Friday, 10 November 2017

Forty Years On... Neil Young - American Stars 'n Bars

My appreciation of Neil Young's music predates this album by a few years. Being an unrepentant hippie in my early teens, I'd immersed myself in the Woodstock ethos, and in the music from the film soundtrack, and through that had discovered Crosby, Stills & Nash and their occasional inclusion of a fourth member - Neil Young. This led me to 'After The Goldrush' and 'Harvest', albums which I still value to this day, and also to the compilation 'Decade', a triple album which sadly my pocket money just wouldn't stretch to.


But earlier that year (1977) came 'American Stars 'n Bars', which I could stretch to, on cassette. It's a strange album in some ways, but a good one nonetheless. The cover depicts Young lying, presumably drunk, on a bar-room floor near a spittoon and a lady of, shall we say, negotiable affection, with the night sky above him.

The music is an interesting mix of Young's different styles. 'The Old Country Waltz' fits into the 'Don't Let It Bring You Down' school of depressing maudlin songs, with fiddle and slide guitar to ramp up the feeling of woe in another 'my girl's left me' outpouring. 'Saddle Up The Palomino' is a little rockier, with a memorable electric riff to open with, but continues the country feel. 'Hey Babe' is jollier and more acoustic, but still with Young's distinctive nasal whine - not a criticism, just an observation! 'Hold Back The Tears' takes us back to 'O woe is me' territory, which his voice seems to suit, but this is a song with a hopeful edge - 'Just around the next corner may be waiting your true love' he sings. Side One ends with 'Bite The Bullet', a hard, simple rocker to lift the mood a little. For a Canadian he does the Southern rock thing quite well!

Side Two is a different kettle of fish altogether from Side One, with 2 longer songs bookended by two shorter ones. I must confess, too, that forty years on I still chuckle to myself at the opening line of 'Star of Bethlehem' and how my teenage mind reacted to 'Ain't it hard when you wake up in the morning...' (I'm a bad man...) The song itself is a simple acoustic song, with the bonus of an appearance by Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals. 'Will To Love' is the only song that features Young on his own, and is a dreamy, ethereal song with acoustic guitars and occasional piano that always gives me the impression of being recorded around a campfire somewhere in the middle of nowhere. This is, for me, serious chill-out music. 'Like a Hurricane' on the other hand is solid electric guitar-led rock that Neil Young does best, on a par with 'Southern Man' or 'Cortex The Killer'. This was the first song I'd heard from the album, probably on Alan Freeman's show one Saturday afternoon, and it sold me on the album. Simple, but powerful, as is the album closer, 'Homegrown', in a different way. And any drug references are purely coincidental...

It's albums like this one that continue to convince me that 1977 was a classic year for the kind of music that has accompanied my life for the ensuing forty years. There is a permanence, a longevity, a timelessness about this, and all the albums I've been revisiting over the last 6 months. 1977 was a key year for me personally, but also musically in forging tastes that have stayed with me, but have developed over those years.

I can't believe it's been 40 years, though!