Monday, 25 September 2017

The Monkees "JustUs" (1996)

The Monkees “JustUs” (1997)

Circle Sky/Never Enough/Oh What A Night?/You and I/Unlucky Stars/Admiral Mike//Dyin’ Of A Broken Heart/Regional Girl/Run Away From Life/I Believe You/It’s My Life/It’s Not Too Late

‘I forgot the trash can!’

Oh the old age question for a group in the mid-1990s. Do you sell lots of records by being a soppy boy-band? Or do you keep your ‘credibility’, such as it is, by becoming a garage band? The Monkees always had problems with what they ‘really’ were (a manufactured boyband or a genuinely inventive musical force) and so, on their thirtieth anniversary reunion, bizarrely did both. This reunion was unexpected and caught even the band’s biggest fans napping. The first time Mike Nesmith had been in the band since 1969 and the first time all four Monkees had been together on the same patch of ground for anything more arduous than accepting a star on the ‘Hollywood Walk Of Fame’ came at the moment when most fans had accepted that, ten years after ‘Pool It!’, the band were a spent force . Surely Mike, having inherited his mother’s millions from the sale of her liquid paper patent, had no need to wear his wool-hat anymore and The Monkees were dead? Suddenly The Monkees were everywhere (at least if you were American) and celebrating two very different anniversaries for the two very different bands they had become. Over on TV, on the nearest-as-dammit thirtieth anniversary of their TV series’ first transmission, their ‘loser’ characters were still at the beach, still trying to make a living and still getting involved in lots of exploits which they laughed at in a very knowing postmodernist way. Over on record The Monkees were big box office business and this album, released on the exact thirtieth anniversary of their debut LP, was once again given mass market appeal, an album so of its time it hurts: on the plus side 1996 was the era of Oasis when rock and roll was starting to mean something again. Unfortunately it was also the age of The Spice Girls when music was also in danger of seeming meaningless. The Monkees, always adept at juggling several career directories at once, went straight down the middle for an album that still divides fans to this day.

‘JustUs’ could have been brilliant, but it had a somewhat muddled brief from the start. Mike was inspired to jam with Peter and Micky again after hearing – I kid you not – the theme from TV show ‘Friends’ and thinking it sounded like ‘Headquarters’ (personally it sounds more like The Spice Girls being backed by Nirvana – actually that ‘s uncomfortably close to what this album ended up becoming). Davy wasn’t too keen, but went along for the ride anyway and suddenly, without thinking about it, this band of old friends who hadn’t played together in decades were back in a studio staring at an engineer and making music. Originally the band was intending to make this a ‘covers’ album where the band merely added vocals to already-established backing tracks, the way they did in 1966 and again in late 1968-1970. Somewhere along the way Mike said wouldn’t be a great idea if the band released a whole-new album of original material – their first not to have a single cover song in there somewhere – and the others acquiesced.  That sounds a brilliant idea, what fans had been asking for across years and would really show everyone just what a creayive unit The Monkees really were at their core. That was a problem though: Mike himself had hung up his pop-writing shoes a long time ago and hadn’t made an album of new material since his least Monkee-ish poetic stream of consciousness album ‘…Tropical Campfires…’ in 1991, billed at the time as his very last (an announcement he’s only broken with film soundtrack albums and the last in his Prison/Garden/Ocean story-with-soundtrack trilogy). He ends up writing just one new song for this album – and that really doesn’t sound like The Monkees. Peter has been in creative limbo since his slight return on ‘Pool It’, figuring that his musician days are over and scratching a living off talk shows, low-key concerts and a bit of teaching on the side. Suddenly here he is being asked to write songs to order in a hurry – and what he comes up with doesn’t sound like The Monkees. Micky hasn’t been doing much writing either – with no new material to his name since 1972 – but he gamely tries and decides what The Monkees need to be is the pop his children are listening to. Which probably helped widen The Monkees’ market for this album, but didn’t really sound much like The Monkees. And Davy has had a very strange career, the one Monkee still writing new songs regularly now that Mike had slowed down, but he’s since long ago given up the daring and original compositions he once worked on in collaborations with others and ended up tagged as a balladeer whose work is only a fraction of what The Monkees could be.

You see the problem? It’s not The Monkees aren’t talented, but they’ve spent thirty years trying to move on from being Monkees (bar the Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart tours of the mid-1970s and the brief three-way reunion in the mid-1980s), turning their backs on their ‘old’ careers and trying to find new ways to say new things for decades now. Suddenly here they are, being asked to sound like ‘The Monkees’ within the space of a few weeks and they’ve forgotten how. Also they can’t decide on what ‘Monkees’ they want to be like as they were really multiple bands in one: the innocent pop of the early days, the deep and brooding psychedelic band of 1967, the way-out experimentalists of 1968, the country-rock pioneers of 1969 and back again to the bubblegum of 1970 where they left off, reduced to a duo. In the years since Mike has pioneered country-rock, Micky has turned to Broadway, Peter had got back in touch with his rockabilly roots and Davy has got drippier with age. These four men never had much in common in the 1960s, but they found a consensus because they were surrounded by some of the best names in the business and there was just enough of a ‘Monkee’ feel to make their songs sound vaguely related to the same band, however extreme the changes. Now they are older, their voices sound different, their styles have gone in four very different directions and for a decade now they’ve been living as strangers to each other, their lives never really crossing much. Mike has said since that he regretted making The Monkees the ‘creative focus’ of both reunion projects because they were really the tip of an iceberg of creative people all pulling together. Actually that’s fine – it worked pretty good on ‘Headquarters’ – but The Monkees aren’t as instinctively, naturally creative in their fifties as they were in their twenties and everyone needed more time to get together to know each other, to learn how to write for this band, to play as part of this band, to remember what it was like to be Monkees again and then work out how to update their sound.

Given more time (say had the reunion been discussed a year early or not hung on the peg of an anniversary at all) it could still have worked. But then someone had the bright idea of saying ‘Hey, instead of simply writing all our own songs why don’t we play them all too?’ Again on paper this was an inspired suggestion. The only time The Monkees had done this was on ‘Headquarters’ in 1967 and many fans, me included, still hail it as one of their big success stories. But again there’s a problem: three albums and multiple TV episodes in, The Monkees could read each other really well on ‘Headquarters’ and they were hungry to prove they could make a whole record themselves. They also had Turtle Chip Douglas as producer and occasional bas player, one of the few people all four genuinely seemed to like and trust and who enabled Peter to switch to guitar, piano, bass or banjo as he felt like it. Suddenly in 1996 a group of four near-strangers with a shared history a long time in the past are being asked to play together. While Mike and Peter still played from time to time, Micky hadn’t played the drums for a long long time. The lack of a bass player also means that, apart from his own piano-based songs, Peter is stuck playing bass – an instrument he only started playing on Monkees tours in 1967 and which he had less affinity than other instruments. Also, rather than passing each other in the corridors and talking about old times The Monkees were ushered into an atmosphere where they had to nail backing tracks together and every time one of them ‘blew it’ start again. That’s really not circumstances designed to help ease old tensions or soften old grievances. ‘JustUs’ then, named for the idea that at last the band would get ‘justice’ by proving they could make their own creative way and that only the four band members were playing, is badly misconceived and was never going to work in a month of Sunday Monkee re-runs. Too raw for fans who wanted polished pretty pop, too poppy and often soppy for fans who wanted more evidence of what a pioneering and inventive band the really were, the end result falls between two stools. The reunion, vaguely talked about as being semi-permanent, disappeared amongst a deluge of poor reviews (for the bonkers TV show as much as this album) and bad vibes, as can be seen if you have a look at the ‘making of’ on Youtube which I’m amazed nobody from the band’s management has taken down yet (The Monkees have long since given up talking to each other by the time the cameras roll in and the most exciting interaction is Davy and Micky talking about where they’re going for lunch).

Which is a shame because, by the time I saw them a few months later in concert, The Monkees had really gelled into a quite brilliant garage band. The quartet played the backing to all their old hits, threw in some stunning rarities (‘Only Shades Of Gray’, as sung by an older Peter and Davy staring at each other, gave me goosebumps) and even the new material didn’t sound quite as…odd as it did on album. By mid 1997 The Monkees had remembered who they were and come to terms with what they could do together, while gaining in experience and confidence all the time. But it was too late. The gravy train to Clarksville had already rolled and the world had forgotten about The Monkees – at least until the very real outpouring of grief at Davy’s sudden death in 2012. I wish, more than ever, that I had a time machine so I could go back and get the band to delay this album until they had spent more time writing apart, more time rehearsing together and more time just generally thinking because it could have been amazing. The band I heard weren’t strangers, but old friends. They weren’t unpractised musicians but sudden pros. They weren’t four men getting together for the money, but for the love of the music.

Unfortunately ‘JustUs’ just sounds like a love of the money and feels more like a ticking-box exercise than an actual record. The band record one old favourite (sadly Mike’s only lead vocal on the album and then heavily treated with effects as if The Monkees are a boy-band) and ‘Circle Sky’ should have been a good choice given that the band recorded it with just the four of them once before (before, strangely, their live raw take with lots of energy got replaced by one with session musicians). Instead it just shows up the difference between then and now, the band playing it safe while playing grunge, which makes for a very odd sound indeed. Mike also writes one social commentary song given to Micky, but his heart really isn’t in it and ‘Admiral Mike’ is no ‘For Pete’s Sake’ and instead is taking the ‘Mickey’ of modern culture a little too brutally (particularly as this dig at ad-men was started by a band who made merchandising for teenyboppers mainstream). Davy writes two drippy ballads that sound like clichéd re-writes of the sort of things he got given when he was seventeen, even though by now he’s fifty. Peter writes two songs that sound unfinished and hesitant, overly repetitive and sketchy, as if he was asked to come up with them at the last moment (as in all likelihood he most probably was). Micky writes the most interesting material, but none of his pop songs sound like the others and all seem to play things safer than the safest thing on any past Monkees album, even the first two. Add in the sound – which out of necessity given that these songs were all recorded in two months in the summer of 1996, the last just two months before release - which is all simple grunge chords and whallop whallop whallop and you end up with an album that has very little shade and colour, no sense of depth and apart from the joy of hearing the band back together again not really much point to it. It also feels so po-faced, without the fun of any Monkees before it (even ‘Head’ in a subversive, diabolical dialogue kind of a way). In short, its how The Monkees were in 1996, rather than how the world remembered them back in 1966. How much better would it have been if the band had laughed at their younger selves a bit more, but returned there the way they did in the TV special (however weird and dodgy some of the jokes were?)

My biggest problem with this record is the sound of it. By the mid 1990s the music market was diverging in multiple different directions. A little like the 1960s, you couldn’t be a fan of one part and love the others equally: you just wouldn’t have the money to buy them all and anyway most of these different directions were diametrically opposed. No Nirvana fan would ever buy a record with The Monkees’ name on it or put up with the sappy or retro filler pop that fills up a good half of this album. No pop lover of the top forty would ever listen to this album’s noisy repetitive grunge guitar riffs and think this was the album for them. Mike’s son Christian was by the mid-1990s making a name for himself in the grunge band ‘Nancy Boy’ and you can tell that his dad is both proud and intrigued by the possibilities. Grunge bands just did what The Monkees did: told to go into the same room together and make up something, it’s basically skiffle with amplifiers. Mike has a real ear for grunge guitar solos and is the one Monkee at home in this strange new musical universe. But grunge bands never played pop songs and with only one new Nesmith composition on the record that’s in this style (plus a second ‘oldie’ that sounds like it, just to make a point) this a record that doesn’t hang together at all well. There’s too big a divide between what the songs are telling us in word and what they’re telling us in music. The lyrics are all ‘I love you’ (give or take a couple oddly mean-spirited songs against advertisers and Micky’s exes). The music is all ‘I hate you’. The two mixed together ends up leaving you with indifference – and a headache. It’s all so inauthentic too as neither half seems like the ‘real’ Monkees: it seems odd to say that a band as manufactured as The Monkees could only release an inauthentic album at this point in their careers, but just play it back to back with even ‘Changes’. Micky and Davy still ‘meant’ what they were singing back then. Here they’re kinda lost, unable to live and breathe these songs, while Mike and especially Peter are all but silenced.

No Monkees record is terrible (even if this one arguably comes closest) and there are enough magical moments here to make fans feel like holding onto this record instead of throwing it away. Micky’s ‘Never Enough’ isn’t really a Monkees song, but it’s a good song whatever it is, a bluesy angry pop song that has Micky singing in a deeper voice against Mike’s guitar at its grungiest that’s at least semi-effective. There is what sadly turned out to be the only ever collaboration between Micky and Davy on album single ‘You and I’, which is sweet and pretty, if a bit flimsy. ‘Admiral Mike’ at least has teeth, even if it sinks them into some very odd targets and some belated attempts to censor the song with ‘twit’ instead of swearing like a trooper as you can tell it longs to. Mike plays some glorious guitar solos the few times he’s ever allowed to let fly from the basic heavy metal riffing going on. And the Monkees harmonies, however old and scrappy, still warm the heart the few times they’re used across this album. What it lacks though is a sense of Headquarters’ might and majesty. Somebody somewhere seems to have taken The Monkees joke that they were ‘a great garage band’ seriously and decided to make them that and only that, equating them with grunge five years too late. Back in 1967 those strong complex songs being played the band themselves opened them up to a whole new level of excitement and energy, as you sensed the very real joy in the room. I still love that album for its flashes of colour and scale. Grunge is a whole different prospect and simply makes songs sound like teenage angst even when they’re happy and carefree, as if everything is coming with an extra weight attached to it. This album is pure noise for ten songs – and so ridiculously wet and sentimental for the other two that you wish they hadn’t bothered. ‘Headquarters’ has the feeling of freedom, of four musicians being freed from the little black box they’ve been trapped in for the past year in an effort to show the world how great they could be. ‘JustUs’, with that sound and those simple songs, has more the feeling of being trapped: the band have to sound ‘modern’ and have to play all together or else (Headquarters broke the rules when it needed to, it just didn’t need to that often) on their own songs or else. ‘JustUs’ tries harder and deserves marks for that, but ‘Pool It’ was much more fun and the 1980s daft pop suited the band much more than a unique 1990s grunge-pop hybrid ever could.

The end result, sadly, hurt the band’s image rather than helped it. There are fans out there who love this record, who used it as their ‘open door’ to the brilliance of The Monkees’ back catalogue and who love it for the fact that it existed at all when we’d all long ago assumed this record could never ever happen. There are others, though, who saw it as the band yelling ‘hey, look at me!’ and then falling over at the time of their big chance, who blew the ability to prove themselves as writers, as players, even as Monkees. You want to cry that ‘it’s not too late to turn this ship around!’ and it wasn’t, this project could have been stopped at any stage when the band realised they were onto a loss. But too many people needed this album to come out on time and so what could have been a promising reunion got lost in there somewhere, too much capitalist monkey business getting in the way of the music, just like the bad old days of Don Kirshner (some things never change). Rumours abound that The Monkees started this album wary and ended it surly, realising that the project was a bad idea partway through but having to go with it (in that sense Micky seems to have been the album’s star, putting in extra effort on drum lessons and writing more than half the album’s songs himself as well as taking most of the lead vocals, much as he will again on ‘Good Times’). That might not be true, but it sounds it: this is the album of a band who don’t belong together in the same room never mind the same band – and while The Monkees was always a group of four very different individuals who really shouldn’t have gone well together, this is the only time that old Monkee magic didn’t really come into play and make it work anyway. This sounds like an album that’s waiting for the magic wand to wave all the way through to the mixing process, by which time everyone realised it was a bad idea and moved on. Which makes the pull-out quotes in the album’s cover booklet (by far the most moving part of the album) particularly poignant. Micky is overjoyed that Mike brought them back together. Davy is telling us ‘it’s not about age – it’s about life’. Peter is urging us all not to ‘quit just before the miracle’. And Mike feels comfortable to make a surrealism joke. Had ‘JustUs’ had a little bit more of that very Monkees zest and unity then it could have been a great piece of art. Instead it’s just another low-key pop album, badly performed by a band who can only ever play in the key of grunge. ‘Good Times’ will try to put this right with a much more Monkees-feel twenty years later and will learn from m any of this album’s biggest mistakes: a longer gestation period, outside writers, outside musicians and a return to an ‘old’ style production especially. But even that album is a record by four men (one of them posthumously) going in four very different directions and still doesn’t use Peter or their own writing voices anywhere near enough. One day, if there’s still time to make a ‘true’ Monkees reunion album, let’s give them a longer time to make it, a short tour beforehand to blow away the cobwebs and remind them of their links to each other – and no attempt to be modern ever, ever again.


Back in 1968 Mike Nesmith wrote ‘Circle Sky’ more or less on the spot (the lyrics at least) when the band were asked to come up with a simple rock and roll song The Monkees could play live for the ‘concert’ part of their ‘Head’ feature film. Figuring that the band hadn’t been seen in public for a while, Mike wrote a stream-of-consciousness song about how ‘it looks like we’re here again’ pandering to the Beatles idea of ‘Sgt Peppers’ with a group going back on stage and throwing in random things that caught his eyes in the studio – ‘Hamilton smiling down’ being the name of the microphone stand he was leaning on and ‘energy falling free’ his take on what it felt like to be part of a raw and exciting rock and roll band. Oddly The Monkees’ live take was replaced by a studio take for the album, reportedly the trigger point when Peter Tork decided to leave the band in horror (Monkee historians remember this as a row with Mike, but he wanted the live take on the album too, or so he says in Rhino’s excellent sleeve-0notes in the 1990s anyway). In 1996 those lyrics suddenly seemed prescient for The Monkees’ reunion album – rather than write a new simple rock and roll song Mike decided to re-hash his old one that would serve the same purpose and the lines about how ‘it looks like we made it once again’ are even more poignant in context. Unfortunately this recording sets out JustUs’ problems from the first. What was once a genuinely thrilling rock and roll song, where Mike’s fierce rock and roll snarl met Peter’s bouncy bass head on, has just become a noisy thrash. Micky’s drumming has got worse with age not better and The Monkees’ vocals are audibly older, with the studio treatment not helping. The result is heavy-handed and hideous, complete with heavy metal ‘urrrgh’s and a pointless change of spelling to be ‘hip’ with ‘energy’ now reading as ‘NRG’ for no apparent reason. While the song itself is a good choice, it does feel rather like an elderly parent trying to be just too trendy by wearing a baseball cap back to front – or an old friend being bludgeoned to death, the choice is yours.

‘Never Enough’ is the album’s relative highlight, as Micky’s surprisingly adult take on the teenage romance the younger Monkees used to take as read is well-suited to the simplistic groove of the record and comes as close to rock (as opposed to pop or grunge) as the album ever comes. The Micky-Davy blend sounds fabulous too and even though this glum and moody song sounds nothing like any previous Monkees composition, at least the recording of it does (especially the full on ‘Daydream Believer’ ending that comes out of nowhere). Mike plays a glorious solo in addition to his grunge guitar riff too, the closest he ever comes to regaining his old 1960s signature sound. As for the song itself, while Micky probably wrote it about his divorce from second wife Trina in 1991, like ‘Circle Sky’ it sounds like a comment from band to fans. ‘Why is it never enough no matter what I do?’ sighs Micky, coming to the conclusion that it’s not worth the effort to please a girl (and fans?) because they’re always going to have a fixed perception of him in mind. Micky regrets time wasted when he should have quit earlier, ‘wasted’ on ‘endless tears’ and adds in a Rolling Stones reference that would normally be considered too risqué for The Monkees, as he worries about filling his missuses’ ‘sweet loving cup’, pretending not to care but clearly being moved close to tears by the thought of loss. Micky has never sung as deeply as he does on the verses, his signature pop voice reduced to a growl and only Davy’s twinkle can take the pain away. When the most ‘Tigger’ member of a Tigger band is turning Eeyore you know you’re in trouble, but even though that makes this track distinctly un-Monkees, its just about the only song here that sounds like it just might be coming from the heart. Alas even this song runs out of steam quickly though, ending up stuck in the repetitive hell of the chorus for what seems like hours by the end. Still, ‘Never Enough’ does just enough to prove The Monkees have a feel for this song.

‘Oh What A Night’ is an oddball song of Davy’s. The happiest-sounding song on the record, it sounds as if it’s filling the cheery cutesy Davy slot of ‘I Can’t Get Her Off My Mind’ on ‘Headquarters’. Davy spent most of his career being pegged as a lovestruck teen, so that’s probably not so surprising. But this song isn’t cute at all, but actually quite vicious, in tone if not in tune. ‘Oh what a night!’ he croons to some flamenco guitars, as if he’s chatting up a girl on a moonlight night, but no – next he sings that ‘now I must forget you’ and he’s actually getting rid of the object of his affections. Most of the song is told in flashback, with Davy regretting not doing more to stay in love and wishing that he would ‘stay another day’. Even so, though, the chorus concludes that it wouldn’t make any difference – that if he went back in time he would ‘only do the same’. By the end of the song he’s gone back to being with his old flame – but even then the song switches back again to have her telling him she loves another and he again moves on to love somebody else. After singing ‘oh yeah’ on the backing vocals for much of the song, suddenly Mike and Micky intone ‘oh no!’, the most Monkees moment on the record, but it’s too late to save this rather drippy oddball waltz which can’t decide what it wants to be and is too ‘light’ for the rest of the album. It’s also way too close to The Four Seasons’ ‘December 1963 (Oh What A Night)’ for comfort. The rhymes of ‘city and pity’ and ‘magic’ and ‘tragic’ mean this isn’t even a better re-write: back in the late 1960s Davy was in many ways The Monkee with the most songwriting promise and while his solo albums are hit and miss there’s usually something good on them. This song is just cheap filler on an album that can’t afford it. ‘I forgot the trash can!’ yells Micky at the end, the snippet kept on I the spirit of ‘Band 6’ and ‘Zilch’. But we don’t know why he yells it – and it sounds instead as if Davy’s romantic leanings have caused him to be sick!

Alas it speaks volumes that one of the very best songs on the album is ‘You and I’, even though it’s a pretty meagre re-recording of a song that didn’t sound that great twenty years earlier on the first reunion album by ‘Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart’. Davy and Micky wrote it together and Davy still sounds very fond of it, with its sweet harmony-drenched melody and it’s nostalgic reminiscences of a time long ago – presumably the mid-1960s when The Monkees started given the ‘feel’ of this song. The opening lines refer to ‘spotlights’ and ‘parties and goodbyes’  which makes for a nice rosy nostalgic tingle, but Davy and Micky are perhaps a bit too false in their take of ‘promises not broken’ to their fans. Actually The Monkees broke their promises more than most bands, refusing to be what they were created for and always stretching their creative palette as much as their format allowed – so it’s rather a shame to hear them going backwards here, back to the idea of The Monkees as a safe and cosy band when they were actually anything but. Naturally this track became the album’s single, given that it’s about the only one here that doesn’t have the heavy grunge riff running all the way through it, but the single flopped despite heavy publicity because it really doesn’t sound much like The Monkees. The lyrics about ‘staying together when all the others never made it through’ sound even more wrong here, after split number three, than it did on first release though and you only need to play this track back-to-back with Davy’s ‘other’ song named ‘You and I’ (a stinging rocker with Neil Young on lead guitar from ‘Instant Replay’ in 1969) to hear this song’s lack of ambition and emotion. This is a clever pop song, but  it ends after just one verse and a chorus, with multiple repeats and writing a song from the heart instead of borrowing one from two decades past would have been more clever still. At least the harmonies are rather special though, especially the four-way chorus sigh on the final line.

Rock and roll lesson number one (learnt right before ‘stay on the right side of the guy who picks your music’ ‘don’t make a weird postmodern film about committing suicide to scare your teenybopper fans’ and ‘always take your laundry to your audition because you’ll always be remembered’) is that if you want to be hip to a younger audience and sound like them do not ev-uh sing a song based on the styles of your own childhood. ‘Unlucky Stars’ is so 1950s it would shock the cast of Grease and sounds like lots of oldies pasted together and sadly none of the good ones: the chugging piano of Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’, the falseness of Elvis at his worst and the slick-back-haired pop of Bobby Vee. Micky’s weakest song on the album says even less than the other album tracks on yet another album song about a breakup. Micky sees his fortune teller who ‘cries’ when she reads his palm, sees unlucky stars in his sky and sighs that ‘my lucky ship is lost’. So he breaks up with his girl, without apparently giving any reason except the ‘omens’ and the ending is particularly odd: ‘I adore you to the end’ Micky sighs, ‘but I would rather have a friend’. Big finale. Wait, hang on a minute, what? That’s the crux of the song right there, not the star-gazing or feeling sorry for himself. What impact has this ‘friendship’ had on the marriage? Has she run off with his best friend in an Eric Clapton-George Harrison type way? Is this a subtle song about a character coming out as gay and the fact he would rather be with a boy than a girl? Alas we don’t get that potentially interesting and groundbreaking song, we get this loony cod-1950s blues song instead. The Monkees sound oddly flat-footed on it too – you would think Peter at least would enjoy this one given his own band (with the wonderfully punning name ‘Shoe Suede Blues’), but both his piano and bass playing are flat-footed. Micky, meanwhile, is ‘playing’ at his vocal and trying to make it out to be a comedy – but considering that he has always been one of life’s most natural comedians (even more than he’s a natural musician) it’s just not that funny. Perhaps the weakest track on a pretty awful album.

‘Admiral Mike’ has split fans ever since release. The noisiest, grungiest, angriest song on the album, this Micky-sung-Mike song really doesn’t sound like The Monkees in anyway shape or form. In many ways that’s a good thing: freed of the need to sound the way the band always did, The Monkees turn in one of their best backing tracks here, with Mike’s echoey grunge guitar smelling like teen spirit, even though the band are in their fifties here. For any other band, too, this snarling attack on the media in general and advertising in particular would be a golden war cry: how dare you present a ‘fake’ version of the world when it’s so messed up? But The Monkees were the band who understood ‘advertising more than any other and can’t quite bring themselves to ‘bite’ the hand that feeds them the way that another band without their ‘baggage’ of creation could have done. You can hear that throughout this song as a natural place for swearing after three minutes of bile turns into the far less offensive comment ‘you stupid twit!’ This track could have been so much better had Mike been more explicit in his attack and what inspired it. Nesmith read a newspaper article about a Navy Admiral who committed suicide after the media – wrongly as it turned out – blamed him for some mistake in some minor skirmish. Instead of printing an apology, the media then went with yet more coverage about the suicide and treated the man really badly, even though a court of law had seen him acquitted. Mike, of course, had been attacked enough himself for no good reason for just being a Monkee and turns ‘himself’ into the ‘admiral’ here, on a different kind of crusade. What could have been a fine and spirited song about the hypocrisy of the media (‘Don’t smile at me and shake my hand!’) that leads to mistake and effectively murder sadly becomes diluted and just sounds like a rockstar moaning at the fact a newspaper has been mean to him. We need more context in this song to make it work and sadly we didn’t get it.  The chorus is also questionable: ‘Because you’re only ‘only selling ads’ is too much of a mouthful for even Micky to sing, even if he’s clearly having fun snarling the rest of this track like a born-again punk. At least this song has heart though and the line ‘realities are crushed beneath the ads your copy sells’ is such a gloriously Nemith-like line, being so overtly poetic and erudite about the mundane. The album really needed more songs like this one, however misguided.

‘Dyin’ Of A Broken Heart’ really ain’t that smart as a song: Micky’s lyrics about going to a doctor because he’s feeling bad and being told that it’s because he’s got a ‘broken heart’ have been better done many many times before. However as a recording it’s powerful stuff indeed, The Monkees really getting behind this song and turning in b y far their best performance on the record. Mike grooves away like the love child of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, Peter’s bass purrs growls and grooves and Micky’s vocal is easily his best on the record while his monotonous drums clatter relentlessly, without mercy. The lyrics are also a rare moment on this album where The Monkees admit their age: Micky is shocked that he’s fallen for something so dumb as a ‘broken heart’ when he’s lived through the cynical 1970s when The Monkees were dead, there was a crook called Nixon in the White House and drugs turned out to be killers of bodies as well as freers of minds. The song also has a few digs at the medical industry along the way: the doctor wants $40 for ‘taking some blood’ and the analyst wants $100 for a ‘test’. The American medical system must be more thorough than the British one, though, as both of them comes back with the same result: a broken heart (can they really find it through blood tests and X-rays now?) Micky, of course, knew it all along: he’s been here before and he’s in pain. What could have been a very silly song is delivered impressively straight and best of all the recording and arrangement makes this song sound so physical it hurts. The ‘problem’ is that The Monkees seem to have spent most of their session time on a song that’s one of the flimsiest and silliest on the album and rushed the rest and you don’t need an X-ray to tell that.

‘Regional Girl’ is the album’s weirdest Micky song. You’d never ever guess that this was The Monkees without being told: the heavy dirty guitar sound, the heavy thumping drums, the treated vocals and most of all the rough and edgy lyrics are totally different to anything this band had ever done before. Micky’s lyrics deal with a girl whose come from a little village to make her fortune and soon discovers that the big city is remorseless and doesn’t care a thing or her dreams, as this small minnow drowns in a big pond. Micky cuts no slack in this song as he mocks and taunts her (‘Did you really think you could make it on your own?’) and there is no happy ending here as instead of fame, fortune and glory ‘I think you’re gonna wind up flipping burgers for some bitch!’ If the swearing seems out of place for The Monkees, it’s a sign of how different this song is that it makes perfect sense here and the song would be out of place without it. Just to remind us that this is still The Monkees, Micky fits in a reference to ‘Mary Mary’, updating this song so that it could be about Mike’s 1967 character’s offspring, equally lost and confused and apt to bouts of daydreaming, here matched by ‘Eddie, good and Ready, always playing with your pants!’ There’s even a reference to ‘coke’ thrown in for good measure to bust The Monkees’ image for good – and it’s clear that Micky isn’t singing about the soft-drink here. This is still a song that would be nothing without the second best band performance on the record though and even with Micky’s vocal ducked way too low in the mix it’s a good one, with Mike’s angry piercing guitar and Peter’s inventive rocking bass perfect for the song. Whether this song and performance is perfect for a Monkees record, though, that’s another matter. Most fans are shocked by the time they get to this one.

Peter wrote ‘Run Away From Life’ after hearing the biting sarcasm of the rest of the album and figuring he could have a go at that too. The song is about fantasists and escapists who can’t cope with the real world, Peter viewing them with a sneer as he pours acid on the hippie utopian dream where ‘there’ll be no more fights – we won’t even disagree’. The most ‘Head’, like moment on the album, it’s basically a take-down of everyone still beliving in the hippie ideal, as sung by one of the era’s biggest idealists who has become angry and cycnical with old age, disillusioned by the mad twists of his own life. ‘IT’s all sarcastic as Hell, Tork recalled later, ‘pretty nasty!’ Had Peter sung it in his off-key sneer, it could have been amazing. Instead the band give it to Davy to sing, which instantly takes all that bitterness away. Even though Davy sings this song tougher than normal, he still sounds like he means it (maybe he did?) as he dreams of life being ‘perfect’ with the ‘perfect’ woman by his side. You can almost hear the stars blinking in his eyes the way it did in the TV series. Suddenly this song becomes not a groundbreaking song of acidness but a cutesy hippie song that just happens to be performed by a band who didn’t get the memo and play it as a grunge attack, as loud and heavy as anything on the album. Peter’s own bass playing is disappointing, but his madcap synth solo in the middle, with lots of random phrases stuck over each other playing snatches of lines, is one of the more arresting musical moments on the record.

Peter did sing lead on ‘I Believe You’m but I suspect that’s more because nobody else wanted to. As recently as ‘Pool It!’ Peter was writing groundbreaking pieces of complexity and emotional resonance with lyrics that any writer would love to have in their back catalogue. But this odd song sounds written on the spot: a three-note piano phrase (played on what sounds like an out-of-tune one), a repetitive lyric that repeats ‘I believe you’ no less than twenty-five times in 3:40 (that’s once every eight seconds!) it’s easily his weakest release under the Monkee name. For fans like me who’ve long held that Tork was the Monkees’ hidden creative talent who only needed more of a spotlight to make his mark against the poppier commercial tones of previous Monkee albums, this song is a disaster. Peter was alone of all The Monkees in releasing precisely nothing since the last album ten years before this one – was this really the best he could come up with? There is, to be fair, an excellent ‘woa-a-ah’ chorus full of massed harmonies that works any better that it has any right to and a moving middle eight that stops being grounded and full of doubts and instead takes off into the stratosphere on a metaphor of a rocket heading for space that enables him to believe that things will work out after all. But for the most part my biggest problem with ‘I Believe You’ is that I don’t believe it.

‘JustUs’ then ends with two treacly ballads. The first is Micky’s, named ‘It’s My Life’. Taking up responsibility for how his life turns out and not blaming it on ex wives, ex bands or ex managers, it’s very nice for about thirty seconds. But then the song gets stuck and Micky is way too over-the-top as he effectively fills in the rest of the lyrics, sometimes oddly (‘I remember a cave and shadows on the wall’. I don’t remember that Monkee episode!) ‘Excuse’ and ‘truth is’ also feels like a rhyme too far: he might have gotten away with it had he hidden it in the song, but he keeps coming back to it as the central hook of the record.  As a writer for The Monkees Micky was, traditionally, the ‘realest’ one, writing from the heart on most of his songs be they about his experiences in London on ‘Randy Scouse Git’ or his Indian heritage and worries about Government hypocrisy on ‘Mommy and Daddy’. Alas, even though this song keeps referring to ‘my life’, there’s no ‘Micky’ in this song and any band could have done it. Arguably any band could have done it better than The Monkees in 1996 too, as on this subtler sweeter song they don’t really know what to do with it. Peter’s piano is basic and a little too lighters-in-the-air, Mike’s acoustic playing is dumb and Davy’s percussion is awful (dum dum chink!) No excuses, the truth is, this is a very clichéd song that nobody believes in at all.

The album then ends with Davy’s drippy ballad ‘It’s Not Too Late’. Given that Davy was the most resistant to making this album, won over by tales of constant touring that ended up being cut short, it could be that this song is his plea to the others about how the sessions were going: ‘It’s not too late to turn this ship around!’ he urges, writing the closest song on the album to a traditional Monkees track. More likely he was writing about his second wife Anita, with whom he was in the middle of divorcing during album sessions (the alimony may have been another incentive for him getting involved), trying to give his marriage one last go. Perhaps remembering his Davy character from years before, he promises to send her flowers ‘every day’, to ‘show you that I care’ and that given a second chance ‘our love will last till the end of time’. It’s a sweet simple song with a catchy chorus that would have made for a nice Eurovision entry, made one of the album highlights thanks to a spirited lead vocal and some glorious harmony vocals from Micky (at least until he goes for a faux soul finale which doesn’t suit song or album). However it’s the middle eight that’s again the most poignant thing here: ‘If I knew my time was near…your name would be my dying prayer’ promises Davy, on the last ‘new’ Monkee track he will ever appear on. Thankfully his story will have a happy ending, of sorts, when he meets his third wife Jessica, though sadly the couple only get three years together. It’s hard not to shed a tear at that and this is the one song on the album where Davy sounds like he ‘means’ it.

Unfortunately, though, it’s too little too late to rescue ‘JustUs’, an album that tries perhaps a little bit too hard to stick to the ‘Headquarters’ idea of The Monkees doing everything, even though for the past twenty years The Monkees haven’t been doing that much at all (since 1976 Mike made three records, Micky two full of cover songs, Peter one and Davy only a few singles). Asking this band to turn back the clock to when they were full of creative expression and things to say at a moment’s notice was just too much. Asking the public to then accept anything under the Monkees name, however creative, in the Britpop era of the mid-1990s when music was again ‘authentic’ (Spice Girls and boy bands aside), was also asking too much however good the album would have been. Further ruining their standing with fans by having The Monkees ‘devolving’ into a grunge-pop band, with very little let-up from song to song, was then the icing on the cake, asking fans to like the sort of music their children were creating (musicians moving on is fine – musicians pretending they’re thirty years younger isn’t). The result is easily The Monkees’ weakest album, misguided in idea and usually lacking in execution. There is, though, still a delight in hearing this band back together again at all and the chance to hear those wonderful harmonies alone makes sitting through the roughest parts of this album worth it. Also, unlike ‘Pool It’, this album is a step forwards in terms of all-original songs and performances and is closer in style to the stronger later period Monkees albums than the flimsier bubblegum first, with any band thirty years the band’s junior surely proud to put the snarl of songs like ‘Never Enough’ ‘Admiral Mike’ and ‘Regional Girl’ to tape. Alas, though, in trying to become a modern-day version of a garage band, The Monkees forget the creative spark and variety that made them a househoild name in the 1960s every bit as much as their humour, commercial records and pin-up status. Back in 1966 you never quite knew what was coming next on a Monkee record. Sadly, after the shock of the first track, on this album you very much do. What could have been a lucrative and telling comeback from a band with much to say sadly disappeared in a puff of smoke and The Monkees won’t be back for another fifteen years by which time, several manufactured talent shows and the loss of Davy later, the media will be much kinder to them all round. Is ‘Good Times’ really a better album though? Only in terms of production perhaps. As for The Monkees in 1996, I was there – and I’m afraid after longing for a reunion for so many years I hated this CD and wasn’t having a good time at all.

Other Monkees-related articles from this website you might be interested in reading:

'More Of The Monkees' (1967)

'Headquarters' (1967)

'Pisces Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones LTD' (1967)

'The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees' (1968)

'Head' (1968)

'Instant Replay' (1969)

'The Monkees Present' (1969)

'Changes' (1970)

'Pool It!' (1986)

'Good Times!' (2016)

'Only Shades Of Grey' : The Monkees In Relation To Postmodernism (University Dissertation)

Auditions, Screen Tests and Pre-Fame Recordings

Surviving TV Clips

The TV Series - Season  One (19966-1967)

The TV Series - Season Two (1967-1968)

'HEAD/33 and a third Revolutions Per Monkee/Episode #761'

Monkee Sidetrips: The Boyce and Hart Catalogue

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part One 1967-1975

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Two 1976-1986

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Three 1987-2014

The Who: The Best Unreleased Recordings

Unlike some AAA bands who keep their unreleased and discarded works under lock and key, The Who have always been quite open about the songs that didn't quite make it -just as they've always been open about revisiting their past on later works. As early as 1974 (and after just six albums worth of material) they were pining for the old days so badly they released 'Odds and Sods', one of the better compilations of unreleased material. The Who have since had great fun in the age of the compact disc, re-issuing their albums in deluxe, super deluxe and deluxe deluxe deluxe editions with unreleased bonus tracks at such a rate most fans (me included) can't keep up with them all. Even Pete Townshend's demos have been pretty much comprehensively covered thanks to no less than three double-disc sets of his 'Scoop' series (although there is still easily enough tapes around for a fourth volume one day - probably a fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth too). In addition the six-disc 'Lifehouse Chronicle' box set released through Pete Townshend's website also mopped up ever-so-nearly everything from 'Lifehouse', The Who's most prolific period for unreleased songs and outtakes, while 'Tommy' can be heard nearly complete in demo form now on the 'super deluxe' set and 'Quadrophenia' can also be bought as a  set of demos. As a result there isn't quite the prime collection of Who outtakes for our regular column of unreleased classics as you might expect - pretty much everything that used to be the domain of the bootleggers is now out on some disc or internet download, usually in far better sound than it ever used to be. There are of course a whole load of live recordings out there made by the many Who fans and occasionally by the band themselves (the best of them being a 1971 show in San Francisco mooted as a possible sequel to 'Live At Leeds' before the band reckoned it was 'too soon' - a shame as it features a rather glorious collection of 'Lifehouse' songs, while a 1979 radio broadcast from Paris is easily the best the Kenney Jones era of the band ever sounded). However we've decided to skip these from our article because there are so many official live recordings out there from almost every era around now and the unreleased gigs aren't that different to what's out there, just occasionally better. So, instead, enjoy a further collection of Townshend demos not yet included in the 'Scoop' series, plus the odd revealing alternate mix with the guitarist dominating our list!

1.        My Generation (Demo 1965)
It seems nothing short of a travesty that the first ever recording of The Who's most famous song isn't out yet - especially as it's fabulous! Performed halfway between the roar of the famous single version and the earlier arrangement sometimes heard in concert that was more like a blues, three Pete's sing across a bass-heavy acoustic guitar part with the echo turned away up high. Less cynical and acerbic than factual and telling-it-like-it-is, this song even features an early go at the vocal mannerisms Roger would later add to the record (with not just a stutter, but Pete blowing through his teeth and making sucking noises, while the line 'awful c-c-c-c-cold' makes him sound as ig he's clearing his throat). There's a bass overdub too, though Pete doesn't try for a solo. Basic as this demo is, this song already sounds glorious!

2.       Don't Look Away (Demo 1966)
This charming demo for a 'Quick One' song presumably never made 'Scoop' because it's in comparatively poor condition. We Whooligans don't care about though, especially when the demo is one of the ones that differs so much from the finished version. Shorn of most of the harmonies and the rockyness of the backing, this song reveals more of its country-and-Western beginnings and sounds much sweeter and more heartfelt rather than just being another Who pop song. I think I prefer this version actually, with Pete sounding much more as if he had someone in mind when he wrote this song about a disappearing girlfriend.

3.      I Can See For Miles (Demo c1966)
Clearly a cut above the other songs Pete was writing in 1966, the guitarist said later that he'd kept this song back for when The Who were struggling in the charts because he was sure it would be an 'instant smash' (which it wasn't, peaking at only #10 in the UK). You can hear why from the demo, which also sounds like a work of genius, with the incredible tension already there from the basic sound, even if this song doesn't have the criss-crossing psychedelic guitars just yet (the part we do get is very much like Link Wray actually, at least until a glorious solo when Pete doesn't so much play as rattle his guitar!) Pete's softer tones make this more a song about love than danger as per the Roger Daltrey version too. All in all, one of the greatest - and most different - demos Pete ever made. So why wasn't it on the first 'Scoop' never mind volumes two and three?!? That's what you get for deliberately hiring a non-Who fan to compile them for musical not historical value I guess...

4.    Lazy Fat People (Demo 1967)

This 'Sell Out' era song was given away to The Barron Knights, perhaps because it sounds more like an Entwistle B-side than Pete's usual fare for the band. The Knights didn't really suit this song either and they didn't get a hit with it despite their bigger band setting, but the song is still ripe for re-discovery on the very next 'super super super deluxe' version of 'Sell Out'. A giggling Pete, notoriously skinny, really takes it out on obese people, calling them a 'terrible sight to see' and laughing at how they always get sunburn. Sung without Pete's usual big heart softening the blow in there somewhere, it's odd to hear Pete being so purely cynical. This is also the only Who-related demo to sport a swannee whistle solo!

5.      To Kill My Appetite (Demo 1967)
Sounding not unlike 'La La La La La Lies', this simple Townshend demo apparently dates from the 'Sell Out' period although it sounds like dates from much earlier. Clearly written for Roger's leer and sneer, this oddball love song has the narrator trying to take his feelings of lust with 'some salt and pepper bayeeeebeeee!' The nearer he gets to his 'meal' (sexual innuendo probably intended), the more he realises what an awful girl he's fallen in love with and wishes he'd just slept with her instead of trying to wine and dine her first! The highlight of the song is a marvellous ringing guitar solo.

6.      That Motherland Feeling (Demo 1967)
Another truly oddball demo from the 'Sell Out' period. The Who have just come back from their first American tour and this track has a distinctly stateside feeling, with more country and western/blues stylings. The main character is a wanderer in true Who fashion, but unlike 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere' he still feels the pull of home, tradition and friendship and family calling him back again. This song is quite different to anything else Townshend ever wrote and not altogether successful, although the narrator's need to belong somewhere, even if he only discovers that when he's away from home and the schizophrenia he feels about it all is a clear nod to the later 'Quadrophenia' album.

7.        King Rabbit (Demo 1967)
Mind you, I don't think any Townshend song was ever as weird as this one  - The Who equivalent of Syd Barrett's 'Effervescing Elephant' as Pete offers us an equivalent of the 'Just So' Rudyard Kipling stories. It's a little like Jethro Tull's tale of 'The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles' from 'A Passion Play' too, as  vein and greedy king of the lupine community learns to treat his community properly and 'does a very grand thing', at least until he dies at the end. The guitar chords are not all that unlike 'Pinball Wizard', just slower and Pete clearly spent a long time on this demo, with multiple overdubs instrumentally and vocally.

8.      Dogs (D emo 1968)
A dogs dinner of a demo in many ways, but too important a part of The Who's evolution not to be released in demo form. Pete is a far more convincing cockney newlywed than Roger and is having a ball betting on a number of greyhounds with daft names at the end of most of the verses. Pete plays piano too, for the first time as far as I can tell from the demos that have surfaced, and this demo's switches from heavy Who-style thundering to cutesy lightness is far more impressive than on the record.

9.      The Lone Ranger (private Townshend film with soundtrack 1968)
In 1968 Who fan and film student Richard Stanley got in touch with Pete through their mutual friend Speedy Keene (the drummer in Thunderclap Newman and composer of 'Armenia City In The Sky') and asked him to 'star' in his student film project. An unusually helpful Pete not only agreed to help but also provided a three minute song for the soundtrack of the twelve minute film with Speedy, which sounds like 'Armenia' re-cast for a blues harmonica at times before moving onto a funkier version of the 'Overture' from 'Tommy'. The film isn't up to much - it's basically a 'day in the life' story of a chap named 'Beaky', a joke about Pete's nose that probably didn't go down very well - and Pete's acting in this short reveals why Ken Russell didn't give him a part in the film version of 'Tommy' alongside Roger and Keith. However everyone is clearly having fun and Pete's main scene (at a table, interrupting his 'dad' trying to read the paper) is enough like later song 'Cut My Hair' to surely be more than coincidence. Odd, but interesting and more than worthy of release. The teacher clearly liked the film too, because it was entered for the '1968 International Student Film Awards', but didn't win.

10.   Bargain (Demo 1971)
A surprise absentee from the 'Lifehouse Chronicles' box set, this demo of the second song from 'Who's Next' isn't as different as some of the others. Pete sings rather than Roger of course and gives the song - and indeed the 'bargain' - a much jollier rather than hard-earned feel, while Pete's impressions of John's bass is improving all the time.

11.     Girl In A Suitcase (Demo 1971)
A 'Lifehouse' song that didn't get any further than a demo, this is a rawer and more basic version of the sweetened demo Pete released on the B-side of his 'Let My Love Open The Door' single (and advertised as 'coming from beneath the Eel Pie Floorboards'!) Goodness only knows where it fitted into the 'Lifehouse' plot (I admit it, I chickened out of including it in the 'Lifehouse' review proper!) as the narrator is pleased at how his girl has always chosen to support him wherever life has taken him, as dependable as his suitcase. The weakest song Pete wrote in 1971 maybe, but even this simple track has a certain charm.

12.    Won't Get Fooled Again (Guitar Only Mix 1971)
The release of the 'Rock Band' game featuring several 're-mixed' versions of old friends was a great day for bootleggers who seized on the 'isolated' versions of instruments that had been created from the original masters to better signify what you heard when you did/didn't play along. Though bass and drum and isolated vocals all exist for Who contributions 'Won't Get Fooled Again' and (unusual choice this) 'Sea and Sand', this is the most interesting: a focus on Pete's howling guitar, so primal and yet controlled and his mixture of Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry. The ringing chords will stay in your ears for much time to come, even if you have to sit through a whole two minutes where the synth instrumental should be and Pete's punkish return into the song makes you jump and drop things, every single time, no matter how many times you hear it and know it's coming.

13.   Behind Blue Eyes (Vocals/Backing Track 1971)
This alternate mix is more inventive, starting off with the purest set of angelic vocals The Who ever recorded (John particularly sounds gorgeous here!) before the rest of the instruments come in one by one (starting with an organ part so low in the mix you could barely hear it anyway). By the 'rockier, second half we just get the pure backing as we hear The Who lock into one of their tightest grooves over and over, with Pete's guitar flying. Not as The Who ever intended, but anything that offers new insight into an old friend can only be a good thing. Other fan mixes are out there.

14. Can't You See I'm Easy? (1972 Demo)
Reportedly the second song written for the 'LOng Live Rock!' concept album of 1972 before the album turned into 'Quadrophenia', this is a very dramatic affair, closest in The Who canon to the film soundtrack songs for 'Tommy'. In this song the rockstar narrator pleads for love and promises to do better from now in a relationship, while pleading with his loved one to see how much pain he's in and how easy it would be to woo him back. he also argues that actually he was 'right in every song', which makes me wonder if this song is less about wooing a girl back than Pete woo-ing Kit Lambert after their row during 'Lifehouse' the year before. A strangely 'cowboy' guitar part makes this song stand out against anything else Pete was writing at the time, while a 'Baba O'Riley' style synth swoops in the background.

15 Riot In The Female Jail (1972 Demo)
Pete may have just invented TV series 'Tenko', with his tale of studying how the fairer sex can go bad. Pete's narrator is hit by a brick with a message asking him to let a bunch of girls out of the prison. In a gender reversal a bunch of sex-starved girls patrol the town 'looking for men' while Pete - presumably in a song he'd gave given to Roger to sing - stands by the gates 'hoping to be the first one raped!' The song also includes the memorable line 'Don't worry about the screws, they're waiting to get screwed too!' A bonkers song that will probably never see release given the subject matter, it's an odd monologue-style track that never quite comes off although the 'siren' that runs throughout the song is quite effective.

16 Amoureuse (1974 Live) - Pete plays Veronique Sanson!
Pete's first concert at the Roundhouse for Meher Baba converts was a special gig for many, thankfully captured for posterity on an 'archive' CD. Certain songs were cut to fit the set down to a single disc, though, including this unique Townshend performance of a song by Veronique Sanson, in this period about to become Stephen Stills' first wife. Pete turns in a passionate performance as he offers to give his everything to hold the woman of his dreams 'for just another day' and discussing that 'love is something you can never regret' even when it goes wrong.

17 Broken Nails (c.1978 Demo)
A bootleg favourite, this unfinished song from around the 'Who Are You' period is a little like 'No Road Romance' (another song that didn't make it until the CD re-issues) but less formed and more emotional. Pete remembers a day when he fell in love by 'sharing his pain' with his lover and appreciating the warmth of her response. Now, though, the fire has gone out and neither of them can quite 'explain' why, as Pete sounds as lost and confused as he did on 'Who By Numbers'. The song's finale is more hopeful though: broken as the bond may be 'there's still a part of me in you and you in me'. The Pete Townshend song that most sounds like a Hazel O'Connor recording!

18  New Song (c197 8 Demo)
Pete's demo for the opening track on 'Who Are You' has so far yet to appear on a 'Scoop' compilation, because perhaps it isn't a million miles away from the finished version. However you do get to hear a surprisingly upbeat Pete sing his acerbic words rather than Roger and a much longer synth-heavy opening. The song was clearly written from Pete's point of view not Roger's anyway ('My hairline ain't exactly superstar...I've been bashing my guitar') and on that score alone makes perfect sense as a Townshend demo.

19 Who Are You (Guitar Only Mix 1978)
More fun with Pete's guitar, isolated from the other instruments as a 'download paid for extra' on the 'Rock Band' game. Hearing Pete's guitar alone like this allows you to hear anew just how cleverly he alternates between playful see-sawing and really angry attacks on the same two chords. The song also sounds more complicated than you might suppose just grooving along to the record, if a tad repetitive. The sudden glorious burst of anarchy and mayhem at the end is worth seeking this mix out alone!

I Believe My Own Eyes (Demo c1993)
When 'Tommy' re-opened as a Broadway musical, a heavily involved Pete was asked if he could add a couple of extra songs to help clarify the plot. Pete could have simply re-used the 'linking' songs from the 1975 film version (when Ken Russell asked him to do exactly the same) but instead he returned to his attic and his tape recorder to see if he could come up with something Tommy-ish twenty-five years on. Most fans ignore the piece, which rather passes you by in the musical sandwiches between 'Tommy Can You Hear Me?' and 'Smash The Mirror' and don't care much for this version of The Who's most popular work anyway. But hearing Pete sing a demo, crafted like so many of his 1990s 'Scoop' demos as a spoken monologue with synth backing, is a whole different prospect as Tommy's parents (both sung by Pete in 'high' and low' voices) discuss their own fading marriage and their hopelessness at Tommy never speaking, hearing or seeing. It's a lot less 'South Pacific' than the version performed in the actual show and though not an 'essential' listen exactly is worth seeking out.

21 Uncertain Girl (c2000s Demo)

A rare demo from the 21st century from the early 'Endless Wire' era, this sweet unfinished track was broadcast as part of the 'Attic Sessions' hosted by Pete's partner Rachel. 'You're proper rock and roll' she jokes as Pete loses the middle page of his notes and tells him off for an old tape of The Who she was watching where he was 'sooo badly behaved!' The song itself is a very pretty one, a rare love song without a sting in the tail as two passing strangers meet and fall for each other. As the song puts it, he tries to ask her out and 'she doesn't close the shutter that had beat for so long over her heart'. The Attic Sessions are well worth seeking out for Petemaniacs, with several busked versions of old songs although this is, so far, the only unreleased song played for the show. 

Monday, 18 September 2017

Neil Young "Silver and Gold" (2000)

Neil Young “Silver and Gold” (2000)

Good To See You/Silver and Gold/Daddy Went Walkin’/Buffalo Springfield Again/The Great Divide//Horseshoe Man//Red Sun/Distant Camera/Razor Life/Without Rings

‘I’m pickin’ something up – I’m lettin’ something go…’

‘Silver and Gold’ finally turned up four years after ‘Broken Arrow’ had in 1996, putting an end to all sorts of speculation about what Neil had been up to in the interim. Now that might not seem like much of a gap to you Paul Simon or Pink Floyd gaps but for Neil it was an eternity. Four whole years – I mean, that’s four times the gap of normal! It remains, at the time of writing, double the length of the second biggest gap in his discography since he started releasing albums with Buffalo Springfield back in 1966. Surely after the wait this was going to be the best and most exciting album ever? Well, not exactly. There is, to be fair, a lot of gold and silver sprinkled liberally across this album. Unfortunately there’s quite a lot of bronze and wooden spoon songs too that either try hard but don’t quite cut it or fail utterly miserably. And as for excitement, well, ‘Silver and Gold’ is in many ways the most boring album Neil’s made to date. Every non-fan out there who complains that his music all ‘sounds the same’ clearly haven’t been listening to, say, ‘Tonight’s The Night’ or ‘Trans’ but almost certainly have albums like this one in mind: a sappy, soppy acoustic record where not a lot happens, ten times over. It sounds just enough like ‘Harvest’ ‘Harvester Moon’ and ‘Comes A Time’ to repeat new ground without having much new to say. Neil could probably have gotten away with this at another time in his career and there are some truly lovely moments on this set. Unfortunately, by the time of release, the best songs were already one or even two decades old and we were expecting something new and exciting, not a return to yesteryear where even the new songs sound like old ones.

Even so, there’s a case to be made that ‘Silver and Gold’ is a useful palette cleaner. Released just four months into a new millennium, it feels in retrospect – with so many new ideas and concepts to come – as if Neil is building up his strength for a new turbulent decade of changing ideas and breaking new ground. Just as previous album ‘Broken Arrow’ felt in many ways like an identikit of old ideas in the electric style (named after a Buffalo Springfield song and sounding much like every other Crazy Horse album ever made, if not quite as good), so this one feels like an identikit of every past acoustic Neil Young album. There are lyrical references to an ‘old man’, childhood memories of father Scott Young and a whole song about being in the Buffalo Springfield. We’re so used to hearing Neil ploughing on forward, oblivious to what came in his past, that it’s good to have a reminder of old places already visited and though fans of 2000 feared that albums like this were here to stay, actually it’s the oddball in Neil’s canon of this period, more concerned with looking back than forward. The theme is surely unique for a Young record too, that of sweet nostalgia: this is a record full of ‘distant cameras’ taking pictures of the past, of meeting old friends, of seeing the (red) sun setting over a place you know really well and of celebrating longevity in marriage (even if, typically, ‘Silver and Gold’ is an outtake that days back to the earliest days of Neil courting Pegi in 1978 and when it was written was only ‘imagining’ them growing old together). However there’s something slightly ‘off’ about Neil’s nostalgia, which seems oddly chocolate boxy and ‘soft’ compared to how things really were. ‘Daddy Went Walkin’ for instance returns to childhood in tone and words as well as theme and is the closest Neil has come to writing a nursery rhyme, while ‘Good To See You Again’ isn’t some hoped for take on meeting up with an old friend and confronting the past so much as an eight line song about saying ‘hi’. The worst casualty, though, is what Neil does to his first band Buffalo Springfield: what was once such a turbulent and exciting band Neil quit them seven times in three years has now become a chocolate-box legend where Neil is really proud of what they achieved and would like to see them get together again (but not enough to actually, you know, reunite – failing to turn up to an informal reunion rehearsal that was taking place the year before…In Neil’s own house! He, uhh, forgot he was out on tour that week…Against all odds the reunion will happen but not until 2012).

There is, I sense, another couple of reasons why this album sounds so familiar – and why Neil waited so long before making it. Thought the world didn’t see it until 2009, the much-delayed Neil Young box set ‘Archives One’ was worked on most during this period before Neil tweaked it, put it on the back burner and waited for technology to catch up. Neil being Neil he didn’t enter the past as a passive souvenir-hunter interested in releasing a greatest hits set but as an active participant, eager to change our view of what the past looked like from his perspective and with as much unreleased material as released (at least until Neil started releasing standalone ‘concert’ sets in the 21st century). Neil heard pretty much everything he ever wrote or played on between 1963 and 1972 and it was a lot. No wonder, then, that this album suddenly makes Young sound ‘old’ for the first time, really, as he comes to terms with the fact that he does have a past and a legacy and no wonder after hearing so many ‘old’ songs that the past keeps cropping up in this music. What’s a shame is that Neil tries to ignore this rather than confront this head-on. How much better, for instance, would ‘Razor Love’ (itself an old song) have sounded if Neil had painted himself out as the ‘old man’ more with newcomers taking over the role he once played in 1972, as the eager young rockstar waiting to become a custodian of the ‘old ways’. Or how much better might ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ have been if Neil had looked at his younger troubled self with older, mature eyes and tried to get inside his psyche? How does Neil feel when his ‘daddy’ goes out walkin’ knowing he might not be able to walk much longer? (his author dad Scott died in 2005). We don’t know as Neil won’t tell us – ‘Silver and Gold’ is one of his ‘descriptive’ albums rather than one of his ‘deep’ ones. Instead ‘Silver and Gold’ deals in metaphor, intellectual concept and imagery rather than heartfelt emotional release or self-questioning.

Or maybe Neil’s writing was just going through a bit of a crisis in this period. The one album that had broken the four year quiet spell was the second CSNY reunion ‘Lookin’ Forward’ and it seems to be a project that took Neil off guard. At first he was only a ‘guest’, Nash ringing him out the blue to ask if he’d be interested a distinctive guitar part to his new and rather drippy ballad ‘Heartland’. Neil, in his new mellow stock-taking mood, decided that he still had things to say with ‘his’ old band and hung around, impressed that they were financing this trio project themselves without a record label and inviting the others to take their pick of the songs he had begun stockpiling for this album. For once CSN’s taste let them down: poor as many of the songs on this album may be, most are still better than what they chose: Neil’s soppiest song ‘Lookin’ Forward’, the confusing and obscure ‘Slowpoke’, the out-of-tune ‘Out Of Control’ and the deeply irritating ‘Queen Of Them All’ (which sounds like a mobile phone slowly running out of charge while being swallowed by a whale). How much better that album might have been had CSNY finished their cover of ‘Silver and Gold’ with some beautiful harmonies (as heard on bootleg) and why didn’t they choose the sweetly nostalgic ‘Distant Camera’ which sounds perfect for a reunion album? With CSN on less than stellar form too that album got jumped on, with critics merciless in their comments. Neil doesn’t often talk ‘up’ his songs but did for that project and the reaction seems to have taken him by surprise. Surely ‘Silver and Gold’ – the project from which those songs were intended – was a doomed project now? Oddly, though, Neil didn’t do what he normally does when some tiny thing goes wrong and simply jump ship to the next one. Instead he persevered with this album, but the loss of four songs (However wretched) clearly set him back a lot and ‘Silver and Gold’ took much longer than most rash-dash Neil Young projects to come together.

Was it worth it? Well, ish. ‘Silver and Gold’ is a useful 20th century summary not just because of its themes but because of its quality. Every side of Neil’s writing style is here: good, bad, ugly, indifferent and weird. Though sonically this record often sounds gorgeous (Neil sounds best when his backing band actually get to know songs before they record them, as opposed to playing in one take songs that Neil wrote in his car on the way to the sessions) and feels as if it fits together as a recording, as a series of compositions this album is all over the place. Never has Neil been more irritating or trite than he has on ‘Good To See You’ ‘Daddy Went Walkin’ or the horrid ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ (where the extent of our understanding of one of the most exciting bands of their generation is the couplet ‘I was in a band – but they broke up’). Rarely have I been as bored with a Neil Young album closer as I have with ‘Without Rings’, a song that more literally should have been titled ‘Without A Tune’. Rarely have I been as confused (and not in a good way) as I have with ‘Horseshoe Man’, which sounds like ideas for a dozen different Neil Young songs that got stapled together and given the first, most simplest melody that came into Neil’s brain. Not for nothing do a lot of fans call this album ‘a really good EP’ because it may well be Neil’s most inconsistent record (other albums are far better than this – and others are far far worse. Who mentioned ‘Greendale’?!)

That’s the ‘silver’ though – the ‘gold’ is a half-album that glitters just as beautifully if more subtly as any other album in the great man’s back catalogue. The title track itself is gorgeous, one of the very loveliest love songs Neil ever wrote and though it would have slotted in even better on Neil’s most hopeful LP ‘Comes A Time’, unlike some other revived oldies on Neil’s albums it works well here too. This is, after all, a song about love being timeless, so it makes sense that Neil re-records it here, on near enough his 22nd wedding anniversary, as a tribute to how love never changes (even if it seems even odder now that we know what was going on behind the scenes with Neil seeing actress Darryl Hannah this whole time). ‘The Great Divide’ is a lovely Dylanesque image-filled piece about a cowboy and a cowgirl riding towards each other, the gulf between them getting smaller each day and updating Neil’s traditional image of himself as a ‘loner’. The cute Celtic throwback ‘Red Sun’ is one of Neil’s rare successes with country-rock as he does the very Neil Young thing of glancing back over his shoulder and looking forward to the future simultaneously. We never learn if this song is about a sunset or a sunrise – chances are its right slap bang in the middle of both. ‘Distant Camera’ is a sweet, thrilling, vibrant song that manages to juggle several balls at the same time: a ‘song of love’, it also touches on Neil looking back on his whole life (listening to a first draft of ‘Archives’ maybe?) and accepting that change is inevitable and that ‘new things and old both disappear’. The metaphor that we take photographs so that we can remember certain times in our live – and to allow us to move on to make new memories, which can be photographed before moving on again – is so very Neil that it’s surprising that he hadn’t come up with it before. And then there’s 1980s outtake ‘Razor Love’, an outside shot for appearing on the 1987 album ‘Life’, which is one of the better Young songs that fell through the cracks, a direct tale of the intensity of a relationship that shaves away the years by sounding as if it belongs at home on this similarly direct and acoustic album.

That contradiction is at play on the album’s cover too. At first I hated this CD’s album cover, which is one of the daftest and most hideous of all the AAA records out there. The shot was taken by Neil’s then seventeen-year-old daughter Amber on her Gameboy handheld device and it’s wretched: that familiar gait of her dad is reduced to a handful of pixels that could be anyone, all tinged a hideous shade of brown. But as the years have gone by I ‘get’ this cover more: that Gameboy wasn’t meant to be a ‘modern’ device but a retro one that harked back to the 1980s when computers were ‘new’ and was a very jokey ‘throwback’ of nostalgia to a generation not quite old enough to be nostalgic yet. Here Neil is, now feeling like an old man, in a photo taken by his teenage daughter on technology that comes from the generation between them: it’s the perfect metaphor for the passing years. And then Neil has tinged it all sepia-brown to make it look like a ‘really’ old photo, even though it isn’t. It’s the perfect cover summary for this album and a very clever idea – even if it still looks pig ugly (Paul McCartney used a digital watch camera, equally low on pixels, to shoot the cover of his ‘Driving Rain’ album in 2001).

The one throwback to this album that works really well is the sound. So many old friends are brought out to play on this album and all sound fabulous. Ben Keith’s pedal steel is all over everything, after sitting out a couple of Crazy Horse albums and one featuring Pearl Jam and Ben’s sound and style, reflective yet biting, is such a part of this album that Neil even gives him the credit on this album of ‘inspiration’. Other musicians include familiar faces from the ‘Harvest’ days including pianist Spooner Oldham and drummer Oscar Butterworth, who both sound much better here than they ever did in the 1970s.The backing singers date back to two different eras too, though in truth they don’t get much to do on this album: Linda Ronstadt was last heard of on ‘Harvest Moon’ in 1992 and Emmylou Harris dates back even further as a collaborator, to ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ in 1977. Neil had never worked with drummer Jim Keltner before – even though pretty much everyone else had. The bassist is an unusual choice: Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn is a new figure in Neil’s life and the pair’s friendship will rope Neil into recording the depressingly ordinary ‘blues’ album follow-up ‘Are You Passionate?’ in 2002 with ‘his’ house band ‘Booker T and the MGs’. This, though, isn’t some young upstart Pearl Jam-style band but Otis Redding’s backing group, survivors who are still rocking over thirty years after the Gentle Giant died in a plane crash who were making music even before Neil was. New and old, that’s the theme of this record and this oddball combination of musicians who for the most part had never worked together before really ‘get’ these songs, their youthful energy and hope, mingled with the tears and regret of old age and worries about the passing of time. This is an album of contradictions that in truth don’t often work: some songs are too simple and others too complex, whilst others hark back to the past as a ‘golden era’ even when it wasn’t and others assume that peace and happiness are due in the future not the present. But the players on this album really nail Neil’s vision: they’re simultaneously happy and sad, hopeful and bitter, at peace and at war.

Is that enough to satisfy the Young faithful? Maybe. ‘Silver and Gold’ is one of those pretty but also pretty boring Neil Young albums that’s too good to dismiss, but not interesting enough to talk about and analyse endlessly the way we do some other albums (I could – and have – spent far too long debating the merits of ‘Tonight’s The Night’ ‘Trans’ and ‘Prairie Wind’ because those albums feel as if they have more to offer somehow). This record is by far the weakest in Neil’s ‘acoustic’ series, oddly lacking in the misery of ‘Harvest’ or the sheer exuberance of ‘Harvest Moon’ and ‘Comes A Time’. Instead it’s oddly neutral, with no real emotions running through it anywhere in comparison to the days of old, just images and metaphor, with the occasional pang of nostalgia and blessing counting. However in many ways this album has a better claim to being another ‘Harvest’ referencing album than even ‘Harvest Moon’. This is very much an album about reaping what you sow, of the passing of the seasons and your changing perspectives as you grow older, only this time Neil is an even older ‘old man’, with a lot more past to look back on and trying to remember it all. The moments when Neil deals with the past that he carries around with him like a weight head-on (as on ‘Distant Camera’ or ‘Red Sun’) are delightful and very fitting for a ‘new millennium’ style album – it’s just a shame that despite going back to the past Neil has forgotten how to add ‘bite’ into his music, losing the energy and insecurity of youth for an album where even one of the most talked about splits in rock and roll is dismissed out of hand and one of the most interesting upbringings of any AAA member (with a sports journalist dad and a quiz show host mum, interrupted by polio) becomes a cutesy time where with the distabnce of time everything seemed perfect. A few more of those imperfections would have made this album better still – but then this is, after all, a record that promises ‘Silver and Gold’ and for now has forgotten how to scramble in the dirt of the ‘ditch’. Better than Silver and Gold? Not a chance. But better than nothing – and in terms of the rushed Neil Young albums to come, rather better than some. 

‘Good To See You’ announced Neil in this breezy opening song. Fans thought the same after the four year gap. For the first thirty seconds or so that feeling was heartfelt: Neil provides a breezy upbeat quirky country-rock melody and a walking pace stomp that instantly recalls the better parts of ‘After The Goldrush’ But ‘Silver and Gold’ is, alas, from after ‘after the goldrush’ and the lack of creativity compared to Neil’s golden years is striking. Just check out the first verse: ‘Good to see you, good to see you again, good to see your face again, good to see you’. Four lines in to this album and we’re already getting repeats. To be fair the rest of the song is better, with a second verse that opens up into Neil embracing his listeners as if he’s travelling with ‘us’ on part of our journey we can pick up or put down as we choose (referring to himself as ‘the suitcase in your hallway’ and ‘the footsteps on your floor’). But this song simply goes back to repeating that not terribly inventive chorus all over again and ends with a puzzling last verse that harks back to ‘Human Highway’ without being even that interesting. Neil ends the song with the promise that he’s going to ‘make up for lost time’, but that’s what’s ‘wrong’ with this song: despite the long time away (by Neil standards) he has nothing new to say and no real new way of saying it. This is the sound of a man on auto-pilot – admittedly a talented creative man whose delayed making clones of his older songs where possible, so even this song’s slight return to a ‘Harvest’ feel with many of that album’s backing musicians catches the ear. The harmonica puffing for the first time in a while is a nice touch too. But this is auto-pilot all the same: did we really wait four years for this? It’s good to see you too Neil, but we wanted to hear all about what you’d been up to when you were away, not a song that’s effectively a postcard saying ‘wish you were here’ and not a lot else.

‘Silver and Gold’ is a beautiful song though and an album highlight, a song that all too clearly dates from perhaps Neil’s only ‘happy’ period circa 1978 and ‘Comes A Time’ (even though, weirdly, the copyright date in the CD’s handwritten notes where Young scrawls like a doctor with a scratchy pen throughout is listed as 1982: was this song revived and copyrighted for use on the aborted ‘Island In The Sun’ album that became ‘Trans’?) What sounds on bootlegs of the time like a bouncy joyous number (not unlike that album’s title track) has by 2000 mutated into a mature, reflective song about longevity and safety. Neil has simplified the arrangement down, paring it down to its bones, so that the simplicity of this song is now a good thing, unlike the stupidity of the last track. This love, for wife Pegi, brings Neil greater things than the most precious of jewels. Everything else in his life is ‘seasonal’ (it was intended for an album named ‘Comes A Time’ after all) but this love just keeps going on and on, never growing old, even after several years of back-breaking work ‘every day’ and a sense that time ‘just slips away’ and takes away all the narrator’s other dreams. A second verse is a cautionary tale in the manner of the ‘doom trilogy’: Neil is offered a ‘treasure chest’ full of every golden bauble he could ever want to have. But trying to take it away with him was impossible, it got too ‘heavy’ and he had to ‘rest’ and in the end he realised that he would take love over gold anyday. Simple as this song may be, it is highly effective and one of only a small handful of Neil Young compositions you could imagine being sung by other artists. Unlike though, say, ‘Lotta Love’, this is a song that also suits Neil Young and this performance is lovely: prematurely aged with a delightfully husky weary take on his usual style, but with enough glee bouncing on Neil’s lips to suit the song’s beauty. Neil complained later that this song took a long time to get ‘right’ – actually the 1978 version and the 1999 CSNY re-recording with some truly gorgeous harmonies would both have been amongst the best things in their respective eras too. But this more ‘timeless’ recording is pretty special too and even though all we have is Neil and a guitar that’s all we really need, for songs like this never seem to get old – they’re better than silver and gold.

A sign of how late in the day this album was put together is demonstrated by the fact that you have to turn the CD booklet over to near the end to get third song ‘Daddy Went Walkin’. Another overtly simple track, this one sounds suspiciously like a re-write of ‘Old King’ from ‘Harvest Moon’ with its bouncy acoustic gamble and another appearance by a dog. However its notable that Neil’s tribute to his old hound-dog in 1992 is sung with much more care and devotion than this album’s tribute to his dad. By 2000 Scott Young has dementia and it must have struck Neil as particularly sad given that his dad was such a huge, overpowering figure in his life and yet still needed care (Neil, of course, was sickly his whole life through and often needed care through his childhood). Instead of exploring his fright at how things are ‘now’, though, Neil dwells on how it used to be in the past. This song is the first of a run of snapshots of Neil’s past that’s run through the 21st century all the way to much of ‘Psychedelic Pill’ and ‘A Letter From Home’ but unlike those albums this song is a visitor, not an inhabitant of past times. All we get is some weird words about Young senior taking a walk: we learn what he wears, what he walks past and what dog he takes with him, but nothing more. Neil offers up this memory without comment, no reason why he’s telling us this and as left here this song is deeply boring. There’s no hint of the real drama in the Young household (would Rassy, Neil’s famously feisty mother, really have greeted her husband with a kiss? A slap in the face seem more likely having read the biographies), no sense of any great discovery in this song and notably no appearance of Neil in this song at all. Is this a wish-fulfilment of how Neil wanted his childhood to be, perhaps? Interestingly, though the song refers to ‘daddy’ in the chorus and the title most of this song uses the phrase ‘old man’. The phrase ‘Old Man’ was one Neil came up with to describe his old ranch-hand Louis Avila on the song of the same name, his ‘substitute’ dad figure now that Scott was only a distance presence as Neil hit his twenties. In many ways ‘Old Man’ is who he wanted his dad to be, but many people (Scott included) assumed that it was a song genuinely written for Neil’s dad. Is this Neil trying to redress the balance and write his dad a ‘real’ song this time, as his time runs short? However the timing is off: Neil’s parents split when he was tiny. If his dad is really an ‘old man’ in this song he wouldn’t be kissing his mother, which suggests that rather than pay tribute to his ‘real’ dad with what ‘really’ happened Neil is again playing games with us, making us think that he’s writing about his ‘daddy’ as he was rather than who his son chooses him to be. With its nursery rhyme gait and endless repetition, however, ‘Daddy Went Walkin’ is a song that’s far more interesting to think about than it is to actually listen to.

I could say the same for ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’, a track named for that band’s middle album, during which Neil left the band three whole times! You wouldn’t guess that from this song though which is the most disappointing moment on the whole album and turns what could have been an excuse to tell the story from Neil’s point of view into an oddly un-Young like account that’s as sanitised as they come. ‘I was in a band’ sings Neil, ‘but they broke up’. There’s no mention of the screaming rows with Stills, Neil’s paranoia of fame and its trappings or his desire to write more songs than Stephen and sing more than Richie rather than Young’s original role as ‘leads guitar player’. On this song all that youthful angst seems a long time ago as Neil sighs that he’d ‘love to play with those guys again’. We’d love you to as well as Neil. So why won’t you? Why did every single attempt to revive the Buffalo Springfield name halter across the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s? We don’t know from this song as Neil’s not telling. I could forgive this song if it tried to remember what the early groovier days were like when the world was at this band’s feet. But we don’t get that either: if Neil is remembering any Springfield tune with this sappy country-rock song then its what Richie Furay and Jim Messina were doing together in the band’s name for ‘Last Time Around’ long after Neil had left (though this song is nowhere close to being as good as ‘Kind Woman’ and only really on a par with fans’ least favourite Springfield song ‘Carefree Country Day’). The only decent parts of the song are Neil’s cutting line that ‘we were young and wild – it ate us up’ which is as good a description of what happened to the band as any and the clever ear-catching acoustic flourish that ends each chorus. However everything else is so un-Springfield as to be making a point: the trio of albums Neil’s first band anybody outside Winnipeg would have heard of are overflowing with creativity and full of multiple part-suites and excess overdubs, gloriously exciting and frequently brave. This song is soft and soppy and Neil’s comment that this track is inspired by ‘hearing an old song playing on the radio’ suggests he wasn’t listening very carefully and by the year 2000 has forgotten everything that once made him tick and the hunger to want to send his songs out to the wider world. What a tragic shame. Neil’s similar CSNY tribute, ‘Walk Like A Giant’, is much more accurate than this sorry mess.

So far the only thing this album’s tracks have in common is the acoustic sound and simplicity, but the CD suddenly changes format with next song ‘The Great Divide’, which ushers in a number of deeper songs. Though the melody is a direct steal from ‘Dreamin’ Man’ from ‘Harvest Moon’ the lyrics to this song are amongst Neil’s deepest  and most thoughtful in a long while. This spooky song has a man and a woman (husband and wife?) wondering their own lonely treks apart. They’re separated by a canyon, a valley, a desert – they don’t ‘belong’ together and everyone around the couple tells them (one of them or both, we don’t know?) ‘you don’t fit in too well’. But that sense of being outsiders is what brings the couple together – at first. A second verse sees the couple uniting, riding alongside each other like horses on a carousel, each one helping the other ‘up’ when they are ‘down’. Neil, sounding as happy as he ever does, tells us that ‘life is going well and anyone can tell we’re in love’. Even though his voice doesn’t change, though, the third and final verse is a sad one: these two riders are going their own ways again, riding apart from one another and the ‘great divide’ that once united them split them up anyway, ‘you and I’ finding themselves ‘lost down there’. Along with some of the more turbulent songs on ‘Broken Arrow’ this is our first hint that the Youngs’ marriage was falling apart, although there’s no hint at a shadowy Darryl Hannah character beckoning on the horizon just yet. Instead this sweet-sounding song sounds designed to hide the inner sting and bite, Neil writing from the heart but praying that his wife and fans won’t notice this just yet. The sting is easy to miss though on what’s one of Neil’s prettier songs that works well as a kind of sequel to David Crosby’s ‘Cowboy Movie’ but this time with the ‘cowgirl in the sand’ a metaphor for a marriage not a band (this could be ‘Young Billy, though, Neil’s character from Croz’ song). An excellent song, one of the album’s best and so very Neil, guarded and revealing all at once.

I’m never quite sure what I think of ‘Horseshoe Man’, a song that melodically recalls the open-heartedness of ‘Philadelphia’ but lyrically sounds more like one of those stream-of-consciousness rambles like ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’. A couple’s marriage is in trouble so they turn to the ‘horseshoe man’ for help, hoping he’ll bring his brand of ‘luck’ to them. The hint is that the ‘Horseshoe Man’ is less cupid and more God, a figure who is ‘everywhere’ and can change fate with a wave of his hand. But the mysterious figure leaves heartache in the world because it’s the best teacher of what love ‘really’ is – that if it was too easy to gain people would take it for granted. Oddly the lyrics describe him by saying ‘he doesn’t care’, but he’s a God that dishes out love – surely, nothing says that someone cares more than passing on the secret of love to humans? Like ‘Natural Beauty’ Neil seems to deliberately play with the contradictions in this song, but rather than ‘persevering a monument to nature’ that was only ever designed to be fleeting, this song asks where the line is drawn between love being natural and artificial. When does love stop being real, even if both couples are looking at an outside force to intervene. This song sounds like a more realistic re-write of ‘Love Potion Number Nine’, arguing that if it has to come out of a bottle or some outside source, then it isn’t really love, just an illusion (Neil will return to this theme on ‘Plastic Flowers’, unsure for years as to his true feelings and keeping them buried when things go wrong in his marriage). This song, oddly irritating with its schmaltzy backing and a vocal that’s high even for Neil sounds as if it’s just going to irritate, but then it all comes good in the middle eight, held back until right near the end. ‘Love don’t care if you’re wrong or right, love don’t care if you’re black or white, love ain’t looking for perfection, love’s the answer – love’s the question’. This is one of Neil’s best couplets, finally answering a nagging question about what love is that’s been bothering him for a long time: love is everything, love is everywhere and love is an emotion that doesn’t have human restrictions of age, creed or nationality. Love has no boundaries – you don’t think it, you feel it. The revelation sounds like a really transformative moment and is a key one in Neil’s canon, perhaps paving the way for him to embrace his growing relationship with Darryl Hannah a full fifteen years after these words were written. However it’s very Neil that this really moving part of the song comes after an artificial story about a ‘horseshoe man’ who creates love artificially, Neil effectively arguing with himself on this song about what love ‘really’ means. An odd song that somehow comes right at the end, just as you’ve given up hope.

‘Red Sun’ is another song that feels like a step backwards, reuniting Neil with both Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on a track that sounds like the woozy boozy first side of ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ (sadly his key collaborator on that album, Nicolette Larsson, had died in 1997 at the tragically young age of forty-five – this song sounds like a ‘tribute’ in many ways). Though the song is perhaps a bit too country, with the country pedal steel, Gaelic marching band and organ part perhaps one too many, it is one of Neil’s best stabs at the idiom, turning the usual convention on its head. Almost all country songs are ‘breakup’ songs, sad bitter melancholy tracks about lost opportunities, broken hearts and dead dogs that often use imagery of sunsets – Neil even wrote a few of those himself on his all-country album ‘Old Ways’ in 1983 (Notably ‘California Sunset’). But Neil being Neil change is as much a force for good as it is for evil and despite the very country trappings he’s straining at the leash to embrace the new. He promises to always be ‘by your side’ even though his feelings have changed (is this another message to Pegi?) and that whatever changes life has in store for him (‘the one who is coming arrived here at last’) he’ll always have something to write about. Needing comfort, Neil again reaches to the past, dreaming of his mum and dad ‘being there’ and remembering ‘the wind blowin’ through your hair’ of his lover, which sounds like the first stirrings of ‘Like A Hurricane’ when he first met Pegi. Neil, though, isn’t bound to the feelings he once had for someone but to those feelings and ends the song merrily wandering down the road, wondering where fate will take him next and where he can discover those feelings he once had all over again. That’s understandably a blow for his wife, but its good for Neil’s songwriting and though the song opens with a ‘sunset’ it’s also a sunrise, the good things outweighing the bad as Neil embraces the carnage in his life and waits for change. Typically, though, Neil writes his love-song to change in the most traditional, conservative and unchanging format he ever used. Oddly this song’s bounce really suits this song’s ragged melancholy though, sounding like a song that’s playing in slow motion, both happy and trapped all at the same time.

‘Distant Camera’ is one of the album’s best songs too, a gorgeous paean top growing older and looking backwards that recalls both The Kinks’ many songs about photography and David Crosby’s CSN song ‘Camera’. Instead of one snapshot in time, though, this song embraces everything, Neil’s narrator looking backwards at all aspects of his life, a heap of images randomly flicking past his eyes like a hurricane rustling through a photo-album. Neil’s trying to make sense of it all and what his past has taught him and the closest he can come to an answer is that ‘life is changing’ and you ought to embrace every twist that life throws at you. A poetic second verse has him slumped on the floor of his ranch, surrounded by photographs, the light ‘dancing’ from a passing window as he stares at his collection of photographs surrounding him. Neil is confused by what he sees and what he feels in these images of long ago. He may be talking about his marriage again as he sings about ‘sweet surrender’ and a ‘dream’ that ‘should have ended there’. And yet he also vows to be there long-term, claiming that both sides are onto something so special that ‘they can’t let it go’ and that despite the confusion he feels all he wants is ‘a song of love to sing to you’. A very Neil metaphor then rounds off the song, Neil seeing life as nothing special, a ‘fleck of dust floating in the mirror’, as his real motives and feelings don’t actually matter that much in the grand context of space and time. A very clever, complex song about the passing of time and the difference felt between young and middle age, this is Young embracing becoming Old in the best way possible, with a lovely haunting tune that covers more notes than most songs. The song keeps leaping high or growling low but always keeps coming back to where it’s ‘safe’ and cosy, right in the middle, Neil ending his wandering for a quite beautiful chorus where time stands still for his reflection over a ‘song of love’, the one thing in this hazy, crazy song that seems to make sense. Beautiful.

‘Razor Love’ is a reminder of one of those ‘songs of love’, written somewhere around Neil’s tenth wedding anniversary back in 1987. Too thoughtful for ‘Life’ and too ‘normal’ for ‘This Note’s For You’, this song is perhaps Neil’s last true 100% love song for Pegi and as such makes sense on this album about overlapping relationships. Goodness knows why Neil never returned to this lovely song before as it’s a sweet one about commitment and honesty. Whatever else goes wrong in his love-life, whatever arguments and disagreements he has, the overpowering feeling of love ‘cuts clean through’ his feelings. The song starts with another reference to an ‘old man’ which refers to Neil this time (odd as he was all of forty-two when he wrote it) and his ‘faith’ for his love which sees him not only live with the love of his life but even put up with his mother-in-law! (I’ve assumed given the era that this song is for Pegi but this line recalls first wife Susan whose mother all but lived in Neil’s first house with them!) For the most part this song is full of the rosy glow of romance, with a delightful shuffle beat that sounds like the rain playing against the windows as the lovers wrap each other up in their cozy love. However there’s an urgent second section that lurches unexpectedly to a minor key and injects some doubt into the song. Neil is troubled by something he doesn’t quite understand, spying a ‘silhouette’ from his window (Darryl Hannah?) and ‘tryin’ to find something I can’t find yet’. He’s torn between losing what feels so good in the present for something alluring he hasn’t found in the future that might be better still, but for now warns himself to watch out ‘for the greedy hand, greedy hand’. It’s only a fleeting moment of doubt, quickly set right when the song reverts back to a major key where it feels safe and comfortable and Neil is back to embracing an ‘honest’ love that feels so warm. But somehow that one fleeting moment unbalances the track: is this really as honest a love as it seems at first? Is it actually dishonest as Neil stays with someone he feels comfortable with but doesn’t love in the same way as the silhouette that haunts him? Another clever, complex and often beautiful track that marks a real upswing in this album’s second half.

Alas hopes for an equally worthy closer are dispelled by ‘Without Rings’, one of Neil’s husky low-key album closers. Though nowhere near as bad as the ‘what the?’ moment of the grotty bootleg rendition of ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do?’ on ‘Broken Arrow’, this track seems equally designed to put listeners off actually listening to the record again. A re-write of another track from that album. ‘Music Arcade’, by now Neil has lost his shock factor and this song says even less. Neil feels an outsider, ‘like a visitor from space looking for a place’ and equally feels out of touch with his ‘job’, joking with his contemporary peers that ‘my software’s not compatible with you!’ Neil is putting down any idea we might have that he holds any answers: he doesn’t and is as confused and helpless as the rest of us, ‘an angel without wings’ whose brain is ‘at war’ over what he’s feeling. Neil almost growls this song, sounding deeper than ever and it sounds very much like a ‘morning after’ kind of a piece, the guilty hangover that follows having too much fun. Only Neil isn’t ready to tell us what makes him feeling this way yet and instead simply sings about the confusion he feels, letting something go and picking something up without telling us what they are. Like ‘Distant Camera’ we get sudden flashes of images from his past, but we fans have even less keys to unlock these images – what do these poppy fields, electrical energy and ‘fighting drugs with pain’ amount to? A strange, spooky, obscure song it’s hard to work out what this track means or indeed if it means anything at all and it makes for a very low-key end to the album.

Overall, then, ‘Silver and Gold’ is a mixture of the inspired, the tired and undesired. You never quite know what you’re getting next with this album, which varies between good times, bad times and confusion as to which of those is which. At the time we hoped that ‘Silver and Gold’ was a stepping stone to greater things, that maybe Neil would get a bit quicker and more consistent as the 21st century beckoned and this album brought him further down from his mid-1990s return to form. But be careful what you with for: the similar ‘Prairie Wind’ aside, would that any of his modern albums contained any of the thought or beauty of the best of this quirky little album. Half a great record, half a travesty, ‘Silver and Gold’ is an odd experiment in alchemy, one where half the jewels glitter with true beauty that only Neil can provide and one where the other half takes what Neil can usually do so well and turn it back into ugly base metals. If, as this album says, life is a photograph fading in the mirror then in truth ‘Silver and Gold’ isn’t one of the more memorable images in Neil’s career. However no Young album, even ‘Greendale’, is completely disposable and there is much to like on ‘Silver and Gold’ – but only, perhaps, if you’re prepared to ‘dig’ for it.
Other Neil Young related articles from this website you might be interested in reading:

'Neil Young' (1968)

'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969)

‘After The Goldrush’ (1970)

'Harvest' (1972)

'Time Fades Away' (1973)

'On The Beach' (1974)

'Zuma' (1975)

'American Stars 'n' Bars' (1977)

'Comes A Time' (1978)

'Rust Never Sleeps' (1979)

'Hawks and Doves' (1980)

'RelAclTor' (1981)

'Trans' (1982)

'Everybody's Rockin' (1983)

'Old Ways' (1985)

‘Landing On Water’ (1986)

'Ragged Glory' (1990)

'Weld' (1991)

'Harvest Moon' (1992)

'Sleeps With Angels' (1993)

'Mirror Ball' (1995)

‘Are You Passionate?’ (2002)

'Greendale' (2003)

‘Prairie Wind’(2005)

‘Chrome Dreams II’ (2007)

'Fork In The Road' (2009)

'Le Noise' (2011)

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)

'Storytone' (2014)

'The Monsanto Years' (2015)

'Peace Trail' (2016)

The Best Unreleased Neil Young recordings