BASTARD CHILDREN examines the maligned, rejected black sheep of artists’ discographies. Here we have a double helping from one of folk music’s most acclaimed artists: Neil Young.
A legend’s legendary balls-up, or fierce twin statements of purpose? The answer is neither - and both. Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’ are two of the most fascinating disasters in popular music, and it’s impossible to speak of one without mentioning the other. What’s more, they both reflect two cornerstones of Young’s personality — specifically, passion and spite. Aside from former bandmate David Crosby, Neil Young might be the most cantankerous musician who it’s still OK to like (sit down, Gene Simmons). His public grumps are sometimes infuriating, sometimes endearing, but back in the 80s he demonstrated some genuinely righteous punk spirit in the face of a multi-million dollar business. Not especially listenable punk spirit, but it’s there.
You might be surprised to know that Neil Young — poet and poster-boy for generations of plaid-clad huddled masses - endorsed Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. There is, however, a compelling and unexpected reason for this: Ronald Reagan supported stem-cell research. Young had recently become a father to a child with cerebral palsy who was unable to speak, and as well as being the inspiration for this eyebrow-raising political decision, young Ben Young was the catalyst for his father’s new musical direction. To grossly oversimplify, Trans is Neil Young’s techno album. Inspired by Kraftwerk and The Human League, Young got his hands on a vocoder and, while experimenting with these new toys, found that his son would respond to the roboticized voices. His determination to chase this thread of inspiration was neither a good nor a bad idea. It sure as hell wasn’t a boring one, though.
You will rarely hear an album so hopelessly dated or so ahead of its time. The paranoia in Young’s lyrics — envisioning a bleak future in which emotions are compromised and social control is enforced by machines — seems less fanciful now than it did in 1982. On the other hand, his electronic/rock soundscapes are curiously thin and half-baked. If Kraftwerk is Star Trek: The Next Generation and Gary Numan is Blade Runner, Trans is 70s Dr Who — for better and for worse. It’s kitschy and silly, but that’s part of its charm, and it’s certainly hard to scrub from your memory once it gets in there. Most of all, it’s dead serious. There’s no 90s irony to hide behind. He really means it and is motivated by a higher power — not God or money, but love for his son and concern for humanity.
How much did he mean it? There was a movie. Neil Young starred in a nuclear apocalypse road movie with Devo, with songs from Trans providing the soundtrack. Dennis Hopper and Russ Tamblyn were in it. It was directed by Ben from Blue Velvet. Is the question “How did this get made” or “How could this not get made”? Either way, it happened, and in the light of this film and this album, Neil Young’s anxieties now feel ahead of their time, rather than an artist losing their mind. The execution is exceptionally flawed, though the more you sink into Trans the more compelling and likeable it becomes. (Check out Parquet Courts’ cover of ‘We R In Control’ to see it from a new angle.) It’s passion that holds it together. That being said, passion was not on the agenda for the follow-up.
Predictably, Trans sold very poorly. Somewhat less predictably, Neil Young’s record company decided to sue him for $3.3M for “making music uncharacteristic of Neil Young”. Picture, if you will, Young sitting down with the suits at Geffen Records and being told “We want you to make rock n roll music”. At that point, we can safely assume that a mischievous glint appeared in his eye, because he effectively gave them exactly what they asked for. Let’s abandon metaphor for a moment. Everybody’s Rockin’ is shit.
A spectacularly and boringly terrible rockabilly record, played by musicians who sound as if they’re deliberately trying to sound disinterested. Everybody’s Rockin’ might be interesting to talk about, but listening to it is hard work. It never ends, and it’s under 30 minutes. It’s like witnessing a sad band at a 50s diner where the clientele are too hungry to leave and too tired to applaud. You just need to look at the cover: credited to “Neil & the Shocking Pinks”, and displaying a photo of Young against a low-rent backdrop, with a face like a physician squinting at a discoloured stool sample.
“Rock n roll”, in its purest incarnation, is a genre defined by performance. Ever listened to Pat Boone’s neutered version of ‘Tutti Frutti’? You should. It’ll make you appreciate Little Richard all the more (and unlike Little Richard, pop’s Ned Flanders Pat Boone is most definitely NOT singing about bumming). The point is, whatever song you’re performing, you’ve got to put passion and verve behind it, or you may as well not exist. It’s hard not to admire Young’s conviction in making one of the most flaccid rock n roll albums ever. Any energy dissipates before it reaches the mixing desk. They may as well have recorded it in an empty swimming pool, with the microphone placed under a bench in a steamy locker room. The most fired-up Young gets is when he spends three straight minutes complaining about his contract. It’s not just bad - it’s anti-good.
If anything unites these two strange records, it’s that they’re better than they sound. One is interesting, the other is on a mission to be as boring as possible, but they’re both symbolic of a fearless artistic attitude. They’re part and parcel of why Neil Young is an icon. He’s a sensitive person who is not to be fucked with — isn’t that a great thing to aspire to be?
Words by Joe Anthony Hill