The Rockabilly Album Neil Young Released to Annoy His Label

After releasing his twelfth album Re·ac·tor in 1981, Neil Young left Reprise and moved to Geffen Records. At the time, Young was experimenting with some new sounds and equipment while working on voice training exercises for his son Ben, who has cerebral palsy and could not speak. Playing with a Synclavier and feeding his vocals through a Sennheiser Vocoder, the exercises led Young to the more synthesized album Trans, his first full release under Geffen.

“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,” said Young. “It’s a subtle thing, but it’s right there. It has to do with a part of my life that practically no one can relate to.”

Inspired more by Kraftwerk than his typical Crazy Horse canvas, Trans failed to chart which prompted Geffen to approach Young. Prior to the release of Trans, Young also released the more tropical-inspired Island in the Sun with Geffen in 1982. “[David] Geffen thought it was okay, but he didn’t think it was good enough,” said Young. Geffen flew out to Hawaii where Young was recording the “[He said], ‘Neil, you can do more with these songs. Keep going.’”

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[RELATED: When Neil Young Was Sued by His Label for Not Being “Neil Young” Enough]

‘Everybody’s Rockin’

When the label asked him to make a classic rock and roll album as his next release, Young offered up a country album, which they rejected, then switched genres entirely with Everybody’s Rockin’, a throwback to 1950s rockabilly, which he recorded with a made-up band, the Shocking Pinks.

“They told me they wanted me to play rock and roll, and told me I didn’t sound like Neil Young,” said Young in 2011. “So I gave them ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ and said, ‘This is a rock and roll album by Neil Young after someone tells him what to do. This is exactly what you said you wanted.’”

Everybody’s Rockin’ was ultimately a flop for Young and failed to break the top 40. Following its release, Geffen filed a $3.3 million lawsuit against Young, claiming he had violated his contract, and that the albums he recorded were “musically uncharacteristic of [his] previous recordings.” Young responded by countersuing the label for $21 million and claimed that his contract allowed him complete artistic freedom.

“The truth is, I fought with him [Young] because I wanted him to do better work,” said Geffen in 2012. ”I was taking too much of a fatherly role in his life.” 

The Geffen Years

Whatever Young’s underlying motive, he followed his own path throughout his Geffen days. The lawsuit was dropped soon after, and Young went on to record three more albums with the label—Old Ways (1985), Landing on Water (1986), and Life with Crazy Horse (1987)—before returning to Reprise (Warner Records) for his 1988 album This Note’s for You.

“There was very little depth to the material obviously,” said Young in 1995 of his early Geffen releases. “They were all surface songs, but see, there was a time when music was like that when all pop stars were like that. And it was good music, really good music.”

Young continued, “See, when I made albums like ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ and everyone takes the s–t out of [them], l knew they could do that. What am l? Stupid? Did people really think I put that out thinking it was the greatest [f–king] thing I’d ever recorded? Obviously, I’m aware it’s not. Plus it was 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.'”

Despite the response from the label and fans, Young was still proud of Everybody’s Rockin’.

“I really liked it,” said Young of the album. “As long as it’s good music and I’m playing with my friends, I don’t care what genre it is. All my music comes from all music. I’m not country, I’m not rock and roll, I’m just me, and all these things are what I like.”

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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