So today I'm going to post a bunch of different versions of "Mr. Soul", one of Young's earliest songs and one he has revisited and reworked many times throughout his career. The song's instrumental hook (lifted from the Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction") and vocal melody are both easily recognised, but also simple enough to be endlessly adaptable. The somewhat inscrutable lyrics seem to be a wary rumination on the pressures of fame, a common subject for Young in his early years.
Young wrote the song in 1967 and presented it to Buffalo Springfield with the intent that it be the lead single from the band's forthcoming second album. The band rejected it as a single on the grounds that it sounded too much like "Satisfaction", making it the lead-off track on the album instead and selecting one of Stephen Stills's compositions as the single.
Young seems to have devoted quite a lot of energy over the years to proving that "Mr. Soul" is a more lasting and resilient composition than "Bluebird". Actually that's probably not his primary motive in revisiting the song as much as he has, but don't think it hasn't crossed his mind. The perceived slight was one of the first of many that would drive Young to leave the band several times over the following eighteen months or so.
The original version of the song is short and quick, driven by Dewey Martin's insistent snare beat. The multiple lead guitar tracks make the first sonic impression before the main riff comes in, and the vocals begin soon after. Even with the band's energetic performance, the song's dark tone proves impossible to mask.
Posted below is an alternate take of the version that appears on Again, the only notable difference being the guitar solos in the middle. I found this version online somewhere, and have no idea where it's from. The box set I assume, but I can't say for sure.
Buffalo Springfield -
"Mr. Soul (non-LP version)"
Young first revisited the song just a couple years later with Crosby, Stills & Nash. This recording is purportedly from a rehearsal session preparing the band for their Woodstock appearance. Here Young attempts to slow it down and draw out some of the song's paranoia, but the new rhythm feels forced. The vocals drag and some of their power is lost. Still, his willingness to take a song that works quite well as it is and risk diluting its power by playing it in a different style is telling, especially at this early stage. No idea where this is from by the way, it's just another one I found online.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young -
"Mr. Soul (Woodstock rehearsal)"
And um... I don't want to get too into Trans right now because I'm going to cover it in detail on Monday. Call this a teaser. This is the extended mix, presumably from a 12" single, of Young's most radical reimagining of one of his own songs yet.
Neil Young -
"Mr. Soul (extended dance remix)"
Following his comeback in the early 90s, Young went through a period in which he revisited his entire body of work several times. He toured with Crazy Horse (and got another double-live album out of it in the process), as a solo artist, and with Booker T and the MGs, all in the space of a few years, each time playing setlists that spanned his career. "Mr. Soul" turned up in a new incarnation on each of those tours, usually in a menacing, bluesy form. The version below is from 1993's MTV Unplugged album, which boasts an impressively diverse set list and some intense, arresting performances. This is the slowest and sparest of all the versions of "Mr. Soul" from that era, and certainly the most powerful. Here Young seems to have finally achieved the ominous tone he may have been aiming for way back at that Woodstock rehearsal. Or maybe he's just getting old.
Neil Young -
"Mr. Soul (acoustic)"