29 May 02005

Playlist #1: Neil Young celebrity playlist

I'd lay a large bet that Neil Young doesn't have an iPod. He's been waging a war on digital compression since the early days of CDs, and is on record as saying that MP3s are even worse than CDs: "MP3 is a dog; the quality sucks. It's all compressed and the data compression — it's terrible".

But in a fictional universe where Young did have an iPod, what would he have on it? Previously I suggested that an 'imaginary' celebrity playlist be more interesting than a real celebrity playlist. (Here are some examples of such imaginary playlists.) To play with this idea, I've created my own fictional version of what Neil Young might compile.

There are several web-based services for playlist creation, sharing and community review. I've tried out a few of these and you can view one version of this playlist on the Art of the Mix site. Another version on the Soundflavor site has clips of the tracks, but since the library of clips doesn't cover all the tracks I wanted, the listing is slightly different. [Update, 9 June 02005: for comparison, I've added a third version on Upto11.net.]

I'll write a review of my experiences of the utility and usability of different playlist services another time, but for now here is my playlist and the liner notes to explain it.

1. Spring is Nearly Here — The Shadows

Neil Young's first publicly available recording, with his band The Squires, was The Sultan b/w Aurora — two Shadows-inspired guitar instrumentals. The 'Hank' in his song From Hank to Hendrix is commonly agreed to be Hank Marvin of The Shadows (Hank Williams being the other possible candidate). Personally I prefer tracks like Walk, Don't Run and Perfidia to Spring is Nearly Here — and I prefer the recordings by The Ventures — but this is the song that Neil Young played with his Winnipeg cohort Randy Bachman on the Shadows tribute album Twang!.

2. Baby, What You Want Me to Do — Jimmy Reed

Neil Young has released two cover versions of Jimmy Reed songs: Bright Lights, Big City on Everbody's Rockin' and an apparently tongue-in-cheek bootleg-quality live recording of Baby, What You Want Me to Do on Broken Arrow. Young was influenced a lot by Reed near the start of his career (his early bands played more Reed covers live), and the influence on his guitar playing resurfaces in some of his bluesier material like the This Note's for You and Are You Passionate albums.

3. In Dreams — Roy Orbison

"I loved Roy Orbison from the beginning", Neil Young is quoted as saying in Jimmy McDonough's authorised biography of him. In this interview, Young refers specifically to Only the Lonely and Blue Bayou as among his favourite Orbison songs, but I've chosen In Dreams because it's the song that Young's film collaborators Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper mime to in very unsettling circumstances in the film Blue Velvet (Stockwell and Hopper were both closely involved in Neil Young's film Human Highway — see more details of Young's links with these outsider figures of cinema).

4. Mack the Knife — Bobby Darin

Bobby Darin was one of the artists whom Neil Young cited as a precedent for his 'genre-hopping' period in the '80s. Young is quoted as saying,

That's the first artist I can remember where you're goin', "Well, shit — he just changed. He's completely different. And he's really into it. Doesn't sound like he's not there." "Dream Lover," "Mack the Knife," "If I Were a Carpenter," "Queen of the Hop," "Splish Splash" — tell me about those records, Mr. Darin. Did you write those all the same day? [Read the full quote.]

I've chosen Mack the Knife from Bobby Darin's repertoire since it was co-written by Bertolt Brecht, and I think many people miss the Brechtian antecedents of some strands of Neil Young's work. Really.

5. Big Time — Rick James

Neil Young and funk phenomenon Rick James played together in a band called The Mynah Birds in the '60s before either had any commercial success. The band recorded for Motown, though no recordings have been issued, and broke up when James was deported from Toronto for being AWOL from the US Navy. I don't know much of James's work, but the excellent Thrasher's Wheat site has details of the Young-James relationship, so I've included James's song Big Time because it shares a title with a Neil Young song that allegedly refers to Young's time in The Mynah Birds.

6. (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction — Otis Redding

Apparently Rick James had something of a Mick Jagger fascination, and The Mynah Birds regularly included (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction in their live shows. The riff that powers Neil Young's Mr Soul is palpably appropriated from Satisfaction, and Johnny Rogan's biography of Young tells the story of Otis Redding sitting in on the session where Mr Soul was being recorded. Having just had a hit with his own version of Satisfaction, Redding thought Mr Soul would make a good follow-up single — but Neil Young turned down the exposure and royalties this might have earned him: "Tell him he can't have it! I'm doing it myself," Rogan quotes. On this track Redding is backed by Booker T and the MGs, who went on to back Neil Young in 1993 and 2002.

7. Farmer John — The Premiers

Aside from the Everybody's Rockin' album, Neil Young hasn't released many cover versions, but this '60s garage punk track features on his Ragged Glory and Weld albums. It represents a seam in his work, particularly with Crazy Horse, that operates at the level of the lizard brain. Songs like Prisoners of Rock'n'Roll are direct descendents of Farmer John. As Richie Unterberger says in his 'liner notes' for Farmer John, "It wasn't just music to party to… with the jubilant crowd noise threatening to almost overwhelm the actual musicians at times, the record was the party".

8. The Lonely Surfer — Jack Nitzsche

I don't think enough attention is given to the scope of Neil Young's talent as an arranger. Especially in the early part of his career, Young relied on, and obviously learnt a lot from, Jack Nitzsche's contributions as an arranger — from Buffalo Springfield's Expecting to Fly through to Harvest Moon. Nitzsche worked with Phil Spector, helping to craft the latter's 'wall of sound' approach to production. The Lonely Surfer was Nitzsche's only hit under his own name, and it's the second surf-guitar instrumental on this mix.

9. My Back Pages — Bob Dylan

Dylan's influence on any singer-songwriter of Neil Young's generation is inescapable, though only a few can claim to have been acknowledged by Dylan in return (see his song Highlands). As with Satisfaction and Mr Soul, Young has often borrowed parts of others' songs, and the melody of his Days That Used To Be clearly draws from My Back Pages. This is unlikely to be a coincidence since the theme of ageing in the lyrics also references the concerns of Dylan's song. The refrain of My Back Pages — "I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now" — could have been Young's motto at several stages of his career.

10. One Hundred Years From Now — The Byrds

Many hardcore fans have an irritatingly elitist and pompous disdain for the most 'popular' work by their favourite artists. I'm no different: Neil Young's best-selling Harvest album is the only one of his I've never owned (though I borrowed a cassette copy from a friend for a month in 1983 to prove to myself that I wasn't missing much). I don't like much of Crosby Stills Nash & Young either. So, having been almost too literal with the selections so far, this Gram Parsons song from a Crosby-less Byrds is as close as this playlist gets to the country rock pigeon-hole that Harvest gets put into.

11. So You Think You're A Cowboy — Emmylou Harris

This is a Willie Nelson song, and appears on the Honeysuckle Rose album. Neil Young's career includes several skirmishes with what you might call 'proper' country music — including collaborations with both Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. On side two of the Hawks and Doves album, Young sounds as if he's almost parodying country mores. By the time of Old Ways — featuring a few duets with Willie Nelson — his approach was a more respectful pastiche (read more on this distinction). I chose this track because it points to Neil Young's ambivalence to country stereotypes, as well as his different takes on 'authentic' cowboys in Are There Any More Real Cowboys (from Old Ways) and Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher) (from Trans).

12. Poor Poor Pitiful Me — Linda Ronstadt

Another 'double' connection in this track, which was written by Warren Zevon. Neil Young played guitar on several of Zevon's recordings, including the title track of his Sentimental Hygiene album. Like Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt sang backing vocals on many Neil Young songs, including tracks on the American Stars'n'Bars album, and she had hits with her own versions of his songs, such as Love is a Rose. But, like Bobby Darin, she gets a special mention from Neil Young for the starkly different approaches she has taken at different stages in her career. "Not many people think of Linda Rondstadt as a really 'out-there' artist," said Young in a BBC radio interview, "but I do".

13. Mongoloid — Devo

Alongside Neil Young's sporting of Sex Pistols t-shirts and references to Johnny Rotten in lyrics, Devo were his most direct connection with the punk/new wave movement (though the band were arguably too arty to be true punks other than in their dada antics). Devo appeared in Young's film Human Highway, and are credited as the source of the 'rust never sleeps' phrase that Young appropriated for one of his albums and concert films. It seems fairly typical for Neil Young to embrace a band who allegedly had previously dismissed him as a crusty old hippy (at the time of his song Ohio, about the Kent State University killings, which members of Devo witnessed as students at the university). The video for Mongoloid was made by another of Young's film-making friends, Bruce Conner.

14. Touch Me, I'm Sick — Mudhoney

If you were going to represent Neil Young's status as the 'Godfather of Grunge', the obvious choices would be either Nirvana — Young's song Sleeps With Angels was a tribute to Kurt Cobain after the latter's death — or Pearl Jam — with whom Young recorded and toured in 1995. Bollocks to that: I've never seen the appeal of either. Mudhoney were the best Seattle grunge band. Like The Premiers they capture the spirit of Crazy Horse, and they have the mixture of humour and lack of self-censorship to write dumb songs like Young's Piece of Crap, which I can't imagine Nirvana or Pearl Jam ever doing. Touch Me, I'm Sick also captures the same element of self-disgust — see the lyrics — that surfaces in several Neil Young songs like Fuckin' Up or Don't Cry.

15. Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg) — Sonic Youth

By the mid-'80s I'd been a Neil Young fan for several years, but his extended guitar workouts and squalling solos had remained a bit of a blind-spot for me compared with the rest of his music. Listening to the Sonic Youth albums of the period put that area of Neil Young's output in a different light, and I've never looked back. This example of Sonic Youth's more recent work captures the point where rock jam gets infected with elements of jazz and free improvisation — and at the same time it's not a million miles away from Crazy Horse's Down by the River. Sonic Youth supported Neil Young and Crazy Horse on their 1991 'first Gulf War' tour of the US, and encouraged him to express his own avant-garde noise-mongering instincts more fully on the live Arc album recorded on that tour.

16. Don't Let Our Youth Go To Waste — Galaxie 500

This is a personal favourite (i.e. mine, not Neil Young's). The first time I heard it on John Peel's radio show, I immediately noticed the Neil Young/Crazy Horse element of the sound, but Galaxie 500 managed to blend this with equal parts of Velvet Underground and Joy Division — a cocktail every bit as rich and rewarding as it sounds. This song is a cover of a Jonathan Richman original (Richman currently records for Neil Young's Vapor Records label), but the original is only available as a 90-second a-capella version. So Galaxie 500 had to develop it radically to produce this warm, sweeping full-band version.

17. Sweet Jane — Cowboy Junkies

Another great cover version with a Velvet Underground connection. The Cowboy Junkies are fellow Canadians, and they've recorded covers of Neil Young's songs Powderfinger, Tired Eyes and Helpless; their sound has much in common with the Neil Young of Comes a Time and Harvest Moon. This song was recorded live in one take — an approach also favoured by Young on several of his albums. And Young has expressed an interest in collaborating with Lou Reed, since he felt they both shared a similar attitude to their work and their careers — but since that attitude is characterised in part by single-minded awkwardness, it's no surprise that this hasn't happened yet.

18. Instrumental Medley 1964 — Bert Jansch

Young says Jansch did for the acoustic guitar what Jimi Hendrix did for the electric guitar: once again Thrasher gives us some more details and links. This track finishes the playlist, as it began, with an instrumental by one of Neil Young's guitar heroes.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Curatorial, Playlists on 29 May 02005 | TrackBack
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