10 Memorable Songs to Celebrate Neil Young’s 75th Birthday
Hear our selection of the American-Canadian singer-songwriter’s best songs
This year, Toronto-born folk-rock star Neil Young has been busy putting out some previously unreleased material. On June 19th, he released Homegrown, a set of songs he had recorded in 1974-75. And though the launch date clashed with Bob Dylan’s much-appreciated Rough And Rowdy Ways, it had its own set of admirers.
To mark his 75th birthday today, Young has come up with Return To Greendale, a live album recorded with his band Crazy Horse during concerts to promote his 2003 album Greendale. Basically, it contains live versions of the same songs, but it brings him back in the news.
With 40 studio albums, including last year’s Colorado, Young is one of the most prolific musicians ever, currently ahead of Dylan by one record. This is besides his early work with the groups Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young (CSNY). With his quintessential nasal twang, unique style of songwriting and good balance of electric and acoustic repertoire, Young has attracted millions of fans, besides being a huge influence on the early 1990s Seattle grunge movement.
Naturally, with such a huge catalog, selecting only 10 songs wasn’t easy. We thus stuck to some of the old favorites, mostly from the 1970s, even representing his earlier work with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, While the first song on this list is arguably his most popular one, the rest are arranged in chronological order of release.
1. “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)”/ Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
This was an acoustic rendition of the song, whose hard rock version was “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black).” It was one of the highlights of the album Rust Never Sleeps, and was written in response to the punk movement that had become popular in the late 1970s. He made references to Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, and the song was something that everyone associated Young with, especially when he sang “Rock ‘n roll is here to stay.”
2. “Broken Arrow”/ Buffalo Springfield Again (1967)
One of the early songs to showcase Young’s genius, this six-minute suite used styles as diverse as folk-rock, jazz and marching drums. By using an organ and a clarinet, it had a different feel. The opening lines “The lights turned on and the curtain fell down, and when it was over it felt like a dream” set up the song’s mood. Buffalo Springfield also featured the genius of Richie Furay, Stephen Stills and Jack Nitszche.
3. “Ohio”/ single with CSNY (1970)
One of the most impactful protest songs ever, it was written by Young in response to shootings at a 1970 rally in Ohio, where four were killed and nine injured as they opposed the involvement of U.S. troops in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. It was first released as a single with CSNY, and later used in their live album 4 Way Street. The words went, “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own, this summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.”
4. “Helpless”/ Déjà Vu with CSNY (1970)
Young had originally recorded this song with his band Crazy Horse, but felt it was more suited for CSNY, and thus used it in the landmark album Deja Vu. He thus sang the lead vocals, while David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash pitched in with the harmonies. It was a simple song, with the lines “Blue, blue windows behind the stars, yellow moon on the rise, big birds flying across the sky, throwing shadows on our eyes.”
5. “Southern Man”/ After The Gold Rush (1970)
A hard-hitting song describing the racism against blacks in the southern US, it was one of the early highlights of Young’s career. The singer used the example of a white man and how he treated his slaves, singing the lines, “Southern man, better keep your head; don’t forget what your good book said”. It was believed, without evidence, that the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Sweet Home Alabama” was partly inspired by this and another Neil Young song “Alabama.”
6. “Heart Of Gold”/ Harvest (1972)
Young’s 1972 album Harvest was a masterpiece, with great songs like “Old Man” and “The Needle And The Damage Done.” He tasted enormous success with “Heart of Gold,” as he sang, “I want to live, I want to give, I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold.” Young played the acoustic guitar and harmonica, and was joined on backing vocals by the great James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt.
7. “Sugar Mountain”/ Decade (1977)
This was one of the earliest songs Young wrote in the mid-1960s, talking about his upbringing in Canada. It was used in the 1977 compilation album Decade, and two years later in the live album Live Rust. The lines, “It’s so noisy at the fair and all your friends are there, and the candyfloss you had and your mother and your dad” brim with nostalgia. This song and “Comes A Time” fell in a similar zone.
8. “Powderfinger”/ Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
The lines “Look out ma, there’s a white boat coming up the river, with a red beacon, and a flag, and a man on the rail,” accompanied by a classic electric guitar line, have become standard Neil Young fare. It’s said to be about a family of bootleggers chased by the authorities, and has become the staple of every live Neil Young concert.
9. “Like A Hurricane”/ American Stars N’ Bars (1977)
Another of Young’s electric classics, this has one of the most recognizable electric guitar riffs in rock. The lines, “You are like a hurricane, there’s calm in your eye, and I’m getting blown away, to somewhere safer where the feeling stays, I want to love you but I’m getting blown away” have become singalong favorites. The song has had a huge influence on many 1990s grunge bands.
10. “Harvest Moon”/ Harvest Moon (1992)
One of the most romantic songs penned by Young, it was written for his wife, the late Pegi, who he eventually separated from. “When we were strangers, I watched you from far; When we were lovers, I loved you with all my heart”, sang Young. With Ronstadt on back-up. The music video showed him and Pegi dance, with the lines going, “Because I’m still in love with you, I want to see you dance again.” It’s one of his most memorable songs.