Neil Young spent much of the ‘80s wandering in his own unique wilderness. He remained as prolific as ever, but he leaped all over the stylistic map. Young had spent the ‘70s releasing one acclaimed album after another for Reprise Records, veering between acoustic-based folk rock like his #1 single “Heart of Gold” to the shambolic, amped up garage rock he recorded with Crazy Horse. He capped the decade with one of his career milestones, 1979’s classic Rust Never Sleeps. Young was at the top of his game, and in high demand. As the ‘80s dawned, he signed a blockbuster deal with Geffen Records, and they doubtless expected more of what earned Young his massive audience and exalted stature in the music industry. David Geffen and his team forgot one important thing: Neil Young marches to the beat of his own drummer, and he always has.
Young’s first release for Geffen was 1982’s now infamous Trans, in which he experiments with electronic elements and vocoder-treated vocals. The end result baffled most of his fans and infuriated his new label. As a follow-up, Young took a hard right turn and recorded the country-flavored Old Ways. Geffen refused to release it, and demanded a rock 'n' roll album. Young complied as only he could with an album that was indeed “rock 'n' roll", if not quite what David Geffen expected. 1983’s Everybody’s Rockin’, released under the name Neil Young and the Shocking Pinks, is an exercise in ‘50s-style rockabilly. It was a huge flop and Geffen sued Young for breach of contract, claiming the albums he turned in were intentionally uncommercial and, famously, musically “uncharacteristic of his former recordings". Young counter-sued Geffen, and ultimately Young, as he usually does, came out on top. The bitter standoff ended up being a public relations fiasco for Geffen, who settled the lawsuits with Young and issued him a personal apology. Young completed his contract with a series of albums that continued to sell poorly: a reconfigured Old Ways in 1985, Landing on Water, a 1986 pop/rock collection that now sounds hopelessly dated thanks to ‘80s recording techniques and cheesy synths courtesy of producer Danny Kortchmar, and 1987’s Life, Young’s underrated return with Crazy Horse.
Once his contract with Geffen was history, Young promptly returned to Reprise. His first album back with his old label was another genre exercise, 1988’s This Note’s For You, a foray into swinging blues-rock with a prominent horn section. Young put together a new band featuring Rick Rosas and Chad Cromwell, formerly the rhythm section for Joe Walsh, and a six-piece horn section. The album was originally released as Neil Young & the Bluenotes until legal action by Harold Melvin (of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes fame) prompted him to drop the band name.The satirical video for the title track, which parodies pop stars and rock musicians for their increasingly lucrative corporate sponsorship deals, won the 1989 MTV Music Video Award for Video of the Year. The album, while loaded with great tunes (especially the haunting “Coupe de Ville”) didn’t really capture Young and the smokin’ hot band he’d put together -- the soulless digital production and mix by Niko Bolas tamped down the energy and edge. Despite the attention heaped on the title track and its video, This Note’s For You sold poorly and, like every album Young had released since Rust Never Sleeps, critics received it tepidly at best.
Although This Note’s For You is somewhat limp, Young’s live performances supporting it were another beast entirely. That leads us to Bluenote Café, an enormously entertaining live collection more than makes up for what This Note’s For You lacked as a studio creation. Young’s band was on fire night after night. Bluenote Café includes recordings from 11 different shows from November ‘87 through August ‘88. The collection was originally compiled for release in 1988, but Young scrapped it following the commercial failure of its parent studio album. Finally, 27 years later, fans get to hear just how great Neil Young could be during his supposedly down period of the 1980s. It’s the second time in recent years that an ‘80s archival release has blown the doors off expectations -- Young’s 2011 release A Treasure, comprising live performances from his 1984-1985 “country” period with his backing band International Harvesters, is similarly top-notch.
Bluenote Café encompasses 23 songs and two and a half hours over the course of two CDs or four LPs and incorporates material that spans decades. Two of the tracks have been previously released: the recordings of “This Note’s For You” and “Ain’t it The Truth” are the exact same ones that appeared on the 1993 contract-filling compilation for Geffen, Lucky Thirteen. Four of the songs have never been officially released in any form: “Welcome to the Big Room”, “Bad News Comes to Town”, “Crime of the Heart”, and “Doghouse”. “Soul of a Woman” was first performed on Young’s 1982 tour in support of Trans, and had been an occasional part of his live shows in varying arrangements ever since, but it never made it onto a studio album. A performance with the International Harvesters was included on A Treasure. The mournful “Bad News Comes to Town” is a song that Young originally wrote in the mid-'70s during the period that yielded classic albums like On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night. Another rarity is “Fool For Your Love”, which was first released on Young’s 2000 live album Road Rock Vol. 1: Friends & Relatives but has never been issued as a studio recording.
“Ain’t it the Truth” and “Hello Lonely Woman” both date back from the early ‘60s when Young was in junior high and playing in Winnipeg with his first band the Squires. They’re simple, but Young and his band imbue them with great spirit. The 13-minute behemoth “Ordinary People” was recorded for This Note’s For You but Young shelved it until finally unearthing it in 2007 for Chrome Dreams II. The epic “Crime in the City” would eventually appear in studio form on Young’s stellar 1989 album Freedom. The slow-burning “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me” was originally intended for Everybody’s Rockin’ but David Geffen pulled the plug on the sessions before it could be recorded (a live version with the Shocking Pinks appeared on Lucky Thirteen). The blues-rock shuffle “I’m Goin’” first appeared as the b-side to the largely-ignored second single from This Note’s For You, “Ten Men Workin’”. The Motown-infused “On the Way Home” dates from the final Buffalo Springfield album, 1968’s Last Time Around. “Tonight’s the Night”, of course, is the title track to Young’s storied 1975 album, and the 20-minute version featured here is an absolute knockout.
The rest of the songs are from This Note’s For You, although without exception the live version trumps the studio recording. They come alive with electric intensity. “Sunny Inside” is sterile on the album, but the performance here, with horns full blazing, is vintage Young. “Ten Men Workin’”, with its walking bass line and rapid-fire horn riffs, far outstrips the original release. “Married Man” is fiery old-school blues played with real gusto -- it’s obvious Young and his band are having a blast on stage. The long, atmospheric ballad “Twilight” is perhaps the biggest revelation. On This Note’s For You it’s so brittle and thin as to be almost unlistenable. The live take, with blistering guitar and saxophone solos and an impassioned vocal by Young, is fantastic.
Those who casually dismiss Neil Young’s ‘80s work would be well-advised to give it another close look. Young wasn’t flailing about from style to style because he was desperately trying to fit into a new era and he was unsure how to do it. He was simply doing what he always does -- whatever feels right to him at the time. One listen to A Treasure will reveal that far from being an intentional thorn in David Geffen’s side, Young was absolutely sincere and completely all-in to his “country” period, and the same is true with the tight blues-rock of Bluenote Café. Yeah, Young may have had trouble translating the sounds in his head into compelling studio albums during this period (a problem that would end once and for all at the end of the decade with Freedom), but in his live performances he was giving it all that he had and was totally invested in this music -- it was never a lark. The same is true today. His most recent studio albums, Storytone and The Monsanto Years have been underwhelming to say the least, but his current tour is getting nothing but raves.
Neil Young isn’t afraid to try and fail -- that’s the secret to his success and longevity. He has earned the stature to do that in a fickle industry, and he’s still out there, nearly 50 years since his first album with Buffalo Springfield, doing exactly what he wants to do. We are all fortunate that he is, but we’re also fortunate that in the past decade he’s finally loosened the locks on his musical vault and has been unleashing one superb archival release after another, each covering another aspect of his vast musical legacy. Bluenote Café is essential Neil Young, and further evidence that Young’s ‘80s work has more value than many fans and critics would expect or admit.