Monday, September 3, 2007

Buffalo Springfield

Grab a seat, kids; it's time to learn about Neil Young. Young was probably my "favourite ever" in college, i.e., back when it would occur to me to rank those sort of things. I'm going to spend the next several weeks posting a lesser-known track or two from every Young album I own until they run out (I'm pretty sure I'm complete through the early 80s). Take notes. I don't have any Mynah Birds records, so we'll start with Young's Buffalo Springfield years, which is appropriate since the band recorded three albums.

Springfield's formation is one of the most oft-repeated legends of 60s-rock history; I'll run through it here once more. Stephen Stills had met Young years before, but they lost touch. Young drove down from Canada to Los Angeles in a hearse, hoping to find his fortune in the music business. Stuck in a typical LA traffic jam, Stills spied a hearse, thought it might be Young, walked over to see. It was indeed Young, they started a band, history etc.

Buffalo Springfield jumped right into the industry hype machine and became a widely celebrated act for a brief period before breaking up. It was a classic case of too many talented songwriters in one band. Lennon-McCartney, Mould-Hart, Kember-Pierce; you know the drill. They remain celebrated as one of the 60s great coulda-been stories, a band that released a few solid albums but seemed capable of so much more.

Their first, self-titled album is the sound of a young band searching for an identity. Folk-y chord changes and vocal harmonies mingle awkwardly with crude psychedelic guitar effects. Young is credited with composing five of the album's twlve cuts (Stills supplies the other seven) but, curiously, sings only two. The other three are sung by future Poco frontman Richie Furay. It's easy to picture Young being nudged out of the vocal booth due to his, shall we say, unconventional singing chops, but in hindsight he seems rather savvy in in his selection of keepers. "Burned" and "Out Of My Mind" are among the album's most memorable cuts, while the other three are rather pedestrian folk-rock cuts that he may have been more than happy to surrender. Of the three, only "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" made it into Young's later set lists; the other two he seems happy to let go.

Of those, "Flying On the Ground Is Wrong" is the keeper, an MOR soft-rock cut with a marvelous minor-chord change at the start of the chorus. But that bridge, ugh, what a wet blanket. It's followed immediately by "Burned", one of Young's best early tunes, which he says in the liner notes to Decade was his first studio vocal performance, one which he took a handful of uppers to get himself ready for.

The truly revelatory find here is "Out Of My Mind", a flawed but intriguing track that points the way to his subsequent late-60s work. It's not a great song, but it's an interesting experiment that shows Young was more than just a folkie with an amp. The sweeping, dramatic chord changes (in particular the E major chord at the beginning of the song and each verse) reveal a restless creative mind drawing influence from a pool far wider than that of the average LA folk musician of the era. Young's remaining work in the late 60s, through his first solo album, would find him exploring a majestic, orchestral sound to which he would never return despite the many stylistic transformations he would explore throughout his career. And it all begins here.

It's interesting to note the lines

All I hear are screams

From outside the limousine

Young seems to be complaining about the alienating effects of fame before he even became famous. This from an artist who was well known for his retreat from the public eye in the 80s, when many of his generational peers were cashing in.

Ironically enough, the guitar solo in "Out Of My Mind" is awful. It's not even clear if Young actually played it, but I'll bet he did. Oh well, at the very least one can argue that the simple follow-the-melody-line format inspired Kurt Cobain.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Buffalo Springfield - "Flying On the Ground Is Wrong" and "Out Of My Mind"

No comments: