How Neil Young Survived the ’80s
Neil Young's '80s pretty much amounted to one long f--- you. To his record company. To his fans. And to his career.
He had done things like this before. And after. But the '80s, in particular, were Young's middle finger (or two) to everyone around him. For a while, especially in the late '70s ramping up to the new decade, he played nice. Or at least he seemed to.
There were albums like Comes a Time and Rust Never Sleeps that sounded enough like the Neil Young the record company and fans were familiar with and wanted: the Neil Young who made albums like After the Gold Rush and Harvest. He ended the decade maybe not at the peak of his popularity, but pretty close to it. Everyone was happy – even, supposedly, Young.
Then came the '80s.
These are the albums Young released between 1980 and 1989:
Nine albums, 10 years. How many of them do you still listen to? How many of them have you even heard? Besides maybe Freedom, probably not too many. You might be familiar with Trans, the 1982 album that was made primarily with electronic instruments and heavy use of the vocoder. Chances are, however, you never sat all the way through it.
You also might know a little about This Note's for You because the title track ended up on MTV for a while, but only after it stirred up some controversy and was initially banned by the music network. But chances are, again, you haven't heard the whole album.
And you wouldn't want to. For the most part. You could probably put together a not-terrible playlist of maybe a dozen or 15 songs from all of these albums. But there's not a whole lot here worth salvaging. Things got so bad at one point, Young's record company – he started on one, went to another and returned to the first one by the end of the decade – sued him for not making Neil Young albums that sounded like, you guessed it, Neil Young.
In other words, Neil Young spent the '80s doing exactly what you'd expect him to do: the unexpected.
Listen to Neil Young's "Southern Pacific" From 'Re-ac-tor'
While other artists from his generation used the decade, especially the first half of it, to play catch-up to the latest wave of musicians by trying on new clothes, hairstyles, instruments and ways of getting their work to as many people as possible, Young did what he pleased.
He made a record made up of leftover songs (Hawks & Doves). He made a couple records with longtime backing band Crazy Horse (like Re-ac-tor). He made New Wave, country and R&B records (Trans, Old Ways and This Note's for You, respectively). What he didn't do was cave in to pressure. Even the straight-up rock 'n' roll album he delivered to his record company when it demanded one (the rockabilly throwback Everybody's Rockin') was a smart-ass response connected to an era most of his fans' parents couldn't remember.
The '80s started pretty typically for Young. In November 1980, he released Hawks & Doves, a barely less-than-30-minute LP consisting of several songs dating back to 1974. Some new tracks were included too, but the album is best heard as one of Young's closet-cleaning projects, like Tonight's the Night, American Stars 'n Bars and Rust Never Sleeps, all of which included material left over from previous records.
Re-ac-tor, released almost exactly a year later, was his first Crazy Horse collaboration of the decade. There were two or three more, depending on how much they played on 1982's Trans, Young's next album and probably the most confounding of his long, complex career.
Watch Neil Young Perform "Sample and Hold" From 'Trans'
Young said the record – which included synthesizers, as well as Young running his voice through a pitch-altering vocoder on many cuts – was a means of communicating with his disabled son, who has cerebral palsy and cannot speak. The technology-themed album fit the tone of the music: cold, distancing and almost inhuman at times. It's a challenging work, and one that perfectly plays into Young's restless and risk-taking artist reputation. But, unfortunately for Young, it was also his first work to be released on Geffen Records, which was expecting a more traditional-sounding album from its new client.
It never got one.
Trans was savaged by critics and fans. The record company was annoyed. And Young was unswayed in his determination to do whatever he damn well pleased. He next planned a country record, Old Ways, but his bosses balked and ordered a rock 'n' roll album – the sort of "Neil Young album" they signed up for and reportedly paid him major money to make.
Young's response? Everybody's Rockin', a rock 'n' roll album straight out of 1958, complete with reverb, cornball backing vocals and a track listing comprised of covers and new rockabilly-inspired originals that was as far removed from Trans as Trans was from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
He sported slicked-back hair, a pink suit and a newly assembled backing band, the Shocking Pinks, for the occasion. After getting a whiff of the songs, Geffen canceled further sessions, and the album was released in August 1983 – unfinished, according to Young – clocking in at less than 25 minutes.
Watch Neil Young's Video for "Wonderin'" From 'Everybody's Rockin''
In November, after the album not so surprisingly tanked, the label sued Young for $3.3 million, claiming he was delivering uncommercial and "musically uncharacteristic" records. Young countersued for $21 million, saying Geffen was in breach of contract with their demands and that he was promised creative freedom.
Young eventually won and even received an apology from David Geffen himself. When he returned with his next record in 1985, it was a restructured version of the country album he originally made in 1983. Bearing the same title, Old Ways, the record mixed new songs with some recorded for the earlier LP. And, to hardly anyone's surprise, again, it was a commercial disaster. To this day, it remains, along with Life, which would arrive two years later, his worst-charting album ever.
Sometime during this period, Young co-directed Human Highway, a comedy movie in which he starred along with Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper (both of whom would receive huge career boosts in a few years thanks to David Lynch's Blue Velvet, but neither exactly at the top of his game here), as well as members of Devo. Very few people saw it.
More people did see Young out on the road. He toured in support of Trans, Everybody's Rockin' and Old Ways, where he mixed new songs with old ones the fans came to hear. He also made a few videos, bowing to the era's demands, but MTV didn't rush to put any of them in heavy rotation. He also showed up at Live Aid in 1985, joining Crosby, Stills & Nash onstage in Philadelphia for the quartet's first appearance in more than 10 years.
Watch Neil Young's Video for "Cry, Cry, Cry" From 'Everybody's Rockin''
Ironically, Young's next two albums – and last for Geffen – were much closer to what the record company wanted and expected from him. Still, 1986's Landing on Water and the following year's Life, recorded with Crazy Horse, failed to pick up many new fans or lure back the ones who left after Trans confused the hell out of them.
He returned to Reprise Records, the label that released his self-titled solo debut all the way back in 1969, for 1988's This Note's for You. But he was soon mired in another lawsuit, this time with R&B bandleader Harold Melvin, whose '70s group the Blue Notes (responsible for such timeless songs as "If You Don't Know Me by Now" and "Wake Up Everybody") shared a name with Young's new horn-assisted backing band. Young was forced to change their name to Ten Men Working midway through yet another tour.
Thanks to the album's title track, or more accurately, its video, This Note's for You became the closest thing Young had to a hit in years. Even with MTV refusing to play the clip at first – images of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston lookalikes plus the name-dropping of some major advertisers in the anti-commercial video didn't sit well with execs – didn't stop its momentum. When the network's Video Music Awards rolled around the next year, "This Note's for You" snagged the coveted video of the year award.
Watch Neil Young's Video for 'This Note's for You'
The same year he released This Note's for You, Young reunited with Crosby, Stills & Nash for American Dream, the quartet's follow-up to 1970's Deja Vu. It was part of a deal Young made with David Crosby, who told his old bandmate he'd sober up if they could make another record together. A tour wasn't part of the deal, but the group did play a couple of benefit concerts at the time.
Then Young made his most Neil Young-sounding album in a decade, Freedom. The 1989 album, like the one he made 10 years earlier, Rust Never Sleeps, was bookended by acoustic and electric versions of the same song. In this case, "Rockin' in the Free World," his first real classic track of the '80s. It took the first Bush administration to bring him to this point. (Throughout the '80s, Young was dogged by claims that his support for some of President Reagan's policies made him a right-wing conservative and a traitor to the hippie aesthetic he embraced earlier in his career; he later clarified that he thought some of Reagan's ideas weren't outright terrible – a fine distinction, he insisted.)
Thematically, Freedom was a lot like Rust Never Sleeps too, from the mix of electric and acoustic songs to political subject matter to the fact that it couldn't be easily labeled as an electronic album or a rockabilly album or a country album or anything at all, really. Young ended the '80s the way he should have started them: as one of rock music's most vital artists.
Watch Neil Young's Video for "Rockin' in the Free World" From 'Freedom'
He entered the '90s with new vigor. With grunge's mainstream infiltration right around the corner, Young became an elder icon of the movement, adapted by bands like Pearl Jam (who covered "Rockin' in the Free World" and recorded with Young) as a rock 'n' roll deity.
Young made a string of albums – starting with 1990's Ragged Glory, another Crazy Horse collaboration and one his all-time greatest records, through 1995's Mirror Ball, that Pearl Jam collaboration – that nearly rivaled his '70s work.
So what to make of the '80s? What exactly happened? Good question.
Young doesn't think of the decade as a particularly bad one. On the contrary. "The '80s were really good," he says in the 2009 documentary Neil Young: Don't Be Denied. "The '80s were like, artistically, very strong for me, because I knew no boundaries and was experimenting with everything that I could come across, sometimes with great success, sometimes with terrible results, but nonetheless I was able to do this, and I was able to realize that I wasn't in a box, and I wanted to establish that."
Young achieved that – and more – in one of his most creatively restless and experimental phases. Or, to look at it another way, one man's freedom is another's middle finger.
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