Neil Young on What Makes a Great Record (And How It Goes Against What Former Bandmates Have Said)

There are always two (or three or four…) sides to every story, as proven by Neil Young’s thoughts on what makes a great record and how those thoughts seem to contradict what former bandmates have said about him in the past. After all, no two perspectives are the same.

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The Canadian folk rocker sat down with Joe Chambers, CEO and founder of the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, in late December 2019. During the interview, Young revealed what he believed to be the secret to creating hit records—and no, it’s not just writing great songs.

Neil Young’s Formula For Making A Great Record

Neil Young’s opinion on what turns an okay record into a great one had nothing to do with songwriting, star power, or equipment. On the contrary, the discussion centered around one critical component: the ensemble. According to Young, one of the most contradictory elements of the music industry today is its propensity to split the ensemble into a superstar and their backing band.

“One thing that I think is really ironic is in this business, they take a new band, and if there’s a star in the band—like, if there’s a group like The Doors and Jim Morrison is the guy, you know—they’ll try to separate the guy from the band and say, ‘Well, you don’t even need these guys. It’s you. You’re what it’s all about.’” Young said the problem is twofold: not only does this put unnecessary pressure on the frontman, but it also goes against the formula of historically phenomenal records from decades past.

What made these albums so special, Young argues, is the entire band working together. The “Heart of Gold” singer said it’s the backing band, along with the helpful guidance of arrangers and producers, who will determine a record’s lasting power—not necessarily the person at the front of the mix. “I really pray for a Renaissance of real, homemade music where people actually play together and play off each other. That, to me, is what music’s all about.”

Young Said His Favorite Place To Be Is In The Backline

Neil Young might’ve started his musical career in the background, but decades after coming up as a guitarist in the early 1960s, Young has undoubtedly become a bona fide solo star. Still, Young told Joe Chambers, “I’m mostly seen as the guy out front, but I feel that I’m most at home when I’m in the backline. I feel the best when I’m playing in a band, and I’m not the singer.”

Young said that’s why he enjoyed his time in the late 1960s and ‘70s with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. Rather than having to remain front and center as the group’s leading man, he could tuck back into his “sweet spot” on stage: right in the pocket between the bass guitar and drums. “That’s where I really belong. Songs are the vehicle. Musicians are driving it. They’re going into the curve the right way; they’re flooring it at the right time.”

The problem, Young emphasized, is the growing trend to recognize (and, in a way, prioritize) the front person and, in doing so, let the importance of the entire group fall by the wayside. Given the nature of his argument, Young brought up the primarily digital compositional process of other genres, like rap and hip-hop. “I’m not putting it down, but I am saying that when people play together, not technically out of somebody’s head through computers, but when they actually play together, that’s a whole time that needs to be preserved.”

What Young’s Former Bandmates Have Had To Say About Him

At the time of Neil Young’s interview in Nashville’s Masterlink Studio, he had just turned 74. His approach to the music industry has the benefit of decades of experience, wisdom, and the time to shift perspectives. Still, we couldn’t help but notice how different Young’s opinion on what makes a great record then differed from what his bandmates had to say about him in years past.

Take, for example, David Crosby, who, in a 2021 interview with The Guardian, called Young “the most self-centered, self-obsessed, selfish person I know. He only thinks about Neil, period. That’s the only person he’ll consider. Ever!” For Young’s part, Crosby developed a reputation for his scathing opinions long before that tense discussion. However, in an interview with the same publication the following year, fellow ex-bandmate Graham Nash paid Young a terse compliment by saying, “Neil knows what is best for Neil.”

Regardless of any animosity felt between the former colleagues, the respect Young’s ex-bandmates have for him is clear. In a 2020 interview with Uncut, Graham Nash praised Young, who wrote “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” following Nash’s split from Joni Mitchell. “It’s incredible how prolific he was,” Nash said. “I personally feel that Crosby, Stills & Nash and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young are two completely different bands because of his talent and the difference that it makes.” As Young might say, it’s all about the ensemble—period.

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for The Pensado Awards

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