Thursday, August 25, 2011
FORGOTTEN MUSIC THURSDAY-NEIL YOUNG TRANS
One of the most misunderstood records that Neil Young has ever let loose on an unsuspecting public, Trans was slightly ahead of its time. He wasn’t the first artist to delve into synthetic music, although it was a jarring 180 degree turn in terms of what had come before. “Changeable Charlie” had outdone himself.
Throughout the seventies, he was at the top of his game. Capping an amazing, ten year run with Rust Never Sleeps in 1979, well-deserved critical accolades flowed from every rock scribe.
Young entered the eighties by putting out two discs that, sonically, did not stray very far from previous territory. The big difference was that both Hawks and Doves (1980) and Reactor (1981) lacked the spark that had fueled his best work. The magician clapped his hands and nothing appeared. Few were aware of the very tough personal circumstances that he and his family were facing in dealing with a special needs child. Adversity inspired the concept for his next project.
Reactor had been greeted with indifference, both critically and commercially. Young felt that his record company, Reprise, had failed to support it and had not followed through on some of his requests involving promotion.
Enter David Geffen.
Prior to his move over to Geffen Records, Neil had already begun the work for what would eventually become Trans. He actually had the carcass of another project (Island in the Sun) recorded, though it left Geffen executives unimpressed when it was offered up for a listen. Three of these tracks would be included on Trans, unchanged. Others would be stripped of the contributions made by those involved in these sessions, their parts digitally replaced.
Young often appeared as an otherworldly presence to most people, save for his close friends and family. The metallic, alien feel of electronic music was a good fit for a guy who had always been interested in the technical side of things, whether it was tied to advances in model railroad construction or the latest developments in digital recording. For the Trans tour, he played the role of robotic, new wave messenger very convincingly. Hair cropped, he stalked the stage in black, wrap-around shades with his wireless mic triggering a chilly, inhuman vox, courtesy of the Sennheiser Vocoder VSM201. All of this sailed over the heads of audiences who had not heard a note of the new disc, which wouldn’t come out until the end of that year.
Though it is thematically out of step with the rest of Trans, “Little Thing Called Love” was chosen to open and is a definite highlight. Featuring an incredibly catchy chorus, it also sports an acoustic riff following the turnaround that he would recycle a decade later as the cornerstone of the song “Harvest Moon”.
Wasting no time, he then leaps behind the wheel of the DeLorean, puts his foot down and flashes forward to a distant future that marches to the pulse of an unrelenting synclavier. Who else but Neil could have foreseen the sordid business of hacking in cyberspace and written about it in 1982? Check out "Computer Cowboy (AKA Syscrusher). There was also some prescience (and a dry wit) involved with “Sample and Hold”, which explored the possibilities of robot matchmaking. Social networking for the artificially intelligent. Who knew?
Living on the bleeding edge of technology does come with a price tag. “We R in Control” paints an austere picture of future government, structured as a cold, cyber-dictatorship.
We control the TV sky.
We control the FBI.
We control the flow of heat.
We will prevail, and
This theme has crept into works of fiction since the advent of the mechanical age, taken up in greater detail by the likes of Orwell, Rand and Huxley. Young's vision did not dwell on this warning of enslavement by grim, virtual overlords. Taking random snapshots, love still prevailed amongst the machinery. Beneath the veneer of circuitry beats a very human heart, though the back cover artwork reveals its power source to be transistors and microchips. His genius here lies in coupling raw emotion with icy data, revealing man and machine as one. Neil also saw fit to craft great melodies around his subject matter.
“Transformer Man” is one of his finest.
In context, the lyrics read as a vow to break through the communication barrier between him and his son Ben, who was born with severe cerebral palsy, which left him as quadriplegic and unable to speak.
So many things still left to do
But we haven’t made it yet…
Unlock the secrets.
Let us throw off the chains that
Hold you down.
Following the pattern that characterized much of his writing, Young’s message was carefully veiled so as to be appreciated on a universal level. As no one outside of his inner circle was informed of Ben’s condition at that time, the connection was by no means evident to the outside world.
“That’s what the record’s about… It’s the beginning of my search for a way for a non-oral person, a severely physically handicapped non-oral person, to find some sort of interface for communication… That’s what I was getting at. And that was completely misunderstood.”
Purely nostalgic reasons prompted me to dust off my copy of Trans. Would I be let down?
Not a chance.
Inexorably tied to a very happy time in my now-distant past, the sounds and smell of the vinyl transported me back to the day I had bought it. Reminded of that first time hearing the re-make of “Mr. Soul” on the radio and flipping, I had even thought it to be superior to the original version.
Since I wasn't part of the generation that shared its first joint with After the Goldrush or Harvest when they were brand new, I did not view his foray into drum machines and synthesizers as tampering with what was considered sacrosanct. That's why this effort received such a critical pasting upon issue. The artist wasn't playing to expectation and the work was dismissed offhand.
As much as I champion this album, objectively, there are a few minor deficiencies. The inclusion of the three conventional tunes dilutes the overall concept and feel. Trans may have fulfilled the promise of its cover art (depicting the mechanization of humanity) had there been a bridge between the two styles. This would have required a rethink in terms of creating a narrative to define the transition from organic instruments to a synthetic sonic landscape. Otherwise, he should have just remade the three “regular” compositions in the fashion of the other songs. "Like An Inca" would have killed in a more spacey, electronic format.
Subjectively, I still think that it stands as one of the most interesting statements he’s ever made.
So why is Trans relegated to the cut-out bin of forgotten music?
Accessibility is one major factor. To date, Trans is officially unavailable in digital format here in North America. You can order it on CD as an import, but it doesn’t come cheap.
What about classic rock radio? Wouldn’t we hear it there?
This format has lots of room for Neil Young’s music, except when it barely resembles “Neil Young”. Completely submerging all trace of his conventional style in the murky waters of digitized noise and vocoders would serve as a hindrance to garnering airplay.
With everyone doing their “singing” these days with auto-tuners and pitch correction software, it wouldn’t be a stretch to single out Trans as an influence on such developments. In truth, Neil came a bit late into this game as groups like Kraftwerk had been in the vanguard of this type of expression long before him. This was also merely one facet of Young’s complex musical persona. Within a year he would remove his techno-hat in favor of rockabilly.
From an artistic viewpoint, he is to be commended for making such a bold move at a time when many of his contemporaries had long fallen victim to creative stagnation or had simply burned out. He could have played it safe, sold a truckload of product. Long before this he had chosen to follow a career trajectory that was driven by passion rather than business interests.
Next time you're out hunting for music, if you spot a vinyl copy of Trans, buy it.