A half century beckons for the curmudgeonly Canadian’s second long player. Getintothis’ Will Neville looks back at Neil Young’s classic album.
2019 brings up the big 5-0 for a whole host of classic albums, several of which have either already been celebrated on this site, or will be soon.
The likes of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band and debuts from The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Stooges and Nick Drake were all released in 1969, but Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere by Neil Young & Crazy Horse stands alongside all of those as a true classic album.
Neil Young’s eponymous debut on Reprise Records from January 1969 is no bad album, but pales alongside its follow-up, which is the first full flowering of the cantankerous Canuck’s musical vision to these ears.
His self-titled album had suffered from what seemed to be an uncertainty as to what kind of record it should be. Surprisingly so at first, as Young was already the veteran of three Buffalo Springfield albums, although when you consider that only ten of his songs (and just six lead vocals) had featured across those releases it becomes more understandable.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is his second ‘solo’ album (and first with Crazy Horse), coming less than four months after the self-titled debut, However, it was a radically different record, most notably due to its rockier sound thanks to the backing of Crazy Horse.
Imagine that for a second. Not just two albums in the same year, but two in less than a third of a year. Not only is that some going for a ‘new’ artist, but also testament to the more indulgent times in the music business, especially considering that Neil Young had not troubled the Billboard Top 200.
This was the first hint of the awkward, ever-changing Neil Young that was to fully flower in the next decade, as his second solo album already provided a totally different sound to the debut. That constant desire to move forwards or sometimes backwards, but rarely sideways, was surely a huge influence (alongside the similarly eclectic David Bowie) on countless other artists.
The 1970’s brought nine Young albums, which ranged from the highly commercial soft singer-songwriter sounds of Harvest in 1972, to the subsequent ‘ditch’ trilogy, and onto the country Comes A Time and punk-influenced Rust Never Sleeps.
It’s somewhat baffling that David Geffen could claim that his record label was being provided with material unrepresentative of Neil’s sound when he sued his own artist in 1983 (having been provided with vocoder-led and rockabilly albums, admittedly) after such an eclectic discography prior to signing him.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was the first of his back catalogue that I acquired, having gained entry to his musical world in 1990 through the newly released, grunge-approved Ragged Glory. I quickly devoured much of the rest of his classic 70’s output, including Zuma and Harvest, but none can top this album to these ears.
I got this record at around the same time I was exploring the likes of MC5, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Flamin’ Groovies and Can, with more recent bands I was buying into then such as Hüsker Dü, Mudhoney and The Replacements showing clear signs of the influence of Neil Young.
It’s one of rare cases in rock history where the second album is the artist’s career peak. I tend to find that the first one is most frequently the greatest, although often bands or singers take time to really hit their stride, so the best can come much later.
Others whose second is their best probably include Public Enemy (It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back), Nirvana (Nevermind), Jefferson Airplane (Surrealistic Pillow) and Lou Reed (Transformer).
The album kicks off with a grungy guitar riff and handclaps as Cinnamon Girl starts proceedings in fine style. This was apparently one of three songs on this record that were all written on the same day while suffering from a high fever. Some day’s work that!
Guitarist Danny Whitten shares vocals on this number which made it out as a single a year after the album was first released. Whitten struggled with heroin addiction, and Young’s gloomy Tonight’s The Night 1975 album, the last of the ditch trilogy, was partially inspired by his death in 1972.
Some somewhat cheesy lyrics about the touring life remind me of Wings’ Rock Show from 1975’s Venus And Mars, but are then followed by an understated one-note guitar solo, the first of many on this album.
The b-side of the single (which reached the heady heights of #55 in the US) was the non-album Sugar Mountain, written back in 1964. Although this is a bit of a forgotten classic from his oeuvre, it wouldn’t really have fitted on the LP.
The title track follows, but is the weakest cut on the LP, with its rather trite and over-sweet backing vocals, although it still has some great guitar work. His singing is actually a temporary scratch vocal sung through the mixing board mike, which was kept as Neil liked the effect. Not the last result of his desire to ensure the best fit for a song rather than the highest fidelity.
Surprisingly, this was the lead single from the album. Less surprisingly, it wasn’t a hit.
Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long) is a mournful acoustic ballad that features Robin Lane on harmony vocals. She was married to Andy Summers, future member of The Police, at the time. “How slow and slow and slow it goes” indeed.
The side closes with an epic guitar-heavy track that does not outstay its welcome, much like the end of the flipside, with this song also propelled by its booming bass line.
Down By The River features some stunning staccato, remarkably unshowy, guitar solos, and distortion. It’s no wonder Sonic Youth professed themselves to be such huge fans of Neil Young when you listen to a song like this.
Personally, if there’s one thing I usually hate nearly as much as drum solos or bass solos, it’s guitar solos. But this song has a series of utterly thrilling ones that help to make the nine minutes fly by and cover for the lyrics that are partly about murder.
The countrified The Losing End (When You’re On) that kicks off side two is another song about lost love with great loping bass work from Billy Talbot. Sadly, it also features a very silly redneck vocal line in the middle.
Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets) is ushered in by Bobby Notkoff on mournful violin, who died late last year. The Rockets was the former name of Crazy Horse, under which name they released an eponymous album in 1968.
The record closes with Cowgirl In The Sand. This breaks the ten-minute barrier, but doesn’t waste any of that time, kicking off with one of several excellent, diverse guitar solos and including some lovely harmony vocals from the band (including drummer Ralph Molina), like many of the tracks on this record.
Neil claimed this song was about his impression of “beaches in Spain”, despite never having visited the country at that point. However, it seems to be more of an accusation about an unfaithful woman (or perhaps several women).
This song was immediately seen as a highpoint of the album, receiving an iconic cover version on The Byrds’ 1973 reunion album that dials up the country elements but cuts back on the guitar solos.
The album garnered generally positive reviews upon release, with Bruce Miroff of Rolling Stone saying it “offers ample rewards. Young‘s music partially makes up for its lack of grace by its energy and its assurance”, despite claiming that “in several respects [the album]falls short of his previous effort”.
Apart from the copious use of brackets, another highlight of this record is the grainy cover photo that includes Neil’s dog Winnipeg, named after his home town in Canada.
This record made the Top 40 in the US, amassing a total of 98 weeks in the Top 200, and eventually being certified platinum. It didn’t make the charts in the UK, with his first hit here being September 1970’s excellent After The Goldrush, his next solo album.
However, before Goldrush, there was still time for another iconic LP in Déjà Vu, the first release by the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young quartet, one of the biggest smash hits of Neil’s career, and one of whose (many) highlights was his Helpless, later memorably covered by Nick Cave.
Sadly, he didn’t play a single cut off Everybody Knows when he came to the Echo Arena in July 2014, with Cowgirl In The Sand the only one to be performed at the Empire Theatre in November 1973, so the good folks of Liverpool have been unable to see the vast majority of this record performed in front of us.
The album, and Young’s entire career really, remains a major influence on a whole raft of artists who don’t simply kowtow to the commercial demands of record companies or their audiences.