Monday, 15 January 2018
CSNY Essay: The Superest of Super Groups? Plus Updates
CSN were the first to change all that (with perhaps the special exception of Cream, though only Eric Clapton was truly a household name at the time of their first single) – and they did so deliberately. They were, after all, three such strong personalities that they’d outgrown the idea of being in a band singing to the same hymn-sheet a long time ago. Indeed, CSN were writing very different hymn-sheets to anything anyone else had ever written before. They also looked completely different, each with their recognisable silhouettes: there was Crosby all fringed jackets and droopy moustaches, Stills with tight-lipped blondeness and Nash with his thin goatee Manuncian look. If you had been beamed down from outer space (you won’t have met Catalunia the Third yet but she’s coming in these pages – it’s probably her planet!) you’d have wondered how these guys met and how they became friends – never mind have their surnames linked together for all eternity as one of the world’s grooviest sounding rock and roll law firms. That was the point though really: this was a firm of opposites who came together because that’s what the music demanded – not a brethren brotherhood who all shared the same sound and who always thought alike.
This was CSN’s greatest strength – and their greatest weakness. At their best it enabled them to sound like no other band out there with some of the widest range of influences out there and a sense that this trio could go anywhere and do anything. At their best they did do anything and broke more ground than they’re ever given credit for, especially in terms of political protest which was a genre they more or less created (in rock and roll terms, if not folk). At their worst it meant they couldn’t see eye to eye on anything – and all three were used to getting their own way. While CSN have many great qualities, none of them are what you might call ‘team players’. They weren’t very good at biting their lip and getting through the music business machines the way that you have to in order to have a successful career. But then CSN wasn’t a career – the biggest difference between this band and any that came before it was that music was a vocation, a calling. The pop stuff in their respective bands had just been the warm-up act for the ‘real’ job of making politicians afraid and making hippies of all ages, races and generations feel loved and hopeful. CSN were the hippie town criers, spreading hope around the globe – and throwing in a few stinging barbs when the people in charge of our world let us down. They didn’t merely want to be in a ‘band’ – which was what every other musician of their generation and taste longed for – they had all outgrown the need.
It’s worth having a quick recap for anyone whose missed our earlier books on The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and who hasn’t read our forthcoming book on The Hollies. David Crosby had been kicked out of The Byrds for seeing life differently to his band-members. While few people can compete with Crosby in the most liberal of bands, The Byrds were hardly the natural bedfellows for his way mind worked: he wanted to shake things up and they wanted to preserve it; The Byrds had a very eclectic sound but they veered towards establishment country when Crosby wanting to go places that were very new; they had to schmooze people in front of and behind the camera to stay in the top forty – something that Crosby hated with a passion. When the other Byrds kicked him out their famous line was that ‘we’ll do better without you’ – commercially they probably had a point without David around to mess up the pop-star bandwagon anymore, even if critically they clearly got it very wrong. The result was that by 1968 Crosby hated the idea of being in a band and vowed to never be in one again.
For Stills the idea of being in a band was a little bit different. He’d enjoyed the camaraderie that went with being in a band, especially one like Buffalo Springfield who were shaped and moulded in his image and largely consisting of his friends. But the powers-that-be decided that Richie Furay was a more marketable frontman and got him to sing lead or co-lead on many of Stephen’s songs. Then that pesky Neil Young began writing his own material and singing it too, not to mention getting more guitar solos and close-ups and much of the girls. Then Neil went and quit his band – his band! – six times in three years, leaving them in disarray and killing off their big shot at fame. Stills didn’t need the hassle – he wanted to be on his own.
Graham had the most interesting journey to CSN. The Hollies weren’t just a few musical mates he’d bumped in his twenties but his best friends from Primary School, at least in the case of singer Allan Clarke. They were successful, hitting the charts far more regularly than The Byrds or Springfield has ever been and they had weathered many storms: changing fashions, the end of Merseybeat, critical backlashes from own label-mates The Beatles and being pigeon-holed as a ‘singles band’ in the era of the long-playing record. But Nash seemed to have it all: he was the lead writer by 1968, was frequently referred to in the press as the band’s ‘leader’ and unlike Crosby his band looked to him to make trouble, while unlike Stills he didn’t really have the competition for creative control. But Nash found himself at odds with his bandmates. His other famous line was that the difference between his hit bands was that ‘David and Stephen never go to bed – and The Hollies go to bed at 8.30!’ In practical terms that meant that Nash was always high and thinking up mystical thoughts that turned into songs, while his pals were down the pub drinking. A rift grew between them – and Nash realised that being in a band could be a right drag.
CSN agreed, then, that their next band would be different – and maybe not be a ‘band’ at all in the Beatles ‘all in it together four musketeers’ sense. What all three had in common was that each of their respective bands had tried to dictate their identity – and they were desperate to grow and explore the idea of who they were. They wouldn’t necessarily agree with each other in interviews (indeed most fans read them to see how badly they’d disagree with each other!) They certainly wouldn’t wear the same clothes (could you see Nash in Crosby’s fringes? Or Croz in Stills’ American football T-shirts?!) They didn’t always share the same politics (as time went on Stills got more conservative, Nash got more liberal and Crosby broke all the rules – until settling down with a family late in life and renouncing or at least excusing most of his past). The only thing they really shared, alongside the music, was a similar kind of goofy humour that allowed them to soften the blows when they violently disagreed with each other (CSN’s stage patter is, John Lennon aside perhaps, the best).
From the start then, when CSN first sang together at that party (be it in Joni Mitchell’s living room as Stills claims, Mama Cass’ kitchen as Crosby and Nash say or – through some quirk of time – both, CSN were adamant that if they were going to spend the rest of their lives singing together, then it had to be on their own terms. And under their own name. Crosby and Stills had been playing around with the druggy name ‘The Frozen Noses’, given to them by a radio disc jockey who agreed to play their demos over the air for feedback without revealing who the duo were. When Nash joined in and things got more serious they discussed having a band name, but quickly opted out. What band name could possibly sum up three such different people? Their sound was ‘real’ – it wasn’t contrived, it wasn’t an act and they didn’t want to be known as a ‘Byrd’ or a ‘Hollie’ forever. Instead they would just be themselves, sticking to their real names (although even there it took a lot of arguments: Crosby somehow expected to be at the front, while with only one syllable to his name Nash found himself out-argued that his name sounded better after ‘and’). Before this the only band that had come close was ‘Simon and Garfunkel’ and they weren’t really a ‘band’ in the same sense (not least because they were two guys and a guitar; Stills alone was an entire orchestra!)
Many people find it odd that CSN keep splitting and getting back together. I’m not sure even they expected to break up quite as many times as they have across fifty odd years, but some kind of flexibilty was always part of the plan – and for me part of what made them great. Instead of some big reunion or split the trio would just keep getting back together or departing for new musical avenues when they wanted to, going where the music took them. Sometimes their songs were too personal for mass consumption and epic harmonies; sometimes they wanted to prove to themselves that they could sell records on their own; often-times they hated each other’s guts and didn’t want to spent weeks locked in a studio with two (sometimes three) other loonies. But even at their most bitter, it wasn’t until 2016 that a split seemed final, that the trio (indeed quartet) were talking about never being able to work again with each other, ever. This wasn’t that kind of a band: however cross they got with each other, no matter how much hostility, no matter how many girlfriends had been chased off, CSN always knew that one day the time would be right and they would ‘return to the mothership’. There weren’t many things bigger than the egos of Crosby, Stills and Nash separately and yet somehow those initials CSN were. All of them saved their best music for when they were back together. All of them guested on each other’s solo albums to make them better. And all of them could offer anything they wanted on stage, no matter when they had written ir ot who with – after a lifetime spent in 1960s bands where everything had to be agreed on, CSN meant ‘freedom’ – suddenly everything was ‘allowed’. Though CSN frequently trampled on each other’s feelings, the one thing they never lost was their respect for each other – whatever they wanted to do was fine by the others, because they trusted them not to mess up (and even if they did, at least they messed up by being too ambitious, as opposed to not being ambitious enough!)
No wonder everyone else was left scratching their heads - no other band did that, getting back together again when they felt like it rather than when their bank balance dictated it. Even Cream took forty years (and a lot of money) to get back together again for one last hurrah. In fact nowadays, when CSN have been missing for what seems like decades (but is actually only six years) is when arguably they need the money most with back taxes, drug habits, aliony and new teeth to pay for – but it’s now they choose not to get back together again. That seems strange to believe now – despite the many changes CSN brought onto an unsuspecting public, ever since the mid-1970s it’s been taken for granted that any member splitting for a group will go solo (before rejoining the band again – it’s only a matter of time before Robbie Williams gets sucked back into Take That). But CSN wasn’t an ordinary group, from the very beginning, given that they were born from the giant furnace of pop stardom and they refused to ever get anywhere close to its brightness again, preferring to lurk in the shadows where the real music was. CSN were special for many reasons – for always telling the truth as they saw it for one thing, for keeping the crooked and the greedy on a leash and for having harmonies that couldn’t have been designed to fit any better together. But it was the template of their design that also made them special. CSN worked differently, not being prepared to play the pop game even when it meant we had lean years with only obscure solo albums on private labels, while all the time the trio would save their best music until they were all together and people would take note of what they had to say.
Neil Young’s chemistry changed everything, the way Neil always does. Added to the band as a touring extra, he slowly grew to the point where he eclipsed the trio’s fame – unfairly so in my eyes (this is a band of equals; having one of them as a superstar defeats the idea somehow, but then Neil doesn’t seem to have played by the same unspoken ‘rules’ as the other three). His dark and edgy edge gave CSNY a whole different sound to their original one as a trio, sucking the happiness and hope out of the room (which is odd because even though Neil tends to err towards the darker side of life solo, that’s hardly true of most of his CSNY work like ‘Helpless’ and ‘American Dream’). It also destabilised the dynamic: CSN always sensed that were meant to belong together and would return together eventually, but Young was a mystery who always worked to his own timetable and set his rules. There have only ever been three CSNY albums in fifty odd years, which is strange to think but not half as strange as how the last two turned out, with ‘American Dream’ and ‘Lookin’ Forward’ easily CSN/Y’s cosiest of albums, as if the quartet were too afraid to address their history or the darker edge Neil brought them. Even in a band who didn’t want to be a band, Neil was the least likely band member you could have.
You see, what’s wonderful about CSN – as opposed to CSNY these days - is that everyone is (roughly) equal. In other bands that might not have mattered, but CSN were meant to be equal – it’s what they sang about in their songs all the time and the need to respect other people’s opinions when they were so different to your own. They even had an African-American bass player at a time when bands didn’t tend to mix race much and more Spanish-speaking players than you could shake a conga at. The fact that the trio were walking the walk as well as talking the talk made it oh so real. I mean, if three nutcases who were so extremely different could get it together – some of the time – then why not the world? CSN were in many ways as different as you could get, with very different characters all jostling for position (Crosby by being a natural counter-culture rebel leader, Stills by being a forceful workaholic and Nash via friendly persuasion). The trio also had very different backgrounds (Crosby’s was a rich Californian lifestyle; Stills was a middling Texan one where his family moved a lot; Nash came from bitter Manchester poverty). Nobody who worked with one would ever have guessed that they could be in a band together through work-rate either: Crosby wrote six songs a year and was happy to let the others change them around, Stills wrote six before breakfast and they were all fully formed and Nash wrote six before each deadline to make sure the band had something to sing when they got the studio. Compared to getting CSN in the same room together, solving the cold war was a doddle. But each of them was roughly equal and – nearly always – respected, with one track by one of them treated much the same as one by the other two (or in the early days three).
There were always similarities too, something that’s all too often dismissed when discussing the trio. Crosby felt abandoned and dismissed during his childhood, overlooked in his posh Hollywood family house by an elder brother Ethan who seemed to have everything while a young David was a fat bullied kid and not a particularly determined scholar. Stills was a swot and eager to please his military parents, but his family kept moving every few terms that left him finding it difficult to make friends and with all the love in the world Stills was never going to agree to a life of service for an institution he didn’t believe in (even if the discipline paid off in his musical career). Nash had responsibility young after his dad died after a spell in prison he should never have been inside for (not grassing up a friend who sold him stolen goods if you haven’t read the review for ‘Wild Tales’ yet!), close to his family but somehow ignored by then simultaneously. All three men wanted to make their mark, were hungry for success and for all three of them the only thing worth living through their pretty brutal teenage years for was music and the chance of escape. Music mattered, it wasn’t just a chance to make money or pull girls but a chance to save the world and make it a better place. That vision was bigger than any difference between them all – at least until Nash ran off with Stills’ girlfriend, or Stills started dictating how the music went, or Crosby ended up high as a kite and Stills wiped the Crosby-Nash harmonies off his and Neil’s record and and and….anyway, usually the pull of taking on the world as town criers and making it a better place, brick by brick, was usually enough to keep CSN on the straight and narrow.
Of course being so different and with such different working practices didn’t always make for plain sailing. No wonder it led to so many fights over the years – three leaders into one band doesn’t often mix. But with CSN it kind of worked because even though the three of them were saying things very differently, they were essentially saying the same thing: that life is better with love and humanity is better with peace. If even CSN could come together because of that and despite all their differences then the world might – just might – have a chance of working together too. Life really is better multiplied, well most of the time. One tacit agreement of CSN was that the trio would never be censored or ridiculed the way they sometimes had been in their earlier bands. All three were free to express themselves and their individual thoughts and feelings without being afraid of how these songs would look when sat next to their colleagues’ work. Therefore a song like Crosby’s ‘Deja Vu’ – with it’s weird time signatures and talk about past lives informing our present selves – sits easily against Nash’s ‘Teach Your Children’ with it’s more straight- forward country tale of learning from past mistakes and guiding the next generation to help them best make their own decisions and Stills’ ‘Carry On’ (with it’s rock moral about how, if only we can hold on through the bad times, ‘love is coming to us all’). They’re all coming from roughly the same place and heading to roughly the same direction – they just take three very different routes to their destination sometimes.
This is what makes the first (and second) CSN/CSNY albums such a landmark in music history – here we have four very individual writers all working towards the same message but approaching it from different angles. Later albums too, though the formula was never quite as astonishing on returns as it was the first time (even if many individual songs on those albums are better). The closest you get to a previous partnership like this is the Beatles, with Lennon’s droll sarcasm and scattered brainstorms balanced by McCartney’s thoroughness and natural melodic sense. But CSN take this idea to its logical conclusion, adding in a third (and when Neil agrees to join them a fourth) voice to the mix and stressing their differences, rather than have George Martin’s production values smother both Beatles for the sake of ‘album unity’. Almost every track on every CSN album sounds like a completely different beast to its predecessor and successor (even if all three writers do, from to time, rehash old ideas of their own) and that’s exciting to listeners then and now. You don’t know where each of these albums are going next, from one track to another. Have there ever been three more different songs from a debut album than ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ ‘Marrakesh Express’ or ‘Guinnevere’? CSN records can go anywhere and do anything – they can be small and humble, epic and huge, as poppy as the poppiest band, as weird as the most out-there jazzy combo. Whatever the music dictated they could usually provide it between themselves, Stills especially being a dab hand at altering his style depending on which of the trio’s many roots were showing: pop, rock, folk, blues, psychedelia, jazz, R and B, Latin American influences. The trio all ‘got’ what the other brought to the table too. They didn’t merely tolerate it the way other bands do, they actively supported one another. Though the trio were pigeon-holed as early as their opening three trio songs as the ‘weird’ one, the ‘epic’ one and the ‘pop’ one, they could all do anything – including what the others did so well. All three men were good mimics at each other’s style and were often at their best when writing like each other: when Stills wrote a great hook-laden pop song like [ ] ‘Carry On’, when Nash wrote an epic like [ ] ‘Cathedral’ or when Crosby combined the two on a song like [ ] ‘Yours and Mine’. The result was a band with a wider scope and a bigger musical playground of ideas and backgrounds and influences to play around in than perhaps any other before or since. Add in a coating of three voices that sounds so perfect together and which was so instantly recognisable whatever the backing was and an interest in politics that meant they told the truth as honestly and fiercely as they could and you have several very good reasons why CSN may well be the most important band that ever lived. At least for a year, until those very differences that made them so interesting blew them so wide apart.
Perhaps modern sanitised bands should take a leaf out of CSN’s book: differences are what cause the artistic tensions within a band but they’re going to show up one day anyway and should be at best encouraged at worst exploited, not extinguished outright as everyone puts on false grins and pretends they haven’t happen. You believe every word CSN say to the world – and to each other with a quite amazing long list of songs directed at each other through the ages ( [ ] ‘King Of The Mountain’ [ ] ‘Do For The Others’ [ ] ‘Frozen Smiles’ and [ ] ‘Hippie Dream’ to name just one each by CSNY). Other songs looked at CSNY as a collective: [ ] ‘Cowboy Movie’ told the tale of the 1970 split via Western spaghetti B-film plots, [ ] ‘Beneath The Waves’ had Nash refusing to prop the goof ship CSNY up anymore and [ ] ‘The Old Homestead’ and ‘Walk Like A Giant’ are contradicting Young views of CSNY as a millstone or a milestone around his neck. At least the band are honest though and respectful, letting us know how they feel about each other – and accepting what the others write as fair game for musical inspiration (I’ve never read any of CSNY criticse another for what they said in a song, though they complain bitterly about what was said in interviews all the time).
Would that this would happen more often: just think how more fun The Spice Girls break-up might have been with songs about what the others were ‘really’ like or Justin Bieber using his failed relationships as a chance to pour out his heart instead of acting like a big headed twonk. Just look at the awful situation we have with today’s girl and boy bands, where the only differences seem to be people’s hair colour. CSN are a prime example of why life is better multiplied and shared. All three men could and did have a good chance at a solo career, but heard together they do so much more and go in so many more directions and together they made some of the greatest music that was ever made, adding harmony to each other’s music even as they add discord to their lives. They belong together, not in the same way that a horse and carriage or fish and chips are made for each other, but in the same way that a sandwich is: you can enjoy the parts separately, but only together do you get the true blend of flavourings that your taste-buds deserve, with so much happening at once your ears strain to keep up. Suddenly everything feels bigger, bolder, better. And who can deny the power when CSN finally put their differences together and combine, as they do stunningly so many times throughout this book (though the best may well be that final surge on [ ] ‘Country Girl’). Whatever the future of ‘supergroups’ (and let’s face it, there haven’t been many recently have there?!), the birth of CSN is an often overlooked milestone for music – the time when being in a band and making important music was the most sacred thing in the world and when it all seemed so special and plausible it really did feel like love was one day coming to us all. Three very different voices saying one thing will always be more special than one saying the same thing three times and CSN are surely the holy trinity of music, with the power of three. There will surely never be a band like CSN/Y – a band that wasn’t a band but a gathering of like-minded individuals - and no, we hadn’t really been here before.