Disappointing Albums, Music

51 disappointing albums: Everybody’s Rockin by Neil Young

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Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes.

One thing must be made clear,” he says, this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.

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Neil Young once said of this album that he wasn’t stupid and didn’t think that it was the best fucking thing he’d ever done. Was he disappointed with it? No, it would seem that his expectations were sufficiently low as to avoid disappointment. Were fans disappointed? Yes, indeed. Were critics disappointed? Extravagantly. His record company? Therein hangs the tale of this strange record.

It was his second for Geffen Records. The first was Trans, an album not so much disappointing as discombobulating. The second record should have been Old Ways, the country album that appeared two years later but David Geffen wasn’t impressed with it at all and insisted that Neil go back into the studio and make a ‘rock and roll’ record.

Nobody tells Neil Young what to do. This is the man who headed for the ditch after striking a heart of gold. This is the man who bailed on Buffalo Springfield because he didn’t want to appear on the Tonight Show, or at Monterey. This is the man who left a note that ended with the phrase ‘Eat a Peach’ when he abandoned the Stills/Young tour. One does not simply tell Neil Young to make a ‘rock and roll’ record. And if one does, this is what happens.

One does not simply tell Neil Young to make a ‘rock and roll’ record. And if one does, this is what happens.

Neil went into the studio and made a ‘rock and roll’ record of the strictest definition. He recorded a rockabilly album with a band he dubbed The Shocking Pinks.  If the critics had cut Neil some slack for Trans, they weren’t having this one. Most reviews were of the Spinal Tap ‘shit sandwich’ variety. His worst album ever and so on. Baby boomers were feeling very vulnerable in the early 1980s. All their counterculture heroes had turned their freak flags into fluffy mullets, declared equity trading the new acid, and/or found God. Meanwhile, the ever annoying Gen Xers were listening to music that made no sense to anyone. Some of the little bastards even liked this album. Hadn’t they heard After The Goldrush? Didn’t they know?!

I was one of those little bastards. I was (and remain) an obsessed Neil Young fan but I liked this record. Something that escaped many of the critics at the time was how comfortable Neil sounded playing rockabilly. He’s hanging behind the beat, throwing in little staccato guitar runs and letting the bass lead. If you know this genre, you know what he’s up to here.

Oddly enough, rockabilly was having something of a revival at the time in the form of the Stray Cats. Neil had started out in bar bands playing this kind of music. From Winnipeg to Toronto, he had entertained drunken townies with early rock and roll. Like Robert Plant, whose Honeydrippers record surprised his own shaggier fans, Young was going back to the source.

That’s not to say that Everybody’s Rockin’ is a masterpiece. It’s clearly a hasty affair, done as a giant fuck you to Geffen and the music industry in general. The best track on it is Payola Blues, a tribute to the 1950s DJ Allen Freed. Freed arguably coined the use of the term rock and roll for this type of music – that’s highly debatable, of course, before you start yelling – and promoted it incessantly on his incredible radio show.

He was eventually done in by the payola scandal while many others skated. Many people believed he was targeted by an establishment, including the record companies, that resented his championing of the wildest rock and roll. As you might imagine, Neil regards him as a hero. “Cause the things they’re doing today will make a saint out of you,” he says at the beginning of the song.

Why is it disappointing?

Well, David Geffen sued him for making ‘unrepresentative music’. If Harvest is Neil Young for you, this album will seem absurd. Neil himself used the word ‘superficial’ to describe it. If he’d been serious about creating a rockabilly record, he could have done better. Bright Lights Big City is a tired old song that sounds particularly tired here. Slim Harpo’s Raining In My Heart sounds thin and Jellyroll Man never really rises above a sort of twelve bar drone.

Too many of the songs sound like first takes and no one seems to have spent much time on the mix, overdubs, or sound production in general. Echo is a tricky thing to pull off convincingly and some of these songs sound like they were recorded in a school stairwell where the echo is echoing its own echo.

Why should you hear it?

One of Neil’s earliest compositions, Wonderin’, sounds great here. The Crazy Horse version from the early 70s makes for an interesting comparison. The doo wop approach suits the lyrics and it is probably the closest thing to a more representative Neil Young song (if such an item ever existed) you’ll hear on this album.

The old warhorse Mystery Train is very convincing and every bit as good as The Band’s version on Moondog Matinee (an album that takes its name from Alan Freed’s radio show). Neil’s Southern Pacific from his last Reprise album, Reactor, was a rewrite of this song and his version of the original is a real highlight.

Disappointing, sure; boring, no. This is Neil Young at his contrarian best. Don’t overthink it. Watch the clip that went along with Wonderin’ and imagine David Geffen’s reaction. I think that’s the idea.

For the rest of this series, click here.

3 responses to “51 disappointing albums: Everybody’s Rockin by Neil Young

    1. Hi Tom,

      I have been hearing about this mythical record since I bought my first Neil Young album 40 years ago. It’s supposed to be the ‘bridge between Harvest and Comes A Time’ whatever that means. I think it’s out today. Can’t wait! Thanks for reading the column.

  1. This was great. I was never much of a Neil Young guy, Harvest Moon and Rockin In the Free World were the exceptions-although I prefer the Mavericks live version of the former. I had heard of this album years ago,but being the worlds biggest Stray Cat fan I didn’t want to hear someone else tryng to jump on the rockabilly bandwagon. But hey, it’s been 35 years guess I can forgive him! This Wonderin tune was actually pretty cool. And the Honeydrippers was the best thing Robert Plant ever did until Raising Sand.

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