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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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