Neil Young left our shores in 1976, feted by the music press as a triumphant, long-haired, check-shirted guitar hero so, naturally, expectations were high for more of the same. Alas, when he returned six years later...
It's September 1982 at the NEC, Neil's much-heralded return and there are two glaring warning signs that should have signaled that things had changed.
Those famed locks were shorn to a length he probably hadn’t dared since leaving school in the 50s. As well as a yellow tie, Neil was sporting an angular, fluorescent green jacket which a 90’s raver would have considered too flashy. And then, of course, the music …
After a handful of career-spanning classics to soften us up, the crowd was assaulted by a squall of ear-splitting synthesised keyboards. And there was Neil and sidekick Nils Lofgren lumbering awkwardly round the stage sans guitars, wearing dark shades and proto remote mics and earpieces, holding some kind of black box – reminiscent of those photos of ‘time travellers’, people who are dressed a bit differently and look out of place in 1930s photos.
‘Dinosaurs in the Computer Age!’: Neil’s mantra throughout the show introduced us to this new world of glacial synthesizers and vocoders. Although in retrospect it was great, to be honest, at the time Birmingham just wasn’t ready for it.
The album 'Trans' eventually escaped his unsympathetic new record company Geffen’s clutches and was in the stores the following January. From 'Computer Age' to 'Computer Cowboy' (maybe a theme here?) there are some fabulous tunes that Neil did his best to bury under the shock of the new synth-driven sound (and, let’s be honest, an uncanny resemblance at times to 'Sparky the Magic Piano'); 'Transformer Man' in particular is a beautiful melody with moving lyrics about communicating with his baby boy, born with cerebral palsy but no-one knew what it was about for years because you couldn’t make out a single word, Neil! For me, the only criticism now is that he didn't go totally over the cliff; maybe to placate a no doubt very fed-up new record company, he threw in a couple of pretty ordinary traditional songs, which reduce the album's impact.
Trans set the template for Neil’s ’80s, increasing bafflement from fans, followed by indifference and irrelevance before his renaissance as the Godfather of Grunge in the 90s. However, you have to admire his bravery and bloody-mindedness, to shed legions of fans in the quest for his musical muse.
But Neil, that jacket ...
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