If you have read my other Neil Young blogs, you might surmise that the 1970s was my favorite decade for his music. The 1980s was a very uneven one for Young, his musical styles were all over the place and the quality of his efforts was mixed as well.
By the end of the 1970s, the Neil Young enigma was in full bloom. He had spent the decade building an incredible career as an occasional member of CSN&Y, but mostly as either a solo act or leader of Crazy Horse. Whatever his affiliation, Young called his own shots and went his own direction.
His manager, Elliot Roberts, saw to it that Young had the creative freedom and backing to go whatever direction suited him at the time. Interestingly, Roberts had a prior business partner, David Geffen, who broke away to start his own record company, amongst other interests. When Young’s contract with Reprise expired in 1981, Geffen came calling. More on that later.
In the 1980s, despite his ever-changing musical style, Young seemed comfortable with his direction. He had remarried and life was good on the home front. The constant recording and touring schedule of the previous decade continued, with the beginning of longstanding charitable concert series, a film project, a CSN&Y album, and a few lawsuits to keep things interesting.
Where the Buffalo Roam (soundtrack) March 1, 1980.
Young provided the music for the film soundtrack. Bill Murray starred as Hunter S. Thompson in a chaotic and disjointed episodic adventure. Young uses music from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and others, along with his own version of “Where the Buffalo Roam” and fragmented variations. Not exactly a high point of anyone’s career.
Hawks & Doves October 29, 1980
A respectable effort, somewhat like American Stars & Bars, but without the ambition and “Like a Hurricane.” Not as good as his previous album, Rust Never Sleeps, although Young does pen some nice lyrical songs. As a transplanted Canadian, Young has greater appreciation for the American frontier experience than most Americans. “Little Wing” is an exceptional song, beautiful and gentle, but too damn short. Young wrote a few new songs for this release but gathered songs leftover from other projects.
Re·ac·tor (with Crazy Horse) October 28, 1981
I remember first playing this album and being quite underwhelmed. Young’s albums with Crazy Horse are usually head-scratchers for me. He generally uses them as a garage band, few if any overdubs and songs recorded quickly. Young tends to record cheaply, which gives him more control and clout as an artist.
Several of the songs on this album seem undercooked and repetitive, not in a good way. “T-Bone” is one of the lamest and embarrassing songs Young has ever recorded. Few songs rise above mediocre. If this album was simply to finish his Reprise contract, shame on him. Young is often hailed as The Godfather of grunge, who was sharpening his guitar on this album. For me, the album is a curious listen, little more.
Neil Young has always been fascinated by film, with several previous projects. Human Highway from 1982 was co-directed, co-written and co-starred Young. With Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn and Devo, this was a weird, end of the world, nuclear-themed film that Young reportedly financed himself. The film was panned and only shown in a few theaters. Filmmaking is an expensive hobby.
And now, for Young’s most bizarre period.
Trans December 29, 1982
Step inside the future, at least that was Young’s intent. Overly synthesized, plastic and emotionless songs. Young used a vocoder to filter his vocals to sound like machine noise. A little of this goes a long way. Young was experimenting with technology as he looked for ways to communicate with his special needs child who could not speak.
Young used members of Crazy Horse and other familiar faces like Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith, but you wouldn’t know it.
Only three songs, “Like an Inca,” “Hold on to Your Love” and “Little Thing Called Love” are engaging and avoid the synth wizardry.
Everybody’s Rockin’ (with The Shocking Pinks) July 27, 1983
Wow, where do I start? My least favorite Young album of the era. Twenty-five minutes of pain for my ears. Rockabilly. Covers and originals. After Trans he was expected by the record company to deliver a more conventional rock album. What they got instead, was this. Young had intended to more songs, but Geffen cut their losses and released this version, admittedly, a very short amount of music. Geffen filed a lawsuit against Young, who counter sued.
I will say, two cuts from this album were included on his Geffen years compilation, Lucky 13. These are live cuts and sound a bit less 1950s-ish.
Young appeared at Live Aid on July 13, 1985, in Philadelphia. Crosby, Stills & Nash also performed, and all four performed together. The concerts in London and Philadelphia were the cornerstone for Ethiopian famine relief fundraising.
Old Ways August 12, 1985
The album did not exactly satisfy David Geffen’s disappointed with Young for not recording commercial music like his older stuff. Young had actually planned to release this album earlier, but Geffen wasn’t happy with getting a country album. Young reworked the album and submitted it again. He couldn’t wait for his contract with Geffen to end.
Old Ways is more like his older stuff, just the countrified stuff. In the mid-1980s, this was not a big seller and radio wasn’t interested. Sharing the vocals with Waylon and Willie have moments.
Young was one of the organizers for Farm Aid, held September 22, 1985. It has been held every year since, with Young playing every year except recently.
Landing on Water July 21, 1986
Young enlisted Danny Korchmar (James Taylor, Don Henley) and Steve Jordan (Rolling Stones, John Mayer) as his band for this album. Korchmar co-produced. This is yet another departure, a 1980s synth-flavored sound, more in keeping with what the kids were doing. The album’s production is difficult to listen to, the industrial drum sound is annoying and the synths are cloying.
Listening to the album now, it’s very dated and the weaknesses shine through. Young was trying to make a serious album here, recording it with overdubs and layered instruments, the opposite of his Crazy Horse records.
Too bad he does not re-record some of these songs in a more conventional style, there are a few worthy ones. “Weight of the World” is a quality song. “Violent Side” might have been a good song but you can’t understand it. “Hippie Dream” seems to renounce the ideals of his generation. “Touch the Night” is typical of what sinks the potential of this effort. It’s bombastic and the execution fights against the potential. I’d rather hear the demos if their are any.
The Bridge School Benefit Concert series began on October 13, 1986, to support the school which assists children with severe physical impairments and complex communication needs. Young’s son was born with cerebral palsy. Young and his then-wife Pegi, were key organizers of the concerts. CSN&Y played at the first concert.
Life (with Crazy Horse) June 30, 1987
The last album for Geffen. Young tries to marry Crazy Horse with his 80s industrial sound. Yikes. This isn’t as bad as his other synth-rock albums, but it feels harsh and synthetic, instead of warm and organic. Too much echo, Young isn’t Peter Gabriel.
There are several fine songs, despite the production. “Inca Queen” and “Long Walk Home” are standouts. This techno bombast isn’t what Young does best, it strangled the life from his songs. Young still writes about war and makes social commentary, but on top of programmed synthesizers, it does not sound good. “When You’re Lonely Heart Brakes” is ruined by the harsh echo and synthetic emotion. “We Never Danced” is one of Young’s most heartfelt songs and it shines even through the production drudge.
This album emphasizes how Young was lost in the 80s, little of his experimentation worked and his creativity wasn’t strong enough to forgive the missteps. In the 70s, Young experimented, but not in totally different musical styles. He drove beyond the white guidelines into the ditch. In the 80s, he went into the valley and out into nothingness.
This Note’s for You (with The Bluenotes) April 12, 1988
Continuing his journey of experimentation and commercial rejection, Young dove head-first into blues and R&B, complete with a six horn section, to drench these songs in taproom haze.
The title song was popular for its humor and the video. This is one of his better efforts of the decade, almost a rock and roll album. Unfortunately, Young buries these songs under too much musical sludge. More is usually not better. A little of this late-night mood goes a long way. Besides the title song, “Coup de Ville,” “Ten Men Working” and “Life in the City” are the highlights.
November 1, 1988 was the release of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s American Dream.
Young had promised David Crosby he would record with CS&N if Crosby cleaned up his act after drug and weapons convictions. The result was this 14-track album of rather undistinguished music. There are moments like “Got it Made” and “Compass” but it is very uninspired. According to the album sales data, American Dream was Young’s top-selling release of the decade.
Eldorado (EP) April 7, 1989
This five song EP was difficult to find, I got a Japanese copy. It is now available as part of Young’s Archive set. Three of the songs would appear on Young’s next full album, although “Don’t Cry” was a different version. Two songs, “Cocaine Eyes” and “Heavy Love” were exclusive to this EP.
Young is known for recording but not releasing songs, reinventing songs and shelving entire albums. He can be impulsive and a prolific artist, he was constantly writing and recording, and changing his mind.
Eldorado is not the Holy Grail, but it is a solid chunk of rock and roll.
Freedom October 2, 1989
All you need to know is “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Reportedly written as a result of his concert in Russia being cancelled. A hard rocking, commercial success. The rest of the album, including the Eldorado tracks are solid and a great end to the decade. “On Broadway” is an interesting cover, more Bluesy than jazzy, the George Benson version being the standard for me.
Critics called this album his best of the decade and a return to form, whatever form that was. Some Young’s most well-received works are a group of differing Young styles. This album has the drunken R&B numbers, the country-acoustic songs and the booming rockers. The ever-changing moods of Mr. Neil Young.
2 thoughts on “Neil Young in the 1980s”
You know much more about his schizo ’80s work than I’d care to know, but I agree that Freedom was a fine album, as close to his great ’70s records as he was able to get. And “Got it Made,” from American Dream (by Stills) is one of my favorite songs by C, S, N, or Y. Neil has always had more integrity than other pop artists, and I’d prefer he get weird and experimental than continually rework “Heart of Gold.”
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks, Pete. It’s quite an odd collection of albums. I can’t think of another artist who would risk such experimentation instead of playing it safe and do the “Heart of Gold” thing. Bowie or Dylan, they had their experimentation periods, but Neil tops them.