A Little Bit of Essential Neil Young
Neil Young’s autobiography has doubtless been a common gift this Season for fans of the great Canadian musician, inventor and musical pioneer. The illustrated biography that we created for an American publisher this year reminded us of how intriguing and unusual a career Young has had. After enjoying early success with Buffalo Springfield, then with CSN and as a solo performer by 1973 he had made enough out of the mainstream music scene that he could trawl the outer edges of it for a while (to paraphrase something he has said in the past).
At the turn of the century we were lucky enough to have worked with the London-based writer and editor Steve Grant on a book titled Essential Neil Young, in which he set out his favourite Young tracks and the personal reasons for his admiration of them. The book is unique and unapologetic in its singular devotion to the music of Neil Young that the author has found, in the course of three decades of Young-listening, to be most important to him. We are very pleased to be able to make the book available in electronic form, and to give you a taster of the content, here is an extract from one of the perhaps surprising entries, on a track titled ‘Sample And Hold’, from the much derided Neil Young album, Trans, which was released almost exactly 30 years ago.
‘Dinosaurs in the computer age.’ Thus spake Neil Young for his Transband at the end of several concerts on the European tour of 1982, the first live concert journey that Young had undertaken since Rust Never Sleeps four years earlier. The decision to choose Europe could be explained thus: Young’s European fans had missed out then and Europe in general, and Germany in particular, where the tour climaxed, was the home of the computerized sound that was to dominate his creativity during this Trans-sitional time.
The musical influence of the visionary Dusseldorf outfit Kraftwerk cannot be underestimated here. The band formed by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider and three cohorts in Dusseldorf in 1969 had dented the US album charts in May of 1981 with Computer World, a clear homage to which was to appear on Trans, Young’s first album for his new label Geffen, in his song Computer Age. Kraftwerk’s status in pop history is substantial: between Autobahn in 1974 and The Mix in 1991, Hutter and Schneider developed a method where music wasn’t so much created as constructed. By the late 1990s their influence on modern music encompassed everything from electro and techno to house and ambient, and the output of everyone from Portishead, Orbital, Inner City, Leftfield and Prodigy, to LFO and Underworld.
Kraftwerk’s influence is at the musical heart of Trans, which is dominated by five tracks all employing computerized effects and the vocal distortions of the vocoder, a small machine attached to a microphone wire which could feed the human voice into a computer and allow it both the freedom of a four-octave range and the perfection and elongation of machine-made sound. In August 1981, Young bought himself a vocoder and started to record a group of songs that were to eventually appear on Trans, initially in his own upgraded studio, improved to take into account the restrictions in his professional life imposed by his son Ben’s learning disabilities. Here, then, we have another and more poignant link to Young’s thinking at the time: unsatisfied with some of the tracks he was laying down for the eventually discarded Islands In The Sun album, clearly nervous about being left behind as a 1970s rock dinosaur, looking for a new musical direction, what was more natural than to follow one integral to his early attempts to communicate with his son?
Young has said that the vocoder, with its ethereal, inhuman distortions reminiscent of Sparky’s Magic Piano, had allowed him to communicate with Ben, hence the hidden meanings behind a track like Transformer Man, where the computer literally electrifies the listener. If you have any doubts, try playing Transformer Man to a group of small children and watch their faces light up. Amazingly, Like A Hurricane doesn’t have the same effect.
The 1980s did mark a massive advance in computer technology in all fields, from air travel and home entertainment (VCRs, video games) to movies and medicine; and Trans, with its own take on an alien yet familiar computer-robot world, is surely influenced by Young’s experiences in hospital where so many doctors and paramedics were walking around just so ‘this kid could push a button’. As well as the statement of intent that is Computer Age, and the distinctive and personal Transformer Man, Young recorded three other vocoderized tracks for Trans, plus a halfway house retake on Mr Soul in which he sings a synthesized duet with his own natural voice. We R In Control is very much a homage to his old pals from Akron, Ohio, Devo, with its repeated slogans and jerky, rather threatening tempo, by far the least benign take on the invasion of machines. Computer Cowboy (aka Skycrusher) is an oddball, amusing retread of Frankie Laine country and western terrain, reminiscent not only of Young’s efforts on the soundtrack of the moribund film, Where The Buffalo Roams (1980), but of the 1973 mega-hit flick, Westworld, with its powerful image of Yul Brynner’s animatronic gunslinger on his own route to murderous mayhem. It has one of the funniest moments in the Young canon in its eery, synthesized cowboy chant: ‘Come a ky ky yippee yi yippee yi ay’.
But the highlight of this album, which is fatally diluted by some of the remaining tracks, is Sample And Hold, a very fine pop song in its own right, released as a disco 12-inch single with Mr Soul on the reverse, the disco version much heavier on drum machine and bass but with a nice trickle of churning, gruff guitar midway through. Sample And Hold has a superb, instantly catchy riff, heralded by Young’s one-string guitar invocation and features some splendidly theatrical vocal interplay on vocoders between Young and Nils Lofgren. Most splendidly, Sample And Hold is a very funny song, dealing with computer dating, not the kind where humans feed names and details into a machine but where the machines are the obscure objects of desire themselves. ‘I need a unit to sample and hold,’ Young demands in a dramatically deepened voice, thus showing why the computer sound of Trans is as much about distortion as about clarity, about language as a barrier as much as an avenue of communication.
Young has admitted in interview that at this time he was as interested in hiding his true state of mind behind his music as in revealing it to his fans. In four different versions of this song that I’ve heard, two recorded, two live, the words change subtly: Young doesn’t want an ‘angry’, ‘lonely’, lovely’, or could it be ‘hungry’ model; in concert in West Berlin he added ‘jealous’ to the range of adjectives. And is it a model which ‘you desire’, ‘you designed’, or simply ‘a new design’? This is a deceptively clever song which reminds me both of Paul Verhoeven’s classic film Robocop (admittedly not to be released for another five years!) and Bryan Forbes’ 1974 The Stepford Wives. ‘Satisfaction guaranteed in every detail,’ promises Lofgren’s dehumanized, angelic voice. ‘We know you’ll be happy,’ the manufacturers promise, unconvincingly but sincerely.
There’s a paradox here: computerized sound as a perfect musical method, love as a perfect state, but despite the good intentions of all concerned, happiness is unattainable merely through the consumer’s specifications. In Robocop (1987), Peter Weller’s robot law enforcer breaks down when he realizes he has known love and happiness in an earlier human form, and Sample And Hold shows the unbreachable gap between the slick world of technological precision and the complex reality of human relations. That isn’t to gainsay its awesome, still potent appeal as an easily addictive piece of early 1980s pop funk.