In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1972: Neil Young’s Harvest
The history of pop music is filled with artists that get big in the mainstream even though by design they were never meant to conquer the mainstream. One factor for this is an artist making a conscious move towards the mainstream from a genre or scene not exactly known for mainstream success. This may mean sacrificing your true artistic identity and making uncharacteristic music that’ll catch on with people who wouldn’t listen to your music otherwise. Another factor is that sometimes the mainstream comes to you. You may not have changed your music but the stars align perfectly in the cultural zeitgeist where you catch on with a large number of people. It’s that type of newfound massive success that often scares artists. Many times they’re fine with being outside the mainstream but now have to contend with a new spotlight put on them. That’s a big adjustment to deal with which is why many times we see these artists feel uncomfortable with this newfound fame.
One artist who fits into the later is Neil Young. Not that Young wasn’t a mainstream artist to begin with. He had started in two successful groups that garnered major hits that spoke to their generation. But in the early ‘70s, Young was branching off on his own making music that may have sold copies and gotten critical attention but weren’t all that concerned with hit singles and chart success. Young wasn’t going to follow the crowd. But for a moment in 1972, Neil Young was it. His fourth album Harvest became a massive success overshadowing everything else he did going four times platinum and spending two weeks at #1 on Billboard’s albums chart outsell the year-old Tapestry by Carole King. The funny thing about it all is that it’s an album that was recorded in a very impromptu manner.
Neil Young was only 26 when he released Harvest in February 1972 but he already had done quite a lot in a short time. Born in Toronto, his childhood was marked by illness suffering from epilepsy, Type 1 diabetes, and polio during the last moments in time when people were still getting polio. His parents divorced when he was a teenager settling with his mother in Winnipeg where he began his music career playing in several local rock bands. One of those bands, the Squires, notched a local hit with “The Sultan.” Outside of his groups, Young began writing folk songs and connected with fellow songwriters Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell. One of his folk songs, “Flying on the Ground is Wrong” became a Top 40 Canadian hit for the Guess Who later of “American Woman” fame.
In 1966, Young moved back to Toronto where he joined the Mynah Birds which featured Rick James on bass. (Yes that Rick James) The group signed to Motown Records and were recording their first album for the label when James got arrested for being AWOL from the US Navy quickly ending the band. After that, Young and his Mynah Birds bandmate Bruce Palmer bought a Pontiac hearse with the money they got from selling the band’s equipment using it to drive to Los Angeles for a new start where Young reunited with Stills. Together with Palmer and Stills’ friend Richie Fury, they formed Buffalo Springfield.
Buffalo Springfield only lasted a couple of years but they quickly became favorites in the growing counterculture and folk-rock movement of the ‘60s netting a Top 10 hit with the misinterpreted but legendary protest song “For What It’s Worth” peaking at #7. Band tensions quickly dominated the group leading to its breakup in 1968 and Neil Young soon going off on his solo career. He released his self-titled debut in 1969 to little impact but started to gain traction with his follow up Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the first album he recorded with his longtime backing band Crazy Horse. The album went platinum and yielded the classic rock staple “Cinnamon Girl.”
Young reunited again with Stills by joining his new folk group Crosby, Stills & Nash now called Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performing at Woodstock and on the group’s second album Deja Vu. He also wrote “Ohio,” the famous protest anthem written in the aftermath of the Kent State Massacre which became a #14 hit for the group. After splitting from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Young continued on with his solo career releasing After The Gold Rush which went two times platinum with the single “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” peaking at #33.
It was during that time when Young embarked on a sold-out solo acoustic tour playing his current songs as well as new songs he had written. One of his stops on that tour was The Johnny Cash Show in February 1971 where he performed his new song “The Needle And The Damage Done” inspired by the heroin addiction of one of his Crazy Horse bandmates. Unknowing to him, that appearance would change his career in a big way.
The show’s producer Eliot Mazer invited Young to record new music at the recording studio he had just opened in Nashville, Quadrafonic Sound Studio. Young liked the group of Nashville session musicians known as Area Code 615 who backed up Bob Dylan on his albums Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline and wanted to record with them. The only problem: it was a Saturday and session players usually didn’t record on weekends. Right away, Mazer managed to get drummer Kenny Buttrey from Area Code 615 along with a few other veteran country session players many not knowing anything about Neil Young. Within hours, Young and the musicians were recording together in the studio putting down much of Harvest’s tracks in a few days.
Mazer recalled the recording process for Harvest being very simple and straightforward, “He’d just play us each song and we’d discuss the arrangements. Then we went right to work. It felt great in that room right away; we were all totally impressed with Neil and the songs he’d brought in.” The songs were recorded in a few takes with Young and the band performing live within five feet of each other with little overdubs and studio effects. Young also brought in fellow artists James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt who were in town performing on the same Johnny Cash Show episode. The two of them sing backing vocals on “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” with Taylor also playing banjo on the latter song. His old bandmates from Crosby, Stills & Nash also contribute backing vocals on the tracks “Are You Ready For The Country?,” “Alabama,” and “Words.”
After Nashville, Young recorded Harvest in two other locations. In London while on tour, Young cut two songs “A Man Needs A Maid” and “There’s A World” with the London Symphony Orchestra. The electric guitar tracks were recorded at a barn on Young’s California ranch. The only non-studio song on Harvest, “The Needle And The Damage Done,” was from a live performance at UCLA in January 1971, a week before his Johnny Cash appearance.
Harvest not only became Neil Young’s biggest selling album but also launched two Top 40 singles. The first one, “Heart of Gold,” was the big hit reaching #1 on the Hot 100 in March 1972 while its other single “Old Man” peaked at #31. This kind of success had to have been crazy for an album largely recorded in an inorganic fashion by an artist who wasn’t concerned with commercial success. And yet Harvest manages to be as a solid album beyond all expectations.
Listening to Harvest, you don’t get the impression that it was recorded by a group of musicians who hadn’t known each other before recording. Despite the spontaneous nature of the album, Young and the band perform as a solid unit bringing a casual looseness that makes it feel like they’ve always been performing together. That might just be because despite coming from differing backgrounds, Young and the band were after all experienced musicians who knew how to take direction. The session musicians were capable enough of cutting several tracks in a short amount of time. They proved to be a great match for each other.
Neil Young’s singing on Harvest compliments the music a lot. In his review of “Heart of Gold,” Stereogum’s Tom Breihan made a good point that while Young always saw himself as a Bob Dylan than a Hank Williams, his nasally tenor whine of a voice made him very convincing in the latter. What also helps is that while Young was in his mid-20s when recording Harvest, he always sounded much older bringing a sensitive reflective delivery on love and life. That alongside the spare acoustic guitars and pedal steel murmurs on most of the songs lend a great country tinge to the otherwise folk and rock dominated record. No one was going to mistake Neil Young for an actual country artist but it’s not hard to imagine him as such.
Lyrically, most of Harvest is Neil Young reflecting on life and the desire to settle down amidst his growing fame describing in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits that his music is about “the frustrations of not being able to attain what you want.” We see it in the big hits. “Heart of Gold” is Young singing about finding a girl to settle down with saying he’s been from Hollywood to Redwood crossing the ocean and mining for that special someone while lamenting about growing old. In “Old Man,” Young sings to the older generation that while they might be different in age they share the same fundamental feelings of love and loneliness. You wouldn’t expect a young artist to sing about these subjects but it makes sense when you consider the life Young had lived up to that point as well as the fact that he suffered a serious back injury forcing him to perform sitting down, “I recorded most of Harvest in a brace. That’s a lot of the reason it’s such a mellow album. I couldn’t physically play an electric guitar.”
Another major aspect of Neil Young’s music is loud heavy songs with distorted guitars often over political lyrics. It doesn’t show up a lot on Harvest but the closest we get is “Alabama,” a song where Young decries racism in the South at a time when it was dealing with the after-effects of Jim Crow segregation. This along with a previous anti-racism song “Southern Man” inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd to write their 1974 classic “Sweet Home Alabama,” “I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.” Young later came out regretting “Alabama” stating in his 2012 book Waging Heavy Peace, “Alabama’ richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don’t like my words when I listen to it today. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, too easy to misconstrue.”
At the time, critics were largely dismissive of Harvest in the same way critics are to an album that pushes an artist into the mainstream stating it wasn’t as strong as Young’s previous albums. In its original review, Rolling Stone said, “He’s seemingly lost sight of what once made his music uniquely compelling and evocative and become just another pretty-singing solo superstar.” If anything, Harvest is a listenable album meaning that even if you’re not into Neil Young you could still get into it. For me, the big hits from the album were certainly my introduction to Young and his music hearing it a lot through residual classic rock airplay and family car rides. The weakest tracks on Harvest are easily the ones with the orchestras, “A Man Needs A Maid” and “There’s A World.” They’re not bad exactly but they belong on a soundtrack to a motion picture, not a mellow acoustic-based album.
The fact that it’s a mellow album probably best explains why Harvest managed to be the biggest-selling album of 1972 when you understand the era and what it was competing against. Much of the Top 10 selling albums in ’72 like Harvest fit perfectly into the class of singer-songwriter folk-rock that was popular at the time with big albums from the likes of Carole King, Don McLean, Cat Stevens, America, and Elton John. The ‘70s also saw acts like John Denver, the Eagles, and the aforementioned Linda Ronstadt mixing country sounds with their folk and rock music getting big as a result. As the youngest members of the Silent Generation and the oldest baby boomers began to settle down and start families, calm reflections on life spoke a lot to these people as they began to age into their 30s. Young may not have planned it but he was tapping into the zeitgeist of the moment and people responded in a big way.
In the wake of Harvest’s success, Neil Young came to shun the new mainstream attention the album brought him. Singles-wise, Young has never gotten anywhere near the top of the charts since his 1972 peak. On the liner notes of his 1977 greatest-hits compilation Decade, Young said, “Heart Of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” He’s remained true to those words. His subsequent releases have never reached the sales heights of Harvest. Some albums have performed well while some have not.
Young has also ventured into other genres as shown by his controversial electronic synthpop project Trans in 1982. His music veered so far left that his label in the ‘80s, Geffen Records, sued Young for making uncommercial music. In other words, Neil Young wasn’t making music that sounded like Neil Young. The lawsuit was eventually settled and Young left Geffen in 1988 for his original label Reprise. The label reunion helped bring a late-career revival with 1989’s Freedom which included the classic “Rockin’ In The Free World,” protesting America and then-President George H.W. Bush.
When the grunge movement took hold in the ‘90s, Neil Young became the older artist that all the young acts revered with many citing Young as a major influence. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain referenced a line from “My My, Hey Hey (Into The Black)” in his suicide note and Pearl Jam have performed with Young many times and inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Young is often nicknamed The Godfather of Grunge thanks to his heavy and loud distorted guitar playing that formed much of the basis for grunge.
In the decades since Young has remained active both in music and in political activism. His 2006 album Living With America protests George W. Bush and the Iraq War which included the track “Let’s Impeach The President.” He’s put out new albums almost every year including just last month with Homegrown, an album of songs Young had recorded in the mid-‘70s. He became a US citizen just this year and is a frequent attacker of our current idiot President who plays Neil Young songs at his rallies despite Young’s constant objections.
At 74, Neil Young is still rocking in the free world taking his music wherever it leads him.
Honorable mention: In 1972, the Rolling Stones put out what is arguably considered their greatest album in Exile On Main Street. But their biggest album that year was the greatest-hits collection Hot Rocks, 1972’s fifth best-selling album. Hot Rocks takes you through the early history of the Stones from their beginnings as British Invasion contemporaries to the Beatles to their creative peak in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. If you’re looking for a good collection of the Stones in the earliest and best years musically, you can’t go wrong with Hot Rocks
Next time: The band War bring their mix of Latin, rock, and funk in The World Is A Ghetto
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