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Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Story of Neil Young’s Heavily Computerized, Utterly Bewildering ‘Trans’ | Ultimate Classic Rock

So what was the deal with Neil Young’s 1982 ‘Trans’ album?

While we've explored the question before, here's The Story of Neil Young’s Heavily Computerized, Utterly Bewildering ‘Trans’ | Ultimate Classic Rock by Michael Gallucci to explain:

What was Neil Young smoking in the ‘80s? He jumped from one lazy genre exercise to the next, trying on everything from rockabilly (Everybody’s Rockin’) to old-school country (Old Ways) to big-band swing (This Note’s for You). He started and ended the decade strong, with 1980’s Hawks and Doves and 1989’s Freedom respectively. But most everything in between (with the notable exception for 1981’s Re-Ac-Tor) was puzzling at best.

And it all started with 1982’s Trans, a synthesizer-powered LP about computers, technology and transformers, mostly sung by a robotic-sounding Young, heavily filtered through a vocoder. Plus, there was a space-age cover of his Buffalo Springfield classic “Mr. Soul.” Was it a joke? Who knows? Was it a head-scratching mess? Definitely.

The project began as something different, but once Young started experimenting with his new electronic toys, it took on a totally different tone. Young claimed that the album was a reflection of his inability to communicate with his son Ben, who has severe cerebral palsy. But not even members of Crazy Horse, who had recorded some of the new songs with Young, were aware of his tinkering.

When Trans was released on Dec. 29, 1982, nobody knew what to make of it – not fans, critics or bandmates. And certainly not Young’s record company, which was so pissed off about the music on Trans and its almost-as-confusing follow-up, Everybody’s Rockin’, it eventually sued him for deliberately sabotaging his career.

Decades later, Trans still sounds like a space oddity. Songs like “Computer Age,” “We R in Control” and “Transformer Man” are baffling and bewildering, obscuring any sign of the classic rocker who released the terrific Rust Never Sleeps just three years earlier. Only a handful of tracks – the side openers “Little Thing Called Love” and “Hold on to Your Love” and the nine-minute closer “Like an Inca” – skip the futuristic Kraftwerk-style beats and apply old-fashioned slide guitar and pedal steel.

The album set off a decade of stubborn career decisions and unlistenable records from Young. Trans still managed to reach No. 19 – a better showing than any of his albums until 1992’s Harvest Moon. (Yep, Trans charted higher than both Freedom and Ragged Glory.) Even by Young’s occasionally loopy projects, Trans remains his loopiest, a bizarre turn onto the cyborg highway.

More on Neil Young Albums | Ultimate Classic Rock.

Also, see a definitive Neil Young interview which explains in great detail the genesis of TRANS at Fuckin' Up With Neil Young: Too Far Gone | Village Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Winter 1989 by Jimmy McDonough.

Neil Young
His Techno-Synth-Pop Phase


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At 2/11/2016 08:16:00 PM, Blogger Joel Grant said...

I probably dislike more Neil Young music than I like but, oddly, I have always liked 'Trans'.

At 2/11/2016 11:31:00 PM, Blogger Greg Mantho said...

I always liked Trans in and of itself, and thought it was interesting and creative. I remember playing it on a train somewhere in Europe, and everyone liking it. No one was sitting around comparing it to anything else, or demanding that Neil not stray from whatever the hell anyone else thought his catalogue sounded like- or should sound like.

But lazy critics and interviewers, who could not begin anything on the topic of Neil Young without first documenting what they considered to be inconsistent career choices, surely must have loved Trans, because it made it easy for them to promote yet another permeation of the root slam on Neil- his "refusal to commit himself to one style and develop it."

"But we've been through this a hundred times or more"- are you going to come along with Neil on his musical journey, or are you going to stay buried in the past "With your stomach pump and your hook and ladder dreams?"

A Friend Of Yours

At 2/12/2016 09:41:00 AM, Blogger Lloyd Walton said...

Ditto Greg.

At 2/12/2016 10:35:00 AM, Blogger Thrasher Wheat said...

@Joel - now that is odd, now, isn't it?! :)

@AFOY - as always, thanks for your insightful observation. Spot on. As we often say, Neil fans (& TW readers) are some of the most astute & knowledgeable music lovers in the world and we're honored to have you here as a regular reader.

At 2/12/2016 11:09:00 AM, Blogger Andy Walters said...

It's a classic compared with some of his most recent output - my apologies for not being astute or knowledgeable. One of his better forks in the road.

At 2/12/2016 11:16:00 AM, Blogger Thrasher Wheat said...

@Andy - no need to apologize. Just be astute & knowledgeable and someday you too can have a TW Comment of the Moment! ;)

At 2/12/2016 02:27:00 PM, Blogger Peacelover Doc said...

I think it safe to say Michael Gallucci isn't real bright. He calls Neils genres lazy but how much research does it take to learn why he put out Everybody's Rocking? Go back to writing about classic rock bands, Neil is still current & out of your league. Moron.

At 2/12/2016 02:53:00 PM, Blogger Mother Nature on the Run said...

I have the vinyl in my collection. Took it out a few month ago for a spin. All his albums are experimental. "It's all one song."

At 2/12/2016 08:55:00 PM, Blogger timothy fontenot said...

I never understood or liked Trans. Actually Hawks n Doves especially the Doves side was enough to get me through the '80's

At 2/13/2016 08:35:00 PM, Blogger John EH Connelly said...

Trans .... a masterpiece of the times !

At 2/13/2016 11:48:00 PM, Blogger (D.) Ian Kertis said...

To be honest, I don't find that this generic blurb adds very much to the discussion on Trans. To begin with, I'm a little confused by the writer's praise for Hawks and Doves and Re-Act-Or, both of which I have to say that I regard as Neil's lesser albums. As far as H&D is concerned, my listening is usually confounded to Little Wing and Lost in Space, and maybe Old Homestead depending on my mood. The Hawks side just doesn't do much for me, and Re-Actor essentially has three songs I'd ever come back to: Southern Pacific (which has an arguably superior rendition on The International Harvesters live album), Shots, and Rapid Transit, which is at least an interesting indication of the direction Neil was heading.

In comparison to those albums, I find Trans to be refreshingly original and exciting. I'm sure it was quite weird at the time, not helped by the novelty of rerecording Mr. Soul, but from everything I've read, it's quite clear that Trans is coming from a heartfelt place and I don't find it all that puzzling, at least not in hindsight. For me the highlights are Computer Age, Transformer Man, and Sample and Hold, all of which despite (or perhaps in part because) of the vocoder voices and electronica come through with all of the emotional openness, the angst, and the fundamental human fragility of some of Neil's best songs. The album does run into issues, as I said, with the seemingly novelty-based idea of rerecording Mr. Soul. It's not a bad version, but I'd rather have had a full album of original material vocoder songs. On the same note, the three non-electronica tracks on the album (especially Like An Inca) have their points of interest, but ultimately seem out of place here and, I think, end up confusing and diluting the overall impact of the experimental material that I'd say is the core of Trans. (If I recall correctly, those "traditional tracks" come from another project Geffin rejected, an album known as "Island in the Sun" originally intended to be Neil's Geffin debut, and even Neil has suggested it was a mistake to try to combine the two, rather than finishing a full album of electronic material.)

I also recall reading, probably in both Shakey and Waging Heavy Peace, of the film/video project Neil had planned to accompany the songs on Trans. He couldn't get Geffin to back it, but I wish that had come to be. According to Neil, it would clarify a story being told throughout the songs on the album. I think this could have helped people to connect with the material more strongly and I would have loved to see the project completed at some point.And maybe that's an important point: the Trans project was possibly never fully realized, making it even more confusing and seemingly "random" on Neil's part--especially when he completely switched gears about six months later with Everybody's Rockin'. Maybe Trans is an album that the public never had the chance to properly understand. Regardless of any controversy, it stands for me as one of Neil's most interesting albums and a high point of his legacy as an experimenter and just a guy who would do whatever he darn well pleased. And if you can't understand the lyrics (which are admittedly hard to make out at times), I'm pretty sure they're printed in the booklet of the CD I have.

Related anecdote: in December 2015, at used record story in New York, I picked up a rare promotional maxi-single (33 rpm) featuring dance mixes of Sample and Hold and Mr. Soul. A lovely collector's item at only $20. I'm pleased to have it in my collection. I've got a unit to sample and hold!


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