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Neil Young - legendary Canadian rock guitarist and singer-songwriter

Updated on June 3, 2017

Photo of Neil Young

Neil Young at a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young gig in Ottawa, July 2006. Photo by Adrian M. Buss
Neil Young at a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young gig in Ottawa, July 2006. Photo by Adrian M. Buss

Neil Young the archetypal singer-songwriter from Canada

Neil Young is an archetypal singer-songwriter who composes and writes his own songs and backs himself on guitar or keyboards. He is an excellent example of a protest singer and an acoustic performer.

However, this is only one side of Neil Young's talents because he is an incredible electric guitarist with his own distinctive style and a singer who ranks among the top rock stars as well. So much so that at one point he was dubbed the "Godfather of Grunge" due to his use of distortion and loud volume for his guitar solos backed by the pounding beat of Crazy Horse the band he has most frequently fronted.

Neil Young - Heart Of Gold

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Neil Young's long career

Neil Young was with Buffalo Springfield before his solo career, a band in which Stephen Stills (later of super-group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young also featuring Graham Nash ex-The Hollies and David Crosby formerly of The Byrds)) also played. Buffalo Springfield's song For What It's Worth has become something of a classic and a much sampled track.

Neil Young was a songwriter for the band and his sensitive side was already showing in songs like Expecting To Fly . He really proved his talent as a songwriter with his solo album simply entitled Neil Young which was released after Buffalo Springfield has disbanded in 1968. Young was not happy with this album though because he felt it was over-produced.

His song The Loner appealed directly to fans who perhaps identified themselves with the lyric. Another song I've Loved Her For So Long was to point the way for many of his songs at a later date, songs of loneliness and of searching for love.

Neil Young followed his debut with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere , an album that was to show off his trademark guitar style in its early form. Rock songs like Cinnamon Girl , in an open tuning, and Cowgirl In The Sand were to become favourites of Neil's fans.

There is an emotional quality of frustration that Young translates into his squealing and straining solos on electric guitar. It is as if he plays the blues but not in a standard blues format.

The cover depicted an illustration of Neil Young leaning against a tree and accompanied by a dog. He is wearing a checked lumberjack shirt that was to become part of his image and show his Canadian roots.

The album that catapulted Neil Young into mega-stardom in 1970 was After The Goldrush which contained one of Young's only single hits - Only Love Can Break Your Heart - and was a great success in the album charts.

More themes of loneliness were explored in this album. Neil Young recorded a cover of another artist's song for this album in Don Gibson's Oh, Lonesome Me which contains plenty of whining harmonica, which was another sound that Young has become known for just like Bob Dylan.

The title track After The Goldrush talks of dis-satisfaction with the world to the degree that Young, who positions himself in an almost apocalyptic "burned out basement" goes into a dream in which he sees "silver spaceships" that were "flying Mother nature's silver seeds to a new home in the sun."

Southern Man is an attack on racism and features much of Young's brilliant emotional guitarwork.

The cover depicted a sullen and morose looking Neil Young, surrounded by guitars in one photo and wearing patchwork jeans. The lyrics are in Young's messy handwritten scrawl. There's a sense of depression and bleakness about it all but tempered by love songs like When You Dance You Can Really Love and I Believe In You.

Neil Young followed up the success of After The Goldrush with Harvest , which, in 1972, spawned his only number one single ever - Heart of Gold . James Taylor and Carole King were both featured as guest artists on the record. In many ways Heart of Gold became the song that many people associated Neil Young with.

After this, Young's albums and work have had high points and lows in an extraordinary career in which he has released 33 studio albums and has spanned 50 years as a performer.

Never afraid to experiment and change his style, Neil Young has recorded and performed Country songs such as those on Comes A Time and on Homegrown , and he went through a phase of experimenting with a vocoder and synths on the 1982 album Trans .

On Everybody's Rockin' in the following year Neil ventured into rockabilly. He was backed at the time by a band known as the Shocking Pinks. The album and accompanying tour did not go down well and David Geffen, head of Geffen Records, the label Young was on at the time, sued him for not making music that represented his usual style.

Neil Young was back in top form and in the charts in 1989 when his single Rockin' In The Free World , from the album Freedom , made it to number two in the American charts. The album features an acoustic version and much heavier grungier take.

Neil Young - Rockin' In The Free World

Neil Young the activist and protest singer

Neil Young has never been afraid to speak out about environmental, political and social causes and is very much an activist and protest singer.

In 1970, in the wake of the Kent State massacre, Neil Young wrote Ohio which was recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of which he was then a part. It was a hit and became a standard for anti-war rallies.

Many years later in 2006, Neil Young showed that unlike many of his contemporaries, he was still not afraid to speak his mind in his lyrics and record controversial songs. Dismayed with the Bush administration and ongoing war, Young wrote and recorded the album Living With War in less than a month and got the songs out over the Internet ahead of the actual album release.

The album includes Let's Impeach the President, in which Young accuses President Bush of being a liar. After this Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were reunited for what was called the "Freedom of Speech Tour".

Although Neil Young is now 71, he is still in many ways as fresh, energetic and angry as he was as a young man. This is why for so many people Neil is a real hero of the world of rock music.

© 2010 Steve Andrews


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    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 2 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you for commenting, Jean! Yes, when Neil does play covers he really makes them his own!

    • Jean Bakula profile image

      Jean Bakula 2 years ago from New Jersey

      I love the way Neil is so sincere. I was recently relistening to a tribute a lot of artists did for Bob Dylan, and loved the two numbers Young did on that, Tom Thumb Blues and a great version of All Along the Watchtower. I saw this hub listed at the bottom of one of my Famous Scorpio Sun Sign hubs.

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thanks for your feedback, Alastar!!

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Southern men don't need him around Bard. Nah, Shaky's awesome and Ronnie really loved him.

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 5 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      I love those albums too! Thanks for your comments!

    • theframjak profile image

      theframjak 5 years ago from East Coast

      Great Hub. I enjoyed reading about Niel. He is one of my favorites. I love After the Gold Rush and Comes a Time is very underrated.

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 6 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you for posting!

    • nilsarnejohnsen profile image

      nilsarnejohnsen 6 years ago from Sandnes, Noway

      Neil Young have so many fans. His music is fantastic.

      Here is a tributeband in Norway (Stavanger)

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you!

    • Missing Link profile image

      Missing Link 7 years ago from Oregon

      I love Neil Young! Great Hub!

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you for your post, Equealla!

    • equealla profile image

      equealla 7 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      Ironicly how they tried to put this man in "bondage" by his own "style", after doing so much for others in bondage. Thus the court case.

      Fortunately he did it his way! For this we still have a man strong and ready to defend whatever needs defending.

      Not only for talent, but for bravery he must never be forgotton.

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you, SomewayOuttaHere, eternaltreasures and FCEtier!

      Yes, Neil is actually my favourite singer-songwriter and musician too and been that for many years! Close competition from Dylan and Cohen but Neil won out some years back and stayed!

    • FCEtier profile image

      Chip 7 years ago from Cold Mountain

      I almost cut my hair....

    • SomewayOuttaHere profile image

      SomewayOuttaHere 7 years ago from TheGreatGigInTheSky

      Hey - nice to read about Neil Baby! He is my favourite musician...first real introduction to R&R as a kid was CSNY - most memorable concert; flew across Canada to see CSNY - the freedom tour...that brought back a lot of memories; saw him again in a small concert setting where I live now - was a fundraiser; his wife Peggy? was with him on stage (5-6 years ago)- 2 thousand people only; it was great. I have all of his work that was recorded on album and of course CD's of other years...but my albums are the most special. I guess I'm a fan - that's why I fondly refer to him as Neil Baby!

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you for your great comments, Lightning John and Sally's Trove!

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Be still, my beating heart.

      I knew of him first with Buffalo Springfield.

      He is not only a hero in the world of rock music, he is a hero in being a human being, persistently pressing on to say his piece in his way.

      Anger, or rebellion (they could be the same), is the hallmark of rock. One of its defining characteristics from the Elvis bump and grind to heavy metal to punk and beyond, is the challenging of the norm.

      Rock could be the musical genre that unites all frustrations across all ages.

    • lightning john profile image

      lightning john 7 years ago from Florida

      Now we're talking serious Great Music!

      I rate this way up, and following you now.

      Thanks a million!

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you, I am working on another for the 30 day challenge!

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 7 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      I also love Neil Young, brings back memories, great hub you always keep me coming back hope to see you read my hubs, have a fantastic day, and peace and light, darski

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thanks for the feedback, Tom!

    • justom profile image

      justom 7 years ago from 41042

      I've loved Neil Young from the 1st time I heard him and have seen him many times since. He hits the core of my being with those killer tunes. I always liked the fact that he tried new things. Having said all that, several months ago I found out he was doing a solo acoustic tour and it was starting in Louisville Ky, about an hour away from me. I was fired up and got on line to get tickets. Well how totally bummed out was I when I found out that the guy that wasn't singing for Miller (but in fact had a tour which Miller pimped) was charging more than $200 bucks for a ticket. I love Neil but that was offensive to me. Makes me glad I saw all the good stuff back in the days. Great hub man, Peace!! Tom

    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      Thank you, Billy and Saddlerider! There was so much more I could have said but I'm not getting paid for this and have another 28 hubs to do! lol

    • saddlerider1 profile image

      saddlerider1 7 years ago

      You sir could not have said it any better about this Canadian Icon. I am proud to call him a fellow Canadian and have followed his music most of my 62 years on this musical planet. He has always been in my mind a Desperado and a loner and most definitely a rebel, much like myself. He rocks in the Free World? that could be questionable by many. Great hub, bravo loved it. Keep Rockin

    • billyaustindillon profile image

      billyaustindillon 7 years ago

      A great tribute to one of the greats. He has had such a varied career from folk to hard rock to grunge to country. He does a lot of good for charity to. Harvest as classic as are his live albums. Rocking in the Free World with the guys from Pearl Jam was indeed a monster Jam - great stuff!