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Last week, Neil Young reunited with Crazy Horse at intimate Fresno and Bakersfield gigs, his first performances with the band in four years. Young tells Yahoo Entertainment that his sprawling Neil Young Archives site, which will include almost everything the prolific rock icon has recorded over the past five decades, will soon feature “four or five Crazy Horse albums that have never been heard, that are sitting there ready to come out.” But Young seems even more excited about another imminent archives addition: one of his most polarizing, fascinating, and misunderstood releases, 1982’s Trans.
First, a little background: In the early ’80s, Young left his longtime label Reprise to sign with Geffen, which guaranteed him $1 million per album and complete creative control. Young’s first Geffen effort was the wildly creative Trans, a Kraftwerkian, vocoder- and synthesizer-heavy electronic album that couldn’t have been more different from his classic Harvest album released a decade earlier. Trans was a true passion project for Young, as it was recorded as a way for him to communicate with his son Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy. But Geffen execs were less than thrilled with Young’s radical new direction, and in 1983 the label filed a lawsuit against the singer-songwriter, claiming he’d produced deliberately “uncommercial and unrepresentative work.”
“Some people loved Trans; a lot of people, they were just lost,” Young says with a shrug. “But without the [accompanying planned] video, it’s like really half of a letter, cut down the middle.”
According to Jimmy McDonough’s Neil Young biography, Shakey, at the time Young wanted to make the long-form Trans video, depicting “electronic-voice people who were working in a hospital, and the one thing they were trying to do is teach this little baby to push a button,” which would have clarified what the album was about. “It didn’t come out because Geffen Records pulled the funding for the videos because they didn’t like the record,” Young tells Yahoo. “I’d never had anything like that happen. Because it didn’t sound like Harvest, and they wanted me to make Harvest, they ultimately ended up suing me for not making Harvest.”
But now, via the Neil Young Archives, the 35-minute Trans film, “a very touching and moving story about artificial intelligence and communication disorders,” will finally get the green light.
“I can’t wait until that comes out, because then people will hear Trans the way I wanted them to hear it in the first place,” Young says enthusiastically. “The original Trans album will be part of the archives, but the real thing about Trans is, [son of Willie Nelson and frequent Young collaborator] Micah Nelson and I are doing an animated video of the story of Trans, so that you can see all the characters. Every song has got characters; a lot of the characters go from song to song. There’s a factory where they’re making people, and they’re making like clones of people, and computerized versions. When I sing, it’s me but it’s not me, it’s my ‘Neil 2’ that’s singing ‘Mr. Soul’ and other songs.
“This is what I wanted to do in the first place, and then the record company made me put it out without the videos, because they didn’t believe in the record, because it wasn’t Harvest. It would’ve been great [if the Trans video had come out in ’82], but it wasn’t to be. But we’re doing it now.”
The Neil Young Archives, which launched last December as a free service but will eventually shift to a subscription model, is a deep-dive interactive timeline on which fans can listen to the majority of Young’s catalog via his own high-quality Xstream streaming platform; fans can also browse rare photos, videos, and films.
“I’m a collector. So I have everything. I’m also very much a geek, and a nerd about things, technology-wise,” Young chuckles. “I like organizing things. We wanted to make kind of a video game that you could play and go around and hear music and have a good time, however you want to listen. You can spend hours there, or you can spend a couple of minutes. But I wanted the music to be as great-sounding as it could be, and we have the best-sounding streaming service in the world. There’s nothing that touches it.”
As the Trans experience proves, Young has always been ahead of the curve. He’s also always been a zealous champion of quality audio in an age of lo-fi online downloads and streams. And he believes Xstream is the future. “The history of recorded sound is at stake,” he stresses. “It’s not about the new rap song that just came out. It’s about Frank Sinatra, it’s Cab Calloway, Glenn Miller. It’s about Bessie Smith, it’s about Dinah Washington, it’s about Brook Benton, it’s about Michael Jackson, it’s about all of these people. All of their art is degraded by Spotify, by the streaming. So if you’re a student of music, if you’re a musicologist or a music lover, when you go back into the past to see influences, like who are your heroes, what shoulders was he or she standing on, then you have to go back into history to find out. And that history is very clouded by what we have today, but this [Xstream] technology allows people to go back and hear it.”
So does Young think other artists should follow his example and open their own high-quality audio archives to the online public? “There’s nothing stopping them,” he says. “If they care about their legacy, if they care about what their music sounds like, if they care about people hearing what they actually did, this is a good way to go. It may not be the only way to go, but right now, there’s nothing like it in the world.”
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