Thursday, November 15, 2007

Neil Young: Trans-former Man

Neil Young Week Part III

Bob Dylan’s plugging in at Newport in 1965 and subsequent 1966 tour with the Hawks – the fans booing, calling him “Judas,” etc. - is widely considered rock's boldest act, a case of an artist challenging his fans by serving his muse. But in terms of fearlessly confounding audience expectations, even mighty Bob can’t touch Neil Young and his 1982 electronic album Trans.

Several years before Trans, Neil and his wife Pegi gave birth to a son, Ben, with a case of cerebral palsy so severe he is unable to speak. Grasping for ways to communicate with his boy, Neil found he had more success when he used a speech synthesizer called a vocoder. The struggle to break through to his son, and his fascination with new wave music (he was friendly with Devo, who supplied him with the phrase “rust never sleeps.”) inspired the sound and themes of Trans.

The music sounded nothing like anything Neil had ever recorded. Instead of his familiar proto-grunge or back-porch folk, Trans was full of synthesized handclaps and electronic drums. And Neil’s processed voice was eerie and unrecognizable.

Yet some of the hallmarks of a Neil album were firmly in place, namely strong melodies. At the time, Neil said something to the effect that if you cranked Trans on your stereo and listened to it through the walls from another room, it would sound just like all his other records. And he’s right. Just listen below to the Trans version of “Transformer Man” and then listen to how easily it translates into a “Neil Young” song in the performance below from 1993’s Unplugged.

Trans was praised by critics, but was a dud in terms of sales. So Neil did what any sensible rock iconoclast would do: he made a rockabilly album. So extreme were Neil’s digressions in the 80s that label honcho/free-man-in-Paris David Geffen sued Neil for making "uncommercial" records. Geffen demanded that Neil repay the $3 million he had received for Trans and Everybody's Rockin'. Neil responded by countersuing Geffen for $21 million, charging breach of contract and fraud. Both suits were dropped in 1985.

Trans remains unreleased in the US on CD, but you can get a couple tunes on the excellent Reagan-era compilation Lucky Thirteen, including “Sample and Hold” seen below. If you think the music sounds strange, wait 'til you see it being performed.

Neil Young, “Transformer Man,” Trans/Lucky Thirteen, 1982
MP3: Neil Young, “Transformer Man,” Unplugged, 1993
YouTube: Neil Young, “Sample and Hold,” live 1982


nilsfan said...

I've read about Trans before but never heard the music or saw video of it before recently. I am just blown away. Transformer Man is such an excellent song. The whole Trans tour must have been such an experience. Wish it had been more appreciated. But as a fan of Nils Lofgren, I guess I am used to that. Great post.

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