Back in the days when I couldn't even begin to dream that I might eventually become a music critic, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the 1969 debut of Neil Young & Crazy Horse, was an album I loved so much that I just had to scribble down my hirsute nineteen-ager feelings about it for posterity. Here's a brief taster of how I felt about the title track: "A funky country feel to this and, combined with Neil's vocal calisthenics (Everybody know-ow-ows), it's really good for your eardrums." Five decades on, I reckon it still is.
At the time, however, it seemed as if Young's collaboration with Crazy Horse was probably just a temporary career blip, an enjoyable venting of some pent-up rock 'n' roll steam before he got back to what was obviously going to be his longtime career as a sensitive, folk-rocky singer-songwriter. Almost 20 albums later, it has become obvious that Neil Young and Crazy Horse is actually a marriage made in heaven, one that has evolved into a lifelong parallel project alongside his solo albums and his on–off association with Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Today, Neil Young & Crazy Horse release their 12th studio album, Colorado, of which Neil says, "We believe we have a great Crazy Horse album, one to stand alongside Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Rust Never Sleeps, Sleeps With Angels, Psychedelic Pill, and all the others." So we're taking the opportunity to look back on some of this fabled discography and the early years of the group.
Young had entered the global music consciousness as one fifth of Buffalo Springfield, the Los Angeles-based country-rock-oriented quintet who scored a No. 1 smash in 1967 with "For What It's Worth," an atmospherically chiming slab of protest pop. Regrettably, that band suffered from the inherent instability of too many massively talented members whose egos inevitably clashed. As well as Young, the band included the guitar-slinging Texan songwriter Stephen Stills and Ohio-born singer and songwriter Richie Furay, all of whom deserved (and eventually got) their own acclaimed solo careers.
When, unavoidably, the Springfield imploded, Young's first solo album came along in 1968 in the form of Neil Young, an ambitious, introspective work for which he surrounded himself with respected studio players including Ry Cooder (guitar), Carol Kaye (bass), and Earl Palmer (drums). But the results didn't satisfy him.
He resolved to come up with something more spontaneous and more band-like, and turned to the The Rockets, a Los Angeles combo he'd jammed with successfully at The Whisky A Go Go. In a recent posting on his website, Young recalled the origins of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere: "I wanted to play and jam, do more of what I loved with Buffalo Springfield and [early band] The Squires. I wrote the seven songs and went into the studio with David Briggs producing."
By the time the new album was released on May 14, 1969, The Rockets had become Crazy Horse, and what they did together bore little resemblance either to Buffalo Springfield or to Young's debut. From the opening barrage of Young's distorted guitar lines on "Cinnamon Girl," this was like nothing else at the time. Sure, there were sweet folk-rock harmony vocals and enigmatic lyrics, but overall it was minimalist heavy rock, capped off with that now legendary one-note guitar solo toward the end and the sprawling, single-guitar coda. Arguably, this was grunge before anybody had invented the term.
Young and Crazy Horse took a step back into countrified rock with the album's title track, but there's still no mistaking the signature doom-laden bass lines, plodding drums, and distorted guitars pointing the way ahead. Then, on the tender, acoustic strumfest "Round And Round (It Won't Be Long)," Young foreshadows where he will go on After The Gold Rush, with Robin Lane providing haunting double-tracked harmony vocals. Again, though, the song and its arrangement are about as simple as they can be, a far cry from the complexity of his solo debut album.
"Down By The River" follows, the first of the album's two epic-length cuts. It starts as a sorrowful folk-style murder ballad but soon transforms into a platform for extended improvisations. Young switches starkly from sounding hesitant—as if he can't decide which note to go for—to unleashing rushing torrents of raging staccato fury.
We're back in mid-paced country-rock mode for "The Losing End (When You're On)." Despite another stunning solo, this is perhaps the album's least convincing cut. However, it nicely sets up the tortured, apologetic self-examination of "Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets)," where former Rockets fiddler Bobby Notkoff provides weeping cascades of anxiety that perfectly complement Young's demented vocal.
There's no hesitancy in the closing track and the album's second epic, the 10-minute "Cowgirl In The Sand." Young shatters the briefly tranquil intro with a huge, sprawling chordal structure overlaid with lengthy, angry outbursts of seething guitar frenzy. He maintains this mood until the track fades, with the entire band sounding spent and shattered.
In retrospect, perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is not that Young was inventing grunge—presumably he didn't realize this—but that, lyrically, the songs all deal in the standard subject matter of country music, from heartbroken romance, to shooting your girlfriend, to the nostalgia of small-town simplicity, and with a cowgirl thrown in for good measure. It's almost as if he was trying to reinvent country music in ways The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Bros, Dillard & Clark, and the other late-'60s country-rock pioneers hadn't thought of.
Whatever his thinking may have been, Young saw the album well received generally by the critics. It's a testament to its enduring validity that in 2003 it was ranked No. 208 in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
The early '70s found Young consumed with his own solo efforts and with CS&N-related projects, so it was not until 1975 that he reunited with Crazy Horse for Zuma. The band's guitarist, Danny Whitten, had died from a heroin overdose in 1972 (the subject of Young's song "The Needle And The Damage Done"), and so Frank Sampedro, a frequent Young collaborator, was drafted in to the new band.
Zuma turned out to be a very different proposition from their first collaboration. The tracks remained anchored by the redoubtable duo of bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina, but lyrically Young had moved away from his former country themes to explore wider avenues, refining his penchant for lyrics that resonate powerfully even when their meaning is willfully obscure.
Zuma offers some of Young's most inventive playing ever on "Danger Bird," as well as some of his most erratic singing, in a track that makes a virtue out of playing it slower than a grain of sugar sinking to the bottom of a tin of syrup. The album's centerpiece, "Cortez The Killer," is a seven-minute standout, with Young grandstanding brilliantly alongside a haunting lyric detailing the brutality of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
American Stars 'N Bars (1977) was almost a compilation, cobbled together from tracks created as far back as 1974, but it nevertheless included some fine music and, in particular, the powerful "Like a Hurricane," another lengthy solo spectacular that would become a perennial live favorite. The sleeve credits make it clear, however, that half the album is by an augmented version of Crazy Horse, featuring pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, violinist Carole Mayedo, and backing vocalists Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson. This is why some purists still argue that, no matter that their names are on the cover, it's not a true Neil Young and Crazy Horse release.
There's no such dispute over the 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps, an intriguing hybrid built around tracks recorded live at The Boarding House in San Francisco, but with additional studio overdubs, along with concert recordings from the Live Rust tour. One track, "Sail Away," doesn't feature Crazy Horse at all, and the haunting "Pocahontas" is an overdubbed acoustic recording from several years earlier. Yet the album holds together perfectly as a Crazy Horse artifact. Critically, it was one of Young's best-received releases, and it won Rolling Stone's 1979 critics poll for album of the year.
Arguably, Crazy Horse shine brightest as a live band, so the double-live set Live Rust (1979), recorded during the 1978 Rust Never Sleeps tour, should be an essential component of any Young aficionado's collection. Added interest comes from the fact that it offers an opportunity to hear a bunch of pre-Crazy Horse compositions, including "After The Gold Rush," "The Needle And The Damage Done," and "The Loner," gutsily reinterpreted by his most enduring collaborative combo.
Building on the solid base created by their '70s output, Young and the Horse would go on to release a sizable catalogue of albums, both studio and live, which have confirmed them as perhaps the grittiest and most consistently reliable interpreters of his songs.
Accordingly, if you like one NY+CH album, there's a better than average chance that you'll like all of them. That's because Young's solo output can be erratic, a veritable seesaw of creative hits and misses, but his albums with Crazy Horse have all been cut from the same rough-hewn materials.
Their numerous subsequent collaborations will come under the microscope at some future juncture and—let's not forget—Crazy Horse has also released a fistful of albums in their own right, which we hope in due course to examine in some detail. And, encouragingly, there's no end in sight.
About the author: Johnny Black is a music journalist and author of over 40 years experience, having written for Q, Mojo, Smash Hits, and many others. He is a former head of press at Polydor Records and the keeper of the vast music dates archive www.musicdayz.com. He lives in Devizes, England.