Merry Go Round – Fred Neil

‘Nik [Venet, record prodcer],’ says Fred, ‘this is very short. And there’s no reason to stretch it, ’cause it says it, and you know…’

By the standards of Sessions (1967), the nearly 6-minute-long Merry Go Round is a short track. Fred Neil’s music had travelled a long way from the straightforward, very white, trad folk of Tear Down the Walls, the record he’d made in the early sixties with singing partner Vince Martin (in case that sounds dismissive, let me say quickly that it’s a record I greatly enjoy for the most part, and that Martin and Neil sounded wonderful together). Neil’s progress continued through Bleecker & McDougal, which felt its way towards folk-rock (with the presence of an electric lead guitarist), as well as back to jug-band music and the blues (John Sebastian’s harmonica playing, which is all over the album), and even down south of the border (Felix Pappalardi’s guitarrón). It was one of the three great Fred Neil records.

Better yet – maybe best of all, and certainly the one I’d recommend to anyone looking to hear him for the first time – was 1966’s Fred Neil, an album of full-on, deep-as-an-ocean folk-rock, from one of its finest writers (Everbody’s Talkin’, The Dolphins) and singers (his interpretations of Shake Sugaree, retitled I’ve Got a Secret, and Fare Thee Well, which is credited to Neil, but frankly, that’s bobbins). It’s a world away from what was brewing in a certain North London studio in 1966, but it’s one of that year’s finest records.

Its clipped discipline was succeeded by the extraordinarily loose Sessions. Which is an apt name. As an album, it doesn’t cohere: it’s just a bunch of songs, recorded at a bunch of sessions. But what songs, and what sessions! The extended, improvisatory nature of Sessions owed a greater debt to jazz than New York folk; Neil hung out with jazz musicians, and their influence on him was evident in his demeanour and his syncopated strumming style (Neil is one of the truly great rhythm guitarists). But exploring these musical territories suited Neil vocally, too. His baritone had always been at home with the blues and his willingness to explore a vocal melody seemed constrained by the confines of the strophic story song and continuous two-part harmony. Rejecting a linear, narrative approach to lyrics, instead beginning with a dark joke about not being able to find the back of a merry-go-round and then repurposing the lyrics to In the Pines (also known as Where Did you Sleep Last Night?, made famous to younger generations by Nirvana’s version during their MTV Unplugged performance), Neil is working at something dreamier, deeper, more allusive, than anything he had cut previously.

The album’s influence has percolated down through the years, as the great works have a tendency to: Sessions was a key record for Tim Buckley, as he made his journey away from the laughable earnestness of his early work to the far cooler jazz-folk of Happy/Sad and through to the experimental Lorca and Starsailor, and, being more widely heard than Fred Neil, Tim Buckley’s music passed the loose, risk-taking spirit and elongated song structures down to contemporary songwriters innumerable.

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8 thoughts on “Merry Go Round – Fred Neil

  1. James McKean

    Do you know for sure that “Sessions was a key record for Tim Buckley”? Clearly Neil’s impact on Buckley was considerable, but I tend to think that this was more through live performance, and the Fred Neil album.

    It seems fair to assume Buckley would have heard Sessions (timeframe-wise it would make sense), but then again Buckley was a musician without much money, often out playing, and this was a time when recorded music was less readily accessible. (See eg. Hendrix’s London record collection…)

    Off the top of my head I can think of three songs from Fred Neil that Buckley explicitly borrowed from: Dolphins (both via his cover and also Once I Was), Everything Happens (in Strange Feelin’), and Green Rocky Road (in Who Do You Love), but none from Sessions or B & M either. (I might have forgotten some though???)

    Apparently Tim (and band?) were in the studio watching as Fred recorded The Dolphins, and were suitably impressed as the Neil band recorded the song three times, with three significantly different feels.

    Reply
    1. rossjpalmer Post author

      Trust you to pick a nit! I can’t be certain, I guess. Some combination of hunch and half-remembered Larry Beckett interview where he said that Buckley never stopped listening to Neil.
      Actually, I just googled it:
      ‘Later, Tim and I went to one of Fred?s recording sessions, where he was working out Dolphins, and from that day on, Tim became obsessed with him. This shows up in his writing on Goodbye and Hello, his singing on Happy Sad, and lasted till the end.’
      If that’s true, it would strongly suggest Buckley would have acquired any Fred Neil record that came out and studied it. And it just makes sense to me that the looseness of Sessions was among the things that inspired Buckley to get looser himself (Gypsy Woman and so on).

      Reply
  2. James McKean

    It was more in the spirit of cusiosity than nit-picking that I asked. I used to read whatever I could about both of these guys 15 or so years ago (wow!), but there wasn’t that much stuff around. Now, I’m sure there’s much more out on both.

    Is that a Lee Underwood quote, or Larry Beckett?

    To my ear, Neil’s influence on Buckley is most clearly audible at the time of Dream Letter (October 1968), and it diminishes thereafter – which isn’t of course to say that Tim stopped caring for Fred’s music.

    Reply
  3. Tom

    Just stumbled upon your review, and it’s excellent. I’ll not get into a debate about the ins-and-outs of it. Suffice to say that I got turned on to Fred back when Sessions came out, by a friend who was deep into the blues & folk scene in the US back then (my friend borrowed my guitar & Mississippi John Hurt album and wore them both out learning to play the album). I especially like your “what songs…what sessions.” Indeed.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: This old world may never change: The Dolphins – Fred Neil | songs from so deep

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