Friday, September 6, 2019


Hell, yeah, in the week, near enough, ol' Shakey reveals the forthcoming of  his back to the day job with the Horse, what better time to celebrate this most epochal and emblematic of Neil Young's backing crews. You can have your Stray Gators, your Promise of the New, Pearl Jam and Booker T even, it is with the Horse that the ragged glory of his plaid shirt flaps the most. Never quite as celebrated as they should be, even oft denigrated for their supposedly simplistic backing, they are the perfect frame around which their boss can shine brightest. And it they are so dumb, how come that most attempts to emulate fall so short?

Present in one form or another since 1969, a number of musicians have been included under the banner, the band existing as much in it's own right, gigging, albums, rather than merely, as they are often perceived, waiting at home for Young to revive them from their slumbers. Because such waits can be lengthy. Very. And uncertain. The core, essentially, is the rhythm section partnership of Billy Talbot, bass, and Ralph Molina, drums.

Go back further, to 1963, and the vital spark of the band was in, astonishingly, doo-wop, a capella street corner crooning. A mix of West Side Story and what would now be called a boy band. Along with Danny Whitten and a couple of others, they even got as far as recording, first as Danny & the Memories, later as the cooler entitled Psyrcle, the zeitgeist now clearly barber avoidant. (Sadly I can find no clips of the latter, all the more disappointing, the Psyrcle having one Sly Stone, then a local record store owner, as their producer.)

Land of a 1000 Dances/Danny & the Memories

Appreciating the added value of playing some instruments, Whitten, Talbot and Molina picked some up from scratch, Whitten choosing guitar, and morphed into the Rockets, cautiously adding a couple of real musicians to paper over their deficiencies. And, yes, times were changing fast.....

Pill Song/The Rockets

This is where Neil Young came in, chancing on the band in a bar, OK, the bar, the infamous Whisky A Go Go. After jamming with them, suddenly the Rockets were no more, the core trio of the band absorbed immediately as Neil Youngs backing band for his 2nd solo record, 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.' And what has become his instantly recognisable signature style of melodic chunky scuzz was born. As well as backing Young both in the studio and live, by now christened Crazy Horse, they took off alone, absorbing piano player Jack Nietsche, another Young acolyte, along the way. Boy wonder Nils Lofgren, fresh from his appearance on 'After the Goldrush', also became involved, if not then officially a member. They could have been bigger than they were, Whitten becoming swiftly more accomplished both as a guitarist and a writer. Indeed, the song below was his, and is still, I am sure, a source of royalties, given many successful cover versions. But unfortunately only to his estate, as Whitten was a hardcore junkie. Eventually kicked out both from the band and from Young's circle, he succumbed, living on only in the lyric of 'Needle and the Damage Done'..... (The "another man" was Crazy Horse roadie, Bill Berry.)

I Don't Want To Talk About It/Crazy Horse

So where now for the Horse? After Whitten's demise, and lacklustre responses anyway to their records, the residual duo let the name lie dormant, despite still playing frequently alongside Young, with different musicians and different names for the collective. It was with the recruitment of Frank "Poncho" Sampedro in 1974 that suddenly gave the band a rebirth, his arguably rudimentary rhythm guitar slotting perfectly alongside Neil Young's idiosyncratic lead like a dream, wedged into the loose cement of Molina and Talbot. 'Zuma' is the exemplar and apotheosis of the Crazy Horse sound, and, of course, the song below is that of that record. Equal billing, no less.

Cortez the Killer/Neil Young, Crazy Horse

The last couple of decades of the 20th century saw Young chaotically change style and direction. Sometimes the Horse fitted the requirements, often they didn't, but it always seemed better when they did. When off the pay-roll, they would play occasional shows, with buddies from earlier incarnations, but kept a generally low profile. One exception came in 1994, when arch Young-fan and ex-Icicle Works mainman Ian McNabb hired them for a tour and an album. 'Head Like a Rock' was my album of that year and, yes, I was in the audience for the clip below, with there being little doubt who McNabb was channeling.

Fire Inside My Soul/Ian McNabb, Crazy Horse

It wasn't until the early noughties that I actually caught them with Young, at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre (UK), usually a soulless arena, that night shaken to the pillars by a the intensity of the fragile yet triumphant  powerhouse of the collaboration.

Latterly the pairing has been increasingly intermittent, some fans despairing ever of that call ever coming round again, not least as Young was seemingly so entrenched with Promise of the New, the band of and with two of the sons of Willie Nelson. News had also come of Poncho retiring from performance. So it was with some glee that whispers came, late last year, of a 'Horse of a Different Colour', with a series of concerts following. And more this year. And you can stuff different colour, this was Crazy Horse, with the added attraction of the return of Nils Lofgren to replace Sampedro. OK, so the song comes from the wrong band, but, hell, Long May they Run. And for sure an album is coming.....

Milky Way/Neil Young, Crazy Horse


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