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Graham Nash: 5 Songs That Inspired Me as a Young Songwriter

The former CSNY and Hollies singer on “God Only Knows,” “Tomorrow Never Knows” and other songs that forever changed his life

Graham Nash poses for a portrait in New YorkGraham Nash Portrait Session, New York, USA - 25 Feb 2016

Scott Gries/Invision/AP/REX Shutterstock

Graham Nash’s new career-spanning compilation album Over the Years … traces his long career as a songwriter, stretching all the way back to his days in the Hollies when he sketching out tunes like “Marrakesh Express” and “Teach Your Children” that would later be recorded by CSN and CSNY. Earlier this year, he sat down with Rolling Stone to discuss five key songs that inspired him as a young songwriter.

Gene Vincent, “Be-Bop-A-Lula”
This is the first record I ever owned. I got it by trading two pieces of toast to my friend, Freddie Marsden. It was a 78 of “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” I traded it to him for my lunch, took it home, and unfortunately I sat on it and broke it immediately. That really upset me. Years later, I had an argument with [CBS president] Walter Yetnikoff about the cover of [my 1980 solo album] Earth & Sky and I told my lawyer to get me a new record company. And he said, “Well, what about Capitol?” I said, “I’ll join Capitol, if they let me in the studio, and let me play once, the original two-track of ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula.'”

The Everly Brothers, ”So Sad (to Watch Good Love Go Bad)”
I’ve been singing with Allan Clarke since I was six. We had a really interesting vocal blend, but then I listened to the Everly Brothers and I realized that you can’t beat genetics. They’re brothers. They share the same DNA. You can’t get closer than that.

I got to sing three-part harmony on this song with them in 1992 in Toledo, Ohio. I was in Toledo and we were playing at the hall the next night. My phone rang and it was Phil Everly. He said, “We’re playing in town tonight. Do you wanna come?” I get on the bus and go down there and we’re eating one of those awful meals you have backstage and Don looks at me and said, “OK, what song are you going to sing with us?”

I was shocked and terrified and excited at the same time, but I was trying to keep my cool. I said, “I love that song ‘So Sad.'” Then Phil looked at me and said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll sing underneath. Don, you take my part.” I looked at him and said, “I learned to sing high while singing along to your records. Why don’t you stay exactly where you are and I’ll sing on top of both of you?” I wanted to impress them. I wanted to pay them back. I have a cassette of us doing it and it’s fantastic.

The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows”
What an insane sound. What brilliance. You gotta understand that nowadays you can have a thousand tracks on your phone. Back then, however, there was only 4-track machines and maybe 8-track machines. To hear that song as a musician, it opened a giant door. I was like, “Wow, you can do anything! You don’t have to stick to a certain regiment of how to write and record songs. You can go anywhere you want. Look what they’re doing then, backwards tapes and seagulls. It sounds like flocks of birds flying all over the place, fantastic. That’s great!”

The Beach Boys, “God Only Knows”
This is one of the best songs that was ever written. It’s one of the best records that was ever made. Brian Wilson is a genius. That particular song just touched my heart. Carl is singing beautifully on it. I always felt like we had similar kinds of voices. But Brian is just a genius.

Crosby, Stills and Nash, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”
I know you’re not supposed to do your own music, but this song is so important to me. When Stephen [Stills] first played me that song, I wondered what planet he was from. It was four distinct musical movements. It was seven-and-a-half minutes long. It took us 11 hours to record. We started with Stephen on his acoustic guitar and a vocal mic. David [Crosby] and I had a vocal mic right next to his. We got to the end of it and we all thought it was pretty good. Then I look at Stephen and he goes, “Eh, I’m not sure.”

We took another 11 hours to redo this entire suite, from start to finish. And we go to the end of that and I looked at Stephen and he said, “Nah, the other one’s better.” That song was such an incredible vehicle for the sound that we created with our four voices. It was perfect. When were halfway through making Déjà Vu I said, “You know what we don’t have? We don’t have a ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.'” He goes, “I know, we used it on the first record.” I said, “No, no, no. We don’t have the song where when you play it, you’re definitely not going to get up and take the needle off the record.” If you listen to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” what are you going to do? Stop? I don’t think so.

He said to me, “OK, I get it.” Two days later, he comes back and he goes, “What about this?” Then he played “Carry On.” Holy shit. Stephen, he was really a genius then. A brilliant musician.

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