Crosby, Stills & Nash: Demos

[11 June 2009]

By Steve Horowitz

Teach your children

Don’t let the title fool you. This really isn’t an album’s worth of demos of Crosby, Stills, and Nash tracks. Instead, it is a collection of demos by David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash originally recorded between 1968-1971. Sometimes two or three of the musicians sing together, but mostly the tracks are done as solo performances. A few of the cuts showed up on discs made by the group as a whole, but more frequently the songs later appeared on the artists’ solo records.

These are working recordings of material that became well known to fans of the artists involved—tunes like Stills’ “Love the One Your With”, Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair Today” and Nash’s “Chicago”. The polished versions that showed up on recordings from the past are more substantial than the one’s here, but these are interesting artifacts that reveal different facets of the songs. The disc probably will be more of interest to CS&N fanatics than casual fans.

However, one can imagine the pleasures neophytes would have hearing these songs for the first time. There is some wonderful material here. The unvarnished, acoustic rendition of the trio on “Marrakesh Express”, Crosby’s aching voice and evocative guitar playing on “Déjà Vu”, Stills’ slow and deliberate takes on “You Don’t Have to Cry” and “My Love is a Gentle Thing”, and such would warm the cockles of today’s Vetiver and Sufjan Stevens fans.

The dozen tracks on Demos are released in their original form here for the first time. In many ways they are better than the versions that went on to more commercial success. There’s a passion expressed in the unvarnished singing and playing of the musicians here that became diluted during the hitmaking process of later renditions. While it’s audibly clear that these versions would have never been successful commercial products during their original era without production, the added sweetening dilutes the subversive nature of the music.

The songs proclaim individuality (“Wanted to let my freak flag fly”), sexual freedom (“If you can’t be with the one you love / Love the one you’re with”), political anarchy (“Rule and regulations / Who needs them?”), etc., yet somehow these sentiments became incorporated into mainstream radio programming and lost their impact. Hearing these songs in their original forms helps one understand the impact of their messages.

CS&N was once adored by the masses. In 1969, when CS&N released their debut disc, the band was praised by everyone from hipsters like Jimi Hendrix to the squares who bought the singles and made them Top 40 AM radio hits. But that was then. In 2009, the band members’ median age is over 65. These days, many people perceive CS&N as a relic of the past—one of those California-based hippie groups that played at Woodstock. Even the President of the United States today, being born in 1961, would be too young to remember the group’s glory days. Demos evokes a time before “Yes We Can” was a slogan, but when there was a feeling in the air that positive changes were happening and one could write a popular song about it.

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