The Rock and Folk Legend Neil Young

Neil Young is one of the most influential singer-songwriters in the history of modern music.  Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young has one of the most distinctive styles in American music. Especially during in his generation, Young rose to become one of the most influential singer-songwriters by writing and recording songs such as “Heart Of Gold,” “Old Man” and “Harvest Moon” which have transcended and defied time. He is also known for having experimented with various styles (even including electronica) but he is basically known for being a folk and rock artist, expertly taking on both warm, acoustic sounds and electric-guitar based hard rock (which he has mostly played with his band Crazy Horse). He has also undertaken other pursuits such as film directing and producing, as well as been involved in several causes that mostly address concerns about the environment.

Early Life and Start in Music Career

Neil Percival Young was born on November 12, 1945 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, but later grew up in another Canadian city, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Young had difficult formative years, as he had suffered a variety of illnesses from diabetes and then polio as a child, during what was to be the last polio epidemic in Canada during the 1950s. Following the separation of his parents Young went to live with his mother, finally settling in Manitoba. His older brother went to live with their father.

It was in Manitoba where Young’s passion for music started to develop. Early on, he was influenced by a variety of genres like rock and roll, R&B, doo-wop, and country. He spent much of his time listening to songs on the transistor radio. Among Young’s earliest influences were Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and many others.

Like many other musical legends, Young started small. He had formed a junior high school band The Jades. Lack of formal musical training didn’t stop Young from developing his own melodic style, even coming up with the “vibrato effect” in his guitar which would still be known years later.

During the early 1960s Young went on to form another band called the Squires that lasted for quite a while. Averse to rigidity and convention, Young dropped out of school and continued to pursue his musical path. After performing in Fort William for a while, Young started to recording demos along with his bandmates. It was around this time that he met Stephen Stills.

During this time he was influenced by folk music (as well as musicians such as Bob Dylan) while working at folk clubs in Winnipeg. It was also around this time that he encountered kindred folk spirits such as Joni Mitchell. Young wrote “Sugar Mountain” while Mitchell penned “The Circle Game” as a response.

Neil Young’s Biggest Career Hits

Neil Young, a prolific singer-songwriter known for his distinctive voice and guitar work, has had a long and varied career with numerous hits. His music spans a range of styles, including folk, rock, country, and grunge. Some of his biggest career hits include:

  1. “Heart of Gold” (1972): From his album “Harvest,” this song is perhaps Young’s most famous single. It’s a gentle, folk-rock tune that became his only No. 1 hit in the U.S.
  2. “Old Man” (1972): Also from “Harvest,” this song reflects on the themes of aging and life’s changes, and it remains one of his most popular tracks.
  3. “Rockin’ in the Free World” (1989): A hard-rocking song from his album “Freedom,” it became an anthem for change at the end of the Cold War era.
  4. “Cinnamon Girl” (1969): From the album “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” with his band Crazy Horse, this song is known for its catchy riff and is a staple of Young’s live performances.
  5. “Southern Man” (1970): From his album “After the Gold Rush,” this politically charged song critiques the racism of the American South.
  6. “Ohio” (1970): Performed with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, this protest song was written in reaction to the Kent State shootings and became a counterculture anthem.
  7. “Harvest Moon” (1992): The title track of his album “Harvest Moon,” this romantic ballad showcases Young’s softer, more reflective side.
  8. “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” (1979): From the album “Rust Never Sleeps,” this song is famous for the line “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” and exemplifies Young’s influence on the grunge movement.
  9. “Helpless” (1970): A song from the album “Déjà Vu” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Helpless” is known for its poignant lyrics and memorable melody.
  10. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (1970): From “After the Gold Rush,” this song was a commercial success and demonstrated Young’s skill in writing ballads.

Neil Young’s career is marked by both critical and commercial success, with his music continuing to influence artists across various genres. His ability to constantly reinvent himself while maintaining a distinct musical identity has made him one of the most revered figures in the music industry.

Moving to the United States and Tenure with Buffalo Springfield

Young attained his first charting hit (as a songwriter) when the Canadian group The Guess Who covered one of his songs, “Flying On The Ground,” which broke into the national Top 40 chart.  Neil Young’s time with Buffalo Springfield was a foundational period in his long and influential music career. Buffalo Springfield, an American-Canadian rock band formed in 1966, played a significant role in the development of folk rock and country rock.

Buffalo Springfield was formed in Los Angeles in 1966 and initially consisted of Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Dewey Martin, Bruce Palmer, and Neil Young. Young and Stills met in Canada and decided to form a band, later recruiting the other members.

Neil Young played guitar and was one of the primary songwriters in Buffalo Springfield. His unique style, characterized by his distinctive guitar playing and emotive songwriting, contributed significantly to the band’s sound.  Young’s time with the band was marked by his emerging talent as a songwriter and musician. He contributed notable songs like “Mr. Soul,” “Expecting to Fly,” and “Broken Arrow” to the band’s repertoire.

Establishing Crazy Horse and Joining Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

During the mid-1960s Young moved to the United States along with his friend Bruce Palmer, a bassist. There they drove miles to Los Angeles, California, where he and Palmer eventually formed Buffalo Springfield in 1966. The band also included Stills, Richie Furay and Dewey Martin. Stills wrote Buffalo Springfield’s classic song “For What It’s Worth,” which appeared on their eponymous debut album that same year. The single became a success on the charts, raising Buffalo Springfield to popularity. It was also through this band that the Americans got to know Neil Young for the first time.

Unfortunately, Young’s tenure with Buffalo Springfield was short-lived as the band broke up in less than two years since they had formed. Despite the band’s very brief existence, their legend grew over the years, catapulting into an honor from the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1997.

#1 hit single “Heart of Gold”; joining CSNY again, and solo work with Crazy Horse

Probably because of the pressures of fame, and rifts with his band mates, Young left CSN&Y, reducing the group to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Young continued with his solo career, backed up by Crazy Horse. He found phenomenal success when he released his album Harvest in 1972 which featured the single “Heart Of Gold.” The song topped the charts that year, and to date remains Young’s only #1 single in his career.

Despite his joining Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young again in 1974, Young continued with his solo work along with Crazy Horse. Among his more notable releases was 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps which did well on the charts. Into the 1980s, Young tried his hand on electronic music as such was the trend then; however, it wasn’t successful, neither critically nor commercially.

Entering the Alternative Rock Territory and Godfather of Grunge

He resurrected his foibles by releasing another album, Freedom, in 1989, which saw him enter the alternative rock territory. The album’s single “Rockin’ In The Free World” almost topped the mainstream rock charts that year, and has now been often credited as the instigator of a later rock genre called grunge music. This led some rock fans to dub Young the “Godfather Of Grunge.”

Young’s raw, distorted electric guitar work, especially with his band Crazy Horse, is often cited as a major influence on the grunge sound. Albums like “Rust Never Sleeps” (1979) and “Ragged Glory” (1990) feature this heavy, distorted style that grunge bands would later emulate.  Grunge is characterized by an anti-commercial, anti-establishment ethos, something that Young had been embodying throughout his career. His consistent prioritization of artistic integrity over commercial success, along with his outspokenness on social and political issues, resonated with the grunge attitude.

Several key figures in the grunge movement have openly cited Young as a major influence. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was known to be a fan of Young’s music. In fact, Cobain’s suicide note famously quoted Young’s lyric, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” from the song “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).”  Young’s collaboration with Pearl Jam, one of the leading bands of the grunge movement, further solidified his connection to the genre. They jointly recorded the album “Mirror Ball” in 1995, and Pearl Jam often served as Young’s backing band in live performances during this period.

Young’s influence on the grunge movement is multifaceted, encompassing his musical style, his anti-establishment ethos, and his direct impact on key grunge artists. His adoption of heavy guitar sounds and a defiantly independent approach to music-making earned him the moniker “Godfather of Grunge,” recognizing his role in laying the groundwork for one of the most significant movements in rock music.

Young’s Later Career, Other Interests and Music Industry Impact

Young also dabbles in films, including directing a number of productions like Journey Through The Past, Human Highway, and CSNY/Deja Vu, using Bernard Shakey as a pseudonym. Young has also been involved in other pursuits such as being the co-founder, along with his wife, of Bridge School in San Francisco, a center devoted to kids with disabilities (Young’s own children suffer from cerebral palsy and epilepsy, with the last a condition he himself has struggled with). Young also passionately supports pro-environmental causes and the welfare of the small local farmers by co-establishing Farm Aid, a benefit concert which has been held periodically.

Neil Young’s career, spanning several decades, is marked by continuous innovation, influential activism, and significant contributions to various aspects of the music industry.  Throughout his later career, Young has continued to release albums that span a range of styles, from rock and folk to blues and electronic music. Notable albums include “Silver & Gold” (2000), “Prairie Wind” (2005), “Le Noise” (2010), and “Colorado” (2019), the latter reuniting him with Crazy Horse.

Young has never shied away from experimenting with different musical genres, continuously evolving his sound. This has kept his music fresh and relevant, attracting new fans while retaining his long-time following.  Young has remained an active live performer, known for his compelling concerts. He continues to tour, both as a solo artist and with various backing bands, including reunions with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Crazy Horse.

Young has been a vocal advocate for environmental causes. He has been involved in various initiatives and campaigns, particularly focusing on renewable energy and sustainable farming.  Young co-founded the benefit concert Farm Aid in 1985 with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp to raise awareness and funds for American family farmers. He continues to be an active participant in this cause.  Young has ventured into film, directing and producing several films under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey. He also released his memoir, “Waging Heavy Peace,” in 2012.

Young’s later career and his diverse interests reflect his status as not just a musician but a cultural icon, whose work extends beyond music into activism, innovation, and advocacy. His lasting impact on the music industry and his continued relevance today speak to his enduring legacy.

Young’s contributions landed him inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame twice– one for being a member of the Buffalo Springfield, and another for his solo work. He was also inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

Despite his other interests, music has always been and will always be Neil Young’s heart and soul. He never seemed to get tired of challenging himself musically, as well challenging and charming his fans by his distinctive musicianship, deeply personal songs and his renowned versatility.

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