Classic Album: Neil Young – Harvest
Wary of his growing fame and suffering a debilitating back problem, 1971 saw Neil Young retreat from the limelight to record a simple “homey” LP. Oddness followed, with one-armed drumming in old kitchens and the classic mixing instruction “More barn!” shouted from a boat. Unintentionally, Harvest made Neil Young more famous than he’d ever been…
It’s the one Neil Young album people who don’t really like Neil Young own. And Harvest may not even be Neil Young’s best album. Indeed, critics say it most certainly isn’t, with preceding solo salvos Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After The Gold Rush trumping it for sophistication and consistency. But Harvest was and is more than just ‘another Neil Young LP’.
It was Neil Young’s first big hit: and despite his ‘legend’ status, he’s really not flirted with the mainstream that often. Heart Of Gold actually went to No. 1 in the US: according to Billboard’s own figures, Harvest was 1972’s best-selling album – more copies, even, than The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, Simon And Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust… and releases from Elton John, and a then-rampaging Deep Purple.
Even more than that, Harvest tapped into the growing sense in the early 70s that music really didn’t need to be ever-more grandiose – take that, Yes and your Fragile intricacies called The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)! Another noted star of the day was Carole King, whose Tapestry and Music also proved that good songs simply always win the day. Young wasn’t the first to do it, but
that well-worn ‘broken-hearted singer-songwriter’ vibe as valid ‘rock’ performance? It kinda starts with Harvest. That’s right: Ed Sheeran is Neil Young’s fault (we joke).
Young himself wasn’t always comfortable with Harvest’s fruits – more of which later – but it was almost a triumph of Young against himself. Lord knows, he can be an acquired taste, but if there’s one Neil Young LP that everyone seems to have – and by rights it should be owned on vinyl – it’s this. And it’s ultimately because Harvest yields some of the most accessible music Neil Young has ever made.
It’s the one Neil Young album people who don’t really like Neil Young own. And Harvest may not even be Neil Young’s best album
Despite his notorious hard-headedness, Young has always been a serial collaborator. And Harvest is really no different. Although his name alone adorns the cover, he hooked some celebrated Nashville country session musicians he dubbed the Stray Gators, and also the London Symphony Orchestra. He also tapped future folk/country ascendants Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, while previous bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash all provided backing vocals.
Sounds confused? It was, maybe. But there were more factors involved in making Harvest than Young finding some pals to embellish his reedy whine. There were crucial decisions about where to record and new technological methods to be explored. Yet there was also a simultaneous, if seemingly contradictory, desire to go back to ‘old ways’; lofty ideals on ‘green’ LP packaging… It all adds up to vinyl paradise. Young was even wearing plaid shirts. Slap Harvest into a 2017 Hoxton coffee shop, and its artisanal charms would positively scream ‘hipster’!
But it’s also more genuine than that. Get a copy of Harvest in patina’d-paper gatefold sleeve (preferably with that original lyric sheet inlay) and you can hold it up proudly to anyone: “This, people, is a real ‘record’.”
“I can’t think of anything else to do…”
In a now-legendary performance at Toronto’s Massey Hall on 19 January 1971, Young shuffled in front of his hometown audience and remarked of his songs: “I’ve written so many new ones that I can’t think of anything else to do with them other than sing them.”
Potent, stripped-down songs called Heart Of Gold, Old Man and The Needle And The Damage Done were duly tested. Young liked them, his audience loved them. As part of his then Journey Through The Past tour, a newer image of Young alone – free from Buffalo Springfield and CSNY – hunkered over his Martin acoustic, hammering out those clanking chords, was one soon set in stone.
“I’ve written so many new ones that I can’t think of anything else to do with them other than sing them” – Neil Young
In fact, Young’s relocation to balladville was purely a practical concern: persistent back problems, which later required surgery, had made it painful for him to play his weighty ‘Old Black’ Les Paul and he simply couldn’t perform properly with it, or even standing up. A month after Toronto, while playing with Taylor and Ronstadt for a Johnny Cash TV Show session recorded in Nashville, Young was still travelling light, with just his (now iconic) Martin D-45 acoustic.
While in ‘Music City’, Young accepted a dinner invite from young producer Elliot Mazer, who had just launched Quadrafonic Sound Studios, a converted two-storey house in Nashville’s Music Row. Mazer had recognised early the sense of ‘romance’ that a place like Quad could offer artists: “The control room was the old porch. The living room and dining room became the two live rooms, and the kitchen became a drum area.”
The name, though? “We called it Quadrafonic as a joke,” Mazer later explained, “although it did have four speakers in the control room. I did one quad mix there.”
Young had been amassing studio gear at his California ranch, but it wasn’t really set up. He took up Mazer’s offer to come by Quad and record. Nashville may still have been – and in fact, still is – associated with 10-gallon hats and spurs, but Music Row (an area, not a street) was no rural backwater. Indeed, Nashville wasn’t full of cowboys, it was full of professionals. These days, Quad, now named Round Hill Music, is neighbour to the lawyers, accountancy firms and parking lots that keep Music City moving. But it was in these non-agrarian environs that this country-fied Harvest bore first fruit.
Young started at Quad on 6 February 1971. It was a Saturday night, and Mazer had to quickly assemble a band. Some of them, Young didn’t even know.
Elliot Mazer later told tapeop.com: “Neil was very specific about what he wanted. When Neil Young plays a song, his body language dictates everything about the arrangement. Neil sat in the control room of Quadrafonic and played Heart Of Gold. Kenny [Buttrey, drums] and I looked at each other, and we both knew it was a No. 1 record. We heard the song and all we had to do was move Neil into the studio and get the band out there, start the machine and make it sound good. It was incredible!
“At one point on another song, Neil said to Kenny that his hi-hat was too busy, so Kenny said, ‘Fine. I’ll sit on my
right hand’. He played the whole take sitting on his right hand.” By 8 February, only three days in, Young had already cut the versions of Old Man and Heart Of Gold to be released. “Neil and the band played live,” said Mazer, “same as every song on Harvest.”
“Head for the ditch”
In his own liner notes for the triple-vinyl Decade compilation album (1977), Young wrote “Heart Of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” In the words of collaborator David Crosby: “He’s not trying to do what everybody else is trying to do. Which is to have a hit, and keep pulling that handle. Neil doesn’t care about that.”
The post-Harvest deaths of Danny Whitten and then roadie/close friend Bruce Berry cast a dark shadow over Young, and the three albums that followed – On The Beach, Tonight’s The Night and (the out-of-circulation, live) Time Fades Away – were ragged, noisy, unhinged affairs. And deeply uncommercial, too. Tonight’s The Night – “a yowling, howling mess of a record where everyone is blotto” in the words of Jimmy McDonough, author of the Young biography Shakey – has became a critics’ favourite because it’s a harrowing listen.
So Neil Young naïfs who like Harvest can confidently go back one album to After The Gold Rush. But don’t expect what comes right after to be a step-up. As McDonough says: “Whatever happens around the guy, you can’t count on it continuing.”
All songs written by
All songs produced by
Neil Young and Elliot Mazer
Except Needle And The Damage Done (Young and Henry Lewy), There’s A World and A Man Needs
A Maid (Young and Jack Nitzsche)
Neil Young Lead vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, harmonica, piano
Ben Keith Pedal-steel guitar
Jack Nitzsche Piano, arrangements, orchestration
Tim Drummond Bass
Kenny Buttrey Drums
Variations see individual tracks
1 – Out On The Weekend
A seemingly heartbroken lament for a lost love, though Young later expanded on his lyrics “Can’t relate to joy/He tries to speak and/Can’t begin to say” by saying: “That just means that I’m happy so that I can’t get it all out. But… the way I wrote it sounds sad.” It has an unbelievably simple structure: while Young’s chorus chords shift, the bass and pedal-steel remain constantly on an A note. A country-rock 101, it’s been covered by everyone from Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes to Elliott Smith to Lady Gaga.
2 – Harvest
Additional musicians John Harris piano
Debuted on solo piano at his Royal Festival Show in Londonon 27 Feb 1971: “This is a new song I just wrote last night. I can’t, uuh, remember all the words… A lot of words, folks.” Despite Young reading his lyric sheet (the final, recorded version’s vary slightly), Harvest immediately hit home with the crowd – even more so because he mentioned it was to be his next album’s title.
3 – A Man Needs A Maid
Additional musicians The London Symphony Orchestra
The first controversial orchestral track, and originally part of a ‘suite’ with Heart Of Gold. Young took flak for his language, being accused by some of being sexist (although when he debuted it at Massey Hall in Toronto, he actually sang the song as originally written: “Afraid, a man feels afraid…”). In that light, some interpret it as conveying the lies men tell themselves because they’re so bad at being emotionally open partners – ergo, it’s pro-women.
In his book, Journey Through The Past: The Stories Behind The Classic Songs Of Neil Young, music writer Nigel Williamson reckons it could just be literal fact: Young’s back injury at the time meant he needed a professional maid. And anyway, rumours suggest it was inspired by first seeing his new love, Carrie Snodgress, in the movie Diary Of A Mad Housewife. Young has artfully deflected any over-literal interpretations by saying, “Robin Hood loved a maid long before women’s liberation.”
4 – Heart of Gold
Additional musicians Linda Ronstadt,
James Taylor backing vocals,
Teddy Irwin second acoustic guitar
An atypically straight love song for Young. Rolling Stone said it bore “superstardom’s weariest clichés”, but the public didn’t care: It became Young’s only No. 1 single. It was the first track recorded in Nashville on 6 February 1971 with the Stray Gators and was essentially finished in its second take – Ronstadt and Taylor added backing vocals the next night. Ronstadt recalled to Mojo: “We were sat on the couch in the control room, but I had to get up on my knees to be on the same level as James because he’s so tall. Then we sang all night, the highest notes I could sing. It was so hard, but nobody minded. It was dawn when we walked out of the studio.”
Lady Gaga is clearly a fan of Harvest. In her country-ish Yoü And I hit from 2011, she sings: “On my birthday you sang me Heart Of Gold/With a guitar humming and no clothes.” Plus, Gaga’s video is set in a barn. See?
5 – Are You Ready for the Country?
Additional musicians Jack Nitzsche lap-steel guitar,
David Crosby, Graham Nash backing vocals
Rolling Stone called it “an in-joke throwaway intended for the amusement of certain of Neil’s superstar pals”, even though the lyrics – “I was talkin’ to the preacher, said, ‘God was on my side’/Then I ran into the hangman, he said, ‘It’s time to die’” – suggest darker political undercurrents. It did end up a country hit though, covered by Waylon Jennings in 1976. Young plays piano on this and Nitzsche adds rather woozy lap steel, with the basic track recorded at Broken Arrow.
6 – Old Man
Additional musicians Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor backing vocals & six-string banjo, James McMahon piano
Young told his BBC audience in February 1971 that this was inspired by “the caretaker, the foreman” living on the California ranch when Young bought it in September 1970. Young’s Broken Arrow ranch was next door to a previous hippy commune known as Star Hill Academy For Anything and was set deep in a secluded redwood forest. When Young took it over, only foreman Louis Avila was left, “taking care of all the cows”.
7 – There’s a World
A Man Needs A Maid survives its strings, but this is undoubtedly Harvest’s weakest track: Rolling Stone likened it to “a chocolate-covered cheeseburger…
This is the one everyone skips when they play Harvest, even if they don’t all admit it.” They’re right.
8 – Alabama
Additional musicians David Crosby,
Stephen Stills backing vocals
A companion (or, if you’re unkind, a rehash) of Southern Man from preceding album After The Gold Rush and part of the torturous back-and-forth spat/not-spat between Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd (Sweet Home Alabama). It has great gritty Gretsch guitar from Young and is a sonic forbear of the ‘ditch’ to where he was headed. More nuanced than many give its lyrics credit for, perhaps, but attacking a whole State is pretty brazen. Bad Neil!
9 – The Needle And The Damage Done
A purely solo track, recorded live at UCLA on 30 January, 1971, before the Quad sessions had started. “Neil chose that one,” Mazer remembered. “Neil has a phenomenal memory and he can recall a particular take from years before.” The song is perhaps not wholly about Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, but is largely inspired by him after Young had dismissed Crazy Horse from the After The Gold Rush recording because of Whitten’s heroin addiction.
It’s uncomfortably prescient. Young did ask Whitten back to rehearse in San Francisco in November 1972 for the upcoming Harvest support tour, but Danny was still in bad shape and playing terribly. At his wits’ end, Young gave Whitten $50 for rehab and a plane ticket back to LA: later that same night, Whitten died from a fatal combination of Valium and alcohol, which he was using to try to get over the heroin. For years, Young said he felt responsible for Whitten’s death: “That blew my mind. Fucking blew my mind. I loved Danny.”
10 – Words/(Between The Lines Of Age)
Additional musicians Graham Nash,
Stephen Stills backing vocals
In Waging Heavy Peace, Young writes: “Words is the first song that reveals a little of my early doubts of being in a long-term relationship with Carrie… The peace was going away. It was changing too fast… That was how we did Harvest, in love at the beginning and with some doubts at the end.”
With timeshifts between 11/8 and straight 4/4, its ragged groove unravels gradually, ending the album with spluttering, snarling Young guitar… a world away from the hushed intimacy of Out On The Weekend.
Surround Yourself? Harvest’s DVD-A 5.1 mix
Harvest is undoubtedly best heard on vinyl, but in 2002, Neil Young did make some concession to digital audio (which he generally loathes) by instigating a 5:1 Surround Sound version for DVD-Audio. Elliot Mazer – again co-opted to produce the project – hadn’t even heard of the format at the time. He told Mix: “Neil called up and said, ‘We want to do a new mix of Harvest’. I said, ‘Are you out of your mind? You’re going to take a record that everybody knows and you’re going to do a new version of it?!’”
Young himself made a copy of the analogue 16-track masters and oversaw a mix that reflected, as best as he could remember, what Harvest sounded like to make. “What it came down to was immersion,” explained Mazer. “Putting the listener in the room, in the studio with the band.” As such, Young’s voice is centre-front, the drums at the ‘rear’, but it remains hugely controversial. Some buyers maintain there’s a manufacturing error, with them suggesting a channel switch-around or even a DIY-fix using Audacity software… even if it was how Young ‘remembered’ and favoured it, most listeners seemed to prefer the hi-res stereo version.
Stick to vinyl. The Limited Edition Harvest 180g vinyl reissue/remaster (2009, Reprise 9362-49786-5) with exact repro artwork is circa £25. Original copies (1972, Reprise K54005) are still found second-hand for all manner of prices, though a mint example with the fold-out lyric sheet can sell for circa £70.
“Neil said to Kenny that his hi-hat was too busy, so Kenny said, ‘Fine. I’ll sit on my right hand’” – Elliot Mazer
Handcrafted in Nashville, California, New York… and Barking?
But Young was soon on the move, to London, for BBC TV’s In Concert (another legendary show) and a live date at the Royal Festival Hall. On the same visit, A Man Needs A Maid was one of two songs recorded with Young on piano and with backing from the London Symphony Orchestra, the glamorous recording location being… Barking Town Hall (residents, call Barking & Dagenham Direct on 020 8215 3000 for all your pest-control concerns!).
Along with the portentous There’s A World, its strings were arranged by Stray Gators keyboardist Jack Nitzsche. Like Phil Spector’s strings on The Beatles’ Let It Be, the arrangements of Nitzsche – notably also Spector’s production sidekick – have often been criticised as overbearing and ill-matching.
But Rolling Stone said the strings on A Man Needs A Maid made for “a moving union of grandeur and vulnerability”. Young has never cared for critics and, anyway, he was happy: “Bob Dylan told me it was one of his favourites,” Neil noted. “I listened closer to Bob.”
Leaving the grandeur of Barking behind, Young returned to the US. Back in Nashville’s Quad, he and the Stray Gators quickly recorded LP opener Out On The Weekend and the title track itself. The former remains a remarkable-sounding cut: the almost somnambulant plod of Kenny Buttrey’s drums, Young’s hovering, sobbing harmonica, the tolling-bell notes of Ben Keith’s pedal steel… all echo like the ghosts of Young’s love life in the lyrics. Out On The Weekend encapsulated just why its recently divorced author was finding the life of a travelling star so damned shitty, even though he had started a new relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress.
In just a few actual recording days – five, maybe six – Harvest was six-tracks done: a testament to just how strong these simple songs were. Young took a break for most of April to September 1971, when he reconvened the Stray Gators at the California ranch he’d called Broken Arrow. The session yielded a more electrified crop, and in the expansive wooden barn they nailed down Alabama,
Are You Ready For The Country? and Words / (Between The Lines Of Age).
There was one more recording needed. And for another Young classic, The Needle And The Damage Done, he didn’t even bother with barn or studio: the album track is taken from an early live recording from 30 January 1971. The day after Toronto: the day after Neil Young said: “I can’t think of anything else to do…” September had come, and the Harvest was all but over.
Just What Every LP Needs… “More Barn!”
When it came to mixing, time was again split between Quad in Nashville and Broken Arrow in Cali – for some unfathomable reason, Barking held no allure. Young had succumbed and went to hospital for back surgery, while Mazer duplicated Quad’s mixing equipment in the living room at Broken Arrow. He mixed the Barking orchestral sessions and most of the Barn’s electric tracks and flew to New York to overdub Crosby and Nash’s backing vocal parts. The final mix was soon completed at Broken Arrow – apart from some outside opinion, that is.
So it was that Graham Nash visited Broken Arrow, expecting to hear the album from the comfort of Young’s makeshift home studio. Not so, as Nash revealed later on. “That’s not what Neil had in mind. He said, ‘Get into the rowboat,’” recounted Nash to NPR. “I said, ‘Get into the rowboat?’. He said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to go out into the middle of the lake’. Now, I think he’s got a little cassette player with him or a little, you know, early digital-format player. So I’m thinking, I’m going to wear headphones and listen in the relative peace in the middle of Neil’s lake.
“Oh, no. He has his entire house as the left speaker and his entire barn as the right speaker. And I heard Harvest coming out of these two incredibly large loudspeakers, louder than hell. It was unbelievable. Elliot Mazer, who produced Neil, produced Harvest, came down to the shore of the lake and he shouted out to Neil: ‘How was that, Neil?’ And I swear to God, Neil Young shouted back:
“He has his entire house as the left speaker and his entire barn as the right speaker… It was unbelievable” – Graham Nash
The tale enraptured fans of Young’s idiosyncracy – so much so that superfan Brad Brandeau, of fan site hyperrust.org, started a cult line in ‘More Barn!’ T-shirts in the 90s (with a cartoon Young and Nash in a rowboat (pictured), that eventually earned the Neil seal of approval. Young still gets asked about the tale to this day and in 2016, confirmed to The Huffington Post that his punchline was true. “Yeah,” Young recalled of his “More barn!” instructions for Harvest: “I think it was a little house heavy.”
Young’s own ambivalence about Harvest is well known. For every disparaging comment of his (see the “Headed For The Ditch…” boxout on page 83), there’s evidence to the contrary – he still plays the songs live; Harvest Moon (again with the Stray Gators, 1992) is a sequel of sorts, and Young once told the NME Harvest was “probably the best record I’ve made”.
But yes, Neil Young changes his mind from time to time – so what? He was likely mirroring himself when he said about über-fans who adore everything he does: “Well, they must be fuckin’ completely crazy. They must have some kind of personality disorder.”
And those with only a passing interest in Young know that Harvest is one of his best. Young once told a BBC documentary team that he views his albums as “pictures in a gallery” and his true concern is about “how they’re seen in 30 or 40 years’ time”. And, by that measure – from its simple but broad songstrokes to a superbly detailed production – Harvest remains a masterpiece.