The success of Neil Young’s 1972 album, Harvest, seemed to catch most of those in the music industry off guard. Upon its release, it received a lukewarm reception from the press. Rolling Stone’s John Mendelsohn, accused the album of being regressive and uninspired, commenting: ‘It’s as if he just added a steel guitar and new words to [Young’s 1970 album] After the Gold Rush’. Canadian publication The Montreal Gazette, meanwhile, went as far as to describe Harvest as ‘embarrassing’.
Young himself was something of a stranger to commercial fame. Although his previous album had peaked at number 8 on the billboard charts, its singles, ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, and ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’, had languished at 33 and 93 respectively. Perhaps understandably then, he was as surprised as anyone else when Harvest, with its blend of country, rock and catchy melodic hooks, became the best selling album of the year, and produced him his first, and, to date, only number 1 single, ‘Heart of Gold’.
The album, he would later comment, ‘put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch’. Over the next 3 years, Young’s musical output would become increasingly dark, despondent, introspective, troubled and menacing. The albums, 1973’s Time Fades Away, 1974’s On the Beach, and 1975’s Tonight’s the Night, explored the themes of death and destruction in an array of musical styles. These works, which became known as Young’s ‘Ditch Trilogy’, were strongly influenced by his personal troubles at the time: the uneasiness he felt towards the success of Harvest, and the passing of his roadie and friend, Bruce Berry, and of Danny Whitten, guitarist in Young’s backing band, Crazy Horse.
While Young was experiencing such personal tragedy, he was writing songs for Time Fades Away, the follow-up to Harvest which would prove to be an evolutionary step in Young’s artistic output. The album was recorded entirely live, giving it a rough, unproduced feel. While audiences at the time were no strangers to recordings of live performances, it was practically unheard of for an artist to release an entire LP of unreleased work in this way. It was, at once, a bold, experimental move, and a deliberate attempt to alienate his new-found fans. Looking back retrospectively, the gamble worked. Although many of Young’s audience, including critics, were initially hostile to Time Fades Away, it has come to be regarded as one of his finest albums (even if Young has since distanced himself from it).
Musically, it is perhaps On the Beach (recorded after Tonight’s the Night but released before it) which represents the most radical departure in sound from Young’s earlier work. During the recording process, Young alienated his sound engineers by selecting under-produced, scratchy, often decidedly lo-fi mixes of his songs. Tracks such as ‘See The Sky About to Rain’, make use of a Wurlitzer electric piano with an eery, pulsating treble tone, as a fuzzy bass guitar plods along underneath and a crackling, unsteady steel guitar self-consciously sings overhead. Meanwhile, both the faint patter of the drums in the background of ‘Motion Pictures’ and the cheesewire fiddle on the harrowing epic, ‘Ambulance Blues’ recall the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ more than the folk-rock sound of Harvest.
Tonight’s the Night is similarly crude in its production, retaining an almost live feel. On ‘Mellow My Mind’, Young’s trademark falsetto vocals are strained to the point that he physically cannot reach the highest notes. Several of the songs feel unstructured, while lyrically, the verse of ‘Tired Eyes’, sounds like an improvised spoken-word performance. This rough finish gives the album a harsh edge that was at odds with the high-production values on much of the popular music of the time. Explaining why he opted for this approach, Young commented:
‘I’ve made records where you analyze everything you do 3,000 times and it’s perfect. I’m sick of it. I want to make a record that’s totally stark naked. Raw. I don’t wanna fix any of it. I don’t care if it’s totally out of tune, man, let’s play. Fuck it…. I like the idea of capturing something. Record something that happened. I’m a musician. I don’t wanna sit there and build a record. I built a couple of records. Big deal. Tonight’s the Night doesn’t care. And that makes you feel good about it. There’s no pretense.’
While the three albums represent a conscious decision to move away from the radio-friendly, popular sound of Harvest, they also have their roots buried firmly in the album. Side B’s ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ directly addressed his friend and colleague Whitten’s drug use. Today, as Young’s vocals hovers above his lone acoustic guitar, the line ‘But every junkie’s/like a settin’ sun.’ seems uncannily prescient. Within a year, Whitten had died of an overdose.
It was Tonight’s the Night that dealt with the pain of Berry and Whitten’s deaths most directly. The first and last tracks, ‘Tonight’s the Night’ and ‘Tonight’s the Night, Pt. II’, explicitly reference how Berry ‘died out on the mainline’. By bookending the album with acoustic and electric versions of the same song (a technique he also used in 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps and 1989’s Freedom) Young ensures that Berry’s presence haunts the album: he watches over, and looks back upon, the entire work.
Similarly, around half-way through the album sits a live performance of ‘Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown’. The central positioning of the song and the way in which Young’s vocals intertwine with Whitten’s reflect the importance of the Crazy Horse guitarist in Young’s life during the period. The two had enjoyed a long-lasting musical partnership, having first appeared together on ‘Cinnamon Girl’ from Young’s 1970 album Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. However, by the time Harvest had been released, Whitten’s heroin addiction had grown out of control, and his creative input during the recording process had suffered. A dissatisfied Young fired him from the band, handing him $50 to buy a plane ticket back to Los Angeles. That night, Whitten died of an overdose, having spent the severance money on drugs. ‘That night the coroner called me and told me he’d ODed. That blew my mind. Fucking blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible’, Young later commented.
Young’s output from this period also highlights a wider, deeper dissatisfaction with society. In ‘Walk On’ (from On the Beach), Young touches on two themes that he explores on all three albums: his opinions about his critics, and his position as an outsider. ‘I hear some people/ Been talkin’ me down’ he sings. ‘Ooh baby,/ That’s hard to change./ I can’t tell them/ How to feel’.
‘Revolution Blues’ (also from On the Beach) continues this theme. Singing in the first-person about a group of misfits living on the edge of society (who, it has been suggested rather disturbingly, were the Manson family), Young positions himself on the periphery, and isolates himself from famous celebrities. ‘I hate them worse/ Than lepers/ And I’ll kill them/ In their cars’ he sings menacingly. On the album’s eponymous track ‘On the Beach’, a downbeat and contemplative Young tells of feeling trapped and claustrophobic, noting the bitter irony of his situation: ‘I need a crowd of people,/ but I can’t face them day to day’. This concept is extended in Tonight’s the Night. In the track ‘Albuquerque’ Young fantasises about driving through the New Mexico desert and getting away from the people who surround him: ‘I’ve been starvin’ to be alone/ And independent from the scene’.
Much like Pulp’s This is Hardcore, which, released some two decades later, captured the inevitable come-down after the hedonistic Brit-rock years, Tonight’s the Night documents, with some nostalgia and sadness, the demise of the hippy-era. It is the barn-stomping, ivory-bashing, country-fringed ‘Roll Another Number (For The Road)’ that perhaps best encapsulates Young’s sense of disillusionment. On it, he sings: ‘I’m not goin’ back/ to Woodstock for a while,/ Though I long to hear/ That lonesome hippy smile./ I’m a million miles away/ From that helicopter day./ No, I don’t believe/ I’ll be goin’ back that way’.
On ‘Ambulance Blues’, he sings wistfully that ‘Back in the old folky days/ The air was magic when we played/The Riverboat was rockin’/In the rain’. The Riverboat was a café in Toronto’s Yorkville area which had played an important role in the city’s counter-culture scene of the 1960s. However, when Young wrote the song, the area was becoming increasingly gentrified and its radical past was little more than a distant memory. It is a process that continues even today – the area is now home to some of the most exclusive, upmarket shops and restaurants in Toronto.
Likewise, on ‘Borrowed Tune’, he highlights the gap between the utopian ideals of the 1960s, and the cold reality of the 1970s, a chasm caused by a number of factors, but solidified by the experience of the Vietnam War. Successive Presidents’ foreign policies had dragged the US deeper into a war it could not win, resulting in nearly 60,000 US casualties and a bitterly divided domestic front. Young ironically notes that with his ‘head in the clouds’ he can ‘look out on peaceful lands/ With no war nearby’.
Also in ‘Ambulance Blues’, Young offers his opinion on the Watergate scandal, which dominated the press during the early 1970s. As the scale of Nixon and his advisers’ misconduct was slowly revealed, it served to cement the already-sceptical public’s cynical attitude towards politicians. Commenting on Nixon’s duplicitous nature, Young sings: ‘I never knew a man/could tell so many lies/He had a different story/for every set of eyes/How can he remember/who he’s talking to?/Cause I know it ain’t me,/and hope it isn’t you.’
Young is therefore interested in how the world changes as time passes, and his pessimistic conclusions lend a further layer of gloominess to an already morbid series of work.
Young also uses his music to examine time on a more personal level: that is, his past. This theme is examined most comprehensively in Time Fades Away. In ‘Journey Through the Past’ Young explores the physical separation from his home in Canada that he experiences on the road, and of the memories that surface when he thinks about this fragmentary relationship. In ‘Don’t be Denied’, he delves deeper into the past, and tells of how he was geographically uprooted when his parents split up, and moved from the Toronto area to Winnipeg, over 2000km away. As the song progresses, Young briskly tells his life story, recalling how he moved to Hollywood with his band, looking to get signed. He ends with a warning about the exploitation of artists by greedy record labels: ‘And I’m a pauper/in a naked disguise/A millionaire/through a business man’s eyes.’
The key to the whole album, however, is its finale, ‘Last Dance’, a heavy track that clocks in at just under 9 minutes. On the album’s eponymous opening track, Young sings ‘Son, don’t wait/till the break of day/’Cause you know/how time fades away’. Now he yells, exasperated: ‘the sun’s comin’ up./Its been up for hours/and hours and hours/And hours and hours and hours/It’s been up for hours/and hours and hours’. Lyrically and thematically, the two tracks bleed together, with the father’s words from the former seeming prophetic in the latter. Life is reduced to a repetitive, monotonous series of actions: wake up on a Monday morning (it’s always Monday in Young’s world); go to work; come home.
As the song progresses, it degenerates into a Black Sabbath-style riff, set to a wall of feedback. Musically, the song wants to resolve itself and reaches towards a perfect cadence, but Young won’t let it: ‘no no no’ he yells in frustration, before hammering out the abortive guitar part. Both musically and lyrically, Young shows time to be a continuous loop. For him, there is only hopelessness.
The ‘Ditch Trilogy’ then, is a series of three albums that are sonically very diverse, but are bound together thematically. They represent a period of immense creativity for Young as an artist and a conscious attempt to distance himself from mainstream success. Moreover, they reflect a very personal attempt to make sense of a world that was rapidly changing: from the deaths of Whitten and Berry, to the demise of the hippy culture of the 1960s. And that is perhaps why these albums turned out to be so great: Young didn’t make them to please anyone except himself. As his writing, etched on the vinyl copy of Tonight’s the Night said: I’m sorry. You don’t know these people. This means nothing to you’.