I’ve written previously about Neil Young’s tremendous effort and investment to unearth, preserve and offer up to fans, works from his early career.
Young has an entire website devoted to his archives, but here I will discuss only the 8 disc CD collection he released in 2009. From the title, it implies that that were will more to come. In the past several years, Young has released his late 1960’s and 1970’s CDs in remastered sets, and several CDs of live performances and solo acoustic works.
In a previous blog I covered his vast re-released works, so this time it’s all about the set of early songs, demos, live tracks and alternative versions of songs 1963-1972.
I will discuss each of the eight CDs and offer some insights and my own opinions. If you are a serious Neil Young fan, think about getting this set. If you are a casual fan, stick with the album CDs, but you might want to consider getting one or more of the live CDs that are contained in the archives set, and yes, they are available as stand-alone CDs.
Disc 1: The Earliest Years
Typical early 1960’s rock, some surfer-influenced music, which is interesting considering Young grew up on Canada. His guitar was expressive and melodic was it soon would be in the Buffalo Springfield. “I’ll Love You Forever” is the most interesting of his Squires group songs. There are early demo versions of “Sugar Mountain,” “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and “Flying On the Ground is Wrong.” These are song sketches but the dissonant chords and pathos is there. His vocal performances on the demos is often stronger than the recorded versions. Interesting. Young was already in his late teens and very talented with phrases and shards of life beyond his years of experience. Disc 1 also contains versions of his Buffalo Springfield songs. “Slow Burning” and “One More Sign” do not appear on any albums and date from his early post-Springfield time. His guitar work on “Slow Burning” is particularly poignant.
Disc 2 – Solo Albums
This disc picks up with alternative versions of his first and second solo albums. His version of “Birds” is a faster version with more instrumentation, and a nice piano solo. These versions show Young trying to find the way to capture these songs, at times delving deeper in emotional performances, and other versions dialing it back. It is easy to see how the songs that formed his first solo album were continuation of his songwriting phase from the Springfield. It would only be on his second album that he stripped away the sentiment, orchestral accents and soulful style and let his rock and roll light guide the way. He offers up a solo live version of “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” which is quite lovely. The disc ends with slightly different versions of “Down By the River,” “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” that are okay but a lot like the album versions.
Disc 3 – Live at the Riverboat in Toronto (1969
For a quiet guy, Neil Young the performer talks to the audience between each song, telling stories and being quite friendly. With only his acoustic guitar, he delivers songs from Buffalo Springfield and from his first solo album. The recording quality is first rate, as his performance. “On the Way Home,” “Broken Arrow,” “Flying On the Ground is Wrong”and “Expecting to Fly” are emotional and fully realized performances of just Young and his guitar.
Disc 4 – Solo Albums
This disc contains alternative versions of his second and third solo albums. “Everybody’s Alone” is an unreleased song, not great, but good. The songs from After the Gold Rush sound as if they were recorded during the Tonight’ the Night sessions – sloppy and drunken. “Sea of Madness” is the CSN&Y version. “Country Girl” also from CSN&Y is not the album version and this one is better. There is also an unreleased version of “Helpless” by CSN&Y that seems to have a better instrumental mix.
Disc 5 – Live at the Fillmore (1970)
Recorded on his Everybody Knows This is Nowhere tour with Crazy Horse. There are very good versions of “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” does not feature Young on lead vocals, only harmony. This is an early version of Crazy Horse.
Disc 6 – Topanga (his home studio where he recorded)
This disc mostly offers versions of After the Gold Rush songs. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is the song that Bacharach/David didn’t write. This song is in the tradition of their mid-1960’s songs, complete with their poignancy and tricky chord progressions. Young nailed a pop classic. Which is a stronger album: After the Gold Rush or Harvest? The versions on this disc are subtly different, mostly it’s in the mixture of instruments and the sonic separation. “Ohio” sounds a little angrier than the released version. CSN&Y try “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” but this version is many a curiosity. The harmony vocals aren’t magical. “Music is Love” is also interesting but doesn’t quite gel as a CSN&Y performance. A Young piano solo of “See the Sky About the Rain” is okay, just not great.
Disc 7 – Live at Massey (1971)
This is a solo concert by Young, and one of his best of the period. A few oldies, but mainly songs from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, After the Gold Rush, and upcoming songs from Harvest and Journey Through the Past. “Love in Mind” has always been one of my favorite Young songs. This version is an even more heartfelt performance than the released version that would come later. There is a wonderful piano medley of “A Man Needs a Maid/Heart of Gold,” see the video below. There are also acoustic versions of “Cowgirl in the Sand and “Down By the River” that are quite effective as Young’s voice echos with emotion. If you purchase a Neil Young live album and want his early songs, this is the one to get.
Disc 8 – Harvest Sessions
Essentially versions of songs from Harvest. There is an exquisite version of “A Man Needs a Maid.” A sixteen minute version of “Words” gives you what the album version hinted at. Is it too long? Perhaps, but it’s great when Young and band really uncork one. A solo piano version of the non-album track “Soldier.” Essential, no. But Young’s performance makes it a keeper. “War Song” is Young and Graham Nash. The two of them made a nice duo. It should have happened more often.
On eight discs, you get a lot of repetition, both live and alternate versions of songs you’ve heard from the original albums. The 1966-1972 period might have been Young’s most creatively successful period. From the Buffalo Springfield to CSN&Y to his four solo albums to unreleased songs that would surface later, Young was not only prolific but he had a sharp melodic sensibility as a serious rock musician. After the Gold Rush and Harvest represent his strongest and mature songwriting. Once he had done something, he moved on, not wanting to repeat it.
The best part of this eight-disc set are the three live albums. Two of the three are solo concerts, and they are the gold in the set. Young’s voice was deemed non-commercial when he was in Buffalo Springfield, hence several of his best songs were sung by Richie Furay. What he misses in vocal range, he makes up for in his ability to emote, and punctuate the tenderness and loss that make up many of his best songs. There are many grand nuggets in these eight discs.