As we shall see repeatedly over the course of this series, the 1980s were not kind to many of the rock ‘n’ roll superstars of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s — and the decade was arguably cruelest to the now-grown flower children of the late ’60s. Sure, it must have blown to be Aretha Franklin in the mid ’80s, twiddling your thumbs through album after album of MOR bullshit instead of thrilling audiences with actual music, but at least you could reinvent yourself plausibly; once you’ve posed for a publicity photo in a field of sunflowers while flashing a peace sign, on the other hand, you’re pretty much fucked forever.
Thus did Crosby, Stills & Nash spend the bulk of the ’80s just sort of drifting around, taping the odd session and periodically releasing awkward studio albums between David Crosby’s embarrassing drug and/or legal problems. Things weren’t much better for their on-again, off-again compatriot, Neil Young, but he at least had the guts to be weird when his brand of artfully mangled rock fell out of fashion. Say what you will about Young’s ’80s output — and don’t think we won’t be visiting at least one of those albums during a future column — but even at his least approachable, he had something to say. The same couldn’t be said for CSN, who flirted with relevance exactly twice during the decade: Once when they recorded a theme song to the movie WarGames (which was pulled from the movie at the last minute), and once when they reunited with Young for 1988’s highly anticipated American Dream.
Of course, if you were around at the time, you probably remember that American Dream was awful — an overlong, undercooked mess of weak material and indifferent performances. For the first time, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sounded too bored to hate each other, and the result was one of the year’s biggest disappointments.
On the other hand, its cover didn’t consist of a picture of giant hot dogs being roasted on the moon.
American Dream was a dull-ass slog, but at least it tried to keep the group’s spirit intact — and really, in retrospect, that shouldn’t have been terribly hard to do in the waning days of the Reagan era. You don’t have to look much further than Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence for an example of how successfully hippie ideals could be wedded to the sterile, overblown production of the era. But when it came time to record their next album, instead of looking to Don for inspiration, the freshly Young-less Crosby, Stills & Nash decided to empty their graying heads and cut a shameless middle-aged corporate rock record. In essence, Live It Up is the CSN equivalent of Chicago 19 — only where Chicago had the platinum-pooping Ron Nevison behind the boards and Diane Warren writing songs for them, Crosby, Stills & Nash threw in with ex-Amboy Duke Joe Vitale as their producer and let Stephen Stills co-write a song with Kevin Cronin.
This is a series called Whoops!, and I have been known to occasionally overstate a record’s suckiness for the sake of humor, but people, Live It Up really is a terrible mess — an unholy union of those pristine CSN harmonies with some of the most stupidly plastic production of the era. You know what’s worse than a pudgy old dude singing about dolphins and self-actualization? That same pudgy dude doing it along with glossy keyboards, castrated drums, and a goddamn sax solo from Branford Marsalis. Vitale, who played kickass drums for Barnstorm in the ’70s and should have punched himself in the dick every morning he worked on this mess, is credited with, among other things, synth bass, synth strings, and synth guitar. Synth guitar! When you’ve got Stephen Stills and Graham Nash in the studio and you feel the need to add synth guitar to the mix, you might as well just unplug everything and set fire to the building, because whatever insurance settlement you get is going to be worth more than your entire career.
Ill-suited as the production was, Live It Up still has the germ of a worthwhile CSN record; the band recruited a solid lineup of studio ringers (including Section vets Lee Sklar and Craig Doerge) and special guests (Bruce Hornsby, Roger McGuinn, and Peter Frampton appear, as well as Marsalis), and if they’d only managed to calibrate the balance between their past and the present a little more intelligently, it might have represented a bit of a bounceback after American Dream instead of an embarrassing bid for heavy radio rotation. Crosby, Stills & Nash were always in Neil Young’s shadow anyway, so any time they managed to come up with something halfway challenging, they got extra credit; it was almost as if critics thought their unfailingly lovely harmonies could only have come from a trio of burned-out dummies. Sadly, with Live It Up, CSN proved them right.