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Neil Young’s strangest film, Human Highway, has just been reissued on DVD alongside the classic concert film Rust Never Sleeps. The film features songs from Trans, arguably Neil Young‘s most inaccessible album, and also one of the hardest to find. Out of print in the US for years, the album is only currently available for download in the European iTunes Store.
But even more surprising is this little known fact — Young started the album as a way to communicate with his cerebral palsied son. Unicorn Booty pop-culture writer Matt Keeley takes a closer look at the 33-year-old album and why it’s still impressive today.
On Trans, Young explored synthesizers and vocoders rather than the expected straightforward guitar sounds had featured so prominently in his previous work. To placate his record company, the first and last songs (“Little Thing Called Love” and “Like an Inca”) were produced in the more familiar Neil Young style: folky, acoustic, non-treated vocals, etc. The rest of the album… not so much.
One of the songs, “Mr. Soul“, is an old Buffalo Springfield tune, drastically rearranged from its original ’60s style into a whole new animal, full of fat analog synths. It’s one of the few tracks on the album that doesn’t distort the vocals with a robotic-sounding vocoder.
To call Trans a commercial flop would be an understatement. The album and its rockabilly follow-up, Everybody’s Rockin’, were the basis of a lawsuit from Geffen Records demanding Young reimburse them for $3 million in lost sales. Geffen argued that they’d signed Young with the express intent that he’d deliver albums of the same classic Neil Young flavor that had topped the charts in the ’70s. Needless to say, Geffen lost. Any record Neil Young puts out, after all, is by definition a Neil Young record, and since Geffen had offered him complete creative freedom in the first place, the suit was doomed.
Despite commercial failure, Trans emerged over time as an album influential to working musicians today: Sonic Youth has been known to cover “Computer Age,” and The Moog Cookbook (the side project of Jellyfish’s Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. with well-known session musician Brian Kehew) listed it in the liner notes to their first album as an influence.
Though Trans proved to be more influential than initially expected, “Computer Age” potentially has more to say about Young’s own influences, showing obvious traces of Computer World, the landmark album released the previous year by Kraftwerk, the most successful band in the electronic music field. Neil’s track, “We R In Control” echoes Computer World‘s title track both lyrically and in sound.
The Kraftwerk song includes the lyrics:
Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard
Business, numbers, money, people…
Time, travel, communication, entertainment
…while Neil’s lyrics include:
We’re controlling traffic lights
We control computer flights
We control the chief of staff.
We control the TV sky
We control the FBI
We control the flow of heat.
Thematically, Trans addresses communication and control – themes which had poignant significance in Young’s life. Young’s sons were born with a very strong cerebral palsy and could not speak or communicate. He’d recently bought a vocoder and a Synclavier (a sequencing synthesizer perhaps best known from Frank Zappa’s use in Jazz From Hell). Young noticed how his son Ben would react when he’d speak through a vocoder — Trans was an attempt to communicate with him.
While Trans was a commentary on his sons’ condition — many of the distorted, processed vocals are difficult to discern — it’s not just his sons’. Neil himself also seems to be having trouble communicating on this album. In the album’s planning stage, he initially wanted to include a video explaining what he was getting at. In his words, the video would be “all of the electronic-voice people were working in a hospital, and the one thing they were trying to do is teach this little baby to push a button”; perhaps his metaphor for an acoustic musician surrounded by an increasingly technological culture.
In interviews, Neil Young has said that Trans is his favorite of his own albums. It’s my favorite of his records, too. And I’m glad it’s coming back, even if just as music in Human Highway — it’ll give old and new listeners alike a chance to appreciate the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer in a way that most folks have forgotten.
(Previously published on April 12, 2015)