Neil Young’s released dozens of albums over the years. He’s even got his own archives series, a collection of live material, demos and outtakes. The craziest thing about all this: he still has a rich vein of songs he hasn’t released officially. It’s crazy how prolific he is. The songs just pour out of him.
This is part of the appeal of trading tapes, CD-Rs and mp3s. In concert, musicians play material that’s often different than the final result. They test things out on the road: things could have a different arrangement or added lyrics. Sometimes they appear in a different context. Hardcore fans lap this kind of thing up: I know people who have dozens of Phish tapes.
For Young, there’s often a nice wrinkle. Over the years, he’s been known to play new and untried material on the road. It doesn’t always end up on an album. Sometimes it doesn’t even end up in his road repertoire. When listening to his tapes, there’s always the chance of hearing something you haven’t heard yet. Thankfully, someone’s done all the digging for you.
Sad Movies bills itself as “A Secret History of Neil Young.” It’s not quite that, but it’s close. A couple of the songs here did see official release: one as an obscure B-side, another couple on obscure 12” singles. And different performances of some of these songs have poked out over the years. But by and large, this is a trove of unreleased material by Young. And some artists would kill to have one of these outtakes as the best song on their album.
It opens with Young at his wildest and most reckless: a loose, shambling version of “Last Trip to Tulsa”. It originally appeared on Young’s first solo album as a fragile folk song. Here, him and the Stray Gators pound at it like a drunken bar band. With Young’s singing just a shade left of a howl and his guitar playing just a short of incompetent, the performance sounds dangerous, like he’s about to have a breakdown. Which he kind of did: he once said “Time Fades Away” was a document of what happens “if you lose it for a while.”
There are some interesting one-off performances here, too. “Sweet Joni’s” a piano tribute to its namesake (and friend of Young’s), Joni Mitchell. Apparently he never played it again. And the version of “My My Hey Hey” from Human Highway is a memorable one-off performance where Young sits in with DEVO. It’s said Young liked their energy so much that he played it for Crazy Horse, who took the song to anthem-status on Live Rust. There’s even a cover of “Home on Range” from the long-forgotten soundtrack to Where the Buffalo Roam where Young’s guitar sizzles and his single sounds as fragile as ever.
It even covers a little-explored area of Young’s career: a band called The Ducks. In 1977, Young temporarily relocated to Santa Cruz. Before long, he hooked up with some local musicians and started a hard rocking bar band: The Ducks. Soon they played every bar in the city and built up a small following. And after a couple months, Young moved on.
They’re represented here with two songs. My favourite’s the slow, melodic “Little Wing”, sounding here like a lost cousin to “Cortez the Killer” (and nothing like the official version on Hawks & Doves). There’s also a killer take on “Windward Passage” where Young’s guitar playing goes into overdrive for eight minutes. Maybe someday Young will release a CD of one of these hard-rocking gigs.
It also covers some loose tracks from his most famous band: Crosby Stills Nash and Young. There’s live versions of “Hawaiian Sunrise” and “Love Art Blues” and a gorgeous outtake of “Human Highway”. These guys could really play together. It’s too bad they had so much trouble getting along.
They’re also on the centerpiece of this collection: a live, hard rocking version of “Pushed It Over the Line”. Presented here in a rocking seven-minute version, this is one of Young’s most overlooked tunes. It’s about a gun-toting woman who turns to politics and violence (“Although no one hears a sound, there’s another poor man falling down”) with Young trying to figure her out (“How much love did you spend?”) before coming back for her. Oh, and Crosby and Young trade licks, too. It’s a lost classic, apparently only seeing release on an Italian 12” single that’s been out of print for over 30 years.
Young’s been pretty good with his archives. Between the numerous live performances he’s issued in the past decade – a new one covering a 1970 appearance in Washington, DC comes out later this month – and his massive Archives box set, he’s shown himself as a good judge of his material and a collector to boot.
But until he gets around to covering the post-Harvest years, these fan-made compilations like Sad Movies are essential. It covers the gaps and helps put some of his more esoteric performances in context. I’ve only scratched the surface of this compilation: there are still a few songs here I haven’t mentioned that’d be standouts on any Young album like “No One Seems to Know”, “Sad Movies”, and “Shots”.
Sad Movies can be found at Doom and Gloom From the Tomb. Grab it while it’s hot.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.