in any progress. Only three albums ago Neil had vowed in song to protect his family come what may - but he couldn't protect them from this latest bolt out of the blue. No wonder, then, that Neil was more than a little distracted from his music in the early 1980s, to put it mildly.
Other writers might have channelled that air of frustration and aggression (which Neil was too caring to show at home) into an outpouring of grief. Lesser men might have high-tailed it out of there and gone on the road. Almost everybody would have backed off, let their career take a break for a few years and come back to it later with a 'comeback' album. But Neil isn't most songwriters - feeling the subject was too personal to deal with in song for now and too private to talk about his problems to anybody except his closest inner circle (even Reprise, for whom this album was a 'goodbye' after twelve years and fourteen albums, didn't know about Ben) Neil simply, in his words, 'shut down' whilst releasing an album every year like clockwork so that nobody would think to ask questions. Covering this problem in 1980 had been relatively painfree - 'Hawks and Doves' featured a side of half-heartedly recorded country songs made in a single sessions and a series of older tracks that were just about good enough to get away with the 'eccentric' rather than 'hopeless' tag from confused critics. 'Re-lAclTor', though, is an album that was all new - well, only 'Shots' was an old song (which is lower odds than most Young albums and that was re-arranged so differently from a quiet reflective acoustic song to a spiky angry electric rant that it sounded unrecognisable to how it had been in 1978 anyway). The album was recorded in a hurry and written in even more of a one, a weary Neil spending what little downtime he had writing songs that used the bare minimum necessary of his brain-power. As dark and as flimsily made as the best of his 'doom trilogy', but on subject matters seemingly of far less importance than the death, doom and gloom of that three-part eulogy to lost friends and fading lives everywhere, Neil seems to have deliberately made 'RelAclTor' as empty as he possibly could, finding escapism in the sheer bliss of being able to think about something else for a change, without the emotional capacity to take anything difficult or the brainpower needed to make something good. For years we fans went happily by thinking this rather sorry for itself and wretched little eight-track album was a sign of Neil running out of ideas - which it kind of is; what we didn't know for so long, though, was that it was from choice brought on by difficult circumstances rather than a fading of the light.
Unable to take anymore, the Youngs terminated the programme in 1982 (it's intensity is not something that would ever be allowed today, especially the 'guilt factor' the couple revealed later where they were made to feel like every backwards step was somehow 'their fault' for not trying hard enough - modern therapy sessions tend to be less intense, more understanding and with more emphasis on 'learning through play' rather than pain - thank goodness!) In time Neil will go on to pour out his heart and soul into what I consider his neglected masterpiece (alongside 'Tonight's The Night') in 'Trans' - a concept album about communication from inside the head of a robot who longs to 'connect' with people, made deliberately hard to hear thanks to a vocoder vocal treatment that makes everything sound far away (even then only coming clean about what that record was really about years later). By comparison 'Relactltor' isn't in the same sport definition never mind the same league, a noisy unsubtle burst of adrenalin and noise that in its own way sounds like Neil's therapy sessions, a burst of angry uncontrolled noise that sounds he can pour all of his unfocussed aggression and frustration into. Having spent most of the past year 'reducing' life to its most basic of functions (sleeping, eating, walking - not just reducing life into its smallest stages necessary for survival for the baby's sake but the short time available snatched between sessions for the parents), some of that shaping was inevitably going to colour 'RelAclTor'. It's not for nothing that I keep writing that title out the way it was designed to be read on the sleeve - this is an album reduced to the building blocks of life, with even the tracks listing on the black sleeve divided painfully, syllable by syllable, into blocks of text (except for 'Surfer Joe' and 'T-Bone' oddly - perhaps Warner Brothers misunderstood or perhaps Neil just got bored writing the track listing out?) Both 'Rapid Transit' and 'T-Bone' for instance are a long way from being fully developed songs - both are riffs, played over and over again, the latter with the same silly seven words repeated over and over again like a mantra and the former not even being sung in coherent sentences, Neil having fun with the 'sound' of words rather than the meaning. Coverwise too 'RelAclTor' is just two large slabs of colour imposed on top of each other, red on black (about the two most aggressive colours there are), one cutting into the other jaggedly , like 'Pacman' in the forthcoming computer game or a play button on a not-quite-invented-yet CD player.
The music too is simple, with less chords than on any Young-involved album since 'Buffalo Springfield' fifteen years earlier, Crazy Horse rigidly sticking to the same notes over and over as Neil pitches and pitts away at an unmoving wall of sound, as if willing an obstacle he knows is immovable to get up and walk. Angry without any songs really spouting angry ideas, emotionally intense without any characters ever doing anything interesting enough to be emotional and leaving a bitter taste in the ears despite being the most straightforward and least sarcastic/multi-layered record in Neil's canon, you can see why 'RelAclTor' never got understood in its own lifetime and why even now many fans scratch their heads and move on to something more interesting. Even Neil, a stickler for making sure his 'worst' (ie poorest selling and most misunderstood) albums are out there officially available, alongside his multi-million selling epics, delayed this album's first CD release until as late as 2004, the record clearly taking him back to a very dark place (the same went for its companion in the 'Ben Trilogy' 'Hawks and Doves' - he had no control over 'Trans', the first release for new label 'Geffen'). I'd never in a million years recommend this noisy unfocussed simple bordering on moronic album to anyone who wasn't already a committed Young fan - and yet in many ways I feel this record gets a bad press. Just because this album is simple doesn't mean it's lazy or without and while the similar story it tells is more fragmented and harder to follow than on 'Hawks' or 'Trans', it is nevertheless there for everyone to see, no matter how much Neil tries to hide it.
After all, this is what we're good at you and I (I'll assume for the moment that you are a Young fan to have got this far down the article on an album that nobody seems to like!) Neil's fans have become renowned for their ability to find 'clues' in their hero's work (the use of symbolism in album covers alone are ripe for a full university masters degree) - the strange thing being that most of them really were left for Neil to be found. The back cover features the 'serenity prayer' from the '12 Steps' program: 'God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference'. Only, this being Neil, the line is printed in Latin, so that in the days before google translate only a small percentage of his fans would ever know or bother to consult their phrasebooks to find out what it said. True fans may remember that Neil used a similar 'clue' on the inside sleeve of 'Tonight's The Night', which reprinted a scathing review of his previous 'On The Beach' album in Dutch ('because everything seemed to be in double ducth to me then anyway!') Musically too , while on the surface about the least interesting thing Neil has ever done outside of (yuk!) 'Greendale', 'RelAclTor' is full of fascinating detail that all too often gets lost. 'Surfer Joe' runs out of steam by the time the tide comes in, but you can sort of second guess where Neil was intending to go with this song before tiredness set in and the track became another 'party' song about the lifestyle Neil's just had to give up. Surfer Joe 'caught the big one he let it go' when something 'bigger' came along; the same could be said for Neil who'd just recovered all his lost ground of the 1970s with 'Rust Never Sleeps' before Ben's diagnosis; Moe The Sleaze, meanwhile is another of Neil's charming loser characters, living his dream thanks to the odd self-indulgent sale and the odd 'handout', a typical self-defensive streak that's been in Neil's psyche since 'The Loner', wondering if his career was worth all that much anyway; sadly though both potentially interesting figures are reduced to caricature by the song's end. Note the sarcasm on the line 'there's somebody satisfied with winning' - Neil's in survival mode and knows how pointless all that searching for fame really is. 'Rapid Transit' sounds like a song that started off as an attempt to get Ben to speak, a children's song with some silly sound effects (stuttered m's, rolled 'rs and sibilant S') turned into a quite different space what sounds like a very angry and adult riff. 'Shots' is the most aggressive, angry song in the Young canon that isn't about politics or politicians, spat out with venom and with the lyrics at time drowned out by the wail of machine-gun-like clatter from his guitar turned up to the max (though written in 1978, before Ben's diagnosis, the song was originally heard as a sad lament about the darkness in the world and knowing how Neil's mind works maybe even written for his new-born son about the dark side of the world he might have to face - here three years on its Neil lashing out that the dark world slapped his son unfairly in the face long before he ever feared it would). 'Get Back On It' quickly turns into the first of many songs about Neil's main hobby of cars but starts off as a sequel to the here-we-go-again tiredness but willingness of 'Coastline' from 'Hawks and Doves' ('We don't back down from no trouble - we do get up in the morning!'), naming some random 'heroes' who happen to be dead while Neil is still very much alive. 'Southern Pacific' is the first of many songs about Neil's other hobby, trains, although it's interesting that in this song the hero Casey Jones ends the song abandoned and forgotten, forced into an early retirement when he still has so much to say (as Neil does - for all he knew in 1981 Ben's programme was going to run for the rest of his life).
The last two points bring us to another point about this album - how mechanical it is. The programme Neil and Peggi were locked into had them doing everything by strict routine - they had to do every step in the right order or be glared at by their supervisor so found themselves repeating the same patterns day after day. Dismissed as many as one block of noise, actually 'RelAclTor' is an even odder album than that, breaking everything down to the barest of bare essentials, the building blocks of life. Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina, who like the others hated these sessions (he knew Ben was poorly and that Neil was distracted, but the band were never told quite how badly or how much the guitarist's life had been forced to change), remembers being told to fill these songs with every last inch of noise he could, banging away at a whole host of sound effects for 'Surfer Joe' for instance.
Neil didn't even care about the beat - he just wanted noise to keep coming, note after note, building block by building block, in an ever circling pattern that wouldn't change - perhaps because that's how his brain had now been re-wired to think. Another example: 'Surfer Moe' can't even get to the end of the song without paring things down, the let's face it not that very developed song anyway getting pared back verse after verse until it now reads ''Come on down, We're all goin', women, booze!' that gets rids of the conjunctions altogether and reads more like an advertising board than a song. While many people dismiss Crazy Horse as being merely loud and tuneless, usually their albums come full of shades of colour - 'Zuma', for instance, is probably full of more dynamics than any other single Young LP. This record, though, features eight slightly different riffs that play at the same level throughout the songs and at the same level to each other - there are no ballads here, no middle eights even, no variety at all except whether Neil's screaming guitar solo is going to come after the first verse, the last verse or not at all. The whole record sounds as if it's been designed by computers - even more so than 'Trans', funnily enough, which is written 'for' computers to sing - with a world of huge differences separated into digital binary code that's either one thing or the other. The meshing guitars of Young and Sampedro, so integral to 'Zuma' and 'Rust Never Sleeps', doesn't really exist here (except briefly on 'Shots') - instead the pair double each other, over and over, as if re-inforcing the sterilisation and coldness of this new world. Bassist Billy Talbot is reduced to the same few repetitive bass licks over and over. Restricted to working between the hours of 2pm and 6 pm (barely the time Crazy Horse usually wake up) the two just never connected on these sessions. No wonder Neil's sleepy sub-conscious - all but ordered not to sing about illness or family or anything 'human' that might give the game away - starts thinking about cars and trains, the hobbies Neil simply doesn't have time for anymore (in time, of course, when Ben is better his dad's shed full of model trains will become the special place for the pair to bond, Neil even inventing a special 'train controller' manufactured by toy company Lionel that Ben can control with his eyes).
'RelAclTor', then, is an understandable, even necessary album, delivered to end a recording contract in the easiest possible way (Neil doesn't know what he's got himself into with Geffen just yet...) and probably the best he could make in the circumstances. But is it a good album? Sadly no. The only bit of actual bona fide creativity on the whole LP is Neil's invention of the word 'garfong' on 'Surfer Joe', a word that's since come to mean 'a smokable substance which gives you a high' according to my hipper friends (no, alright, alright, anyone hip enough to know that word would never know me - I consulted an online urban dictionary instead). The album is repetitive, muddled and often boring; difficult to listen to when heard whole but strangely unappealing when heard in eight single chunks too. Excusable as a lot of this album there really is no place for 'T-Bone' to belong in Neil's canon, a nine minute thrash of the same old chords and just seven words repeated over and over - just because Neil has had to suffer there's no reason we fans have to as well (surely another older song could have been 'borrowed' instead - after all it's not as if Neil didn't have a lot of them, having abandoned his entire 'Chrome Dreams' album a mere four years before!) There's even less excusable for the loose racism of 'Motor City', Neil laughing at Japanese workers who think they can compete with his beloved Detroit-made cars which is almost - though thankfully not quite - as patronising as the right-wing pre-Reagan politics on 'Hawks and Doves' (Roger Waters made the same point with English manufacturers verses Japanese ones on 1983's 'The Final Cut' - what happened to AAA bands in the 1980s?!) Of all the pre-1997 albums (when records like this one begin to look like masterpieces) this must be the Neil Young record I've played least down the years, guaranteed to bring on not so much Neil's usual soothing of the soul and flashes of insight as much as a migraine.
However there are many things I like. I love the fact that Neil can make an album so aggressive and so apparently emotional about nothing - songs about cars, surfers, rock and roll, even his lunch - making you feel as if you've been moved by something thanks to the sheer sound and playing if not the songs (despite being hurried and woefully repetitive this is nevertheless a remarkably well played album, with Neil's vocals often adding layers of depth that just aren't there). 'Shots', the song everyone rates highly, is a terrific song full of criss-crossing random violence that keeps interrupting Neil as he tries to warm us about the dangers he sees ahead, played with such cacophony Crazy Horse make the Sex Pistols seems like mere little boys. However there are other songs not as far behind as many would care to think: 'Southern Pacific' - rough but still likeable to become a minor hit single - is a moving song about a man who gave his all and got nothing in return, a backstabbing version of 'Casey Jones' where the villain isn't the driver doing drugs or the railway workers who didn't do their jobs properly but the nameless faceless company who took individuals like that away (the hidden agenda to the song seems to be - think how many people would have died the day of that nasty rail crash another anonymous employee in charge rather than the colourful Mr Jones?) 'Surfer Joe', though woefully undercooked, has a decent song at the heart of it before Neil decides he hasn't got time for all that high-falluting nonsense and turns it into a 'party' song, all about people everyone thinks of as losers and are slightly dodgy, yet nevertheless got to live out their dreams doing something they loved; in contrast who cares what their neighbours and family think - isn't selling a few knicks knacks by the beach in flip-flops less heartless than buying up a train company and kicking out the people who've helped run it for so many years - the people we're designed to applaud in a capitalist society? Even 'Rapid Transit' is kinda fun if you're in the right mood, although by rights it should have been no more than an inconsequential B-side. Best of all, though, is 'Opera Star', a hilarious taunting re-write of 'Roll Over Beethoven' with a deliberately daft Santa Claus chorus ('Ho ho ho ho ho ho!') that seems to both mock us for paying money for something so banal and celebrating the fact that rock can have the power to do oh so many things the more fuddy-duddy old styles can't. The fact that Neil spends the next decade exploring other styles (electronica, rockabilly, country, blues, whatever the hell 'Landing On The Water' is all about) despite promising here that he was 'born to rock' rather than do anything different, just makes his insistence all the funnier. Yes it's hard to listen to and I'm still not sure if the ear-ache I get after any length of time listening to this album is worth it for the few high-points, but there is definitely 'something' worth your while on this under-rated album. In the end, though, what we think about this album doesn't really matter - it helped Neil weather the storm he couldn't face up to in public and manages to be a pretty neat mixture of the two definitions of the album title: a structure in which nuclear fission can be stored where it 'cooks' (and before too long will blow up with a big bang!) and a person who re-acts favourably to a particular kind of drug - with rock and roll a welcome dose of medicine for Neil, even if it isn't always for 'us'.
'Opera Star' is a terrific start to any album - an angry driving honest to goodness rock and roll riff that's typical Crazy Horse catchy and loud. Neil's distracted, demented double-tracked vocal works better here than on the rest of the album - he should sound as if he's distracted, as if rock and roll is so integral to his life that he can't concentrate on anytuing else, including talking to us. Lyrically this song tells us little more than 'you were born to rock and we'll never been an opera star' - which is something we kind of guessed already, although what with all the Geffen experiments Neil's the kind of guy who would have written 'Crazy Horse: The Opera' just to get it out of his system. However like the forthcoming partner 'Prisoners Of Rock and Roll' this song works as more than just demented rocking. While the main song is bouncy enough in both verse and chorus (complete with 'ho hoed' chorus, which sounds like Crazy Horse telling us how many 'ho ho' levels Santa Claus got or perhaps what tools he uses in his garden; yes I did miss my calling in life writing Christmas cracker jokes, thankyou for asking!) there's a curious linking part between the two that slides in every now and again in the minor key: 'Some things never change' scowls Neil 'they stay the way they are'. Given the context, a song about how my my, rock and roll will never change and die, it's a real holt and a slap in the face: does this musician born to play the simple power chords of rock and roll long for something more? Is he fed up of the rock and roll lifesyle rather than the music itself? (There's an unusually graphic-for-1981 second verse about 'getting fucked up in that rock and roll bar, but you never get tired 'cause you're drugs are in little jars'). In context is this Neil, the newly made family man who must have longed for a dose of something and watching his son take an ocean of tablets that don't do anything questioning his earlier softer stance on drugs? Is this even a memory of Danny Whitten again and a repeat of 'The Needle and The Damage Done'? Or is this escapism - something that Neil used to do and longs to do now it's been taken away from him, a night on the town with the boys? (Is that why he's so fed up at his rigid way of life?!) A last verse tries to tie the strands together, Neil effectively being dumped for a cultured man who goes to the opera - but even here 'that's alright' because Neil's narrator can't compete at that level anyway; he was born to rock and no lover will ever change that. A clever dual song that somehow manages to scale the highs and lows of the rock and drug scene while both celebrating and dissing rock, this song is both commentary and celebration, tied together by a slightly dodgy and slow but still rather effective performance (Sampedro's synth chords are particularly good, aiming to give this narrator 'roots' and pulling upwards to the sky just he complains about how 'some things never change', giving us the feeling it's all taking place in his head). A cracking guitar is also nice to hear, proving once and for all that Neil was 'born to rock' as a guitarist, whatever else is happening in his life.
'Surfer Joe and Moe The Sleaze' is the album's song that got away. Had he written this song in any other era when he had more time Neil might well have turned this song about two people living the dream but seeming hopeless to their friends into a winner. Alas the writing kind of fades away after the opening couple of verses and the Crazy Horse performance truly is hopeless. What's more the band knew it was and begged Neil to re-cut, but without the time or the energy he simply got the band gathered round a microphone banging bits of metal, tambourines, cowbells and anything that came to hand to 'fill in' the holes and cover up the fact that the song slows down and speed up during the course of a tortured four minutes. Most people assume the song is as hopeless as the production, all fake screams and artificial emotion, but actually the song has promise. Neil's scuzz guitar sound, lifted straight out of 'Sedan Delivery' sounds really powerful on this album's slinky groove - by far the most complex on this album, moving this way and that in a world of its own while life (ie Crazy Horse) tries to throw all sorts of obstacles in its way. The lyrics are tight enough to make sense but ambiguous to be interesting - is Surfer Moe, who 'caught the big one but he let it go a 'winner' as he feels he is, a 'loser' as most people see him or something in between (or both?) Ditto 'Moe The Sleaze' who seems in two minds about whether that nickname suits him or not - is it really so bad that he sells bad souvenirs to patronising tourists wo he can live the life he wants on the beach? While people look down on him, who really is the loser in this situation - the tourist who have more money than sense or the hardworking people living lives they don't want to lead in the first place? Later verses have Neil desperately crying out 'he's somebody satisfied with winning..he's somebody, he's somebody!' as if the character is trying to prove to himself that his life is about more than mere existence and 'smoking garfong, watching him ride the big one' (as we've seen, an invention of a new word that took off although my spell-check still doesn't seem to recognise it!) There may be a little of Sampedro in this song - a party animal who lives on the beach - although goodness knows reports of Neil partying the night away are common too - is this Neil remembering how the band boozily bonded during the making of 'Zuma' - and how the circumstances are different this time? Neil, with his radar for 'fakeness' on high alert as ever, sounds on their side, but we never really get to find out because the song soon descends into a generic song about partying, women and booze - like the unwanted spirits of 'American Stars 'n' Bars' being revived. As a finished product this song and recording are awful, but both show shines of promise, with another excellent guitar solo from Neil, phased with so much studio trickery it seems to be cutting in from another dimension.
'T-Bone', however, really is hopeless - a nine minute jam session with the same tired notes and unfunny words ('Got mashed Potatoes! Ain't got no T-bone!') which Crazy Horse have since disowned and claimed to hate. Neil, being Neil, claims it's the only song on the record he actually liked. Most jams go on too long as it is - every band member unwilling to go out on a limb in case it upsets the apple cart and the whole song comes crashing down - but this one is less inventive than most. Sounding not unlike the riff for 'This Note's For You' to come (imagine the song going into 'it's the real thing, baby' after each line), this is the same flipping words heard over and over while Neil finds a new way of saying the lyrics with his guitar as Crazy Horse stuck rigidly to the same old notes. Now to be fair to this much maligned song, the riff is a good one. In many ways including this extended minimalist jam makes a lot more sense than the horrendously drawn out jams on the Horse's collaboration 'Broken Arrow' in 1997 that really didn't need to be tacked on the end - on this song the band sound wide awake and enjoying playing again, which is surely the whole point of the exercise. But you have to say, however many hours of the day Neil was working, he must surely be able to come up with anything on the spot better than what he hasn't had for lunch that day (it could work as some more profound statement about not having the bare essential of life - but we need more lines than just this to go on!) Neil's later comment, that 'I'm not really that much of an inventive guy' is utter nonsense: Neil is about the most inventive writer out there, writing four songs a week for most of his career, with a prolific catalogue full of twists and turns any other writer would love to have and so many unreleased songs his catalogue is perhaps twice the size that it appears on the shelves of HMV. He's a tremendously inventive guy usually - just not here, not on this session, not in this year when everything else is going wrong: if any song sums up just how hard the Youngs were working at looking after their son and how distracted he was then this is the one. You kind of sense too that this noisy mindless song was exactly what Neil needed to forget his troubles - but by the token, why do we still have to listen to it? Even on bootleg you'd feel a bit short changed by this song, which doesn't change beyond two chords once!
Not that the two-minute rockabilly ramble 'Get Back On It' is much better. While a 'proper' song, it's hokey chords and cliched chorus make it sound even less appetising than the average song on 'Everybody's Rockin', a while album of short songs like these. Bland and artificial as songs from the 1950s could be set against their more developed and more emotional counterparts from the 1960s, at least they tended to sound 'alive' . By contrast this song about the thrill of being alive couldn't sound more asleep: the song speeds up and slows again, Neil sounds like he's reading a shopping list on an answering machine rather than actually singing and even his overdubbed guitar sounds muted compared to normal. Lyrically this tale of 'getting back on the highway' harks back to previous songs about life's journey (see 'Human Highway' for one) but doesn't even share that misguided song's attempts at poetry: this song is more concerned with comparing life to a car, complete with tail-lights and pulling heavy loads. There's a truly bizarre third verse which has left many friends scratching their heads ('its too late for General Custer, too late for Robert E Lee, but I'll get back on the highway before it's too late for me!') that must be one of Neil's worst: we think he's saying 'at least I'm still alive', but if so why pick on those names? 'Lee' and 'me' is a shameful rhyme in any case (at least 'Hey Hey My My' used musicians for this sort of a metaphor, comparing the Sex Pistols of 1977 with Elvis of twenty years earlier; this one just namechecks two American Civil War veterans because they're dead: yeah like Neil won't be when he's 150-something as well! Actually scrap that - if anyone's going to live forever then surely it's Young!)
The clanking bell of 'Southern Pacific' ushers in a marginally better second side. A catchy train song with a frenetic train whistle beldning in nicely to the scattershot guitar rioff, Crazy Horse really nail this simple song - Billy's bass runs and Ralph's constant beat make for the best AAA like-a-train recording since The Who's '5:15' (beaten only by Crazy Horse's later 'Trans Am' from 'Sleeps With Angels'). Lyrically too this at least gives us something to focus on: poor Casey Jones, train driver extraordinaire, pensioned off before his time because the faceless train company doesn't need him on the books anymore. Yes financially they compensate with a pension, but that's hardly emotional compensation for losing your livelihood, the thing that makes you you (Neil might well be writing about his frustration at having to give up or at least delay his musical plans here). There are as many different tellings of the 'Casey Jones' story as there are recordings of it, though all refer to the train wreck of 1900 when Casey died trying to avert disaster when his engine lost control in Mississippi - fellow AAA band The Grateful Dead famously had Casey causing his own accident by ';riding that train. high on cocaine!' Casey seems to have survived the wreck in Neil's version which is set soon after when despite being a national hero the engine company still let him go, wondering whether surviving the crash was worth it (a neat personal version of the 'is it better to burn out than to fade away?' mantra from 'Rust Never Sleeps'). However there's another way of looking at this song: 'When I turned 65 I couldn't see right!' cries Casey, with sight clearly fairly important in the career of someone in charge of a motor vehicle. Is this instead an early indication of a now-36-year-old Neil starting to wage against the dying of the light (has Ben's illness made him more aware of how cruel life and illness can be?) Casey's beef then might lie not with the company with his maker, for making him - a hero and national treasure - grow old and feeble and changing his intended 'track' of life (see that theme coming into play again) with 'silver rails' that lead nowhere? Neil's anger heard across this album has a good home here, with the guitarist adding some nice swashes of smoke-fuelled bitterness and his best vocal on the album, full of agony as he shouts 'Mr Jones we're gonna let you go' and laments about a 'long decline'. Of course compared to the best of 'Rust Never Sleeps' even this song is woefully one-dimensional and repetitive, but 'Southern Pacific' does at least sound like it deserves to be a 'song' and is arguably played better here than anything else on the album. despite still being a little too rough for most musical tastes, this song still made it all the way to #70 in the US singles charts - believe it or not Neil's best showing since 'Four Strong Winds' in 1978 - so somebody must have liked it (either that or a lot of retired engine drivers went into the record shops that day!) An even better, slower version of the song can be heard on the 1986 live recording 'A Treasure'.
My least favourite song on the album is 'Motor City'. This song's smirking riff is irritatingly smug and it's curious waddle is very ungainly so musically this would be something of a misfire anyway. But what are those lyrics? Clearly not learning from the pro-Reagan twaddle on 'Hawks and Doves' which cost him so much of his fanbase ('Neil Young killed my father!' read one sensationalist music newspaper headline, after Young agreed with the president's decision to cut welfare) this is a song about the fact that American should be making better cars rather than out-sourcing to Japanese companies because, well, they're better (and 'there's too many Datsuns in this town' - which is surely a car metaphor too far, bordering on UKIP casual racism). Neil gets on his more unlikeable high horse here, basically telling American workers to get their fingers out and work harder because it's shameful to be beaten by another capitalist society - seemingly oblivious to the fact that this scrawny, badly thought out and horrendously played mess needs a whole lot of work itself (I'd love to have heard an American car planet manufacturer clubbing together to record a 'proper' protest song on the theme, perhaps with the chorus 'whose singing our songs now?' in retaliation). The second verse is better, Neil 'bugged' by an advert that adds to his woes - although to be honest if moaning about an advert is the better section of a song then you're clearly in artistic freefall - but what would have made for a more interesting song is if Neil had followed his one-line chorus: 'Whose driving my car now?' (and would it mean as much to them as it did to him?) The song is livened up by a rather good solo too, but poor Crazy Horse get a really bum deal in the arrangement, set to play the same comedy wobble throughout. Oh dear: 'Motor City' is a heap of junk not even the best second-hand car salesman would be able to sell and features Neil suffering from a large dose of that 'rust' he was telling us to avoid in 1979, as hackneyed and misguided as his writing ever got in the 1980s.
'Rapid Transit' has no right being a song - it's more a long list of eccentric mouth noises - but at least it's fun. Neil isn't trying to tell anybody anything here, he's just having fun with another Chuck Berry-style riff and a daft lyric that calls for him to roll his Rs, stutter his Ps and get extra sibilant on the Ssss. The result is not unlike something that would have appeared on 'Sesame Street' and gives Neil's vocal chords a real workout, with the hint of something faintly subversive in a 'Louie Louie' kind of a way ('I'm standing in my line!' runs the chorus, although it's not clearly whether this non-rebellion is sarcastic or whether Neil is imagining himself in a mechanised motorcar factory again). Notably most of the phrases he chooses to make fun of are all Government phrases: 'Rrrrrrrapid Transit' (effectively a subway), 'Containment' (radioactive waste), 'SSSSSSSSSSSSSSecret SSSServive' (the FBI) and 'PPPPPPPublic Enemy' (not yet a rap star, but Government-speak for someone who dares to disagree with their established way of life). Interestingly too the cod-surfing middle eight (Neil really wants to be back on Zuma beach doesn't he?!) of 'hang ten pipeline, let's go trippin' that sounds like a robotised Dick Dale ends with the line 'no wave rockers - every wave is new until it breaks!' This twists the whole song round as if Neil's no longer being silly but trying to 'invent' the next big thing: repetitive mechanised silliness. He knows that the current vogue for new wave will change that people will get bored and go full circle to empty rockers so here he's trying to speed up the change. Could it be, too, that Neil's stuttering is meant to recall The Who's famous statement 'My G-G-G-Generation' in which an in-articulate youth made some vague threats of solidarity and longed never to get old? Is this Neil now 'playing' at being old (some of these lines make him sound he's wearing false teeth!) and provoking the new wave by wishing they too would f-f-f-fade away? Or is a tired Neil just having fun making music again, with a track that means nothing? Yeah, probably that last one now I think about it.
The finale 'Shots' is finally both well played (though still not quite up to 'Sleep' levels of intensity) and has a meaningful message to point out. Nearly eight minutes of aggression, with machine-gun fire chasing us at every turn, Neil's happiness keeps being exploded by metaphorical shots everywhere he turns. Everyone around this narrator 'strikes out' about something - things which now seem wholly minor to a recently tragedy-struck Young, who may well have been reminded now about this earlier song through his line about 'children lost in the sand, building roads with little hands, trying to join their father's castles' which must have been powerfully poignant given the circumstances and Ben's attempts to join in with all the father-son things Neil had planned and please his parents with his progress. The lyrics are full of aggressive imagery: 'like a venom in the sky' and 'machines...looking strong, building roads' which like many a road built by machines in Neil Young songs turns out to be the wrong road for mankind to travel down (I like to think this road is the same one seen on the cover of 'Trans', with a robot hitch-hiking getting a lift). A later verse turns to 'lust, creeping through the night to feed on the heart of suburban wives' as if these 'shots' are made up of lustful thoughts as well as aggression and disaffection. Similar lyrically in many ways to the future 'Driveby' from 'Sleeps With Angels' (musically these two songs couldn't be less similar) this song describes outrageous violence and painfully asks 'why?' without expecting an answer. Mankind doesn't know why it does these nasty things either, but people are driven to it by a life that's so hard. No wonder then that Neil's life is disturbed by wondering what sniper's going to get him next, with the last 90 seconds or so of the song having Neil still trying to tell us something important, but drowned out by machine gun rattle that finally 'gets' him. Till now Neil's been speeding away with Crazy Horse doing a nice galloping pony impression and a slight cowboy 'yee-hah to the song - but this ending is incredibly powerful, Neil who so far has been fairly immune (punk bands even liked him for goodness sake!) falling off his 'Crazy Horse' steed in a hail of bullets. The gory death that Casey Jones saved himself from earlier, is it really better to burn out here than it is to rust? The end certainly sounds messy, full of chaos and sorrow, but is the intention of this song to be that it's better to go out in a haze of glory than hang around waiting to be pensioned off? Whatever the cause, their ferocious arrangement is oh so different to the one that fans were expecting to hear on record circa 1978 - a sweet ballad performed on the 'Comes A Time' tour that sounds like a subdued lament to those who never got the chance to do what their hearts desired. This version, though usually compared unfavourably, is actually much better to my ears - a scary, aggressive, frightening world where everyone is doomed to fall off their own metaphorical 'horse' and suffer a hideous death. Thanks for that Neil.
Overall, then, 'RelactlTor' is an odd little album. Many of the mistakes can be excused away - the lack of time, the distractions on Neil's life, the fact that Crazy Horse are here simply to be used as noise rather than given any directions on what to play. Throughout the band are 'attacked' by the sounds of a Synclavier, a sort of digital synth played by Neil. The guitarist later recalled that by cutting himself off through his emotions and concentrating on 'surviving' he cut himself off from his music - but that isn't totally true. Bits of the 'real Neil' keep peeking through and it's those songs that work best, Neil identifying with the fading hero of Casey Jones, the surfer and sleazy seller who live life on their own terms, the rock star who doesn't know how to do anything else and the chaos of life that is 'Shots'. It's just a shame that Neil didn't have that tiny bit longer and that extra 5% of his brain allowed to work on these songs to make them really good and up to his usual standard, although that said this album doesn't fall to the low standards everyone assumes. The worst mistake, 'Motor City', you sense is one that would have been passed through anyway whatever album Neil was working on and whole Crazy Horse are far from inspired they do in fact do so much more here than just create noise. Yes the band sound distracted. Yes this is a poor album by their standards. No you probably wouldn't want to hear another album made on similar lines (sadly there is a sequel of sorts - 'Landing On Water' in 1986 - and it's not a pretty sight). But Neil is re-acting to events beyond his control, unable to quite deal with them head-on yet never mind tell us about them, and while this album is many ways merely a postcard compared to the novels of Neil's best albums, it's still a highly revealing and entertaining postcard, full of flawed but still likeable moments if not many fully brilliant songs. However compared to the chaos of the Geffen years, at least this is Neil on auto-pilot doing what he does best, rather than being on auto-pilot on someone else's territory. In many ways it's a palette-changing album that allowed Neil to keep in touch with his muse just long enough to consider his next idea - and given that this next album is the remarkable, highly creative and personal favourite album 'Trans' (which continues the story of Ben's progress and the frustration of having a body that doesn't do what your mind wants it too) I'll forgive this album anything, even 'Motor City'.