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…


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