In Defense of … Neil Young’s ‘Everybody’s Rockin”
To say that Neil Young confused a lot of people in the ’80s would be an understatement. He began the decade with ‘Hawks and Doves,’ a fairly straight-ahead, somewhat country-lined rock album. He followed it with the brash, and often repetitive, ‘Re-Ac-Tor’ with Crazy Horse, cranking up the guitars once again.
Both albums were pretty close to home terrain for Young. But around this time, Young’s contract with his longtime record label, Reprise Records, ended, and he signed with the upstart Geffen company.
Then came the dramatic left turn of ‘Trans,’ an album inspired by, and based on, electronic sounds. The synth-driven songs were Young’s attempt to make a connection with his young son Ben, who had been diagnosed with a severe from of cerebral palsy, making communication difficult.
Upon its release, ‘Trans’ confused a lot of people. Some critics called it a brave sidestep for the rocker, but generally fans and everyone else was perplexed by the sounds. The album and accompanying tour more or less bombed. That same year, Young completed work on the movie ‘Human Highway,’ which was also inspired by contemporary New Wave bands, even featuring an appearance by Devo.
So of course Young’s next stop was straightforward country music. He delivered an album to Geffen made up of authentic, old-school country songs. But by this point, Geffen, totally confused by Young’s genre jumping, rejected the album and told Young that he needed to make a real rock ‘n’ roll record. Young, in turn, took those instructions at face value.
“They told me they wanted me to play rock ‘n’ roll, and told me I didn’t sound like Neil Young,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “So I gave them ‘Everybody’s Rockin” and said, ‘This is a rock ‘n’ roll album by Neil Young after someone tells him what to do. This is exactly what you said you wanted.’ As long as it’s good music and I’m playing with my friends, I don’t care what genre it is. All my music comes from all music. I’m not country, I’m not rock ‘n’ roll. I’m just me, and all these things are what I like.”
Well … rockin’ it was, and remains that way 31 years later. Say what you want about it –call it two steps away from Rutles territory, a parody, pastiche, tribute or whatever other fancy-ass words you wanna toss at it, ‘Everybody’s Rockin” is a genuine rock ‘n’ roll album, all 28 minutes of it! Backed by the Shocking Pinks, Young plunged head first into the sounds of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll.
Released on July 27, 1983, ‘Everybody’s Rockin” kicks off with a cover of Bobby Freeman’s ‘Betty Lou’s Got a New Pair of Shoes,’ a Top 40 hit for Freeman in 1958. True to the original, with a spoonful of Young-style flourishes mixed in, things are off and, you know, rockin’. Slim Harpo’s classic ‘Rainin’ in My Heart’ comes next, and Young takes the signature blues and gives it some ’50s pop/rock ornamentation, like slightly cheesy backup vocals and Fats Domino-style piano.
Young’s back on track with an original, ‘Payola Blues,’ a rollicking tune about the perils of the record industry. Young dedicates the song to the legendary Alan Freed, and this time those backing vocals work perfectly as they sing “cash-a-wad-a-wad-a.” Young channels the spirit of first-generation rock ‘n’ roll with middle finger held high.
‘Wonderin” dates back to 1970, and was first recorded for the ‘After the Gold Rush’ album, albeit in a more country-meets-folk guise. The Shocking Pinks drain out those down-home colors and replace them with some “doo-wah”-style backup vocals, while steering the song’s original country groove into rockabilly terrain. MTV actually gave a fair amount of airtime to ‘Wonderin”s video back in the day.
The wonderfully titled ‘Kinda Fonda Wanda,’ co-written with bassist Tim Drummond, is another straight-ahead blues-based rocker, with saxes, piano and more ‘wah wah wah wah’ vocals, while ‘Cry Cry Cry’ is a bouncing, malt-shop jukebox rocker with Young delivering a simple but effective guitar break.
The classic ‘Mystery Train’ first appeared on the Sun label, recorded by Junior Parker in 1953. The song straddled a country/blues line and has been covered by the likes of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Band, UFO and, most famously, Elvis Presley. Young stays faithful to the earlier spirits. Jimmy Reed’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ follows, and is served up straight, no chaser.
After the album’s release, Young hit the road with the Shocking Pinks, all decked out in slicked back hair and stylish clothes from the era … and promptly left many fans confused. His record company wasn’t too sure what to make of all of it either. So, in an unprecedented move, Geffen sued Young for $3.3 million, claiming that he was purposely making noncommercial music, stating that his recent records were “musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings.”
The suit was settled with apologies from Geffen to Young. “They said, Neil you gotta make a rock ‘n’ roll record, you just have to,” Young recalled in the 2009 documentary ‘Don’t Be Denied.’ “And I said, ‘Do you know what rock ‘n’ roll is?’ I think they wanted me to make a hard rock record, but they didn’t ask for that. And if you’re gonna tell me to do something, yell at me and sue me, then you better to tell me to do exactly what you want, or you might get exactly what you asked for.”
Three more albums for Geffen would follow: the previously aborted country album ‘Old Ways’ and two lackluster rock records, ‘Life’ and ‘Landing on Water,’ both of which suffered from bad ’80s production and generally lame songs.
Young re-signed with Reprise in 1988, and after one last stylistic adventure (the blues based ‘This Note’s for You’), Young reclaimed his identity, his audience and his legend with 1989’s ‘Freedom.’ “The ’80s were really good,” Young said in ‘Don’t Be Denied.’ “The ’80s were like, artistically very strong for me. I knew no boundaries, and I was experimenting with everything that I would come across. Sometimes with great success, sometimes with terrible results, but nonetheless I was able to do this. I was able to realize I wasn’t in a box. I wanted to establish that.”
So … is ‘Everybody’s Rockin” a great record? No. Is it a great Neil Young record? Well … no. But the 31 years on its grooves have aged quite well. Taken out of its contemporary context and put into perspective of all things Neil Young, it’s actually an enjoyable side trip.
“What am l? Stupid? Did people really think I put that out thinking it was the greatest f—in’ thing I’d ever recorded? Obviously I’m aware it’s not,” Young told Mojo magazine in a 1995 interview. “It was a way of further destroying what I’d already set up. Without doing that, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now. If I build something up, I have to systematically tear it right down before people decide, ‘Oh, that’s how we can define him.’”