Readers’ Poll: The 10 Best Neil Young Deep Cuts
Neil Young has released a ton of music over the past 50 years. Hell, in the past three years alone he's put out an astonishing five albums. He has enough famous tunes that it would be hard to pack them all into a four-hour concert, especially when you factor in his work with CSNY and Buffalo Springfield. But those songs still only represent a tiny sliver of his catalog. For every "Heart of Gold" there are 20 overlooked gems like "Stringman" and "L.A." To celebrate the impending release of his new LP The Monsanto Years, we had our readers vote for their favorite Neil Young deep cuts.
Tabulating the votes required a lot of judgement calls. It was a no-brainer to toss out votes for "Old Man" and "Cinnamon Girl," but "Cortez the Killer," "Powderfinger" and "Sugar Mountain" presented a minor conundrum. They aren't hits in the traditional sense, but the latter two appear on Decade while "Powderfinger" is his second most-performed tune (behind only "Cinnamon Girl.") We ultimately felt they were simply too famous to count even though they all got a ton of votes. Feel free to blast away in the comments section if you feel those were bad calls.
“Expecting to Fly”
Buffalo Springfield had only been around about a year when Neil Young entered L.A.'s Sunset Sound studios in May of 1967 to record "Expecting to Fly" with producer Jack Nitzsche, but the group was already deep into a death spiral. The membership kept fluctuating since Neil Young quit and rejoined over and over and Bruce Palmer took time off to contend with pressing legal matters. Young also yearned to work on his own, which is why nobody else in the band had anything to do with "Expecting to Fly." Influenced by "A Day in the Life," they brought in an orchestra and spent weeks fiddling with the track. A shortened version tanked as a single, but it was still a clear sign that Young had already outgrown the confines of a band. He hasn't played the song in concert since the European solo acoustic Greendale tour in the fall of 2003, though he has rehearsed it with Promise of the Real in preparation for their tour this summer.
“On the Beach”
If there's any doubt that Neil Young was super bummed out when he made On The Beach in early 1974, listen no further to the title track that kicks off the second side of the LP. "The world is turnin'," he sings in the opening lines. "I hope it don't turn away." It only gets worse from there as he contends with a radio interview where he winds up "alone at the microphone" before he decides to simply get out of town. "I head for the sticks with my bus and friends," he sings. "I follow the road, though I don't know where it ends." The road took him to a disastrous CSNY reunion tour later that year that did little to lighten his mood, though by the end of the year he met future wife Pegi Morton and things turned around. He played "On the Beach" at a bunch of 1974 CSNY shows, though it's a super rarity this days. Since 1975 he's only played it twice: at a 1999 solo acoustic show in Chicago and in 2003 at a Greendale acoustic show in Hamburg, Germany.
"Good times are coming, I hear it everywhere I go," Neil Young sings on 1974's "Vampire Blues." "Good times are coming, but they sure are coming slow." Featuring guitarist George Whitsell (who played with Crazy Horse in their 1960s band the Rockets) and bassist Tim Drummond scraping a credit card on his beard for a cool sound effect, "Vampire Blues" is a typically bummed-out On the Beach song where Young compares himself to a vampire bat seeking out "high octane" blood. The only time he ever played it live was at an Eagles show in 1974, though it has been rehearsed for his upcoming summer tour.
The death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten in 1972 seemed to spell the end of Crazy Horse, but just a couple of years later, Young crossed paths with guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro and the group was reborn. The first album by the new Neil Young and the new Crazy Horse was 1975's Zuma, recorded in a thick haze of drugs and fuzzed-out guitar solos. The second track is the seven-minute epic "Danger Bird," which was actually cobbled together from two rather different takes that took place weeks apart. It's a haunting song, and outside of a single solo piano performance in 2003 he's never even attempted it live without Crazy Horse. Check out the 13-and-a-half-minute version on Year of the Horse.
Neil Young originally wrote "Pocahontas" for Chrome Dreams, an album he slated for release in 1977 but remains on the shelf to this day. It re-emerged two years later on the acoustic side of Rust Never Sleeps. Borrowing a great deal of the melody from Carole King's 1963 tune "He's a Bad Boy," the song is a surreal journey through time from the 17th century all the way to the era of Marlon Brando and the Astrodome. Much like "Cortez the Killer," it focuses on the devastating effects the European colonization of America had on the Native Americans. It's been a regular part of Young's live set for decades.
Recorded in a matter of weeks while still reeling from the deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, Tonight's the Night is an Irish Wake for departed friends that doubles as a rock masterpiece. Most songs were cut in a take or two while most of the musicians were thoroughly obliterated. It may not be technically perfect, but the performances are extremely heartfelt and many Neil Young fans call this his best album. One of its gentler tracks is "Albuquerque," featuring Nils Lofgren on piano and Ben Keith on pedal steel. It's ostensibly about smoking some weed, renting a car, driving to New Mexico and eating some fried eggs and country ham, but it's really about a desperate yearning to find a place where someone can escape and mellow out. Young has never managed to improve on the studio original recording, though the solo acoustic versions from the 1999 tour are pretty special.
David Crosby got roped into playing guitar on this creepy On the Beach tune, but the tale of a Charles Manson-like figure freaked him out and to this day he says he doesn't care for the song. It's certainly hard to imagine the former Byrd writing a song from the perspective of a murderous psychopath with lines like, "Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/But I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars." But it was a reflection of the difficult time when the (supposedly) peaceful 1960s had given way to the violent, coked-out 1970s. Young hasn't touched the song since a one-off Crazy Horse gig in 1987.
“Don’t Be Denied”
Neil Young had a rough childhood. His parents went through a nasty divorce and he was raised primarily by his mother, moving from town to town and constantly being the new kid in school. He poured these painful memories into "Don't Be Denied," a standout track from 1973's long out-of-print live LP Time Fades Away. "I wore white bucks on my feet," he sings. "When I learned the golden rule/The punches came fast and hard/Lying on my back in the school yard." It ends with the rise of Buffalo Springfield, and the realization that even success wouldn't make him happy. It's one of the most personal songs he ever wrote, and he's only played it three times since 1983.
The second side of On the Beach wraps up with "Ambulance Blues," a stunningly brilliant, stream-of-conscious epic that ranks as one of Neil Young's greatest lyrical achievements, taking on everything from Richard Nixon ("I never knew a man could tell so many lies") to the sad state of Crosby, Stills and Nash ("You're all just pissin' in the wind/You don't know it but you are.") But it begins in a better place, looking back on the "old folky days" when "the air was magic when we played." But time made that magic fade away, and sorrow mixed with pity quickly seeps into the verses. The song sat dormant for a good many years, but in 1998 he made a shocking return at the Bridge School Benefit and then he played it every night on the 2007-'08 theater tour.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young didn't do a lot of forward-looking work after 1970's Deja Vu, but their travails sure inspired Neil Young to write some great songs. The most devastating is 1979's "Thrasher," where he makes it quite clear why he walked away from the supergroup. "So I got bored and left them there," he sings. "They were just dead weight to me/Better down the road without that load." Ouch. Broadly speaking, it's a song about moving forward, even when it's painful and difficult, to avoid becoming a fossil. He also recalls watching "that great Grand Canyon rescue episode" of a TV show. Some people thought he was talking about The Brady Bunch, but it ran when he was a child so it's probably a 1950s western.
Up until last year, Young hadn't played the song since the 1978 Rust Never Sleeps tour, but then out of nowhere he busted it out at a Los Angeles theater show. "I haven't done it that much in my life," he said. "Because at a very vulnerable moment I read something about it. Just like the worst fucking review I've ever read. So, for all you reviewers, if you feel like your words don't mean anything, you're probably right. In that case, they were damaging." Well, maybe the fact it won this poll will reassure him that "Thrasher" is indeed a beloved song.