By the end of the 1960s Neil Young was catching the ear of many influential figures – not least his old band mate Stephen Stills, who was now part of the Grammy-winning folk-rock super group Crosby, Stills & Nash. The band were keen to have him onboard as a sideman, but Young was insistent that he be given a full title credit as a condition for his contributions. Stills frequently found himself fighting with Young for control over the band’s songwriting, and has famously said that the latter “wanted to play folk music in a rock band.”
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Young’s dogged self-determination, despite its interpersonal downfalls, was a major artistic virtue that fed directly into what was perhaps his first true masterpiece. After The Gold Rush had its beginnings in an unlikely place. Dean Stockwell, a former child star of the ‘40s and ‘50s, had been encouraged by his friend Dennis Hopper to write a screenplay whilst the pair were in the jungles of Peru producing a film entitled The Last Movie. Hopper assured Stockwell that he had the relevant connections to help get the film made, and once back in the US the latter retreated to his home at Topanga Canyon in the Los Angeles Mountains to commence the writing process.
A fellow resident of the canyon and a close friend of Stockwell’s, Young was suffering through a prolonged period of writer’s block and was under growing pressure from his label to record an album of new material. After learning of the writer’s creative endeavour he was intrigued to learn more and asked Stockwell if he could read a draft of the story. The script, which has since been lost, was an unconventional, non-linear narrative with religious and psychedelic undertones. It loosely detailed an end-of-the-world scenario centred on the local Californian environment, in which a biblical flood threatened to pull the state into the ocean. Captivated by this messy but intriguing tale, Young recalls: “I was writing a lot of songs at the time, and some of them seemed like they would fit right in with the story.”
Ironically Hopper’s proximity to the project scared off any interested executives, and before long the film seemed destined to remain in limbo. Nonetheless, Young was fired up and undeterred, commencing work immediately on what he imagined to be the soundtrack of this deeply counter-cultural Hollywood film. Finding time to write and record was difficult, as large swathes of 1970 were blocked out by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s huge US Tour and further live obligations with Crazy Horse. In the precious gaps between shows, Young made initial recordings at Hollywood’s Sunset Studios, yielding “I Believe In You” and “Oh Lonesome Me” but quickly realised he preferred the atmosphere of the Canyon, continuing the process at the home studio set up in his lead-lined basement. It was here that his ensemble of bassist Greg Reeves, drummer Ralph Molina, and guitarist Nils Lofgren assembled.
The studio was a small and sweaty space, adjoined to a side control room from which producer David Briggs kept an eye on proceedings. The youngest of the ensemble, eighteen year-old Lofgren was brought in to play keyboards despite being a relative novice at the time of recording, highlighting Young’s unconventional laid back approach. Accordingly the musician recalls that “Neil didn’t mind rehearsing a bit” but they “didn’t belabour stuff.” It’s often considered that Young was attempting to merge musicians from both Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crazy Horse on this album, and Stephen Stills even appears on “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” to provide backing vocals.
The basement’s make-shift setup influenced the stark and plaintive sound of After The Gold Rush. Young featured solo on piano throughout the album, most notably on the title track which is often praised as the centrepiece of the album. Charting a surreal and fantastical course through three verses, the song starts in a medieval era of knights and peasants and ends in outer space with the remnants of humanity, after the world has descended into apocalypse.
The song was designed to directly mirror the plot of the proposed film, and Young invited Stockwell to sit in on some of the album’s sessions. The writer was impressed: “If you could calculate the amount of human energy that goes into the making of one of his songs, you would have a really fucking high number, man.”
Explaining his thoughts behind the environmentally conscious song Young recalls: “I recognise in it now this thread that goes through a lotta my songs that’s this time-travel thing… When I look out the window, the first thing that comes to my mind is the way this place looked a hundred years ago.”
But stepping out of the failed film’s shadow, After The Gold Rush as a whole fits neatly into Young’s continued development as one of the finest songwriters of the North American tradition. Young’s ability to convey nuanced emotion through potently simple chord sequences and unvarnished yet poetic lyrics is exemplified on songs such as “Birds” and “Only Love…”, which highlight the often overlooked yet effortless sonic beauty of his music. The fact that the album allows such space for this aspect of Young’s work to blossom reveals why it remains one of the most beloved in his expansive catalogue.
Despite producing no major hits and suffering a ferociously critical review from Rolling Stone, the album truly kicked off Young’s celebrated solo career, preceding game-changing albums, such as 1972’s Harvest, and was quickly re-considered as one of the finest albums of the 1970s by the very publications who had tore it to pieces just a few years prior. It’s a testament to how swiftly Young’s career was ascending – from folk-rock’s resilient underdog to one of the standard-bearers of the great American songbook.