Discovering… Neil Young

Quite liking Neil Young is a strange position find yourself in. He usually elicits much stronger feelings than that. By way of example, the first time I met one of my AUK colleagues he was dressed in a rather fine jacket, the pattern of which was made up entirely of Neil Young album covers. On the other hand, another AUK colleague will at the very mention of Neil Young, pull the kind of face usually only brought about by accepting an invitation to try one of your kid’s sour sweets.

My own relationship with Neil Young was a slow burner; in fact it was quite a long time before it even smouldered, let alone burned. I probably have to fill in a bit of background here by way of context. I was a punk in the 70s immersing myself in the wonder and excitement of a Lurkers single, so Neil Young was nowhere near my radar. Wind forward a few years and I’m sharing a flat with a cool guitarist who listened to and played 60s psychedelic music and another guy who reminded me of Dylan, the magic roundabout character, in that his life appeared to consist almost exclusively of sitting around smoking dope and listening to what appeared to me to be incredibly dull music.

The house was full of music and my own tastes had turned towards what was then termed ‘cowpunk’. Bands like Rank and File and Jason and The Scorchers were where I was at. I recall one day putting on The Beat Farmers’ ‘Glad ‘n’ Greasy’ mini-album (remember those?). The six tracks kick off with an energetic cover of ‘Powderfinger’ which somehow managed to raise my flatmate off of his beanbag and to my door. He informed me that this was a cover version and he played me the original – and that folks, was my introduction to Neil Young! I began to take more interest, after all if he was good enough for Country Dick Montana to cover, then this Neil Young chap was surely worthy of further investigation. Interestingly, much of that “incredibly dull music” that my flatmate played at that time, now fills a large part of my own record collection. As well as Neil Young, he would listen to Michael Chapman, John Martyn, Richard Thompson etc.

Even by this time (mid-eighties) Neil Young had already built up a considerable catalogue of work. So where to start? I’d soon move out of that flat to take up residence in Scotland for four years, so raiding my friend’s collection wasn’t an option, although we did send one another tapes on a fairly regular basis. Most of my money was being spent by this time on records by the likes of REM, The Smiths and The Go-Betweens. Although I was still not a massive Neil Young fan, I was now at least fully aware of Shaky and he continued to seep into my tastes. However, it was almost another decade before I actually handed over any cash in return for a Neil Young album. That came with 1994’s ‘Sleeps With Angels’ which is an excellent record, but probably not an obvious starting point.

Since that initial purchase, I have over the years gradually built up a decent collection of Neil Young’s work. Mostly through second-hand purchases and lucky finds, such as the time when I bought around 25 albums from a guy at the local cricket club car boot sale for a quid each, including no less than seven Neil Young albums. Sadly, with the revival of interest in vinyl and the likes of eBay and Discogs, such finds at car boot sales or charity shops are now almost unheard of. It also means that because of the random way in which I’ve accumulated my Neil Young collection, there are big holes in it. You are far more likely to come across a cheap copy of ‘Trans’ than you are ‘Harvest’ for instance.

Discovering an artist, even one with the longevity of Neil Young, nowadays is much easier and quicker through access to streaming. It makes sense to start with the key works. You can plan and do it in a much more efficient way than relying on mates taping their records for you and by chance purchases. On the other hand, if a record doesn’t do it for you immediately, you are more likely to skip and move on, whereas if you’ve paid good money for it, you are more likely to give it that second and third listen that sometimes is required to build a relationship with it and fully appreciate it’s finer points.

Neil Young did not have instant appeal for me, that relationship did take time. I persisted partly because people who I respected kept telling me how good he was, which almost made me think that there must be something wrong or inadequate about me, because I couldn’t initially see it, but also because there was definitely something there that kept drawing me back.

I am not an expert on Neil Young and as such wouldn’t presume to tell anyone else what to listen to. All I would say is listen to a cross-section and give it time. Despite the gaps in my collection, I’ve listened to enough Neil Young over the last twenty-five years to come to the earth-shattering conclusion that yes – I quite like him.

About Clint West 325 Articles
From buying my first record aged 10 and attending my first gig at 14, music has been a lifelong obsession. A proud native of Suffolk, I have lived in and around Manchester for the best part of 30 years. My idea of a perfect day would be a new record arriving in the post in the morning, watching Ipswich Town win in the afternoon followed by a gig and a pint with my mates at night,
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I like Neil. He writes some great songs. But when I listen to his guitar playing I am reminded of Richard Thompson‘s comment when asked on his website whether he‘d collaborate with Mr Young. Richard replied that he didn‘t think it would work because one of them was an aging hippy with a curiously crippled guitar style, and the other was … Neil Young.

Andrew Riggs

I guess I’d be described as a Neil Young fan from 1970 onwards. Several of his albums I’d put in my desert island collection such as On The Beach, After The Gold Rush, Rust, Everyone Knows but not much from the last 20 years. Most of his recent records have a message and it doesn’t work for Monsanto Years was dreadful. I’m no expert but know his work pretty well….Trans is a fine record. His two substantial archive releases are another problem, all the duplication etc.

Nicholas Bentley

Hi Clint, I’m new to this website and came here via the Beat Farmers’ cover of Powderfinger on You Tube. I’m a little late with this response to your article and I don’t know if anyone will even see it, but anyway…
My Neil Young experience very much matches yours. I grew up in the seventies and I was always a fan of Americana but in those days was limited to such as Eagles, Ozarks, a bit of Grateful Dead, various singer-songwriters. Like you, I was diverted by punk/new wave but I always preferred the American version – Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell, Blondie than the pogoing and spitting British style (Slaughter and the Dogs were the second worse band I ever saw I think, beaten only by Bill Bruford’s National Health 🙂 )
This is where our journeys come together; I had been aware of Neil Young, mainly the “whiny” acoustic stuff, but some schoolfriends had been big fans, so he ws on my radar. I was reintroduced by Powderfinger, but in my case it was the Live Aid version, which blew me away, I never really knew Neil Young wigged out in that way. I moved on to Rust Never Sleeps and, again like you, Sleeps With Angels; I have been known to play Change Your Mind over and over for hours!
Since then I have also acquired a large but very incomplete collection of Neil Young music, mainly the loud, feedback-heavy version, and when I’m at a loose end and don’t know what to play, Like a Hurricane or Cinnamon Girl or of course, Change your Mind always does the trick. I’m listening to Psychedelic Pill as I type
That’s it, just wanted to get that off my chest. I’ve bookmarked the website now, look forward to exploring further.