After the Gold Rush: 5 facts about Neil Young's breakthrough solo album on its 50th anniversary
The iconic album set the template for Young's career and pushed boundaries at the time
Neil Young is one of those artists whose sound defies generalization. Never one to be boxed in, he has often followed up the success of one album with a left turn into different sounds or themes on the next. But for the most part, when we think of Young, two strong images come to mind: the troubadour with an acoustic guitar, affecting falsetto, plaid shirt and fedora; or the incendiary rocker with a screaming electric guitar and a political message — and a plaid shirt and fedora.
Much of that duelling image can be attributed to Young's third album, After the Gold Rush, which was released on Sept. 19, 1970. At first, it felt like an album that didn't know what it was, a mix of electric songs with his band Crazy Horse mixed with plaintive, acoustic songs, piano, and even some French horn. In a way, it set the template for his career, allowing Young to shift back and forth between soft and hard, folk and rock, one foot firmly in the coffee shop scene of the '60s, the other in the rock arenas of the '70s.
It also includes some of Young's best songs to this day, from the title track to the iconic "Southern Man," and became his first solo album to crack the top 10 in the U.S. His followup, Harvest, which followed a similar formula to After the Gold Rush, would hit number 1 and become the bestselling album in the U.S. for 1972.
To mark the 50th anniversary, here are five interesting facts about Young's groundbreaking album.
1. It was based on a screenplay for a movie that never happened
The title of the album was a direct reference to a screenplay of the same name by Dean Stockwell (any Quantum Leap fans out there?) and Herb Bermann. It was an end-of-the-world film, with the final scene apparently featuring a tidal wave crashing toward a popular hippy hangout in Topanga Canyon, whose regulars included Young and Joni Mitchell.
Young was suffering from writer's block, and when he read the screenplay, he loved it and was instantly inspired, even if the movie itself was a bit outside the box.
"The song 'After the Gold Rush' was written to go along with the story's main character as he carried the tree of life through Topanga Canyon to the ocean," Young writes in Waging Heavy Peace, adding that the film was "a little off-the-wall and not a normal type of Hollywood story. I was really into it. Apparently the studio wasn't."
Despite Young's desire to write the film score, and promises from Dennis Hopper that he could get it produced, the film never saw the light of day and the script was lost.
However, Young's song of the same name, a perplexing and haunted piano ballad that touches on, possibly, a second coming, aliens and environmental disasters, is held up as one of Young's finest.
2. It was Young's last ride with the original Crazy Horse
Young's intent was to combine band members from both CSNY, which had just released its second album, Déjà Vu, and Crazy Horse, which played on Young's 1969 album Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. You can hear it on songs like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," which features members of Crazy Horse alongside CSNY bass player Greg Reeves and Stephen Stills on backing vocals. But Crazy Horse, as a whole unit, only appears on three of the 11 tracks: "When You Dance I Can Really Love," "Oh Lonesome Me" and "I Believe in You." It also marks one of Young's last times recording with Crazy Horse guitarist and vocalist Danny Whitten, who was heavily using heroin and got fired earlier in the year after their performance at the Fillmore East in New York City.
"Word came through … that Danny had cleaned up," Young writes in his bio, Waging Heavy Peace. "Crazy Horse was back together again.… It made the record better, and it felt so good to play with Danny again.… We were really soaring! But that was it for the original Crazy Horse with Danny and [piano player] Jack [Nitzsche]."
Nitzsche quit Crazy Horse in 1972, the same year that Whitten was fired by Young again, this time during rehearsals for the Harvest tour. The same night he was fired, Whitten would end up dying from a combination of Valium and alcohol — a tragic death Young blamed himself for, as he told Rolling Stone's Camerone Crowe in 1975. "I loved Danny. I felt responsible," he said.
3. The album wasn't an instant classic
When After the Gold Rush was released, it was critically panned, particularly by Rolling Stone, which called it "half-baked."
Neil Young devotees will probably spend the next few weeks trying desperately to convince themselves that After The Gold Rush is good music.- Rolling Stone review, 1970
"Neil Young devotees," the critic wrote, "will probably spend the next few weeks trying desperately to convince themselves that After the Gold Rush is good music."
It took Rolling Stone a little longer to convince themselves of that, referring to the album in 1975 as Young's "masterpiece."
Critic Robert Christgau, however, was immediately impressed, writing in the Village Voice that it was a "real rarity: pleasant and hard at the same time." In his 1998 book, Grown up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno, Christgau would even go as far to say that After the Gold Rush is his favourite Young album.
While it was a bit of a dull start, After the Gold Rush has only grown brighter over the years, and today appears on many greatest albums of all time lists.
4. Young's pianist had never played before
While most of the band was made up of seasoned musicians from CSNY and Crazy Horse, there was also newcomer Nils Lofgren, who was 19 at the time. Young met him at the Washington, D.C., club the Cellar Door and invited him to play piano for the After the Gold Rush sessions. There was only one problem — Lofgren had never played before.
"I was back East visiting my folks and when I got back to Topanga I gave Neil and [producer] David [Briggs] the bad news I wasn't a professional pianist," Lofgren recalled in a recent interview for a Neil Young news site. "Those two guys looked at me and said, 'You've been playing classical accordion and winning contests for 10 years.' … 'We just need some simple parts. You'll figure it out.'"
Despite his accordion background, Lofgren was still nervous, and ended up practising "24/7" at the house of John Locke, from the band Spirit, who lived up the road. "I put a sleeping bag on John's porch at his house and just practiced and practiced," he says.
It worked out, with Lofgren playing on every track except "When You Dance I Can Really Love," which featured Jack Nitzsche, and the title track, which featured Young himself playing on an upright piano.
As for Lofgren, he went on to tour with Young, joined Crazy Horse for a while and is a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.
5. 'Southern Man' kicked off a rock 'feud' with Lynyrd Skynyrd
One of the most angry and pointed songs on After the Gold Rush was "Southern Man," a vivid portrait of anti-Black racism in the U.S. South. "I saw cotton and I saw black, tall white mansions and little shacks," Young sings. "Southern Man, when will you pay them back?"
The song is told from the point of view of a white man from the South, and many Southerners took offence to the generalization, including the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, which famously replied with the song "Sweet Home Alabama." (Technically the song was a reply to both "Southern Man" and "Alabama," from Young's next album, Harvest).
"Well I heard Mister Young sing about her/ Well I heard old Neil put her down/ Well I hope Neil Young will remember a Southern man don't need him around, anyhow," Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant (a fan of wearing Neil Young T-shirts) sings.
Reports of this being a major feud between the two bands were exaggerated. Not only did Young like the song, going so far as to perform it a few times, but he also saw the band's point of view. In Waging Heavy Peace, he apologized, writing "I don't like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue."
Young and Van Zant would go on to become friends, and Young even wrote the song "Powderfinger" with the intention of giving it to Skynyrd to record first. Unfortunately the tragic 1977 plane crash that claimed the life of Van Zant and many others happened before they ever had a chance.