Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Neil Young: The Geffen Years

I'm a little more than halfway through my project of evaluating and ranking the entire Neil Young discography. Since I'm working through the albums roughly chronologically, that means I'm just reaching 1990 right now. That also means I've made it through the Geffen years, not an easy task if you're familiar with Young's entire body of work.

In case you're not, Neil Young's Geffen years were the period from 1982 to 1987 during which he produced five somewhat experimental and highly controversial albums for Geffen Records. There's much more to the story, of course, but I'm not going to get into it. Suffice it to say, Geffen was not pleased with Neil and was happy to let him return to his old label, Reprise Records, upon the completion of his contract.

5. "Sample and Hold" (Trans)
Young's experimentation with electronic music, including the use of a vocoder to synthesize his voice, seems much less questionable when you realize his motivations for doing so. Years after its release, Young revealed some of the songs on Trans are intended to represent the difficulty his youngest son, Ben, disabled due to severe cerebral palsy, has with communication. While there are a few misses on that album, this is one of the songs that hits the mark.

4. "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" (Old Ways)
I first heard this song during Neil's 1993 Farm Aid performance, which I still have on VHS somewhere. Neil was in rare form that night, drinking a beer on stage and spewing some particularly vitriolic criticisms at Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy. Willie Nelson guests on the album version, and also joins him onstage for the Farm Aid performance.

Although it has nothing to do with Young's Geffen years, you can get a taste of that Farm Aid 1993 performance, as Young and Nelson perform "Farmer's Song," a tune that only appears on album as "Last of His Kind (The Farm Aid Song)" on the 1999 Farm Aid Volume One compilation.

3. "Old Ways" (Old Ways)
Old Ways was the only album during the Geffen years that wasn't out of character for Young. Unfortunately, it was a mostly unsuccessful attempt at straight-up country. In fact, he and his band, the International Harvesters, do a much better job of channeling their country energy on the long lost but recently released live album, A Treasure. Still, Old Ways had its moments, and the title track was the best one of all, in my opinion.

2. "Transformer Man" (Trans)
It should be obvious, at this point, that Trans and Old Ways were my two favorite Neil Young albums from this period. I'll admit I like the version of this song that appears on 1993's Unplugged even  better, but the original recording was the high point of Young's first Geffen release.

1. "Mideast Vacation" (Life)
Although it might seem like a questionable choice for #1 on this list, "Mideast Vacation" has been my favorite song from this era ever since I first picked up a copy of the compilation Lucky Thirteen. Since it's a difficult song to describe, I'll leave you with this live version—which is basically a video, except without the video—from the 1986 "3rd Best Garage Band in the World" tour:


  1. I happen to like "Old Ways" a lot. Probably helps that I have it on audiophile (Mobile Fidelity) vinyl. The album is recorded beautifully. I love "Once An Angel", and "Misfits" is dreamy, bizarre, and deeply moving - an audiophile's dream.

  2. Well Joey, I can't claim to be an audiophile, so it's possible you're hearing nuances in the music that I'm not. Like I said, I think Old Ways has its moments, but I'm not as big a fan as you are, obviously.