Tag Archives: Elliott Mazer

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 10 – Out on the Weekend – Neil Young

If you play something he doesn’t like, boy, he’ll put a look on you you’ll never forget. Neil hires some of the best musicians in the world and has ’em play as stupid as they possibly can.

Neil Young famously likes his drummers to play simple. Sometimes it feels as many as half his songs are built on the same rhythmic chassis: boom-boom tssch, boom-boom tssch, about 80-90 bpm. It’s his feel, and he’s always made it work for him. It’s impossible to tell whether he adopted it because it was all Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina could play, or whether he suggested it to Molina, but either way it stuck.

He said to me, “I don’t want any right hand” – no cymbals – which was really tough for me, because I was havin’ to think about what I was playin’ rather than lettin’ it come natural.

That’s Kenny Buttrey (taken from Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey*), who occupied Young’s drum stool for Harvest and its quasi-sequel Harvest Moon, talking. Buttrey was a successful Nashville drummer who’d played on the R&B track Anna (Go to Him) by Arthur Alexander in 1962 and crossed over into rock with his appearance on Blonde on Blonde. Buttrey’s best performances on that album are things of wonder – country funk with a great-feeling backbeat. He’s wonderful on Visions of Johanna, Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and on more delicate tracks like Just Like a Woman. However, it’s not nit-picking to say that he didn’t quite have the right authority for Pledging My Time and Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat (compare the oafish but so much more physical take from the 1966 tour with the Hawks – the “Royal Albert Hall”** show with Mickey Jones on drums. Compare also how much more satisfying Bobby Gregg’s heavier performances on Highway 61). Buttrey, then, wasn’t a great pick for live heavy-rock shows, as would become apparent on the Time Fades Away tour, but fantastic in the studio with the right kind of material.

Having been at the forefront of the early crossover between rock ‘n’ roll and country music on subsequent Dylan records John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, though, made him a natural fit for Young’s Nashville band the Stray Gators, even if, like Tim Drummond and Ben Keith, he was brought in by producer Elliott Mazer because the guys he really wanted all spent their weekends fishing. And, appropriately, my Buttrey choice – and really it could have been any one of another half-dozen tunes, since the differences in beat are often minimal – is Out on the Weekend, Harvest‘s opener.

Like most of the Harvest material (the time and tempo changes of Words (Between the Lines of Age) being the obvious exception), Out on the Weekend allows one to play the fun game of listening out for the little licks and subtle variations Buttrey tries to sneak in without Young noticing: the odd little semi-quaver stutter on the kick, a little bit more of that dreaded right hand, in the second half of the second verse. Kenny Buttrey’s work on Harvest is a reminder that while playing to a demanding artist’s specifications may be an ordeal (what first-call Nashville player would cheerfully submit to being transformed into a Ralph Molina clone?), it can pay huge artistic (and financial) dividends.

Stray gators
Young and the Stray Gators rehearse in Young’s barn. l-r Buttrey, Tim Drummond, Jack Nitzsche (piano), Ben Keith (pedal steel), Young

*I’ve retained the punctuation as it appeared in Shakey. McDonough’s habit of representing a Southern accent by dropping terminal “g”s, and rendering “interesting” as “innaresting'” whenever Young says it, becomes rather wearying over 700 pages, but source material is source material.

**It was actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, but the show – with it’s “Judas!” moment – went down in legend as having been at the Albert Hall. The quote marks do appear on the record sleeve, by the way.

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Last Dance – Neil Young

Last Dance is the highlight (but for some the nadir) of Time Fades Away, the out-of-print live album that began Young’s ‘Ditch’ trilogy. The story behind the live album is pretty well covered by Jimmy McDonough in Shakey, and has been covered in other places too, but here’s a quick version of it for the uninitiated.

After making Harvest, Young went on tour with the same band who’d featured on that record: Kenny Buttrey and Tim Drummond on drums and bass, Ben Keith on pedal steel and Jack Nitzsche on piano. Danny Whitten was supposed to play with them too, but his heroin use was out of control so Young sent him home. Whitten overdosed fatally shortly after, casting a pall over the tour and inspiring Young to write Don’t Be Denied.

Inevitably after such an event, the mood in the camp was dark, and it was immediately aggravated by haggling over money. Buttrey was a studio player from Nashville, and he informed Young that to drop his session work and hit the road he’d need $100,000, a figure which Drummond and Nitzsche then demanded too. Young matched Buttrey’s fee for all the band members, but was upset at the way Drummond and Nitzsche had handled the situation, confronting him during rehearsals rather than coming to speak to him privately. Nitzsche later said that the tour never recovered from this incident.

That wasn’t the last of Young’s problems. Buttrey, as a studio player, was unused to the physical demands of driving a rock band along every night on a stage (for 62 dates and with few nights off), and unprepared for the lifestyle or the craziness of touring; musicians as a general rule save their worst excesses for the road and tend to be more focused and together when recording, so this was quite a culture shock. Unhappy with Young’s behaviour and his constant demands that he play louder, Buttrey quit mid-tour, to be replaced by Johnny Barbata (of CSNY and the Turtles), who appears on all the full-band material on Time Fades Away. Nitzsche, meanwhile, one of the few people in Young’s circle prepared to go toe to toe with him, was drinking too much and had a bad attitude, chafing under Young’s heavy-handed leadership.

The stories that have come out about this tour, coupled with Young’s own comments (‘I had this band of all-star musicians who couldn’t even look at each other. It was a total joke’), had me prepared for a dismal, dirgey, tuneless assault from Time Fades Away. In fact, the music is both more delicate (three of the album’s eight songs feature Young alone at the piano – check out Love in Mind: it’s beautiful) and more upbeat than the record’s reputation suggests. The title track and Yonder Stands the Sinner, complete with Nitzsche’s pounding piano, are almost reminiscent of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s New Orleansy choogling, albeit with Young singing in his trashed Tonight’s the Night voice. I can understand why the crowd in 1972 who just knew After the Goldrush and Harvest might have been taken aback at the roughness of some of his vocals, but Young’s singing is no more off-key here than on Tonight’s the Night, and is certainly more tuneful than, say, Dylan backed by the Hawks in 1966, so there had been plenty of precedent in rock’n’roll for such non-bel-canto singing.

Most unexpected given its reputation was Last Dance. McDonough makes it sound like a self-nullifying, caterwauling death march of a song (a ‘grating headache’, he calls it). On Time Fades Away (perhaps the versions played at other shows on the tour were more extreme and negative in vibe – I haven’t heard them all), Last Dance actually strikes me as capturing a familiar mood in Young’s music: summoning the strength to begin again after something important has come to a shattering end.

Still, the Time Fades Away myth is a powerful one. Maybe, to be cynical for a moment, that’s why Young insists on keeping it out of print. It’s a good Neil Young record, and in places – Last Dance being one of them – it’s excellent, but the reality doesn’t really match the myth. If you’ve heard Rust Never Sleeps (and certainly if you’ve heard Eldorado, Arc or Weld) you’ll probably find it quite tame.

And Elliott Mazer mixing the snare in the left channel and the rest of the drums in the centre is just as distracting and eccentric as it is on Harvest.

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Neil Young and his infamous Gibson Flying V,  Time Fades Away tour.