PUBLICATIONS > Articles > 1970s > CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG – Wembley Concert 1974
CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG – Wembley Concert 1974
Author: David Downine
Publication: Concert Programme Article
Imagine it’s 1968 and you’re trying to create a perfectly balanced rock group, one capable of a wide stylistic range whilst remaining instantly recognisable, appealing to both mainstream and cult audiences, playing to the head and the heart and the space in between, expressing both the fears and the joys and the hopes of the times. A magic band, no less.
Since it is 1968 you’re given as a starter one of the new breed, only available in the aftermath of Dylan and 67, a west coast folkie – David Crosby, recently ejected from the Byrds for onstage politics and a giant ego. Other assets besides the unique Californian synthesis of joy and articulation include a rhythm guitarist with few equals and one of the sweetest harmony voices around.
To add spread and balance at least two others are necessary. One will have to have a higher harmony voice, a melodic touch practised in the art of writing a string of hit singles, and preferably an engaging simplicity to root the west coast folkie tendency to ramble. An Englishman would do.
In that case the third member would obviously need some sense of discipline and a corresponding hint of desperation, preferably schooled in the more austere east coast folkie world, and able to play everything but the rhythm guitar and sing in a bluesier style. Not too many applicants for that one.
And so CSN were born, one night round at Joni’s place.
The CSN album was a tour de force of harmony singing, mostly over acoustic or light electric backing. It came out about the time the term ‘laid back’ passed into common usage, and even the apocalyptic fears of ‘Wooden Ships’ and ‘Long Time Gone’ were almost smoothed away by the beauty of the performances. All the songs sounded like love songs.
The group maybe felt that this was something of a problem. It also meant they couldn’t even produce the light electric sound on stage without hiring a band. In the end they solved both problems with the one solution.
The addition of Neil Young made the blend complete. As a fine lead guitarist he provided – the possibility of long electric improvisations on the lines laid out by the British rock-blues groups of the late 60s. He also added personally a harder counterpoint to the sweetness and a touch of darkness to the music of light a melancholy anger which provided the steel behind the softer romanticism of the Californian world-view.
The only studio album the four produced, ‘Deja Vu’, went a long way towards justifying the blend.
Crosby’s ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ featured the same raw vocal as ‘Long Time Gone’, but the difference in the music was immense. The former had just had an accompaniment, the latter boasted guitar-playing from Stills and Young that said as much, if not more, than the lyric. ‘Carry On’ was an exhaltation that never lost its grip on reality, from Crosby and Nash’s glorious “rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice” to Stills’ “question of a thousand dreams”, from Crosby’s thumping rhythm to Stills’ tortured lead. ‘Deja Vu’ as an album seemed to bring turn of the decade America into some sort of rocking focus.
On stage they were even better. Not since the Beatles had four such well-defined personalities bounced off each others’ talents with such enthusiasm.
But such magic was bound to be a tightrope affair and the boys tended at times to try and push each other off. Rumours of the old fights which had split Hollies, Byrds and the Springfield filtered out. “We were all guilty” as Crosby said recently.
And as the egos sparred and the needs for self-expression became incompatible so the magic dissolved. Without it the hopes of ‘Carry On’ and ‘Teach Your Children’ began to sound rather empty. While the national guard was shooting students and the war went on, rock’s politics acquired a hollow ring. If one wasn’t making magic or changing the world, then what was all this money for? The perils and guilts of stardom were to bedevil at least three of the four in the years to come. The group’s dissolution in 1970 left the four to do what they pleased with no money worries. Graham Nash looked like he’d be the hardest hit. Without any instrumental virtuosity to speak of, essentially a harmony rather than lead singer, he had only a proven ability to write good melodies and good lyrics. And that proved quite enough on the first solo album. ‘Songs for Beginners’ was, surprisingly to many who saw him as the group lightweight, one of the most satisfying of the solo projects. Many of the songs were lovely little slices of soul-baring that were both accessible and perceptive. The mixing (another of Nash’s specialities) and the choice of instrumentation all added up to a fine album.
The track ‘Simple Man’ was a standout example of Nash’s talents, piano and solo violin, lyric and melody of stark simplicity:
“I am a simple man, I sing a simple song
I’ve never been so much in love and hurt so bad at the same time
I just want to hold you, don’t want to hold you down”
On the other hand a song like ‘Chicago’, which in concert produced enough enthusiasm to outdo the weakness of the lyric, on record sounded less convincing.
On the Crosby/Nash album Graham’s songs were rather overshadowed by Crosby’s and for a while he seemed to be running short of either new ideas for love songs or targets for castigation. But this year ‘Wild Tales’ came out and was undeservedly the first album by the four not to make the charts. Several songs were outstanding, including the ‘Prison Song’ which he’s been performing on this tour. The overall mood though was rather down, one of the lines being “Is the money I make worth the price that I pay”. Others were having similar thoughts.
If any of the four has become justifiably obsessed with stardom over the last few years it’s Neil Young. He’s now made seven solo albums, as many as the other three put together, and he’s suffered critical rejection of the last five. This must be at least partly due to the expectations he arouses because he’s still putting out some of the most challenging music of the 70s.
He came to the fore in the late 60s with a stance and a style that was completely in tone with the dominant feelings of his audience’s times – knowing where to go but not how to overcome the barriers without and within. He was the loner in search of sharing a sad voice in a wilderness of social madness and all too real repression.
His songs have always been a bridge between ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ because they’re about how the world impinges on him, whether it be the trap of role-playing in relationships (‘A Man Needs A Maid’) or the friend going under to junk (‘Needle And The Damage Done’). He doesn’t write songs about idealised relationships or pop sociology, instead relying on an emotional honesty of an almost Old Testament fervour. He’s maybe a moralist, but the moral’s clear – “don’t be denied”.
After ‘Goldrush’ he seemed to be abandoning the heavy electric sound in favour of a more countryish approach but the release of ‘Time Fades Away’ last year saw him bringing the two together, creating a vehicle for his lead guitar and Ben Keith’s pedal steel to aid and abet each other in rousing up the storm tracks like ‘LA’ and the epic 9-minute ‘Last Dance.’
This year he’s gone even further afield with the bluesy-folky ‘On the Beach’, an album extraordinary for not carrying a single love song. The standout ‘Revolution Blues’, which CSN & Y have been playing across the States, takes Neil’s views on stardom to some sort of logical conclusion. Disguised as a Manson-like figure he growls out: -
“well I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars
but I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars”
Crosby, unlike Young, has never had a reputation for Dylanesque intensity to live up to. He’s always been an energy source as the west coast happy hippie he clearly enjoys being. When he and Nash went out on tour after the break it was hard to tell who was the more stoned of the two. They played gentle loving music and talked a lot and sent everyone home feeling good.
His solo album reflected this softer side of a Californian music, nothing jarring, peacefully and melodically introspective. It contained no songs of flashing power but just flowed from start to finish, full of harmony and soft voices. On the Crosby/Nash album he went one better, without losing any of the first album’s serenity he produced some songs of compelling power. On ‘Whole Cloth’ he looked at those who having said the dream was over, were now getting round to questioning the integrity of the dreamers. And he got rather angry -
“and I always though that I meant what I said
but you know lately I’ve read
we were lying, all of us lying
just making it up, yeah ………”
In this and other songs he really comes to grips with things, infusing the ghostly smoothness of his melodies and vocals with a sharp awareness.
In the last two years he hasn’t made any records of his own. He was part of the rather disappointing Byrds reunion album and he’s helped out friends like Joni and Graham, Neil and Jackson Browne, with their albums. He’s also been spending quite a lot of time with his other love, the ocean, who “doesn’t know who you are and doesn’t care”.
Of the four Stephen Stills has adventured furthest into other musical fields, adding latin and country styles to his folk and rock repertoire. He’s toured with the Memphis Horns and with Manassas, the latter built up out of Old Burritos and others.
The content of his songs hasn’t changed much since Springfield days. There’s the same quiet and desperate determination to see himself and the world through troubled times in politics and love, the frequent admission of how hard it is, and the often felt need despite this to assert that “we are not helpless”. ‘The Raven’ suite on ‘Manassas’ is a long trip through the empty politics of love, through the jet set phonies and personal ups and downs, to guitars and piano rocking joyously away behind:
“I’m going to try again, don’t matter if I win or lose
Gonna try again ……. anyway”
Despite the abuse that’s been heaped on Stills over the years for his political rantings and his disconcerting way of saying what he thinks without considering how it’ll look in print, there’s not too many people who have consistently produced one of the best songs of the year. ‘For What It’s Worth’, ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’, ‘Carry On’, ‘Love The One You’re With’, ‘Sugar Babe’, ‘So Begins The Task’, ….. it’s an impressive list. Each song a musical gem and also something of an anthem that hasn’t dated one little bit. From the most recent -
“all of these cages must and shall be set aside
they can only keep us from the knowing
actors and stages now fall before the truth
as the love shared between remains growing ….. “
And now they’re back together again for who knows how long. Maybe just the summer’s touring and projected album.
It’s hard to overestimate their importance to the rock scene. Once the great groups of the mid-60s had done their demolition work on the culture we grew in, it became both possible and necessary to create a musical mainstream that sifted out the real hopes for a new culture and society from the wild and impossible dreams. CSN & Y were at the centre of that mainstream, making music that balanced the fears and the hopes without negating the reality of either.
And the magic they have made, on record and on stage, is as potent a weapon as it is good to hear. Carry on ……
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