Old Shakey: Neil Young’s Top 10 Songs

To celebrate After the Gold Rush’s recent 45th anniversary, here’s a list I made earlier of Shakey’s most memorable tunes. Neil Young’s constant unpredictability and uncontrolled range of aesthetics means there always be a mix of modesty and majesty; his earnest folkie-ness and harness of the wild powers of electric rock ‘n’ roll. And of course, the stuff that’s just plain weird.

10: Don’t Let it Bring You Down (After the Gold Rush, 1970)

From the desolate chord clash at the start, its hard not to let Don’t Let it Bring You Down bring you down. The track is halfway between his affected folkie leanings and the mid-seventies alcoholic with-out-a-damn aura. After the Gold Rush is one of Neil Young’s most humble and unassuming records. It’s also arguably his most accessible (in his own roundabout kind of way) and coherent.

9: Old Man (Harvest, 1972)

Whether you think it’s overplayed or not, Old Man is the most consistently enjoyable and evocative song on the slightly hit-and-miss Harvest. Though he says it’s about an old ranch-hand, and definitely not his dad (or yours), it’s hard not to sense a kind of unspoken father-son relation between the two characters. Accompanied by James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and some absolutely gorgeous pedal steel licks from Ben Keith or Jack Nitzsche (who knows?), Old Man remains a signature Neil Young tune.

8: Alabama (Harvest, 1972)

The song that made the Skynyrd double-take is one of the few occasions on record that Neil Young strikes his electric guitar thoughtfully, with earnestness (with the addition of a raw tone) rather than in a soaring haze of uninhibited passion when accompanied by his deranged stallion. The lyrics may seem a little ‘history class’ now, but I’m sure that sound of a liberating crash cymbal resonated throughout folkie-town Nashville like an amplified fart.

7: Ambulance Blues (On the Beach, 1974)

Technically Young’s farewell to his stay at the side of the road, Ambulance Blues, the tune nabbed from Bert Jansch’s Needle of Death, is a very enjoyable and very high 9 minutes of Neil Young hypnotically singing about critics, Nixon, hippies, and hippies and critics and Nixon, and, Nixon, critics and hippies. The ambulance is a metaphor for salvation and time. You’re all just pissing in the wind.

6: Lookout Joe (Tonight’s the Night, 1975)

Lookout Joe epitomizes Tonight’s the Night, with its alienating sleazy characters and rough-around-the-edges sound. A hazy story of a veteran of Vietnam returning to find an unfamiliar land; What must those drafted flower children have thought when they returned to see all the casualties of their mind-altering revolution back home? The slightly out of tune guitars eventually turn triumphant, as Tonight’s the Night melts your mind.

5: Welfare Mothers (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)

With Welfare Mothers, we get a true sense of what an absolute shot out of nowhere his Rust Never Sleeps shows and tours were. Neil Young, with punk burgeoning and a couple of underwhelming albums under his belt, realized he had to make a drastic move. It was only then that he realised that he was completely compatible with punk. Godfather to the Sex Pistols, no! Congruent with the Sex Pistols, yes! In electric form, anyway. Of course, in the lyrics of Welfare Mothers, he takes a more mature and seasoned, humorous glance at today’s issues; Welfare mothers make better lovers!

4: Cortez the Killer (Zuma, 1979)

Originally appearing on Zuma, Cortez the Killer is one of the definitive Crazy Horse guitar workouts. Young’s guitar plunges more than it soars, and the whole 7 minutes and 29 seconds flows like molten lava, while he waxes angry lyrical about Hernán Cortés and Monteczuma. Cortez the Killer is a lasting fan-favourite, and a fittingly incendiary version appears on Live Rust.

3: Pocahontas (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)

One of the tracks from Young’s aborted Chrome Dreams LP (Wer’e still waiting…), Pocahontas is a tragedy coated in shadowy humour that defined his dabbles with the Ditch, and a rather stunning acoustic ramble. The only available iteration is satisfyingly deep, part of the majestic acoustic set that comprises the first side of 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps. Complete with tribal drums and roadie Jawas.

2: Like a Hurricane (Live Rust, 1979)

This is Neil Young’s ultimate electric masterwork, played on every tour since its glorious live inception at the Palladium in 1976. The most easily accessible version appears on Live Rust, his 4-side document of the ’79 Rust tour. Like Child in Time, Achilles Last Stand or Whippin’ Post, Like a Hurricane’s length and ragged scope morph into something magical and euphoric, able to take you into a hazy state of joy at the ”googlefritz”, as Christgau would say.

1: Powderfinger (Live Rust, 1979)

Powderfinger is one of the few songs where a feeling of despair and nihilism soars, rather than descends, just as the violently splattered brains of the protagonist ”splash in the sky”. With more hooks than PirateCon 2015, Powderfinger manages to create an awe-inspiring build-up and climax with a relatively short run-time. Burning out and fading away means so much in this song, as Young puts it in typically weird storyline context. His guitar skyrockets, and Crazy Horse provide a suitably savage and unfettered backup. A more stripped back and raw version appears on the ‘true’ live album Live Rust. On no other song has Ol’ Shakey managed so perfectly to mix his naturalistic folk side and the rusty titanium squeal of Old Black as on Powderfinger.

I like ‘Birds’ as well…

The Beach Boys: Smiley Smile/Wild Honey

Smiley Smile

The Beach Boys had poured their hearts into Smile (the aborted project), but Brian Wilson’s feet reached sub-zero. It could have been their greatest album, their masterpiece. Carl Wilson once stated that the general attitude was: ”What if it didn’t turn out to be good?”. Brian Wilson’s pop arranging, producing and vocal skills far exceed those of the Beatles, but he arguably didn’t possess their commercial bravery. So, with, Smile shelved, the band took it easy in Hawaii, and produced a far more modest record that exudes joy more than it does eclecticism, complete with mistakes, studio chat, and celery as percussion. With Smiley Smile, the Beach Boys want to give you simple pleasures, using a wonderful bassy lo-fi warmth in the arrangements and instrumentation, as opposed to the more overtly arty noise of Sergeant Pepper.

Smiley Smile kicks off with one of the classic Beach Boys singles, Heroes and Villains, whose original fate was to be the ‘core’ of Smile, a musique concrète doodad. The production style on Vegetables, Wilson’s ode to greens, is as stripped back as this here ‘tater to the right.

This style is echoed throughout Smiley Smile, most notably on Wind Chimes and Little Pad, whereas Good Vibrations recalls the layered psychedelia of Pet Sounds (its birth lies in those sessions). It tends to be the pure mishmash of composition that leads to its ultimate incoherence, but in the end, the happy vibes almost suppress its issues with clarity. Great songwriting, did I mention?

Best Track: Little Pad

Goof: Fall Breaks and Back to Winter. The Beach Boys going atonal? Can you imagine the Stooges going unplugged?

7 Excitations out of 10

Overly specific categorization: Warm-texture-pop


Wild Honey

Momentarily ditching the pure craziness of Smiley Smile, The Beach Boys proceeded with their next studio album, Wild Honey, which, in style, length, and general sounds, was similar to said previous album, but utilizes a wider, more full-sounding orchestration, as opposed to the minimalist style that comprised Smiley Smile. Arguably a more soul-oriented record than previous (and latter) works, Wild Honey is a massively coherent effort, and the lyrics progress from the sweet, California-surfs-up-youth-pop, to a, more mature kind of love song, with a cover of the (very) early Stevie Wonder track ‘I Was Made to Love Her’, and tracks like Darlin’ and the title tune. The Beachies were never complex lyricists, and it would be no crime to say that the same theme encompasses at least 90 percent of their catalogue. This goes without saying, though.

The same plunky, muffled piano sound is used on the majority of Wild Honey and Smiley Smile, across his piano wires, giving the album an instantly recognisable tone. Aren’t You Glad is the top pop song off this LP, an infectious little number featuring the wonderful ring previously described, the definitive sound of this 60’s, post-Pet Sounds era in their discography. Wild Honey appears too slight and full of whimsy to be called a ‘great work‘, and the somewhat strained, happy mood takes on extra resonance when once considers the turmoil and tension specifically within the Beach Boys at that time. But then again, looking back, the ‘love’ rebellion of hippie culture was almost strained in its attempt to fight the same turmoil and tension that defined late sixties America on a larger scale (Vietnam, J. Edgar Hoover and two dead Kennedies). In other words, releasing an album that reflects (directly or not) the troubled times of the era, an attempt to be ‘timely’, might date it further in the long run. Herge giving Tintin a CND bicycle helmet and bell-bottoms in the 70’s makes him less relevant than if he had stuck with plus-fours. To conclude, oblivious joy in a time of tumult and mixed emotions makes a more refreshing and meaningful comment than Gimme Shelter’s unhinged anger. Which attitude is more confused?

Best Track: Aren’t You Glad

Goof: Only 23 minutes!

9 Oncoming nights out of 10

In the Houses of the Holy

If asked for evidence of all that’s sublime in rock music, I’d shove Physical Graffiti in your face. It’s absolutely bursting at the brim with rock, sprawling and arrogant, uninhibited and joyous. If asked what album so perfectly represents why Led Zeppelin were rock and roll; Zep IV, surely.                              Houses of the Holy, however, shows the entire band at the absolute peak of creativity, after all, a sizeable chunk of Physical Graffiti was comprised of the band’s best previous outtakes (which explains why Coda is rather meh), Houses being their most observably ‘produced’ LP, and arguably the best exhibition of the vital and often overlooked skills of John Paul Jones, No Quarter being his ‘magnum opus’, as he delivers some truly delicious keyboard noodlings.

The Song Remains the Same kicks off the procedures like a very large firework, often used as a concert opener, though it’s a miracle Page could squeeze the tune out so well on just one guitar, as the track features a massive amount of overdubs, creating a richly layered ”guitar army”, as Page once described. The song displays immediately the predominantly happy nature of this album, not self-consiously in order to create a so-called mood piece, but as a completely natural display of the fact that Led Zeppelin were thoroughly enjoying a life of creating music and smashing up hotel rooms. The Ocean, the closing track, acts, along with The Song Remains the Same, as bookends of joy, songs that both describe their relishing of the lifestyle. The Rain Song, with its intricate and beautifully delivered guitar and piano parts, is Page and Plant’s very finest effort at creating a chord-based (as opposed to riff-driven) ballad, a seemingly impossible progression of ‘maj7’s’, ‘add9’s’ and various other doodads.

The Zep get a little stanky with The Crunge’s deep drum groove and pop-funk guitar chunking (I dare not say Nile Rogers-ish), a tribute to James Brown and his guitarist. The Crunge is the perfect example of the type of song that would only be appropriate on Houses of the Holy, because of the feeling of joy and experimentation that permeates. It won’t set the world alight, but it fits the mood. The band admits that, as opposed to funk, it’s just Led Zeppelin doing funk. The same applies to D’yer Mak’er, the faux-reggae song that, if played, will get you evil looks as soon as that charming but slightly obnoxious drum intro resonates. After this comes No Quarter, an atmospheric slow-burner, arguably John Paul Jones’ ‘great work’, and something entirely unique in the entrie Zep catalogue, the compressed guitar sound that Page uses to churn out the crunchy riff was rarely heard before or after, accompanying Jonesy’s alien tones, giving it a strangly ambient and deeply electronic sound.

Best Track: The Ocean

Goof: D’yer Mak’er.

9 Quarter absences out of 10