Neil Young on the making of his greatest hits
Uncut February 23, 2015

Shakey recalls the creation of some of his classic songs


In this epic archive feature, from December 2004’s issue of Uncut, Neil Young himself explains the making of every single song on his Greatest Hits album. “I wrote a lot of songs when I couldn’t talk…” Words: Nigel Williamson

Neil Young is just back from playing several dates on the “Vote For Change” tour and he’s still sporting the button badge and a custom-made “Canadians For Kerry” T-shirt to prove it. “Too bad you guys in Europe don’t get to vote. Then it would be a landslide, right?” he jokes.

Politically, Young has often appeared an ambivalent figure. He made potent early socio-political statements with songs such as “Ohio” and “Southern Man”, both of which have a prominent place on his forthcoming best-of compilation (reviewed on p168). But then in the ’80s he appeared to flirt with Reaganism. At the end of the decade, as the Cold War was coming to an end and global communism was collapsing, he wrote “Rockin’ In The Free World”. It’s also on the new ‘hits’ collection, and is one of those ambiguous songs claimed equally by both sides. To the right it’s a celebration of capitalism’s ultimate triumph. To the left it’s a critique of ‘freedom’ American-style, with its litany of victims who fall between democracy’s cracks.

On the Vote For Change tour, it’s become a ‘stop Bush’ anthem, Young performing the song with the likes of Pearl Jam and the Dave Matthews Band.

“It seems to be resonating again,” he says. “But it depends on how you cut it and what words you leave in and what you take out.”

He’s clearly pleased with the way Michael Moore adapted the song for the soundtrack of his recent Fahrenheit 9/11. “The way he edited in the film made it very topical for now,” he enthuses, and reveals that Moore has now made a four-minute video for the song. “I just saw it for the first time half an hour ago,” Young says. “He’s done a great job.”

There are two ways of viewing rock stars who pontificate about politics. On the one hand, there’s the ’60s notion that artists have a duty to “speak out against the madness”, as David Crosby put it on CSN&Y’s “Almost Cut My Hair”. The other holds that just because we enjoy the music of citizens Springsteen, Stipe, Vedder or Young, why should we care a hoot about their political views?

Uncut wonders where Young stands within this spectrum of opinion.

“At both ends, because they’re both right,” he says. “Half the people feel musicians should be listened to simply as artists and shouldn’t step outside their area as political spokesmen. But the other half feel what musicians have to say is meaningful. Maybe it’s not going to change your mind. But it’s going to reinforce what you feel if someone whose music you relate to agrees with you. It can be a very effective thing if people go and vote for whatever they feel the music says.”

Whether humanity has made any progress since the titanic social and cultural battles that rock’n’roll seemed to embody in the ’60s is a moot point.

“It’s 50:50 right now,” Young reckons. “I like to think things are getting better. But there are so many levels of control through the media. It’s confusing. You think you’re making progress. And then you see how strong the other side is and how they’re manipulating the media to change the meaning of things and put out their take on it. People have to learn to think for themselves.”

Away from his contribution to the campaign to oust Bush, Young has been busy readying his new compilation, his first career overview since Decade in 1977. A long-term obsessive about sound quality, typically the record comes in various formats, including not only standard CD but something he calls “super-saturated DVD-Stereo” and a new, enhanced vinyl format he claims is “the best ever”.

“Sound quality hit the dark ages in the early ’80s. But it’s starting to come back thanks to DVD-Stereo,” he enthuses. “There’s just no comparison between that and a regular compact disc or even 5.1 sound. It’s the difference between a true reflection of the music and a mere replica.”

In reality, Young has had very few ‘hits’ in the conventional sense; his only solo Top 30 single to date has been “Heart Of Gold” in 1972. Was the selection his or his record company’s, and what were the criteria?

“There was a large list that was created,” he explains. “Then we based it on sales and airplay and downloading. We took all the information that we could and came up with what would fit.”

The result is a collection on which all but two of the 16 tracks date from the period 1969-79, with only “Rockin’ In The Free World” and “Harvest Moon” to represent the last 25 years.

“Well, that’s when the hottest hits happened, or what you might call hits,” he shrugs. “So that’s real.”

A greatest hits album will hardly satisfy those who were hoping 2004 would see the release of the multi-CD Archives boxset (at various times rumoured to consist of anything between six and 20 CDs) that he’s been promising for years. But, he insists, the project is now “big and real close” and the hits album is intended to “set the bar” for the Archives release.

Yet he denies all this journeying through his past has put him in nostalgic mood. “Like Dylan said, ‘Don’t look back.’ I can only play the old songs if there’s also new material. Greendale is what gave me enough belief in myself to continue and to sing the old songs. If it wasn’t for things like Greendale, I’d just be replicating myself, travelling round the world doing things I’d already done. Which would be very depressing and probably life-threatening.”

At the moment he admits there are no new songs. “I don’t have anything. Greendale completely drained me, to the point where I’m just standing here, the wind is blowing and I’m waiting.”

Perhaps he could fill the time by giving us his literary version of events, like Dylan’s Chronicles?

“Boy, I hope I’ll be too busy doing something else to do that. It’d be a heck of a job. But maybe at some point in my life it will become a relaxing thing to do.”

If he ever does write the book, though, don’t expect too many insights on what inspired the songs.

“Fact is, when it comes to songwriting, it’s all just a bunch of information coming from the same place. And I don’t know how to relate to the thoughts behind it. I really don’t. The songs are on their own little trip, I go out and ride along with them and sing them and sometimes I won’t sing them because I don’t feel like it.”

Despite this protestation, he’s perfectly happy to range over the album’s track selection for Uncut’s edification, and reveals he’s still particularly enamoured of the trio of songs from 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which forged the Crazy Horse sound.

“That was the beginning of playing electric guitar and jamming and being able to play those extended instrumentals for me,” says Young. “That was a great band and Danny Whitten was a great guitar player. I love all those records that I made back then. Those tracks still kick ass.”

Then came the success of “Heart Of Gold” and 1972’s Harvest album, which categorised him in the minds of many as a lovelorn troubadour. Did he then make a conscious decision to subvert that image?

“That’s what success does – it will categorise you. But luckily I haven’t had that much success. That was the one time and the first thing an artist will do if he doesn’t want to be categorised is to react and fight back. There’s a spirit inside you that’s like an animal. And it’s cornered when it’s categorised. So we’re not dealing with thought here. It’s an animal reaction.”

And does he still believe it’s better “to burn out than to fade away”? He wrote the line when he was in his thirties. A quarter of a century on, he appears to have successfully avoided both fates.

“I was exactly 33 and a third when I wrote that so I was on long play,” he jokes. “It wasn’t a literal thing. It was a spontaneous description of a feeling rather than endorsing a way of life. But what a line like that means changes every time you sing it, depending on what’s going on in the world. If you really believe in something when you write it or you’re open to some channel and things comes through you, then that’s going to happen. What you write will reapply itself to whatever’s happening around you. And that’s the fun of what I do.”

Next year, Young will turn 60. With Greendale having left him “drained” and no new songs jostling for his attention, perhaps it will be the year that the long-awaited Archives boxset, with its treasure trove of unreleased tracks, finally makes its appearance. In the meantime, as a curtain-raiser, we give you the low-down on his new best-of…

Down By The River
Album: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Released: May 1969
Recorded: Wally Heider’s, Los Angeles, Jan 1969

Dissatisfied with the sound of his debut album and bored and exhausted by the long hours in the studio that its endless overdubs entailed, Young determined “to be real instead of fabricating something” when it came to recording the follow-up. And the key turned out to be a band called The Rockets he found playing the clubs on LA’s Sunset Strip.

After sitting in with the band at a gig at the Whiskey A Go-Go in August 1968, he invited three members of the six-piece – Danny Whitten, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot – to help him record his next album. For reasons nobody can now remember, he renamed them Crazy Horse (after his initial suggestion, The War Babies, had been rejected) and by January 1969 they were in the studio recording Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

“Down By The River” defined the guitar sound Young perfected with Crazy Horse, played on a vintage instrument he called “Old Black”, a 1953 Gibson Les Paul that he’d bought in 1967 for $50. Years later, he was still recalling the excitement of the first time he played it through a vintage 1959 Fender Deluxe: “Immediately, the entire room started to vibrate. I went, ‘Holy shit!’ I had to turn it halfway down before it stopped feeding back.” The sessions for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere were the first time he’d used the combination in the studio.

Despite being nine minutes long, “Down By The River” was edited down from a much longer jam. “We got the vibe, but it was just too long and sometimes it fell apart, so we just took the shitty parts out,” Young explained. “Made some radical cuts in there – I mean, you can hear ’em. Danny just played so cool on that. He was playing R’n’B kinda things. He made the whole band sound good.”

Bassist Billy Talbot confirms that it was “Down By The River” which patented the Crazy Horse sound: “At first we played it double-time, faster like the chorus is now. It was almost a jazz thing.” They then borrowed a James Brown-style beat, but slowed down to a more stoned pace.

According to drummer Ralph Molina, Young borrowed the chord sequence from a Danny Whitten composition called “Music On The Road”, although Young’s biographer Jimmy McDonough reckoned it owes more to “Let Me Go”, another Rockets song, which appeared on their only album (released in ’68).

Written in bed with a fever on the same day as “Cinnamon Girl” and “Cowgirl In The Sand”, once the sickness passed Young still didn’t seem to have much idea where “Down By The River” ’s lyric came from, with its “I shot my baby” refrain.

“No, there’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick. It’s a plea, a desperation cry,” he insisted in 1970.

Yet in a long preamble to the song at a 1984 concert in New Orleans, he told a different story, claiming it was about “a guy who had a lot of trouble controlling himself”. He went on to describe a very literal meeting by a river in which the man tells the woman she’s cheated on him once too often: “He reached down into his pocket and pulled a little revolver out and he said, ‘Honey, I hate to do this, but you’ve pushed me too far.’”


Cowgirl In The Sand
Album: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Released: May 1969
Recorded: Wally Heider’s, Los Angeles, Jan 1969

The second of Young’s ground-breaking early guitar epics with Crazy Horse was written in bed with a fever on that same day as “Down By The River” – on an acoustic guitar, in which style it can be heard in a stunning take on 1970’s live CSN&Y album Four Way Street.

But it’s the electric version that remains the most memorable, and includes some of the finest guitar interplay between Young and Whitten.

“Nobody played guitar with me like that,” Young says of Crazy Horse’s main man, who died of a heroin overdose in 1972. “That rhythm, when you listen to ‘Cowgirl In the Sand’, he keeps changing. Billy and Ralph will get into a groove and everything will be going along and all of a sudden Danny’ll start doing something else. He just led those guys from one groove to another, all within the same groove. So when I played those long guitar solos, it seemed like they weren’t all that long, that I was making all these changes, when in reality what was changing was not one thing but the whole band. Danny was the key. A really great second guitar player, the perfect counterpoint to everything else that was happening.”

On another occasion, Young said of his style with Crazy Horse: “A lot of people think we play simple and there is no finesse. But we’re not trying to impress anybody; we just want to play with the feeling. It’s like a trance we get into.”

The trance-like quality is reflected in a dreamlike lyric, addressed to some idealised woman with intriguing references to sin and rust. In a much-bootlegged performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1971, Young obscured its meaning further by introducing the song as about “beaches in Spain”, a decidedly odd comment given that at the time he’d never even been to Spain.

Cinnamon Girl
Album: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Released: May 1969
Recorded: Wally Heider’s, Los Angeles, Jan 1969

That day when Young took to his bed in early January 1969 with a debilitating dose of flu turned out to be one of the most productive of his career. Lying in his Topanga Canyon house with his mind in an altered state due to a fever that rolled up to 103 degrees, and with scraps of paper covering the bed, he composed his third classic of the day – “Cinnamon Girl”.

“Sometimes [when] I get sick, get a fever, it’s easy to write,” he explained. “Everything opens up. You don’t have any resistance. You just let things go.”

Within days of his recovery, he was trying the songs out with Crazy Horse. “Cinnamon Girl” was the first one to be recorded, and the euphoric marriage of crunching riffs and sweet melody made a dramatic album opener. Again the dreamy lyrics reflected his feverish state, and the mysterious effect was only enhanced by the hand-scribbled non-explanation that accompanied the song’s inclusion on the 1977 compilation Decade: “Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me through Phil Ochs’ eyes playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife.” Or anyone else, come to that.

The guitar sound was based on an open tuning, which he had first used on Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird”. “We discovered this D modal tuning around the same time in 1966,” he told Nick Kent. “That was when ragas were happening and D modal made it possible to have that droning sound going all the time. That’s where it started, only I took it to the next level, which is how ‘The Loner’ and ‘Cinnamon Girl’ happened.”

A version with a slightly different vocal performance was released as a single in America, where it charted at No 55. “The parts are switched, Danny is on the bottom and me on top,” Young explains. “That was so you could hear my voice clearly, which Reprise wanted for the single. We left the album version alone because it was better and we knew it.”

Album: Déjà Vu
Released: March 1970
Recorded: Wally Heider’s, San Francisco, Oct 1969-Jan 1970

When Stephen Stills took David Crosby and Graham Nash to Young’s house in Topanga Canyon in the early summer of 1969 to persuade them that his old Buffalo Springfield colleague should join the group, “Helpless” was allegedly the song that convinced them. “By the time he finished, we were asking him if we could join his band,” David Crosby recalled.

This doesn’t fit with Young’s own claim in the sleevenotes to the Decade anthology, in which he insists the song was written in New York in 1970. But the simple chronology of the recording of the Déjà Vu album suggests Crosby’s account is more likely.

During the sessions for the album, Young stayed in the sleazy Caravan Lodge Motel in San Francisco’s run-down Tenderloin district, possibly because it was the only place that would tolerate the presence in his room of his two pet bush babies Harriet and Speedy.

Young also attempted to record “Helpless” with Crazy Horse at Sunset Sound around the same time, but when he and the band had completed what he believed to be the perfect take, he turned around to the control room to find the tape machine hadn’t been running.

“We were doing it live, everybody playing and singing at once and we did an eight- or nine-minute version of it with a long instrumental in the middle. And the engineer didn’t press the button down,” he says. “I took that as an omen. That’s why I did it with CSN.”

But it took CSN some time to get the song right, with Young consistently complaining that they were taking it too fast. “I had to play it with them until four in the morning, doing it over and over again to get everybody tired enough so that they would stop doing this extra stuff where everyone was playing too much,” he said in a 1989 radio documentary. “We kept on going for a long time. Finally we got one where they were half-asleep and they didn’t know they were doing it.”

The song gave Young more trouble when he performed an inept version in November 1976 at The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz. His appearance was not helped by the cocaine binge he had been on for the previous 48 hours and a large rock of the white stuff, which was horribly visible in his nostril, had to be rotoscoped away from the scene in the film at a cost of several thousand dollars.


After The Gold Rush
Album: After The Gold Rush
Released: Sept 1970
Recorded: Topanga, early 1970

“After The Gold Rush” shared its title with a screenplay by Dean Stockwell for a disaster movie in which Young had entertained hopes of making his acting debut. In the event, the movie failed to secure financial backing, and was never made.

Stockwell was a neighbour of Young’s in Topanga, and the plot of his proposed film involved the flooding of the canyon by a tidal wave following an earthquake. The screenplay then followed the effect of the disaster on a number of residents, including a local folk singer – a part that was tailor-made for Young.

Performed solo at the piano, accompanied only by a mournful French horn, the title song opened with an apocalyptic vision of ecological catastrophe. But then it took off into the realms of science fiction, with extra-terrestrials arriving in silver ships to save life on earth by transporting it to start a new colony in space. According to producer David Briggs, the song was written within half an hour.

Many years later, Young claimed the track to be an exercise in time travel, with scenes set in past, present and future: “There’s a Robin Hood scene, there’s a fire scene in the present and there’s the future. The air is yellow and red, ships are leaving, certain people can go and certain people can’t. I think it’s going to happen.”

To biographer Jimmy McDonough, he elaborated: “Civilisations. Dropping seeds. Races. Blending. Species getting stronger. Like plants do. I see it all as the same thing. Who knows how big the fucking universe is?”


Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Album: After The Gold Rush
Released: Sept 1970
Recorded: Topanga, early 1970

“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” might sound heart-breakingly self-confessional and have helped to cement the early-’70s image of Young as a forlorn, lovesick troubadour, but the song was actually written for Graham Nash, whose relationship with Joni Mitchell had just hit the rocks.

As such, it contributes to the soap opera that was the CSN&Y axis at the time, for Young became the third songwriter to document the relationship, Nash having written the sentimental “Our House” for Déjà Vu and Mitchell including “Willy” (her nickname for Nash) on Ladies Of The Canyon.

Coincidentally, the same Mitchell album included “The Circle Game”, written for Young in response to his “Sugar Mountain”. In turn, Young would write another, unreleased song about Mitchell called “Sweet Joni”, which he played several times in concert during 1972-73. It was also rumoured – probably unfairly – that “Stupid Girl” on Young’s 1975 album Zuma was also about her.

Not to be left out of the tangled web, Stephen Stills recorded “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” on his 1984 album Right By You – and Crosby and Mitchell had been lovers before Nash even arrived on the scene.

Released as a single, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” gave Young his first solo Top 40 hit in America in December 1970.

Southern Man
Album: After The Gold Rush
Released: Sept 1970
Recorded: Topanga, early 1970

A scathing indictment of racism and bigotry, “Southern Man” had its roots in an incident that took place during a Buffalo Springfield tour of the Deep South with The Beach Boys in early 1968. Beating up longhairs was at the time a popular sport in certain parts of the South and, sitting in a diner one night with members of the tour retinue after a gig, Young heard a bunch of rednecks planning to attack them.

A quick phone call to summon reinforcements from the road crew prevented an Easy Rider-type scenario. But Young was left both angry and shaken by the event. Dennis Dragon, one of The Beach Boys’ backing line-up, recalls: “Neil was really upset. Just the vibration, the ignorance, the stupidity. He’s a very sensitive guy. That did it. He went straight to work writing ‘Southern Man’.”

Young tells a more confused story. “This song could have been written on a civil rights march after stopping off to watch Gone With The Wind,” he joked later. Then he claimed, “Actually, I think I wrote it in the Fillmore East dressing room in 1970.” Even later, he told McDonough he had written it in his home studio in Topanga.

Certainly CSN&Y were playing it live by May of that year, and an epic version appears on Four Way Street. But the studio recording is more indignant and angry, although, according to Young, this had as much to do with marital strife with his wife Susan as his hatred of racism. “Susan was angry at me for some reason, throwing things. They were crashing against the [studio] door. We fought a lot. There’s some reason for it, I’m sure. It was probably my fault.”

He revisited the theme of the South on his 1972 Harvest album with the song “Alabama”, which provoked Lynyrd Skynyrd to respond with “Sweet Home Alabama”, in which they chided: “I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.”

Young later announced that he had stopped singing the song: “I don’t feel like it’s particularly relevant. It’s not Southern Man. It’s White Man. It’s much bigger than Southern Man.”

Single: with CSN&Y (B-side “Find The Cost Of Freedom”)
Released: May 1970
Recorded: Los Angeles, May 1970

On May 4, 1970, four student protesters were gunned down and killed by National Guards at Kent State University, Ohio. At the time, Young was hanging out with David Crosby at road manager Leo Makota’s place in Pescadero. When Crosby expressed his outrage, the far less political Young picked up a guitar and wrote “Ohio” on the spot.

The pair then took a plane to LA, rounded up Stills and Nash and went straight into the studio to cut the song live. According to Crosby, the tape was delivered to Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun that same night. Within little more than a week it was in the stores, with Stills’ “Find The Cost Of Freedom” as the B-side. Banned by various radio stations, it nevertheless climbed to No 14 in the US singles chart.

“It’s still hard to believe I had to write this song,” Young observed in 1977 when he included “Ohio” on the retrospective Decade. “It’s ironic that I capitalised on the death of these American students. Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning.”

Crosby, whose voice can be heard towards the end of the song emotionally yelling, “Why? How many more?”, broke down in tears after they had finished. “I was so moved, the hair was standing up on my arms. I freaked out because I felt it so strongly,” he recalled.

The track remains Young’s proudest moment as part of CSN&Y. “That’s the only recording where CSN&Y is truly a band,” he says. “It felt really good to hear it come back so fast – that whole idea of using music as a message and unifying generations and giving them a point of view. That song gave the band a depth. Aside from that one thing, I was a hindrance to their progress.”


The Needle And The Damage Done
Album: Harvest
Released: March 1972
Recorded: UCLA (live), Feb 1971

The inspiration behind Young’s stripped-down junkie lament, which stood in stark contrast to the other tracks on the bucolic Harvest, was the descent into heroin addiction of Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten. It’s less dark than some of the drug songs that would subsequently appear on Tonight’s The Night (1975), for by then Whitten was dead. In 1971, Young still hoped that he could save his friend, whose addiction had already led him to sack Crazy Horse in March 1970 after Whitten had reputedly nodded off onstage at the Fillmore East.

Young began playing the song live during his solo tour in early 1971. He introduced the cautionary tale by telling the audience: “This is a serious song I’d like to do about some people you know, some people I know and some people that neither one of us knows. It’s about heroin addiction. Somewhere in the universe there’s probably a place where all the great art is that didn’t get out. A museum of incredible lost art that didn’t get out because of heroin.”

Hearing that Whitten had cleaned up, Young took him back into the fold in the fall of 1972, when he invited him to rehearsals for the forthcoming Time Fades Away tour at his Broken Arrow ranch. When it turned out Whitten was as wasted as ever and barely able to hold a guitar, Young sacked him for a second time on November 18, giving him $50 and a ticket back to LA. He used the money to score, and died of an overdose later that same night. The following day Young wrote “Don’t Be Denied”, which would later appear on 1973’s Time Fades Away album.

“I loved Danny. I felt responsible,” he later told Cameron Crowe.

Old Man
Album: Harvest
Released: March 1972
Recorded: Nashville, Feb 8, 1971

Never a great one for literal explanations of his songs, Young made an exception over “Old Man” when even his own father, Scott, a well-known Canadian sports writer/broadcaster, came to believe the song was about him. In fact, as Young took to making clear when introducing the song onstage, the inspiration was Louis Avila, a foreman who worked on his Broken Arrow ranch at La Honda.

“When I bought the place there was this old man who was working there for the people I bought it from. He was about 70 years old. He was a cattleman and that’s like something that’s never going to happen again, so I wrote a song about it,” he explained.

Recorded one weekend in Nashville in early February 1971, Young had in mind a sound similar to Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, and asked producer Elliott Mazer to recruit similar personnel. In the end, he got Dylan’s drummer Kenny Buttrey, supported by Ben Keith on pedal-steel and Tim Drummond on bass. They became the nucleus of the band Young would call The Stray Gators. James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, who were in Nashville as Young’s fellow guests on a Johnny Cash TV show the day before, added harmony vocals. Taylor also contributed the six-string banjo picking – the only time he has ever played the instrument on record.

Released as a follow-up to the US No 1 single “Heart Of Gold”, “Old Man” was to prove less successful, only reaching No 31 on the Billboard chart.


Heart Of Gold
Album: Harvest
Released: March 1972
Recorded: Nashville, Feb 8, 1971

“This song put me in the middle of the road,” Young remarked of “Heart Of Gold” – before he famously added that’s when he decided it was time to head for the ditch. A No 1 single in America and a Top 10 hit in Britain, the song has been dividing his fans ever since, with music writer Sylvie Simmons – otherwise one of Young’s most fervent supporters – claiming in her book on the man that she winces every time she hears it.

Critics point to a trite lyric and simplistic rhyming scheme. But those present in the studio knew instantly they had a hit on their hands. The first track tackled during the same Nashville session which spawned “Old Man” in February 1971, producer Elliott Mazer recalled: “We all knew there was something very special going on. When Neil played ‘Heart Of Gold’, Kenny [Buttrey] just looked at me and raised one finger in the air to say, ‘That’s a No 1.’”

The melody was allegedly inspired by “Love Is Blue”, once recorded by Jeff Beck. After the basic track had been laid down, Taylor and Ronstadt then added harmony vocals, just as they did to “Old Man”.

“I’d happened to be in the right place at the right time to do a really mellow record that was really open because that’s where my life was at the time,” Young later remarked. “I was in love when I made Harvest. So that was it. I was an in-love and on-top-of-the-world type of guy.”

That he then added, “Good thing I got past that stage,” is indicative of how swiftly he came to regard the success of “Heart Of Gold” as a mixed blessing. “I thought the record was good. But I knew something else was dying,” he observed.

There’s an interesting postscript in the decidedly odd reaction the song produced in Bob Dylan. “I used to hate it when it came on the radio,” he complained. “I always liked Neil Young but it bothered me every time I listened to ‘Heart Of Gold’. I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.’ I needed to lay back for a while, forget about things, myself included, and I’d get so far away and turn on the radio and there I am. But it’s not me. It seemed to me somebody else had taken my thing and had run away with it and, you know, I never got over it.”


Like A Hurricane
Album: American Stars ’n Bars
Released: June 1977
Recorded: Broken Arrow, La Honda, autumn 1975

One of Young’s most ferocious guitar epics, “Like A Hurricane” came together in typically unpredictable Young fashion. “We’d been trying to record it with two guitars, bass and drums and Neil was giving up on it,” recalls guitarist Frank Sampedro, who had replaced Danny Whitten in Crazy Horse. “We kept playing it two guitars and Neil didn’t have enough room to solo. When he started walking out of the studio I started diddling with this Stringman [keyboard] and he decided to pick up his guitar.

If you listen to the take on the record, there’s no beginning, no count-off, it just goes voom! They just turned on the machines when they heard us playing because we were done for the day. We played it once and at the end of the take he said, ‘I think that’s the way it goes.’ And that’s the take on the record. The only time we ever played it that way.”

Young later attempted to describe the song’s hypnotic power on a promotional interview disc. “If you listen to that, I never play anything fast,” he said. “All it is is four notes on the bass. Billy [Talbot] plays a few extra notes now and then, and the drumbeat’s the same all the way through… Sometimes it does sound as if we’re really playing fast, but we’re not. It’s just everything starts swimming around in circles.”

The song was written in July 1975 after Young had just undergone an operation for nodes on his vocal cords. He couldn’t sing, so he partied instead, and “Hurricane” was written after a cocaine-fuelled night with friend and La Honda neighbour Taylor Phelps in the back of his car, a Desoto Suburban.

“We were all really high, fucked up,” Young recalls. “Been out partying. Wrote it sitting up at Vista Point on Skyline. Supposed to be the highest point in San Mateo County, which was appropriate. I wrote it when I couldn’t sing. I was on voice rest. It was nuts – I was whistling it. I wrote a lot of songs when I couldn’t talk.”

It was premiered live with Crazy Horse in Britain in March 1976, a full 14 months before it appeared on record on the American Stars ’n Bars album.

Comes A Time
Album: Comes A Time
Released: November 1978
Recorded: Florida and Nashville, 1977

“Comes A Time” and the rest of the album that bears its name was originally recorded as a solo acoustic record in Florida, but when Young played it to Warner Brothers label boss Mo Ostin, he suggested the sound needed filling out. For once Young, who usually greeted such record company interventions with truculence, took the advice.

“I decided, ‘Hey, that sounds like fun. I’ll try that – go to Nashville, have ’em all play on it at once,” he recalls. “So I got all these people out there to play along with these existing tracks of me. Bobby Charles was like our guru. He was at all the sessions.”

The band included Drummond and Keith from The Stray Gators, augmented by, among others, Spooner Oldham and Rufus Thibodeaux, who plays the Cajun-style fiddle on the title track and went on to play with Young in his Hawks & Doves band (1980). According to Keith, Charles’ role was to “roll the joints”, which, given Young’s smoking habits, certainly qualified him for ‘guru’ status.

Also appearing on the sessions was Nicolette Larson. At the time she and Young were having a brief romance, and as they harmonise on the title track you have to imagine they’re thinking about their own situation, as they sing, “You and I we were captured/We took our souls and we flew away.”

“We sang on the same mic. I could look in his eyes and keep up with him and that’s as much rehearsal as he wants,” recalled Larson, who died in 1997.

Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)
Album: Rust Never Sleeps
Released: July 1979
Recorded: The Cow Palace, San Francisco, Oct 28, 1978

The idea of Neil Young as a punk, of course, was ludicrous. By the time the Sex Pistols arrived to consign rock’s bloated dinosaurs to the dustbin, he was a 31-year-old superstar millionaire. Nevertheless, when he first witnessed the gathering punk explosion on tour in Britain during 1976, he immediately identified with its ethos. He liked punk’s rejection of pomposity, saw in it a resurrection of the original rebel spirit of rock’n’roll, and proudly sported a Never Mind The Bollocks T-shirt.

Young expanded on his enthusiasm for punk in an LA radio interview: “When you look back at the old bands, they’re just not that funny. People want to have a good time. That’s why the punk thing is so good and healthy. People who make fun of the established rock scene, like Devo and The Ramones, are much more vital to my ears than what’s been happening in the last four or five years.”

In turn, the punks recognised in Young a true maverick, and exempted him from the brickbats they hurled at his CSN&Y bandmates.

“Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)”, with its name-checking of Johnny Rotten, encapsulated Young’s sympathy with the punk zeitgeist, and its insistence that “it’s better to burn out” sounded like a sentiment Sid Vicious would have subscribed to.

Some, including John Lennon, criticised Young for glorifying rock’n’roll’s self-destructing casualties. But Young stood by the song, and when challenged in a 1979 radio interview, he explained: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away or rust because it makes a bigger flash in the sky.”

The words returned to haunt him in April 1994 when Kurt Cobain made a sizeable flash by blowing his brains out. Near the body was found a suicide note which quoted the line from Young’s song. Young then wrote “Sleeps With Angels” about Cobain and his widow Courtney Love, and was (mis)quoted as saying he would never perform “Hey Hey” again. In fact, he sang it on his second live appearance after Cobain’s death. “It just made it a little more focused for a while,” said Young. “Now it’s just another face to think about while you’re singing it.”

Love responded by including the line “It’s better to rise than fade away” on Hole’s 1998 album Celebrity Skin, and Oasis have also played the song live, dedicating it to Cobain’s memory.

The Rust Never Sleeps album opened with an acoustic version of the song listed as “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” and closed with the dramatic electric version, recorded live with Crazy Horse at the Cow Palace, San Francisco on October 28, 1978. Somewhat hilariously, Frank Sampedro reckons that Crazy Horse based their approach to the song on the stomping beat of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”.

The song is co-credited to Jeff Blackburn, part of the ’60s San Francisco duo Blackburn & Snow and who later toured with The Ducks, the incognito band Young put together to play local bars in the Bay area. The line “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust” first appeared in one of Blackburn’s songs. Young reports: “I called him up after I’d written the song and said, ‘Hey, I used a line from your song. Want credit?”


Rockin’ In The Free World
Album: Freedom
Released: October 1989
Recorded: LA/San Francisco, summer 1989

As the 1980s came to a close, the post-WWII international settlement was crumbling. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had ushered in the era of “perestroika” and “glasnost”. Soon the old communist regimes were crumbling all over eastern Europe, in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. The Berlin Wall was about to be torn down and Germany reunited. The Cold War was over. The free world had won.

Many of these events were yet to happen when Young recorded “Rockin’ In The Free World” but they were already in train, and the song found Young astutely tapping into a moment of world-shattering change. Indeed, when the Berlin Wall did come down, television footage was often accompanied by the strains of the song.

Yet like Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”, “Rockin’ In The Free World” is misunderstood if it’s regarded as some kind of celebratory anthem to the triumph of Western capitalism, for its lyric actually focuses on the heavy price which can accompany democracy, painting a nightmarish picture of a free world populated by derelicts, burnt-out cases and junkie mothers.

As a father, Young admitted he was particularly worried about the availability of drugs on the streets. “The lyrics are just a description of events going on every day in America. Sure I’m concerned for my children, particularly my eldest son, and he’s a Guns N’Roses fan,” he told Nick Kent in Vox. “He has to face drugs every day in the school yard that are way stronger than anything I got offered in most of my years as a professional musician.”

“This is like the Bible. It’s all completely out of control,” he went on. “The drugs are gonna be all over the streets of Europe. We’ve got a lot to deal with here.”

Asked if the song was intended to be a celebration or an indictment, Young answered: “Kinda both, you know? You asking the question means you got the song.”

As with “Hey Hey” on Rust Never Sleeps, two versions of “Rockin’ In The Free World” were used to bookend the Freedom album. The acoustic take which opened the LP was recorded live at Jones Beach, Long Island, while the electric version which closed it contained an additional verse.

Harvest Moon
Album: Harvest Moon
Released: November 1992
Recorded: Woodside, California, summer 1992

The ghost of Harvest, the most commercially successful album of Young’s career, had haunted him ever since its release in 1972, creating what he regarded as a false impression of him as a gentle singer-songwriter to rank alongside the likes of James Taylor and Jackson Browne.

Although there had been further acoustic records, notably 1978’s Comes A Time, he spent much of the next 20 years attempting not to follow-up his most successful release. It was a considerable surprise, therefore, when he let it be known in 1992 that he was assembling an album that he openly referred to as “Harvest II”.

“There’s nothing angry or violent about this new music. It’s about relationships and feelings. There’s a lot of love in it,” he told Nick Kent prior to the album’s release. “It certainly sounds like the sequel to Harvest. I have no problem with that, though. I’m not backing away from that side of me any more. When’s the next Harvest coming out? Farmers have been asking me that for years.”

He even reassembled The Stray Gators and arranger Jack Nitzsche, along with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, who’d provided backing vocals on Harvest.

Yet by the time Harvest Moon was released, Young had grown more wary of the comparison. “This is not ‘Harvest II’, ” he insisted to Johnnie Walker on Radio 1. “They only compared it to Harvest because Harvest was a big success and this has Harvest in the title. There are obvious things to connect up the two. But without Harvest this would still be Harvest Moon and stand on its own.”

The title track typified the album, an acoustic collection of songs about relationships, but written from the perspective of someone in their forties rather than their twenties.

“The idea is I sang about the same subject matter with 20 years more experience,” Young explained. To Allan Jones, he added: “Harvest Moon is about continuance, about trying to keep the flame burning. It’s about the feeling that you don’t have to be young to be young.”

Nigel Williamson is the author of Journey Through The Past – The Stories Behind The Classic Songs Of Neil Young (Carlton Books)

The following works were also invaluable in preparing this article: Shakey – Neil Young’s Biography by Jimmy McDonough (Jonathan Cape); Neil Young – Zero To Sixty by Johnny Rogan (Calidore Books)