Behind the Album: Neil Young’s Polarizing ‘Trans’ and the Rift It Caused with His Record Label

Neil Young’s 1982 electronic album Trans is a polarizing work designed to tear apart a particular perception of his music. His new wave experiment is equal parts krautrock and early synth-pop MTV, and its greatest paradox is how affection anchors its cold façade.

Videos by American Songwriter

Following Re·ac·tor in 1981, Young left Reprise Records and signed with David Geffen’s new label. Initially, Young pitched an album about ancient civilizations and love called Island in the Sun, but Geffen moved him away from the project. Still, the opening track on Trans, “Little Thing Called Love,” originated from the Island sessions. It begins the album with a familiar sound before “Computer Age” transforms Crazy Horse into Kraftwerk.

Sample and Hold

At the time of Re·ac·tor, Young and his wife Pegi were working on a therapy program for their son Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy and could not speak.  

Young explained how the training exercises for Ben led to Trans: “If you listen to Trans, if you listen to the words to ‘Transformer Man’ and ‘Computer Age’ and ‘We R in Control,’ you’ll hear a lot of references to my son and to people trying to live a life by pressing buttons, trying to control the things around them and talking with people who can’t talk, using computer voices and things like that. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s right there. But it has to do with a part of my life that practically no one can relate to.”

Added Young, “So my music, which is a reflection of my inner self, became something that nobody could relate to. And then I started hiding in styles, just putting little clues in there as to what was really on my mind. I just didn’t want to openly share all this stuff in songs that said exactly what I wanted to say in a voice so loud everyone could hear it.”

(In 1986, Pegi Young co-founded the Bridge School to educate children with severe speech and physical impairments.)

Computer Cowboy

Meanwhile, Young wasn’t going to be categorized. He explained the radical shifts in sound as “a way of further destroying what I’d already set up. Without doing that, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now. If I build something up, I have to systematically tear it right down before people decide, ‘Oh, that’s how we can define him.’”

Trans is often compared to Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music—puzzling albums from beloved artists. On Trans, Young expanded his use of the Synclavier synthesizer featured on Re·ac·tor and, on most tracks, fed his vocals through a vocoder, occasionally masking the lyrics.

At the time, his fans were bewildered by the sonic transformation. It surprised his band, too. Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro said, “Next thing we knew, Neil stripped all our music off, overdubbed all this stuff, the vocoder, weird sequencing, and put the synth s–t on it.”

Trans frustrated Geffen, who paid Young a reported $1 million advance per album. In Jimmy McDonough’s biography Shakey, Elliot Roberts (Young’s manager) said Geffen asked him to speak with Young. Roberts said, “But the one thing that I could never tell Neil—or even talk to Neil about—is what he should record.”

When the Trans band hit the road, Young said the tour, with its outrageous production, lost $750,000 even though every show sold out.

Geffen Wanted a Rock and Roll Album

Following Trans, Geffen asked for a rock and roll album. Young responded with a retro rockabilly album called Everybody’s Rockin’. The album’s commercial failure led to a lawsuit in which Geffen claimed Young violated his contract by recording albums that were “musically uncharacteristic of [his] previous recordings.”

Young countersued, arguing his contract gave him creative control over his work. The lawsuit was eventually settled, Geffen apologized, and Young released three more studio albums on the label before returning to Reprise.

Paranoid Android

Trans may have angered Young’s record label, but its theme is timeless.  

Much of Trans explores humans’ relationship with technology. It’s a dystopian view of a world with endless possibilities but increasing depression and isolation. Like Radiohead’s 1997 prescient masterpiece OK Computer, it’s aged well.  

Young sings through a vocoder while he searches for humanity beneath all the technology. At times, it sounds like he’s clawing his way back from some digital abyss. But he’s just trying to communicate with his son.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Is There a New Episode of 'American Idol' Tonight, April 28, 2024? How to Watch

Is There a New Episode of ‘American Idol’ Tonight, April 28, 2024? How to Watch