Friday 4 July 2008

Neil Young "Trans" (1982) (Revised Review 2016)

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Neil Young "Trans" (1982)

Little Thing Called Love/ Computer Age/ We R In Control/ Transformer Man/ Computer Cowboy (AKA Syscrusher)// Hold On To Your Love/ Sample And Hold/ Mr Soul/ Like An Inca 

'Every morning when I look in your eyes I feel electrified by you'

Nfbdvshdkf shfgfhds jfhfghdjs gggs ifufgedlwpdhflgh euksfaFLEOTAPohg juasgaksfa (!) 

Sorry if you didn't understand that opening dear readers (it's Zigorous Threesian for 'The Spice Girls' are stupid’) but that was kind of the point. 'Trans' is an album you're not meant to know about, far less understand. The most personal, revealing, autobiographical album of Neil's career (behind all that stuff about robots),  you sense 'we' weren't meant to hear it at all. Trans is an album we can't even hear properly, with the 'main' songs delivered through a vocoder. Original vinyl copies didn't even come with a lyric sheet (thankfully the CD does) so most people haven’t got a clue what’s going on. For many years this record was dismissed as just another one of those weird Neil Young albums with a half-theme about robots talking to each other. However 'Trans' is so much more than that - it's an album about what it means to be human and the importance of communication in our lives. As a songwriter who'd started his career by drinking at the altar of wordy tunesmiths like Bob Dylan as well as grooving with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Neil knew more than most how powerful words can be and how much meaning they can contain. Given his own shy, reclusive demeanour he relied on words more than most rock musicians to make himself heard. But one of the most important people in his life couldn't understand him or talk back.

The reason for this album is heartbreaking: Young’s second son Ben was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy and Neil and his wife Pegi understandably made their son their priority, all but giving up music for the 1980-81 period. Both parents enrolled on a program where the pair had to play with and engage their son for fourteen hours, seven days a week, taking it in shifts, desperate to make Zeke respond to their voices, their touch, their words, anything. The only things that worked were, as it happened, the least personal things - Ben responded best to gadgets, to electronic equipment that could interpret his signals and allow him to communicate. Both sides are desperate to speak with each other, but somehow their circuits have been wired up differently and they can’t make themselves understood to each other, except through the technology. Exhausted, but unable or unwilling to give up music and put up with all the media hoo-ha that would result in his semi-retirement, Neil recorded his early 1980s albums on a part-time basis in whatever set of styles he thought he could hide behind, afraid that if he sounded too much like ‘Neil Young’ his highly confessional style would be too honest for him to be comfortable putting forward before the public, or at least that’s what fans have speculated since—Neil never really told us anything about his situation at the time. After two years of treading water (with 'Hawks and Doves' cobbled together out of spare parts and 'Re-Ac-Tor' written in a hurry and deliberately made to be about nothing in particular) Neil had to return to writing again and once the programme eased off a little he tried to pour into words (the very thing that he couldn't use with Ben) his feelings about such a frustrating situation. 'Trans' is the result - an album in which humans and robots live in the world but don't understand each other, where babies can be 'ordered' to specifications without anything wrong with them and where every baby knows that they are loved. Planned as a video EP (which sadly didn't happen) with this as the soundtrack, 'Trans' would have seen state of the art digital graphics featuring a robot carer working in a nursery, providing the parental love that humans cannot, with 'Sample and Hold' the order for the baby, 'Transformer Man' the love for the baby and 'Computer Age' and 'Computer Cowboy' scene-setters about what the modern world was all about. The EP would have helped explain things a great deal - sadly without it this album was left to stand on its own two robotic limbs and the listener is forced to come up with the images themselves on what is perhaps Neil's most visual LP.

Unlike most futuristic worlds on concept CDs this one is neither utopian (there’s a computer hacker who spoils all the fun in one song) or totalitarian (the individual narrator of ‘Computer Age’, be it he she or it, tells us that they are more sure of their identity than before, telling us proudly ‘I know I’m more than just a number’). Instead it's pretty realistic as future-set science-fiction goes, full of a world where good and bad continues to exist side by side, technology used for ill and for good. Above all, though, and in contrast to the cold war backdrop with which this album was made this world is at least intended to be safe. Life supporting systems are fully controlled and regulated by machines and human error is impossible. Everything about the 'Transworld' is meant to be perfect - with babies born without deformities and highways full of driverless cars (as seen on the glorious front cover, one of  the best on a Young album), a humming paradise of technological progress. Except that it isn't. Humans aren't robots and aren't perfect, so even though babies all weight the same amount in this world they still feel pain, loneliness and despair and human 'cowboys' conning the system still exist, though they do it by robbing banks 'online' instead (though this was nearly twenty years before the internet became a 'thing' and when money was purely physical remember, when it would have seemed like the least likeliest thing on the album). It's the humans who let this world of progress down and whose frailties and mistakes get in the way of what could be a perfect life. Conversely, as the parent of a child with great birth 'defects', Neil also knows that something doesn't have to be 'perfect' to be loved. He also knows that technological progress can help us be more human if we use it in the right way, instead of trying to make our frailties extinct. Characteristically, it took an album about robots for Neil to make his most 'human' statement, about what it means to have emotions and why we should never take those feelings for granted. Revealingly, these robots and computers don’t represent a sterile future environment either, as artists like Kraftwerk and Devo often make them sound, for better or for worse. These gadgets of the future are a source of hope to Neil, representing the possibility that Neil might one day communicate properly with his son, the robots clearly the heroes. A professed gadget-lover anyway, possibly ‘Trans’ is the world’s first record where computers are referred to as a natural part of the modern world, rather than some new novelty or something alien and scary, closer to an Asimov story than an H G Wells one. If they ever bring the excellent channel 4 series ‘Humans’ back (about robots despite the title) then they need ‘Trans’ as it’s soundtrack.

And it's a glorious album. Though you can't always hear the emotion in Neil's robotic voice, these performances are some of the most intense and compelling in the Young songbook. We’ve had a run now of slightly slapdash albums (including the all-singing all-jumping ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ in truth) but ‘Trans’ is an album that’s clearly had a lot of time energy and love spent on it. This is oh so different to ‘Re-Ac-Tor’ as Neil begins to think about and comes to terms with his situation. He still isn’t quite ready to tell ‘us’ about it yet, hiding behind a smokescreen of vocoders and impressively undated computer technology on an album everyone dismissed as a story, but every note of this troubled album sounds real in a way the last few haven’t. Needing comfort to record and tour this album, Neil celebrates the ‘future’ by turning to the past and re-hiring a Whose Who of Neil's past eras: that’s Bruce Palmer from Buffalo Springfield on bass for the first time since 1967, Joe Lala from the CSNY touring band of 1970 and 1974, all three surviving members of Crazy Horse, Nils Lofgren last heard on 'Tonight's The Night' recorded in 1973 and Ben Keith, who played on more albums than not. Admittedly this is a band who didn’t naturally gel. Tempers frayed in the studio and especially on tour where poor Bruce, who had released a grand total of one album in his fifteen years away and done no touring whatsoever, struggled to keep up with his more rehearsed colleagues. Everyone is also being ordered to play against type: Bruce, Billy and Ralph have to be the tightest rhythm section on record in this sparse clinical world where everything is perfect. Nils, a naturally soulful emotional jumpy kind of guy, has to play his cleanest guitar licks. There’s no room for Ben’s favoured pedal steel in this sterile world so he sticks to ‘normal’ guitar. Only Joe sounds like he knows what’s going on, with a whole sea of percussion on this album, but even for him re-recording over and over for Neil must have felt a long way from his natural home in CSN/Y. They are all pushed far out of their comfort zones, to a factor of 110! Over the top of it comes Neil, who plays not just his squirrelly guitar as fed through a mixing desk to scrape it of all colour and emotion but also the synthesiser which plays a greater role on this album than ever before. The result is a ‘Transband’ who are not trans-gender so much as trans-style, multiple genres on the cusp of transforming into something else that isn’t even music. 

Even though most of the voices and almost all the instruments are digital and impersonal, the sheer humanity of the songs shine through in contrast to the settings. You'd have to be a robot yourself not to cry when you realise what career highlight 'Transformer Man' is all about (as Neil mourns all the things he can't do with his child and the fact that he can't even hug him and tell him things will be better, because his son won't understand him but that he's loved all the same). 'Sample and Hold' is the scariest ride in this book, as human after human gets 'recycled' by a robot in search of the perfect specimen who can lead a perfect life, despairing himself in the most chilling pronunciation of mere numbers you'll ever hear ('weight 1-1-0!') as he realises that he can’t fulfil his function.  Only robots 'never fail' but we know that humans do. Though not in the same league the soundscape 'Computer Age' is highly impressive too, as Neil and his robot double duet on a song about the pair living side by side and where technological progress can truly be beautiful. 'We R In Control' is a song of warning, as the robots control everything best left in the hands of humans and sounds impressively threatening given that the vocoder gives away no actual sign of emotion. 'Computer Cowboy' is a candidate for Neil's funniest song, as a bunch of robots turn renegade and sing 'come-a-ky-yi-yippie-yi-ay' as they break into a bank vault and steal human money. And then there's Neil updating the old to the new, revisiting Buffalo Springfield classic 'Mr Soul' (a song presumably chosen because it's one of Neil's most emotional, spitting feathers about humanity's poor re-action to other humans while vowing never to change and become what others want) as if it's as impersonal as a digital watch. The lyrics don’t disappoint when you do understand what they are, full of classic Neil imagery about the yin and yang of how the world works and the barriers humans – and robots – use to protect their circuits from an outside upset or overload. 'Trans' is a super human record, with the core robotic songs as great as anything from Neil's classic era and the story that's threaded between them all may be his greatest concept piece so far. 

However, if 'Trans' has an Achilles heel (and as this album all about human weakness, why not?) then it's the fact that the scenario doesn't last across the full LP. There are three older songs here, recorded in the first half of 1982, all of which are sung by Neil with his 'normal' voice and which have nothing to do with the album's theme of robotics (although you could argue that as two of them are about the very human feeling of love and one of them is about the might of a human empire and civilisation, these too make sense by showing things that humans can do which robots can't). Most fans get confused by this and blast them for not being as brave as the other songs here. However this trio are pretty good too - certainly better than fans generally say (especially 'Like An Inca' with its duel Young-Lofgren guitar fireworks and paranoid throw-forward to a future when the Aztec civilisation will no longer exist). Good as they are, all three rather dilute the album though. Why are they here? Well, away from his personal life, Neil’s professional life was taking a turn for the worse too – though, again, we only know this in retrospect after seeing how things turned out. All three are taken from an abandoned album (Neil's fourth entirely abandoned album!)  named 'Island In The Sun', which was intended to be Neil's first album for new record company Geffen and would have represented a fairly safe and cosy return to the 'Harvest' era with an emphasis on love songs (albeit with a larger smattering of digital sounds than normal). While not a great album if heard en masse the way ‘Trans’ is, there are some truly lovely moments here – ‘Raining In Paradise’, a song that didn’t make the cut and inspired by Ben’s illness in a folkier, less robotic way, is perhaps the best Young song still unreleased at the time of writing, while another better-than-average song ‘If You Got Love’ was taken off ‘Trans’ so much at the ;last minute that original copies of this record still listed the song on the back. However Geffen weren't interested and rejected this first offering Neil gave them, asking for something else. This was in retrospect an odd move. Neil started off by giving the record company exactly what they should have wanted and could have sold – a whole album full of singer-songwriter angst and poppy tunes that might have been Neil’s most commercial offering since ‘Harvest’ (or the very least ‘Comes A Time’). Neil never works best when he feels betrayed or misunderstood – just think of any of the unfinished CSNY reunions down the years – and the problems in this period just made Neil all the more determined to record an album so peculiar, so far out, so downright new that the label wouldn’t have a clue what to do with it.   

This was the bold first step in a war that will dominate the rest of the decade as artist and record company try to see eye to eye repeatedly and fail, with Neil asked to make records 'more like Neil Young' (perhaps missing the fact that no two Neil Young albums ever sounded alike ever; what they really meant I think was ‘another album like ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ or failing that ‘Harvest’, not realising that they were as much anomalies in Neil’s canon as all his other records). Neil had signed with the label out of growing boredom with Reprise (with whom he'd been with since 1968) and the fact that David Geffen was a friend - the mentor of his manager Elliot Roberts in fact. However the collaboration was doomed from the start as neither side quite understood what the other was expecting. This will be the start of a confusing era on Geffen when Neil lost his way (and most of his fanbase) and yet 'Trans' proves that it needn't have been like that. Often lumped into the sad sorry messy 'experiments' alongside 'Everybody's Rockin' and 'Landing On Water', actually 'Trans' doesn't belong with those albums at all except by chronology and the label name on the cover. 'Trans' isn't a character, like the Shocking Pinks guy or the Bluenotes guy - never mind the fact that this is largely sung by singing robots from the future, it's Neil. And never mind the fact that the music is mainly performed on robotic instruments, it sounds more like Neil than any of his other albums too. For the most part the Geffen years were a lost cause for Young not because of the genre experiments per se, but because the experimentation seems to replace the need for Neil’s usually honest and revealing writing. On Trans things are different and if you can get beyond the robotic singers and epic soundscapes this record has far more resilience and emotion than, say, ‘Landing On Water’ (an album played on ‘real’ instruments). This too seems odd, given that Neil is playing clear-cut ‘characters’ here whereas the other Geffen records are all sort-of meant to be Neil talking to us direct. However the fiction merely enables Neil to deal with a fact he couldn’t bring himself to face just yet.

From Geffen's point of view his new and vulnerable record label needed a big name star to replace John Lennon, who'd been murdered just one rather under-whelming record (’Double Fantasy’) into a planned multi-record deal in what was clearly a doomed role as their ‘safe’ pair of hands. Neil was meant to be their next big star name - but then Neil had never been a big star name (Reprise had much bigger names, which allowed them to largely ignore and soak up what he released for them, on the understanding that Young had – and has - a fanbase loyal enough to buy everything in enough bulk to reap any losses in the long-term anyway).With hindsight it looks as if Neil was signed to the label as a knee-jerk reaction to Lennon’s death rather than as either a favour from Geffen to his old friend or any particularly long-term desire to sign Young to the label, a fact that often gets forgotten when Neil Young fans start criticising David Geffen. The label owner, facing financial ruin when left with funding Yoko without John, took the fact that Neil was offering records about robots and full of soppy love ballads personally and as another slap in the face he didn’t need. In retrospect it's a wonder we got this album at all – Geffen seems to have acquiesced on the understanding that Neil’s submitted records were just going to get weirder and weirder until he caved anyway. How very 'Trans', then, that this album isn't quite what it might have been not because of technological limits or studio dilemmas but because of the very human problem of two people having different ideas on how to do business. Neil will go on to some similarly weird and wonderful places in the 1980s before his contract is over and done with: an album full of country songs (mainly covers), an album of rockabilly (mainly covers), an album full of blues songs (all Neil’s, surprisingly) and a noisy synthesiser-dominated album of, erm, well I think they were Neil’s songs, but to be honest they didn’t sound like songs at all, just noise. As things went on, Neil seemed to spend more time haranguing his new bosses than developing his records and neither party comes out of the relationship entirely smelling of roses or making any real money - or, in Neil's case, making much musical progress. 

For once the experiments are this album’s strengths - not its weaknesses as will turn out to be the case later in the decade – as Neil sounds genuinely committed to his work and more emotionally attached to it than most of the songs he will be writing a bit later. On paper Trans should be awful; the first of a long series of painful experiments recorded in two distinctly separate and often jarring moods which doesn’t even feature a recognisable Neil Young vocal for half the record. However, it’s the bravery of Trans that wins you over, especially the parts that are so ambitious that by rights they shouldn’t work. The world wasn’t fully digital in 1982 and yet sounds more digital than anything you can buy now, making it the ‘Tron’ of the music world. Take those vocals for instance – The Who might have used it first (on 1973’s ‘Quadrophenia’) and Cher might have dabbled with the voice-changing instrument the vocoder for a successful single or three but no other artist except Neil would use the dated but still fascinating voice-changing instrument throughout six tracks of a nine song album (a Sennheiser VSM201 for anyone who wants to blow along). It's a testament to Neil's style that he's still so recognisable, even under all that electronic trickery. The great banks of synthesisers -  used back in the days when the instrument was new and exciting, not formulaic and repetitive – also seems to be deliberately anti the ‘old world’ of bone-crunching guitar and/or mellow singer-songwriterness gutsy honesty that makes Neil Young sound like no other musician on earth. Heard now they sound oddly new and futuristic, far more so than the other synthesised pop about to be released across a 1980s that should have known better, with Neil making the technology front and centre rather than just using it for 'colour'. Even in an era full of similarly robotic works by the likes of Kraftwerk and Neil's pals Devo, 'Trans' stands out - the synthesisers work differently to how anybody else ever used it (including Neil on later albums) and the production (by Neil, David Briggs and a new unsung hero who will be around for many albums to come despite only seemingly producing albums by Neil with no other pedigree, Tim Mulligan) is sparklingly bright and un-messy. ‘Trans’ just sounds great, from first note to last, Neil subverting the usual problems of 1980s music (impersonal, robotic and tinny) and making it truly soar. If I could give awards for album production alone then ‘Trans’ would probably win by a synthesiser and it’s a shock, if you’ve read other reviews on this site, to think that the award goes to an album made in the decade when most musicians lost it and lost it badly. ‘Trans’ sounds great: the guitars scythe and cut through the robotic smog, the keyboards both float and pounce at different times, the vocal effects sound better than 99% of recordings being produced now and Neil still uses real drums – perhaps the single biggest mistake of 1980s records. 

Even the album cover is great: a robot looks over at his human self as he waits for a robotic car to take him into space (the man, meanwhile, is waiting for a taxi near some trees – is this a comment on the modernisation of our world in the 1980s? – after all, the trees on the right hand side of the picture have been pulled down for some sort of concrete monstrosity that looks not unlike the Concourse in our own beloved Skelmersdale, a sight which is surely evidence of our devolution not evolution over the centuries. Or is this perhaps a comment on the schizophrenia of the arrangements on this album which can be divided neatly into two halves?) The back cover, meanwhile, offers a clue as to what this album is all about: while many reviewers and fans took away the message to be afraid of technology (which is, after all, par for the course with every Neil Young album since the first one) Trans makes it clear that technology saves lives. A human heart beats away but firmly encased by a covering of circuit boards and microchips, enhancing rather than replacing mankind. Other albums would have the robots as the baddies, have us running scared and have them responsible for everything wrong with the name of ‘progress’. But the ‘real’ story of ‘Trans’ is the very real human story of a dad and his son, a concept that’s all heart and when this album is at its best (as it is on the optimism of ‘Computer Age’, the tears of ‘Transformer Man’ and the sheer terror of ‘Sample and Hold’). I do wonder, though, if Neil might have made this cover differently if he’d ever seen the Cybermen on Dr Who, a race that lost their humanity when they discarded their human parts…  

However it's the music that resonates, even more than the packaging or the robotic performances (and I mean that in a nice way...) as Neil comes to terms with the shocks in his life and tries to somehow find solace in the fact that, just maybe, thanks to technological progress his son might be able to respond to hearing this highly personal album made just foe him one day. ‘Trans’ could of course have been better. The ‘Island In The Sun’ tracks would make a good album in their own right but can’t compare to the ‘core four’ at the heart of this record and given the fun with robotics make less thematic sense than they would tacked onto the beginning and end of any other Young album. The re-make of ‘Mr Soul’, with impressive for the times, is perhaps a self-indulgence too far. However what many fans miss is how far ahead of its time ‘Trans’ is and how no other album ever made has yet competed with its alien landscape and robotic sounds. This is the bravest of all of Neil’s brave albums (and let’s face it most of them are pretty brave), with the double whammy that you have to be truly invested in the story behind the songs for it to work (a story which Neil won’t actually tell us about for a few years more). Emotional humane stuff - impressively so for an album that barely features a human anything for half the record. Though it's often overlooked, much misunderstood and almost always dismissed, 'Trans' might just be my favourite of Neil's records - an album where he really does go to places nobody else would ever go and deliver a mood as 'real' as anything in the 'Doom Trilogy' but one that isn't quite as despairing or as grim to listen to. There is, sort of, a happy ending too: the following year the Youngs will find a whole new school catered to students like Ben with severe disabilities and better still its near to an old favourite Young Californian haunt in Hillsborough. The only thing the school need is money and maybe a fundraising event or three and in Neil and Pegi they have the perfect solution: parents who not only want to make a difference but have the contacts to do it. Pegi finds her true calling, using all her people skills and determination to make it happen, while Neil too finds a good excuse to call in favours from old friends in a good cause. While the days don’t get easy they are never quite as tough again as when they were working fourteen hour days to make their son better and in their own way both find a new meaning to the question ‘why us?’ The answer may well be because Neil and Pegi together were an unbreakable indomitable force who could now do a whole lot of good. Ben too comes on leaps and bounds, to the point where father and son can interact all they want, partly through Neil’s faith in technology coming true, partly through the brilliance of the new school, partly through love but mostly because Ben is every bit as tough and resilient as his dad. ‘Trans’, an album balanced on a knife-edge between good and evil, success and failure, hopes and fears, somehow manages to come out on the side of the light after all. The result is a triumph, a record that broke new ground and despite using metal robots features far less than perhaps any other Neil Young record. Not for every fan maybe, but like Neil's other most emotional album ('Tonight's The Night') ‘Trans’ is an album that deserves to be heard alongside his prettier and more commercial records and may well be his most daring and courageous work in his long career. Like all the Geffen material, desperately in need of a decent re-issue (preferably with ‘Island In The Sun’ in there too complete) so that the world can hear anew one of the great AAA albums that got lost in the cracks of time.  

The Songs:

The album starts innocuously enough though with the decidedly un-robotic [151] Little Thing Called Love, a catchy straightforward song played by a traditional guitar-bass-drum-keyboard unit format which is so, well, ‘normal’ and unusually straightforward for Neil that it might make you wonder what on earth I‘ve been talking about in the last couple of paragraphs. There’s no stormclouds on the horizon here, no robotic other-worldly voices, no sense of any great hidden message, just one of Neil’s catchiest singles. Everything becomes clear when you know that this song is the first of three salvaged from the more traditional sounding Island In the Sun, the album that should have come out just before Trans but got rejected by Geffen early on. As songs on this album go it’s pretty non-descript all round – nothing that any number of singer-songwriters couldn’t have written at the time. However, on its own terms this song is gloriously catchy in a way that Neil hadn’t been since [49] ‘Heart Of Gold’, sporting a particularly fine driving riff and an unusual mix of electric and acoustic instruments (Neil has quite often bounced between the two during an album, usually dividing the record in the middle, but rarely has Neil used them both together in the same song and they work well sparring off each other here). The lyrics don’t say all that much but have a certain something about them: Neil reckons you can tell when somebody has been touched by love as it shows in their demeanour, pointing to someone he sees ‘hanging head and shuffling feet’. Neil refers to love as being ‘hypnotised’ and how it breaks his heart like nothing else; at the same time though this is a happy song, Neil still desperate to jump back into a new relationship because it may yet be ‘the best love you’ve ever had’. It’s the melody that works so well though – the long, sighing chorus line is especially good and the fine arrangement adds some nice harmonies, a sweet keyboard riff and some pounding congas embellishes the song well too while it’s born for the sweet and sour harmonies of the Horse. Neil even has time to invent the riff for future favourite [255] ‘Harvest Moon’ ten years early in the acoustic guitar part in the bridge between verse and chorus. If there’d been a whole album of this stuff, it could have been great: we wouldn’t want all of Neil’s records to sound like this, but one exploring Neil’s more commercial side could have been fun – not all of ‘Island In The Sun’ is this good or even like this all the way through but it is I think it’s fair to say a more commercial affair than usual from Neil. Geffen really missed a trick not putting this out. Heard on its own terms ‘Little Thing’ is great; it’s as an opener for Trans of all albums, this song sounds desperately lost and out of place. Which may, of course, have been the whole idea: the electronics on this album are meant to help bring ‘order’ to the future, while the emotion heard in typical singer-songwriter love songs like this one are no longer as central to human culture. Harvest Moon riff. 

[152] Computer Age is the first of the ‘robot’ songs and productions – a towering, spacious mass of electronics with different  robot voices coming and going without a by-your-leave as Nils Lofgren improvises some pretty exquisite guitar over the top. At the time most critics thought that Neil was being sarcastic with these songs, showing how our technological age was ruining our ability to be human, but that doesn’t seem to be Neil’s message here at all, on this song at least. Neil’s always been big into technology (he designed several electronic trains for his part-owned Lionel model company for instance, one of the biggest manufacturers after Hornby and, err, Thomas the Tank Engine). On this album, more than any other, technology is Neil’s lifeline, the one thing that might in the future unite our scattered and divided world. The lyrics to this song are fascinating and not just because you can’t hear them properly. Essentially each verse has a double meaning. On the one hand, the humans of Neil’s future now celebrate their ‘humanness’ all the more because of the world in which they live and appreciate ‘real’ relationships all the more now that the modern world is so neat and technologically tidy. On the other hand this is Neil the hopeful father, desperate to break into his son’s world and tap into what it might be like, oblivious to the world around them because ‘I stand by you and we just don’t see the others’ back in the ‘real’ world. Never has Neil written a more poetic turn of phrase than the opening to Computer Age: ‘Cars and trucks fly by me on the corner, but I’m alright standing proud before the signal, when I feel the light I feel like more than just a number, and I stand by you because we just don’t see the others…’ He could be either human or robot here, his voice electronically treated but not yet using the vocoder as he reaches out to fellow outsiders or works monotonously away as a machine, oblivious to all but his job. By the end he’s an organism, a combination of both, where ‘precious metal lines moulded into highways’ run through him ‘microscopically...chronologically’. A final verse has the computer reaching out to its owner, desperate to hear a ‘heartbeat’ in control of all this, as if the one cannot exist without the other. Like a less crotchety version of Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Neil’s robots are full of the loneliness of command, letting humans talk to each other through them but never making contact themselves despite having all the wonders of art and science running through their electronic veins. But even though the robots are alike, the humans are, well, human – individuals who are able to feel the light on their skin, the vibration of the cars on the highway and – in the moving last verse – feel a heartbeat as a reminder that the narrator is truly ‘alive’. It’s easy to imagine Neil at his beloved model train set righting this song, marvelling at the order and serenity of the cogs and pistons turning the wheels of his beloved engines and how everything ends up ordered and on time. Ralph’s tick-tock drumming even sounds like a model train, passing different noises that weave in and out the mix with multiple guitar parts, synths and a most magnificent series of vocals (one human, one robot, one hybrid that arrive gradually as if Neil is slowly being taken over). This is a computer age and a day of miracle and wonders, but unlike Paul Simon Neil sees no need to cry – everything is running exactly as it should. This song might have sounded boring played as a straight rock and roll band in terms of tune, but the Transband’s clever arrangements here, with growling and falsetto robots trading lines while the synthesiser-rhythm section duel go their own sweet way underneath, make it a very intriguing recording indeed, a whole world going on just out of our reach that sounds like nothing we’ve ever heard before. 

[153] We R In Control repeats the theme, but is a catchier, less epic song. This time we get a bustling, bureaucratic world where computers control everything from satellites to the FBI, the real dangers to society. They’re everywhere ‘floor to floor, door to door’ and are working even when ‘you’re asleep’. Basically it’s Amazon’s Alexa assistant thirty-five years early, but less annoying. We know Neil’s take on modern technology for real now: [417] ‘My New Robot’ from 2016 is Neil’s most sarcastic song in years. Here, though he’s more mixed about whether this is a good thing or not. The computers after all don’t seem to have an ulterior motive as they chug around quoting their rallying cry of ‘chemical computer thinking battery’ bouncing from one channel to another over another brilliant Molina backbeat. The fact that Neil is singing through a vocoder that gives no emotion away should only add to that idea. However there’s something threatening here all the same: the song’s angry six note riff sounds like a warning siren, Neil’s robotic surf guitar is chilling, the sheer relentlessness of the beat is gripping and the criss-crossing voices sound like one hell of a tough posse of robots.. There’s even a verse where the computers seem to be ringing each other up on the telephone, a series of bleeps and whirrs that sound like computer speak and not all that far from the odd beeping noise my laptop makes whenever I write for too long. I’m starting to look at my computer in a new light in fact. Did it just wink at me? Have I been listening to ‘Trans’ on repeat for too long? If I don’t get to the end of this book, dear readers, the technology finally got me (let’s face it, technology has been winning the battle of this site since day one, it’s gonna get me by the end!) I’m intrigued too by the middle eight which reaches back to the main theme of ‘Computer Age’ but with added aggression: the line now reads ‘computer age in harm’s way, we will prevail and perform their function’ and even the fact that it’s being sung by a group of robots best described as angelic doesn’t stop this passage sending chills through the spine. Ultimately though it’s a tease, a plot point without a conclusion, as the song just whirrs to a full-stop instead. Not as deep as other songs on the album and a track that would be a joke without the gadgets, but considering this song was recorded in 1982 it still sounds bloody good.   

 [154] Transformer Man is a most beautiful song, given a new lease of life when audiences heard the lyrics properly for the first time when Neil revived it for ‘Unplugged’ in 1993. However it works best in context, as Neil tells his son how much he means to him in a way that neither of them can quite hear or make out. Though only four Ben is already a whizz on his dad’s train set and Neil watches proudly as he plays with his new Lionel prototype, something that allows his son to control the toy trains with the movement of his head (it’s not quite the ‘push of a button’ as here but that’s clearly where Neil is heading). In the context of the album its heartbreaking: Neil sees how much his son suffers every morning and it ‘electrifies’ him – the perfect word as it both shocks him and drives him on, determined to make things easier. He can see his son in there somewhere, a ‘beam on a galaxy of love’ and longs for him to ‘transform’ out of this body into one that he can control, to ‘throw off the chains that hold you down’. On another level its equally heartbreaking, a father telling a son that there are ‘so many things still left to do’ but that they can’t do them ‘yet’. This song works equally well as a song for a split family. If you have ever seen a member of your family or someone you love suffer, however temporarily, then you will surely be deeply moved by this song that sports one of Neil’s best lyrics. The vocoder sound might still be detached and emotionless, but such is the atmosphere of this song that it still sounds like it is being performed by the loneliest, most heartbreaking computer voice in history, singing some hard-to-fathom words about trying to get close to someone and not quite getting through. It makes absolute sense that we can’t quite hear these lyrics, as the computers by themselves can’t quite tell what’s going on in the world around them. One computer tells us that he can ‘direct the action’ at the ‘push of a button’, but he can’t really direct anything at all, because he would need a human to push the controls for him and needs their insight into seeing long-term what decisions are right and wrong, the ‘cause and effect’ any action will have, which the computer in this song simply can’t do as yet. The power of technology to ‘transform’ man, to enable him to evolve and do things he has never done before, has never been better expressed than on this track. I wish the band had gone for another recording though – the vocoders are even harder to hear than the rest of the album (perhaps because Neil felt this song too personal to hear?) and the backing is far too anonymous, only really getting going on the fine middle eight. I think too that this is no longer Ralph playing but – shock horror – a drum machine, the only example of this in the whole book. Electrifying.       

 [155] Computer Cowboy magically lightens the mood of the heavy first half with a sort of futuristic Western played for laughs, complete with a come-a-ky-ky-yippie-yi-yippie-yi-ay chorus. Suggesting that while human means may change motives never will, Neil discusses a character known as the ‘system-crusher’, a computer hacker who infiltrates Government systems and steals electronic ‘sheep’ when they’re not looking. Typically offbeat, this song suggests Neil had been reading as lot of Phillip K Dick books about androids dreaming of electronic sheep (or watching the Bladerunner film based on this book, perhaps, given the few opportunities he had for reading books in this period). This song arguably works much better than it should, because there’s not much material here at all – for the most part, the lines of this song don’t even rhyme and there’s precious little detail to go with the outline above. Neil has a quick joke imaging that in the future cowboys will have to rustle up cuboid sheep (weirdly prescient of the ‘Minecraft’ game) all numbered and eating in a line on some computer programme. The cowboy has his own horse (‘and of course the rhythm is perfect!’) and even gets him to trot in time, before waiting to pounce and ‘leave your alias behind’. The song is also nicely balanced between tongue-in-cheek comedy and real danger – this is, after all, a world completely controlled by robotics and if even one criminal intercepts the world’s main bank of computers the results could be disastrous, with virtual sheep the first steps to a world takeover, perhaps? The ominous and ever-restless air of the song is heightened by the half-playful, half-painful stabbing guitar riff and the gurgling electronics on the coda. Of course, most fans will skip the bulk of this song and go straight to Neil singing that classic cowboy chorus as he ‘rides’ away on the fadeout, which is by far and away the best section of the song, being both hilarious and touching in its update of an old cliché. Had Neil performed this on guitar it would be hopeless and one of his emptiest songs in years (well, OK, a year, I’d forgotten about ‘Re-Ac-Tor’ which has many candidates for that role). The recording though is first-class and one of the very best on the album. Ralph Molina is again this track’s biggest instrumental star, his drums twisting this way and that, a very human sound lost in a jungle of speaker-shredding guitars that leap out of the darkness playing a single chord and some truly glorious riffing from Neil and Nils together at their instinctive best. Neil turns in a marvellous vocal performance too, using electronic call-and-answer backing vocals that in any other context but this one would be a pure Motown rip off but which sounds great. He really gets into character on the sound effects, crying ‘Gah!’ and singing ‘ky-yi-yippie-yi-ay’ like a Bill Gates Cassidy and the Microsoft Kid (‘windows ten rubbishy updates nobody wants are on me!’) Interestingly the lyric sheet includes a snatch not heard on the record: ‘Perforation, protection, perforation, syscrusher, perforation’. Who knows where that part would have fitted on as the ending is one of the best things about the song, the mass of noise gradually breaking down (poor Ralph’s arms nearly breaking under the strain of his taut cymbal work) before being mown down by the law, or at any rate a marvellous synth effect that roars out of the floor to dominate the song before slowly slinking away again, while the cowboy’s horse still trots on. 

Side two begins innocently again with [156] Hold On To Your Love, another catchy song from ‘Island In the Sun’ that’s slower and more developed than the one that opened the album. Most fans dismiss these non-electronic songs as moronic filler material (thinking about it, most casual Neil Young fans say the same thing about the electronic songs as well) but this one is surely a neglected minor classic. Recalling the tune of [33] ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ but much much prettier, this song is understated to the point of being mute, but the lovely lilting keyboard riff and spaced-out solo, the lovely CSN-ish harmonies and the sheer joy of hearing Neil sing a happy song for once (well, almost) show all the ingredients are there, even if they’ve been thrown into the pot a bit hap-hazardly. The idea – and a nifty one for such a robotic album – is that life will try and confuse you, making you lose sight of the ones you love, blinding you with disagreements, obstacles and irritants. Neil though knows that life is better if you ‘hold on to your love’. Love magnified whatever you feel already – ‘though you may feel tired and blue’ it’s easy enough to pull things around and start feeding positive thoughts back into the engine of your love. The lyrics sound like Neil’s tentative joy at the thought his problems might be lifting after a dark and difficult time (Ben was enrolled onto a less-intense course during the early sessions of this album and by most accounts seemed to be giving more of a response to his teachers than before), quietly lifting his head up high once again and telling us in song that no matter how dark life gets, however ’tired and blue’ you feel, if you keep going ’your dreams may come true if you hold on to your love’ ‘The things you dream might come true come true if you hold on to your love!’ is Neil’s quick-stepping chorus as he urges us not to let a loss of faith ‘break a heart, don’t let it start’. A gorgeous free-flowing synthesiser backing has Neil acting like a sheep-dog, trying to herd all of these stray parts together so that they make the end of each line in time and in harmony with each other, occasionally using the whip of a guitar chord to keep everyone in line. Neil’s vocal could have done with a bit of spit-and-polish (it’s oddly weak and flat, as if it’s been treated like the more robotic sounds and even though it’s a rare case of Neil singing double-tracked), but the contrasting keyboard licks—one long, aching and constant, the other restless, short and jittery—are a clever idea nicely executed. If nothing else, by this point in the album it’s nice to have a short calm oasis of human love after being cast adrift in this album’s sea of electronic gadgets and even though this song sounds as out of place as The Spice Girls at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame out of context this is a sweet little song that should have been the album single. Something tells me Neil would have had an outside chance at a hit with it. 

[157a] Sample and Hold comes next and in contrast to the last’s track’s acoustic vibe this song is the pinnacle of Neil’s work with electronics. A pulsating, driving, terrifying song, this track features three computers singing who, despite their cold and detached pronouncements throughout, sound far more ‘alive’ and human than most singers do. A ‘unit’ (ie a robot) is being ordered out of a catalogue by someone, but keeps being sent back because of various faults and the computers get increasingly desperate in their search for a perfect person that proves to be impossible to find, even in the electronic world. Maybe it’s the computers themselves who have made the order, frustrated that they can’t find it in statistics but through a spark of connection between humans that they will never have. Lines like ‘disposition – even’ and ‘mood code – rotary adjustable’ are a simple list of instructions that could be a dating site, but reducing something as complex to these tiny details suddenly raises the tension – these beings are never going to get the love they want because you can’t order love, you can only find it. There’s no way these robots can find love by ‘sampling and holding’ – a very robotic term twinned with a human one. ‘You know you will be happy’ the robots somehow mock their human customers, but we know that they won’t – because love doesn’t work like that. Discarding the lonely and the jealous they look for perfection ‘from the flow of the hair to the tip of the nail’ means these robots are looking for the wrong things. By the end even these robots have lost it, wailing the weight of ‘1-1-0’ like a mantra. The perfect song for out tindr and grindr times (with the idea of ‘sampling’ something well before its time), it’s almost a shock when the robots don’t swipe left or right anywhere because this is all that is – mankind’s future through procreation reduced to a collection of statistics. There’s no love in this song, only wild fury as Neil cranks his guitar up to 110 and uses a whole chorus of differently pitched vocals for one of his most intense backing tracks. Especially this ‘second’ version – the first pass was unreleased at first for reasons unknown[157b]  (released on both the ‘Lucky Thirteen’ compilation and the one and only CD re-issue) and it is spacier and longer, more impressive for the sheer sonic sound effects and power. This punkier version is pretty great too though, with the twin Young and Lofgren guitar parts clipped and a real sense of menace in this song’s step as it prowls around your speakers growling and groaning. For once on this album, there’s not one thing to link this ‘electronic’ world with Neil’s usual music – even Neil’s and Nils’ electric guitars have been sampled through a synthesiser by the sound of it, while the drums and all the myriad synthesiser effects sound like they’ve come straight out of some sci-fi/horror blockbuster. It is nothing short of a tragedy that this original version of surely Neil’s greatest song of the 1980s isn’t yet available to buy in the digital age.  Which is also pretty ironic given the subject matter!  

Next in line comes the first (of many) re-workings of an old Young classic from ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’, [158a] Mr Soul, here a duet between ‘normal’ Neil and ‘vocoder’ Neil. We’ve had live recordings of this old chestnut galore (see an acoustic version on Unplugged and a bluesy version on Year Of The Horse, although surprisingly Young has yet to play it as an all-out rocker on a live record since recording the electric studio version in 1967) and you can see why Neil would revive it here: it is, after all, a song about going your own way even at the cost of your career and staying true to yourself. Here though, while recording this song in such a different modern setting works with the lyrics it is also as big a contrast as you can get to the sheer soul and life of the original, with everything flattened out by being played on digital instruments, a blank stared logical reply to the trappings of fame. ‘I’ll copout to the change’ deadpans Neil ‘but a stranger is putting the tease on. You don’t say! On this version the stranger doesn’t even sound human! The song’s original anti-fame and anti-selling out vibe has turned inward on this version, with the narrator seemingly debating this song about being ‘different’ from everybody else through with himself quietly, rather than stridently accusing all and sundry as before. This second studio version of the song is intriguing and makes the subject of Mr Soul sound even more like a Neil Young career manifesto than ever before, given that its lyrics about defying trends and fashion are being sung by singing robots here - but for all its worth, this recording is strangely sterile and not a patch on the gloriously spontaneous rocky original. Neil’s electronic guitar solo is pretty good, though, balanced between cool detachment and searing anger (played with what sounds like the very top and bottom of the sound compressed to make it sound like a thin wavy line of distortion) and it almost makes this track, especially the moment when after thinking about it the solo separates in two and roars into life on a pretty good facsimile of the original. Once again an equal if not quite better version of the song remains unseen in the CD age, a 12” mix (see [158b]) that has more fun separating the instruments out and getting them to come in one by one – this sort of thing is usually irritating with 12” mixes and we don’t always bother with that sort of thing but this one works, with bigger tension that’s released by the guitar solo as an even bigger pay-off. 

All that just leaves closer [159] Like An Inca, the final selection from ‘Island In the Sun’ and a forgotten return to roughly the scene of earlier popular songs like [94] Cortez The Killer and [130] Powderfinger from the previous decade (dig out the equally neglected [203] Inca Queen from the 1987 album Life for Neil’s most moving take on the Aztec theme, however). Most fans think this song is boring, sticking to its one main riff for all of its eight-plus minutes, but if you’ve only got an original copy (as I used to have!) check out the CD version, which has an un-credited extended ending to this song. The song’s lyrics, about the narrator’s joy at returning home and his daydreams of what he would do if he lives in the olden days, are obscure but fascinating, easily a match for the Spanish killer and Aztec coming-of-age victim of Neil’s earlier songs. There is, however, a sense of impending doom that hangs over this song. There’s a classic line about the Inca narrator going to see a fortune teller after an invader arrives – and being told that he has no future, that none of his people’s futures show up on their palms anymore, perhaps signalling that their imminent defeat is inevitable. The theme of impending destruction is also strangely fitting to this album of electronics, unlike the other two simple ‘love’ songs taken from Island In the Sun, as it deals with change and the inevitable fall of civilisations no matter how great they seem to be (Cortez is in fact just an earlier, less electronic version of the Syscrusher heard earlier, invading a culture he doesn't quite understand for his own ends). Indeed, time jumps around here even more alarmingly than on Neil’s other Aztec song [127] ‘Pocahontas’ (where the Aztec bride memorably ends up on a date with the narrator and Marlon Brando), what with modern bombs placed on ‘sacred altars’ and ‘pylons’ supporting the pillars of Inca society. ‘Inca’ is surely the contemporary cold war, mankind facing an imminent and unnecessary destruction just as in civilisations past, asking why ordinary’s peoples lives can be destroyed by ‘a little button being pushed by somebody we don’t even know’. ‘We gotta go sooner than you know’ Neil urges the world, ‘we’re gonna lose this place like we lost Atlantis’ but nobody is listening. This leaves Neil to reflect on something that’s been bugging him since [52] ‘The Needle and The Damage Done’ as he uses a pun to tell us ‘if you want to get high build a strong foundation’, a line that could have been purely about civilisations had ‘Inca’ not started life as Neil’s history of drug-taking song [377] ‘Hitch-Hiker’ first recorded in 1975 and finally polished off for ‘Le Noise’ in 2010. Many fans say this third ‘Island In The Sun’ refugee doesn’t belong here anymore than the other two, but to these ears it’s the perfect ending for ‘Trans’, a world where our future is uncertain and could be good or bad. We have no guarantee that we won’t end up the same way as the Aztecs and the Incas (indeed, there’s overwhelming evidence that mankind has reached at least nuclear levels of capability before and then lost it again, civilisation having to rise up again the hard way across millennia long) reminding us how much mankind has evolved up to the present day and why we shouldn’t just throw everything away on some puny modern war. Unlike the silly pop of The Bangles’ ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’, this is Neil pointing out how our entire civilisation mirrors the Incas and how with the nuclear threat hanging over us too our own fortunes may show up empty one of these days as the Doomsday clock gets ever nearer midnight. No wonder Neil wishes he was an Aztec or a runner in Peru – at least they died in prettier houses. This is the message of Trans in a nutshell, as Neil reminds us just why he has to keep evolving and ‘trans’-forming, never staying the same from one album to the next, because everything rusts, even civilisations that appeared to those within them as if they were going to last forever. In the words of a character from the near-contemporary Dr Who story The Creature From The Pit this song is Neil saying: “The past explained, the future foretold, the present – apologised for”. Despite the wordy lyrics this song also has time for some fabulous guitar interplay – that’s Nils taking the lead and suddenly erupting as he whistles past Neil’s ear with a characteristic howl before joining again with his insistent howl. Note that the original album ended at the 8:08 mark but the CD added nearly two whole minutes and the charming coda that points away from destruction and more to a universal source: ‘I feel sad but I feel happy as I’m coming back to home, there’s a bridge across a river that I have to cross alone, like a skipping rolling stone’.  

So, is Trans hard to follow? Yes. Does it sound like Neil Young? No. Is it Neil at his best? Well, just maybe, actually. Trans has enough of that I-don’t-care-what-you-think-of-this attitude that made ‘Tonight’s The Night’ so thrilling, occasional bursts of anger a la ‘Weld’ and ‘Freedom’, a melodic sensibility we hadn’t heard since ‘Harvest’ and ‘After The Goldrush’ and some (hidden) confessional songwriting that hadn’t been in Neil’s music since at least ‘On The Beach’. Neil’s Geffen years always get short shrift from fans and they deserve to – many times Neil hasn’t got a clue about the heart of the genre he’s singing in (his heavy thrash rock, country, rockabilly and blues songs are generic and bar a thankfully large handful of gems are pretty awful). In short, these albums did more than annoy his record company as intended, they annoyed his fans too and prevented Neil from accruing his god-like status ten years earlier than he actually did (this is, after all, the man voted ‘artist of the decade’ for the 1970s by Rolling Stone magazine in 1979 – and presumably there’ve only been five winners so far since rock and roll started in the 1950s. Please tell me the Spice Girls didn’t win in the 1990s. . .) But Trans, the first of these Geffen experiments, shouldn’t be lumped in with the others because it really is Neil at his most inventive, using the genre that really did suit his anti-communication mood at the time and the cause of some of his best and most over-looked songs. Trans is a transformation, Neil morphing into Kraftwerk before our very ears, but it has just enough of a balance of the old Neil too, his very recognisable human self peeking out from under the robotic scenery to make this more than just an album about singing computers. ‘Trans’ would have been better yet had the overall concept filled up a whole LP but even the much maligned extras from ‘Island In The Sun’ rank amongst Neil’s best work in years. Freed of the need to make music a part-time job to his family, ‘Trans’ is a highly powerful album from a man with a lot on his mind and it sounds like no other album on Earth.

A now complete list of Neil Young and related articles at Alan’s Album Archives:

'Neil Young' (1968)

'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969)

‘After The Goldrush’ (1970)

'Harvest' (1972)

'Time Fades Away' (1973)

'On The Beach' (1974)

'Zuma' (1975)

'American Stars 'n' Bars' (1977)

'Comes A Time' (1978)

'Rust Never Sleeps' (1979)

'Hawks and Doves' (1980)

'RelAclTor' (1981)

'Trans' (1982)

'Everybody's Rockin' (1983)

'Old Ways' (1985)

‘Landing On Water’ (1986)

‘This Note’s For You’ (1988)

'Freedom' (1988)

'Ragged Glory' (1990)

'Weld' (1991)

'Harvest Moon' (1992)

'Sleeps With Angels' (1993)

'Mirror Ball' (1995)

‘Silver and Gold’ (2000)

‘Are You Passionate?’ (2002)

'Greendale' (2003)

‘Prairie Wind’(2005)

‘Living With War’ (2006)

‘Chrome Dreams II’ (2007)

'Fork In The Road' (2009)

'Le Noise' (2011)

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)

'Storytone' (2014)

'The Monsanto Years' (2015)

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part One 1968-1972

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part Two 1977-2016

Surviving TV Clips 1970-2016

Neil Essay: Will To Love – Spiritualism and The Unseen In Neil’s Music

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