Neil Young is known for his unique brand of folk music, characterized by his humble, off pitch, vibrato vocals. Later in his career, however, he also became the father of grunge with his band Crazy Horse and their distorted guitars. He’s probably best known for his 1971 folk album Harvest as well as his 1980′s rock tune “Keep on Rockin in the Free World,” which propelled him back into the mainstream after a decade of hits and misses.
What sets him apart as an artist though is his ability to reinvent himself, much like Dylan did with his career. He’s known to put out music that he himself was into, which often wasn’t what his fans were expecting or even wanting. In this respect, he’s developed a somewhat rebellious reputation within the music industry.
The 1980′s in particular was a tough time for Young. David Geffen, the head of his label, actually sued him for putting out “uncharacteristic” music that was not seeing the commercial success the label had come to expect. He’s the only musician to have ever been sued for such a case. Young’s feelings on the matter are cleverly exposed on his 1987 album “Life.” The cover artwork features a pair of hands behind bars suggesting Young felt imprisoned by his own recording contract. Not surprisingly, “Life” would be his last release on Geffen Records.
It all started in 1982 when Young released “Trans”, an album unlike any of his other work. It predominantly features a synthesizer and vocoder inspired by the German band Kraftwerk. Young later revealed that part of the reason he used these instruments is because with the help of them he was able to communicate with his son who had cerebral palsy. Some people also believe the use of these instruments signify Young’s commentary on where music was headed in the near future, which couldn’t be more obvious in his track “Computer Age.”
Following the release of Trans, Young turned his direction upside down and wrote an entire country album called Old Ways, a personal favourite of mine. Geffen, however, wasn’t interested in it at the time and demanded a more rock sounding album. The result was “Everybody’s Rockin,” which very literally describes what Geffen wanted. Young assembled a new band for the album, The Shocking Pinks, and recorded a short 25 minute collection of rockabilly tunes. Unimpressed, Geffen cancelled some of the recording sessions and began the slow process of suing Young.
Following the lawsuit, Young was able to release Old Ways in 1985, perhaps the nail in the coffin for David Geffen. At this time it was very clear that Young wanted to “Get Back to the Country.” Of course, as Young resisted any sort of clear cut definition, he once again changed his direction completely and in 1986 returned to electronic music with his album Landing on Water.
The progression from Trans to Everybody’s Rockin to Old Ways and back to the electronic sound with Landing on Water is an example of Young’s distaste for being categorized. Clearly he wants to leave his fans guessing. This even applies to his more recent album “Le Noise,” in which he employs Daniel Lanois’ signature guitar effects. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. Anyway, the songs above – Computer Age, Wonderin and Get Back to the Country – show just how creative and diversive Young can be. The 1980′s were an interesting time and I think these songs truly exemplify that.