The Neil Young Tale
Part 3: The 80sThe 80s began for Neil Young on January 1st 1979 at David Crosby's New Year Eve party. A inebriated Young proclaimed at midnight, "Happy New Years, it's the fucking 80s bitches." When Gene Parsons pointed out that it was still the 1970s Neil Young, never one to back down, refused to admit his mistake and continued to insist it was the 80s.
Neil Young preparing for New Year's Eve.
To kick off the 80s Neil Young released Rust Never Sleeps, a powerful half acoustic/half hard rock response to punk rock and Neil Young's most successful album in a long time. The album was recorded live at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Nobody knows why Neil Young chose to record the album live and then remove all the crowd noise rather than simply record it in a more traditional manner. The rumor is that he forgot to rent a studio.
Rust Never Sleeps was followed by Hawks & Doves. Half of Hawks & Doves was recorded at a 1980 session with the rest of the album originating from various sessions recorded throughout the 70s. According to Neil Young this was a result of him cleaning out his attic and finding a box filled with reel to reel tapes next to his old Magnavox Odyssey and several broken bicycles he never got around to fixing.
Next came Re-ac-tor a personal biography on Neil Young's poor spelling abilities. Few fans had realized Neil Young was nearly illiterate until Dewey Martin taught him how to read and write while on tour with Buffalo Springfield. Until this time when Neil Young wrote a song he used a complex set of hieroglyphics where each symbol represented a different syllable. Using English proved to be much easier. On Re-ac-tor Neil Young uses the Synclavier, an early synthesizer, extensively. He uses it so much in fact that one point members of Crazy Horse were reported to be saying "What's with all that Synclavier?"
In 1981 David Geffen bested Neil Young at a best of 7 foosball match. As a result, Neil Young was forced to join David Geffen's record label unegotistically named Geffen records. Neil Young disputed the win, claiming David Geffen illegally spinned during the championship bout and should have been disqualified. World foosball authorities refused to intervene after David Geffen bought them all Porshes.
David Geffen and Michael Jackson discuss how much they enjoy molesting children.
Neil Young decided that if he was going to work for David Geffen then he wasn't going to go about it in an easy manner
I figured it would be one of those things were we are always at odds and don't like each other but it works out in the end like, Beverly Hills Cop. He's the police chief and I'm Axl Foley. I can see a lot of Axl Foley in myself. He's street smart just like me. I also enjoy putting fruit inside of cars. - Neil Young "Honkey Mo-fo" Black Girl Magazine October 1992
Neil Youn's first album with Geffen was the poorly received Trans. One issue people had with Trans had to do with the use of a vocoder on nine of the tracks. Neil Young had become interested in the device after using it to communicate with his son Ben Young who suffered from severe cerebral palsy. While Trans failed to get critic approval it did win album of the decade from Ben Young. The song "If You Got Love" appears on the LP jacket but is not on the actual album. This is because that song is actually by the band Non Phixon from their album The Future is Now. David Geffen was not happy with Trans. He criticized it by saying it "sucked balls" and that Trans 7 was the worse Indonesian TV station he had ever seen.
When Neil Young signed with Geffen he had been told he would be allowed artistic freedom. David Geffen revealed that by artistic freedom he meant as long as it's exactly what he wants and told Neil Young to write a traditional rock album. In response, Neil Young cackled while rubbing his hands and said "I'll make a rock album. Oh yes, a rock album indeed!" The result was Everybody's Rockin', 50 styles rockabilly album that probably would have done well if it wasn't released 24 years after everybody stopped enjoying 50s rockabilly.
Everybody's Rockin' has the distinction of being Neil Young's shortest album due Geffen not letting him finish it. The company just cancelled recording sessions and wouldn't let Neil Young record any more of the songs he had written. Neil Young originally planned on recording these songs live, ala Rust Never Sleeps but he couldn't find a rockabilly venue that would book his backing band, The Shocking Pinks. Everybody thought it was a vulgar reference to vaginas.
Upset with Neil Young's rebellious ways (because who would have thought the writer of some of the world's most famous protest songs would be a rebel) David Geffen said he would give Neil Young just one more chance. For once in his life Neil Young decided to listen to authority. Old Ways was to be a folkish country rock album similar to much of his old work. David Geffen didn't think Old Ways could be a success and sued Neil Young for writing music that was "not commercial and "musically uncharacteristic of [his] previous recordings." Evidently David Geffen had never heard of Harvest.
If Old Ways were more like Harvest than it would have been successful.
The Geffen Young lawsuit rocked the world. Neil Young turned around and sued Geffen for twenty one million dollars for no apparent reason other than he was pissed. He also egged David Geffen's house and pranked the Geffen corporate offices, sending a record 624 mushroom and anchovies pizzas to the building in one day. Delays in releasing Old Ways and the time spent in court meant that 1984 was the first year since 1955 that Neil Young didn't release an album.
The lawsuits were eventually settled. David Geffen was sentenced to 30 years in jail for being a douche bag, although he escaped prosecution by fleeing to Quebec. A new version of Old Ways was released. In this version most of the rock elements were removed, resulting in a final project that was less Harvest and more international harvester. Take a moment to consider this, Neil Young wants to release a country rock album, Geffen thinks it wouldn't be profitable despite Young's previous success in the genre. Geffen sues Young. When the album is finally released it is pure country and is not successful. The lesson that should be gleaned from this is that suing musicians is not a good way to motivate them to make you money.
Waylon Jennings, who helped Neil Young on the album once commented on the situation
Neil Young was all like, hey guys. And I said hey what along with Willie Nelson and Rufus Thibodeaux. It was a little running joke we had. Well Neil says we're going to make sure this album totally sucks and is unsuccessful by making it one hundred percent country. No rock at all. That comment hurt since I'm a country musician. - Waylon Jennings "The Day the Music Didn't Die" Psychology Today, February 2004
Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings preparing for a recording session for Old Ways.
While waiting for the Old Ways fiscal to be settled Neil Young toured, and performed at Live Aid both as a solo act and with CSNY. After the concert Neil Young was dismayed to hear that he actually wasn't at Farm Aid like he thought. Upset about the mistake Neil Young went on to support Farm Aid through performances and becoming a member of the board of directors along with Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and randomly enough, Dave Matthews.
In 1986 Neil Young released Landing on Water. It featured some of the electrical concepts from Trans but in a toned down fashion. It has the distinction of being the album Neil Young gave the least amount of shit about making. As he said in an interview
I was pretty angry still about Old Ways. I said to myself, they want a normal album fine, whatever. I wrote most of the songs one day while watching The Money Pit at a private screening. – Neil Young "The 1994 Football Season" Sports Illustrated for Kids August 1994
Neil Young was so apathetic about the album that he neglected to tell Crazy Horse that they were supposed to play on it. Forgetting to send them the message, he showed up at the studio only to find himself alone. Neil Young solved this problem by wandering around until he found enough musicians hanging around to play all the instruments.
1986 is also the first year that The Bridge School Benefit concert was held. The bridge school was started in 1984 by Neil Young's wife and some nameless people who aren't married to a famous musician. The Bridge School was formed to help those with complex communication needs, such as Neil Young's own children. Neil Young felt guilty that instead of helping form the school he instead spent his time rocking out and doing cocaine, so he organized a benefit concert which in 1988 became a yearly event. Some of the greatest rock bands of the times have performed at the concert including CSNY, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle, The Who, Pearl Jam, and Adam Sandler.
Feeling bad that his good friends in Crazy Horse had missed out on nearly hundreds of dollars worth or royalty checks from Landing on Water, Neil Young included them on his next album Life. Most of the album was recorded live in concert at the Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City California. The album features an anti-military theme empathizing with troops under deployment over sees. Normally an anti-war album by Neil Young is a big deal, but 1987 was a slow time for the US military. Despite the Cold War still going on, not much happened that year. The listening public was far to busy buying spandex and teasing their feathered hair to listen to Neil Young sing about not liking people getting shot. Life remains Neil Young's least commercially successful album, with most of the sales coming from Young himself who would purchase copies while wearing disguises and trying to convince other patrons to do the same.
Neil Young felt that the restrictive atmosphere at Geffen was the source of his musical troubles. He traveled to the wastelands of Quebec to search for David Geffen so that he could demand he be released from his contract. Among the ruins of Montréal, Neil Young found David Geffen ruling as king over a series of city blocks near the Molson Center.
Most people don't realize that there was no organized government in Quebec from 1974 until the mid 90s. David Geffen had used his wits and sneaky ways to gain control of a large gang called Le Furet and they ruled their territory with an iron fist. It took a lot of smarts and I pulled in a lot of favors from fellow Canadians, but after a few months I was able to best him in combat and could return to Reprise - Neil Young "Neil Young: A Canadian Musician" The Onion January 2003
Back at Reprise Neil Young immediately began making the music he is best known for, bluesy jazz. This Note's for You heavily featured a brass section and horns, a new feature to Young's music. The video for the song "Ten Men Workin" was on big fuck you to Michael Jackson and MTV, featuring an effigy of Michael Jackson being set on fire and slogans show via on screen text that read "MTV sucks balls" and "MTV shows The Real World reruns way too much." Despite being banned from the station it still won the MTV Video Music Award for Best Video of the Year after Neil Young tampered with the votes. His video wasn't even originally nominated.
Next up for Young was the poorly made CSNY album American Dream. Originally just an CSN album, Y was brought in to hopefully write some songs that were good. As it turns out he failed at this goal, but his songs were at least better thsn everybody else's. Graham Nash would later describe the recording sessions as "a sexy violent orgy" a comment he has refused to clarify.
The 1980s were certainly a decade of disappointment to all, not just Neil Young. Still, a ten year period is like sex and Neil Young wanted to end strong. So he did what anybody would do when intercourse is winding down, he released Freedom. Neil Young ended the 80s like he began it, addressing a new form of music, in this case grunge. Heavy thundering guitars backed with distortion juxtaposed over gentler melodies Freedom was both a fresh new sound and a call back to many of his heavier 70s riffs.
Recorded live at several venues, Freedom was a remarkable technical feat as most of the crowd noise was removed, the result being that it almost sounded like a studio album. One of Young's most famous songs "Rockin' in the Free World" is featured twice on the album because that song is awesome and Neil Young doesn't half ass anything. "Rockin' in the Free World" would go on to be the theme song for freedom among those who don't listen to anything but the chorus.
Freedom had an immense influence on the new generation of rockers. Eddie Vedder, Dinosour jr. Soul Asylum, The Pixies, NWA, Fine Young Cannibals, ELO Part II, The Black Eyed Pees, Danny Elfman, and Kurt Cobain all cited Young as an influence. Courtney Love once commented on Kurt Cobain's love of Neil Young
"Kurt use to always listen to that thing, yeah, uh, what? Oh yeah, that guy who did that one song about bees. No, what? Oh yeah, the Canadian guy who sang about heroin. Neil Young. So do you wanna fuck or what?" – Courntney Love "What's Courtney Love Up to Today" Blender, June 1998
Freedom gave Neil Young unparallel momentum as he traveled through time into the 90s. He entered the new decade with a sonic boom of vigor and enthusiasm that would lead to many more classic hits that make the world say "I love Neil Young." The dark times of the 80s were gone, and the sun had finally begun to shine again.
Next time on The Neil Young Tale, we'll explore Neil Young's adventured in the 90s, the triumphs, heartaches, and his short flirtatiousness experiments with boy bands.