Neil Young: Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968

Neil Young's newest archival release is the clear precursor to last year's Live at Massey Hall: a portrait of a young artist plotting his solo course.

Neil Young

Sugar Moutain

Subtitle: Live At Canterbury House 1968
Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 2008-12-02
UK Release Date: 2008-12-08

Neil Young’s Greatest Hits is “perfect” because it “offers nothing, NOTHING to the Neil Young fan,” asserted Anthony Miccio in Stylus Magazine’s 2004 review. It panders instead, blatantly and wonderfully, to the casual admirer, the listener to whom ‘greatest hits’ means... well, the ‘greatest hits’ and nothing more. This is an intriguing notion of perfection, under which Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968, Young’s third in a series of archival live recordings, feels like the direct antithesis, and not just because the title track is the closest it comes to a radio staple. The release seems not so much an album as a document, a time capsule of a young, anxious, yet bright-eyed Neil Young that once was and then wasn’t, propelled suddenly toward the harder-edged Crazy Horse interplay of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

The omnipresent tape hiss, crowd coughs, and endless stage chatter betray this genuineness, this focus on capturing a moment in Young’s career rather than producing a flawless live record (as if there’s any shortage of those in the Shakey cannon). Filled with such endearing moments as an instrumental “Winterlong” teaser (“Hey, that’s a new melody!”) and a performance of “Out of My Mind” on request (“Oh, that’s far out. I didn’t know anyone here even bought that or heard that album.”), the recording seems more geared to Neil Young historians than Neil Young fans.

The strictly acoustic November ’68 set finds the artist caught awkwardly between his recent success with Buffalo Springfield and his budding solo ambitions. If hearing, and reviewing, this incarnation feels especially surreal to me, it’s because I saw Young a mere 10 hours ago, reprising his Weld persona (and culling much from that album’s set list) with that unshakeable grimace, clutching Old Black and pounding out distortion with a ferocity unbecoming of any other 63-year-old. Yet the Neil Young character most embedded in our cultural consciousness is the light `70s folk rocker we hear on Harvest. Thus, it’s even more fascinating to note that this Ann Arbor show was planned as a test run of sorts, an experiment to see if that direction, a ‘just Neil and his guitar’ affair, could possibly work. Young was incredibly nervous -- he reportedly feared he wouldn’t have enough material for a full-length show -- and it shows. He fills the track breaks with incessant, rambling Woody Allen-esque monologues, stories about receiving his first “residuals” or abusing “diet pills” at a bookstore job. Though wholly essential to the authenticity of this portrait, the awkward banter can be a nuisance. Special thanks, though, to Neil for giving each “rap” its own track, after Live at Massey Hall prompted disgruntled fans (my dad included) to edit down their own talk-free mix.

The show took place a month or so before the release of his self-titled debut, but let’s not kid ourselves. That album has no place among Neil’s best. Blandly lovesick pop moments like “If I Could Have Her Tonight” and “What Did You Do to My Life?” could have come from just about any '60s folkster, and the rambling, Dylan-aping paranoia of “The Last Trip to Tulsa” is clumsy at best. The real problem, however, is Jack Nitzsche’s weirdly stifling, multi-tracked production, effectively sucking the life from the songs. Sugar Mountain’s arrangements, skeletal and raw, bum notes and all, are a foil to that sterility, exposing much more clearly the vulnerability of “I’ve Been Waiting For You” and the ominously bluesy character study that is “The Loner”. Elsewhere, the singer culls material from his own Buffalo Springfield contributions. “Mr. Soul” is as cryptic as ever (“stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster”), this rendition caught somewhere between the Stonesy stomp of the Springfield recording and the late-night, harmonica-fueled blues of his 1993 Unplugged version. Hearing “Expecting to Fly” and “Broken Arrow” stripped of their sweeping studio psychedelic excess, however, is truly wonderful. Both display a songwriting promise obscured on his debut. The latter, Neil Young’s own “A Day in the Life”, in a sense, rolls to an emotional peak on its final chorus, only for Young to fade it out awkwardly, fumbling to recreate the studio version’s carnival ending by way of humming.

This uncertainty paired with brilliance is emblematic of the recording, this moment in his career. Sugar Mountain makes sense in conjunction with last year’s Live at Massey Hall 1971 release. Or, more specifically, it's a direct precursor to the singer/songwriter confidence he exuded three years later. That both albums begin with “On the Way Home” makes obvious this contrast. The Massey Hall rendition sounds bold, gorgeous, and downright assertive compared to the apprehensive ’68 performance. But both albums are essential for the Neil Young fan or historian. Personally, I only wonder where he’s hoarding the Tonight’s the Night shows.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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