Thursday, March 10, 2022

Celebrating 50: Neil Young's fourth was a bountiful Harvest

The success of the half-century-old Harvest may have put the always-acerbic, eccentric and cantankerous Neil Young uncomfortably, as he puts it, “in the middle of the road.” But it also gave him the freedom to steer “for the ditch” to experiment in more esoteric styles such as electronica, swing, rockabilly, blues and jazz.

While Young has careened to and fro with these varied musical styles, so far out in left field that he was sued by his record company for not delivering commercially viable albums, Young is best-known for working in two distinct rock subgenres: crunching, electric grunge and acoustic folk, often with a country tinge.

It was on Harvest that Young excelled at his folk-rock tendencies, a masterpiece of an album that dominated 1972. It yielded a No. 1 single in "Heart Of Gold" and a No. 31 with "Old Man" while on its way to becoming the best-selling album of that year. Harvest went Gold, then Platinum, and later was ensconced in the Grammy Hall of Fame, in 2015.

By the time 1972 rolled around, Young had achieved star status through his work with Buffalo Springfield, the release of three well-received solo albums and as the fourth name in the supergroup whose name sounded like a law firm -- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. But fans familiar him were in for something of a surprise with Harvest. It was, with the exception of a couple of tunes, his mellowest piece of work up to that time. It was an organic collection of songs, several created spontaneously in the studio.

Yet there is a case to be made that the folk-rock vibe to this album -- Young played acoustic guitar, harmonica, piano and banjo -- was not altogether the intended outcome. Suffering from severe back pain, Young was physically unable to rock out with his black Gibson Les Paul. “I recorded most of Harvest in the (back) brace. That’s a lot of the reason it’s such a mellow album. I couldn’t physically play an electric guitar,” Young told Rolling Stone in 1975.

The genesis of this album was in a series of songs Young had been performing at solo shows. In February 1971, Young was in Nashville for an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show. Producer Elliot Mazer gave Young a tour of the new Quadrafonic Sound Studio where Mazer was working, and Young decided to record there. He invited Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, who were also appearing on the Johnny Cash show, to join him in the studio for backing vocals. Later recording sessions at Young’s California ranch included David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. Mazer recruited a crack team of studio musicians -- Ben Keith on steel guitar, Tim Drummond on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums -- dubbed The Stray Gators by Young. The London Symphony Orchestra even got in on the act for a couple of songs.

Harvest, released on Feb. 1, 1972, is Young’s best-selling solo album. Initially greeted with some disdain by many critics, it was nonetheless a smash with the record-buying public. It was impossible not to hear "Heart of Gold" that year. A new appreciation for the album has developed over the decades, and it is now routinely featured on many greatest-album lists.

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