Okay, I confess. I’ve never had to review as massive a project as massive as Neil Young Archives, Volume 1. I was fortunate enough to get a Blu-ray set, which is all of 10 discs long. What I didn’t get was the fancy box and anything that might be in it, so I can’t speak about that stuff. What I did get was the ten discs in an ordinary folder, and a somewhat inaccurate document of the track list, especially as it pertains to the hidden tracks.
I will also say that unlike many other would-be reviewers, I listened to and watched every minute of every disc, both the main elements, and the bonus features. I searched every menu for Easter eggs, I clicked on every hidden track that I could find. I wasn’t satisfied until I was sure that I’d seen and heard everything on each disc. Talk about a journey through the past!
Just think, Archives only covers Young’s career up until 1972. There are more than 35 years worth of archives still to be released. (If the future sets take as long to reach the public as this one did, I probably won’t be around to review the next one.) A number of video clips throughout the set show Young reviewing his archives with photographer/archivist Joel Bernstein and art director Gary Burden. These clips are from February, 1997. So why is it that it took 12 years from that point to assemble the first volume? There’s no doubt that a lot of work went into this, and I’m sure that there were clearances to be worked out, but 12 years’ worth? After immersing myself in this work, I’m prepared to give Young the benefit of the doubt and believe that he waited for the technology to catch up so that he could release this material in the highest quality format. Apparently the advent of Blu-ray marked that point for him.
Disc 0: Early Years (1963 – 1965)
Not many people go this far back with Young, so this disc provides a welcome look at what he was doing before we became of aware of him. We get tracks from Young’s early band, the Squires, duets between Young and Comrie Smith, and early solo performances. Nearly everything on this disc is previously unreleased. The disc tantalizes us with the last hidden track, a mono recording by Buffalo Springfield of Young’s “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” leading us right into the next disc.
Disc 1: Early Years (1966 – 1968)
This disc is all about Buffalo Springfield, and while there are a few unreleased tracks here, of great interest are the mono versions of several Springfield songs, including the aching “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” and the powerful “Mr. Soul.” There are also several cuts from the Buffalo Springfield Box Set, which was released in 2001. Among the hidden tracks on this disc is something called “This Is It!,” a fascinating audio recording of parts of Buffalo Springfield’s final concert in Long Beach, Ca. As you might imagine, the audio isn’t great, but it’s still an amazing listen.
Disc 2: Topanga 1 (1968 – 1969)
Following the dissolution of the Springfield, Young bought a house in rural Topanga Canyon, and set to work recording his self-titled debut solo album with producer Jack Nitzsche. This disc features songs from that album, as well as a previously unreleased mix of “What Have You Done To My Life,” and a stunning unreleased version of one of Young’s most beautiful songs, “Birds.” There is also an appearance of the previously unreleased stereo master of “Sugar Mountain.”
Around that time, Young started jamming at a local club with a band called the Rockets, who eventually became Crazy Horse, the band Young continues to work with to this day. This disc ends with four songs from the classic Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere album, including “Down By the River,” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.”
Disc 3: Live at the Riverboat (1969)
In 1969, Young undertook his first solo tour, which brought him back to his Canadian homeland for an appearance at the well-respected Riverboat. This disc is a document of that appearance, which finds Young at his vulnerable best, playing acoustic versions of songs from his Buffalo Springfield days, as well as his just released first solo album. Set highlights are an epic version of “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” and the devastating closer “Expecting to Fly.” This entire show is previously unreleased, and as such adds tremendous value to the package.
Disc 4: Topanga 2 (1969 – 1970)
Young’s career gets really interesting at this point. We hear more tracks from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. It was also during this period that the ‘Y’ was added to CSNY, and we hear the beautiful “Country Girl” from their Deja Vu album, as well as a previously unreleased mix of “Helpless.” Oh, and a little thing called Woodstock took place, and it was CSNY’s second gig ever. We get “Sea of Madness” from that set, and as a hidden track, Young and Stephen Stills dueting on an acoustic “Mr. Soul” from the same night, presented as a video clip.
As if all that weren’t enough, Young began work on his seminal album, After the Gold Rush. Young had seen a young guitarist from Chicago, and invited him to play on the album. The guitar player flew to LA, and finding it difficult to hitch hike with his guitar and other gear, ended up walking from LAX to Topanga. Once there, he was asked to play piano on the album, despite the fact that he had never really played the piano. That young man, of course, was Nils Lofgren. We only get one song from Gold Rush here, but there’s more to come later. Oh, and there’s also a wonderful previously unreleased Young song with Crazy Horse called “Everybody’s Alone.” Finally, the hidden tracks include video of a performance of “Down By the River” by CSNY on a TV show called Music Scene.
Disc 5: Neil Young & Crazy Horse Live at the Fillmore East (New York 1970)
This concert was released in 2006, and it’s presented here in video form. It shows Crazy Horse at the top of their game, and serves as a great reminder of the talent that was lost when guitarist Danny Whitten died of a drug overdose. If you’ve seen this before, you’ll want to see it again. If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat.
Disc 6: Topanga 3 (1970)
Now we get lots of After the Gold Rush. It’s obvious that Young is aware of the importance of this album to his career, because nearly every track from it is included here in one form or another.
On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on student demonstrators at Kent State University. Four students were killed. When Young saw a photo of a young woman kneeling beside the body of a murdered friend on the cover of Time magazine, he wrote the powerful song “Ohio.” He beckoned CSNY to the studio, and days later, the record was in stores. That original 45 rpm version of the song is included here, as are several live CSNY performances. Also of note is the inclusion of the track “Music Is Love” from David Crosby’s first solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name. Both Young and Graham Nash appear on the track.
The hidden tracks include video of a solo Young performance of “The Loner,” which moves from Cafe Feenjon, to the Fillmore East, to Washington Square Park.
Disc 7: Live at Massey Hall (Toronto 1971)
Young made a triumphant return to Toronto in 1971 for a show at prestigious Massey Hall. Armed only with acoustic guitar and piano, Young runs through 17 songs from his by now impressive catalog. Although it’s been previously released, this time we get a stark, dimly lit video presentation of the show. The video style only adds to the splendor of the performance. The highlight of the set finds Young on piano for a beautiful medley of the politically incorrect “A Man Needs A Maid” matched with “Heart of Gold.”
Disc 8: North County (1971 – 1972)
This could be called the Harvest disc. By this time, Young had bought a ranch in northern California called Broken Arrow. He had also done terrible damage to his back in trying to prepare the place for living. He eventually needed surgery and bed rest to repair his crumbling disks. He lived with actress Carrie Snodgrass, and his first child, Zeke, was born.
In the meantime, Young began work on Harvest. He found himself in Nashville at the same time as friends James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. He gathered additional musicians and recorded several tracks, including “Old Man,” which features Taylor on banjo. Then it was off to England with Jack Nitzsche, where he recorded “A Man Needs A Maid,” which is presented here in a previously unreleased mix, and “There’s A World” with the London Symphony Orchestra. A hidden track shows Young in the studio recording the latter with the orchestra.
Young then summoned the Stray Gators, as the Nashville musicians were by then known, to Broken Arrow to finish the album. The disc includes several tracks from Harvest, as well as a number of unreleased tracks with the Stray Gators, and the 45 rpm single version of Young’s “War Song,” which also features Graham Nash.
This disc has an interesting Easter egg. A camera follows Young as he goes to a record store, apparently looking for the new Bob Dylan album. Much to his chagrin, he finds a bootleg CSNY album. He questions the clerk about it, and the clerk pleads ignorance. Young tells the clerk he’s going to take the album, because they shouldn’t be selling it. He leaves his phone number for the boss to call him, and walks out of the store with the bootleg. The clerk follows him, and convinces him to come back in and they can call the boss. He does, they do, and the boss agrees to let Young take the album.
Disc 9: Journey Through the Past – A Film By Neil Young
This Young-directed film had its theatrical release in 1973, and it hasn’t been available since then. It is pretty much what the title says it is, a journey through Young’s past. We see and hear him at work with Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, and the Stray Gators. Interspersed with performance footage are odd little vignettes, and commentary from Crosby, Stills,Nash, and others. Some of the footage is very much of its time, but nonetheless fascinating. Who are those mysterious, hooded and robed figures on horseback galloping down the beach holding wooden crosses aloft? The film is beautifully shot, and has been remixed in 5.1 surround sound.
In addition to a graphic timeline, where the hidden tracks are to be uncovered, each disc also provides the appropriate section of the Young biography. Many of the discs also provide photos, press clippings, lyric sheets, and other items from the era represented on the disc. The Easter eggs are quite often videos of Young, Bernstein, and Burden reviewing various segments of the archives in 1997. As I understand it, if you have the Blu-ray set, and if your player is networked, you will be offered additional downloadable material from time to time, though I haven’t seen any of that so far.
It goes without saying that if you’re a Neil Young fan, you have to have this, but it’s equally true that if you are interested in the course of American popular music in the last 40 years, this is an indispensable collection. You can purchase Archive Volume 1 as a set of 10 Blu-ray discs ($279.99 from Amazon) or DVDs ($199.99 from Amazon), a set of eight CDs ($69.49 from Amazon), or as an mp3 download (also $69.49 from Amazon). I’d imagine that the CD version doesn’t include the video components, some of which are really interesting. Obviously the choice is yours, but by all means choose one. It can all be somewhat overwhelming, so listen to one or two discs in a sitting. It took years to put Archives Vol. 1 together; there’s no need for you to rush through it.