Fifty-year-old songs that are still surprisingly relevant today.
Two times Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Graham Nash is an intriguing artist despite the enduring success of his two main bands the Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Inspired to form the Hollies with school friend Allan Clarke by the music of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, Nash helped the Hollies become one of the defining pop bands of the ‘60s. Nash was seduced by the Californian hippie ideals of the ‘60s and he left the Hollies when he was unable to get his fellow band members to concentrate on more self-written material that better reflected the changing times of the late ‘60s. Graham Nash then followed his hippie dream to Laurel Canyon where he formed Crosby, Stills & Nash who with their folk-rock sound nicknamed “wooden music” and their unique vocal harmonies were the perfect antidote to some of the wilder psychedelic musical excesses of the time. The trio were joined by Neil Young after their first eponymous album, and the rest, as they say, is history. Except it wasn’t, because Nash released two albums in the early ‘70s, ‘Songs For Beginners’ in 1971 and ‘Wild Tales’ in 1974, which despite Nash being responsible for some of the most popular Crosby, Stills & Nash songs had the worst commercial performance of the various solo albums of David Crosby, Neil Young Stephen Stills and even the Crosby & Nash albums.
‘Songs For Beginners’ and ‘Wild Tales’ taken as a whole can be seen as a fair summation of how the optimism of the ‘60s was gradually replaced by the paranoia of the ‘70s. Both albums are part of the singer-songwriter tradition with more introspective songs than those more commonly associated with the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young family which may explain their relatively poor sales performance at the time as they dealt with Graham Nash moving on in his friendships and relationships, and reflecting on the political concerns of the time in a very direct way. Both albums were recorded with the cream of West Coast musicians in arrangements that supported the songs that helped Nash become a folk pop icon for subsequent generations of musicians. Though some of the songs on these albums were played live by the various touring combinations of group members of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young family, the majority of the songs were not. This is something that has now been remedied with the release of ‘Live: Songs For Beginners/Wild Tales’ which contains all the original songs presented in their original order and with the original arrangements played live in 2019. The songs are played by various combinations of a seven-piece band that was put together with only three days of rehearsals, however, guitarist Shane Fontayne and keyboard player Todd Caldwell are a key part of the Crosby, Stills & Nash family and know Nash’s music inside out. The original versions of ‘I Used To Be A King’ and ‘Man In The Mirror’ featured Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar and this time out it’s a duty shouldered by guitarist Thad DeBrock.
The surprising thing to modern ears is just how relevant these songs still are today despite being written fifty years ago, and strangely, may make even make more sense to today’s listeners than they did to those original early ‘70s fans. ‘Military Madness’ which opens the album, as it did ‘Songs For Beginners’, is an anti-war song based on Nash’s experiences of growing up during WWII in the North of England and seems particularly relevant with the current Ukraine crisis. Nash echoes his Hollies’ past with ‘The King I Used To Be’ which was inspired by his breakup with Joni Mitchell. The pain of his breakup was also behind ‘Simple Man’ with its simple but effective lyrics. The title track ‘Wild Tales’ is based on a couple of actual wild stories that Nash had heard being retold by friends and acquaintances. Nash’s views on prison reform are based on his father having to serve a prison sentence for buying a stolen camera from a friend, and the devastating effect it had on his father and the family all encapsulated in ‘Prison Song’ from ‘Wild Tales’. A more fatalist approach to growing older is reflected in ‘And So It Goes’.
There is no sense of nostalgia around the performances on ‘Live: Songs For Beginners/Wild Tales’ and as such, while retaining the original arrangements, it gives these songs a second chance to find new fans and remind older fans of how relevant these songs still are. Nash doesn’t use complex language to explore his various themes and this more direct approach to lyrics may have explained their original relatively poor commercial performance but they are revealed here to be not simplistic but timeless. As such, this album is recommended to both old and new fans. Finally, the cover references Nash’s love of photography and the fact that the original covers of ‘Songs For Beginners’ and ‘Wild Tales’ featured photographic self-portraits of Nash and therefore adds to the overall impression of the completeness of the album which enhances Graham Nash’s reputation as a solo artist and pioneering singer-songwriter. No mean feat for someone who turns 80 in 2022.