Happy Wednesday and welcome to another installment of Song Musings, a weekly feature taking a closer look at tunes I’ve only mentioned in passing or not written about at all to date. Today, I’m turning to Unknown Legend by Neil Young, one of my favorite artists.
Unknown Legend is the opener of Harvest Moon, which I think is one of the best albums by the Canadian-American singer-songwriter, released in November 1992. Young wrote this great country-flavored tune prior to the release of his 1978 album Comes a Time. Some critics saw a stylistic similarity to that record, pointing in particular to the song Motorcycle Mama – other than the motorcycle and a female singer supporting Young on vocals, it doesn’t seem to be very obvious to me!
The gorgeous backing vocals in the refrain of Unknown Legend were provided by Linda Ronstadt. The album’s co-producer Ben Keith played the great pedal steel guitar on the recording. It’s a simple yet beautiful song!
Even though Unknown Legend wasn’t released as a single, it proved to be popular, reaching no. 38 on Billboard’sMainstream Rock Tracks chart. The album continued Young’s commercial resurgence that had started with his two previous releases Freedom (October 1989) and Ragged Glory (September 1990), eventually outselling both. In Canada, Harvest Moon also won the 1994 Juno Award for Album of the Year. Here’s a nice “electric” live version of the song.
Following are some additional insights about Unknown Legend from Songfacts:
The woman in “Unknown Legend” is Neil Young’s wife (at the time), Pegi Morton Young. The two met in 1974, while Morton was working as a waitress at a diner near Young’s ranch.
The song talks about a waitress, now mother of two, who had once lived a life of travel and restlessness. The chorus harks back to her years of riding a Harley Davidson through the desert, with its chrome and steel “Collidin’ with the very air she breathes.” The song sounds both triumphant and sad. It laments the woman’s situation (“Now she’s dressin’ two kids, lookin’ for a magic kiss”) while celebrating the wild rambling imagery of her past, all while sweetly observing her graceful movements across the diner floor.
A historically interesting note is that “Unknown Legend,” which is an ode to Pegi, appeared on an entire album Young had made about keeping marriage alive. “This album here [Harvest Moon], it’s about making things last, how to keep that interest, how to keep the fire burning,” Young told New Musical Express in 1992. “Never get bored with the fact that you’ve been with someone for a long time, it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Relationships should enrichen with age, that kind of thing.”
The marriage did indeed enrichen for over a decade after the song’s release, but then collapsed. In that same New Musical Express piece, writer Gavin Martin prophetically wrote, “No marriages are easy, rock ‘n’ roll relationships are particularly fraught. Placid and healing on the surface, Harvest Moon doesn’t try to deny the troubles and heartbreak beneath.”
Pegi spoke a lot about her divorce from Young on her album Raw. It’s an interesting dynamic – the “Unknown Legend” herself singing candidly about the harsher aspects of being married to the man who once immortalized her in song.
Once again I’ve decided to do another installment in my recurring and now more regular music history feature. This time it’s February 7, and it turns out I found a number of events that sufficiently intrigued me to highlight.
1959: New Orleans blues guitarist Guitar Slim passed away from pneumonia in New York at the untimely age of 32. Born Eddie Jones in Greenwood, Miss. on Dec 10, 1926, he had a major impact on rock and roll and influenced guitarists like Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix. In fact, he experimented with distorted overtones 10 years before Hendrix did. Slim is best known for writing the blues standard The Things That I Used to Do, arranged and produced by a young Ray Charles. After the tune was released in the fall of 1953, it topped Billboard’s R&B chart for weeks and sold more than a million copies, becoming one of label Specialty Records’ biggest hits. Guitar Slim was a favorite of Hendrix who recorded an impromptu version of The Things That I Used to Do in 1969, featuring Johnny Winter on slide guitar. The tune, which is on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll, was also covered by Pee Wee Crayton, Tina Turner, James Brown and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others.
1963: Please Please Me, The Beatles’ first U.S. single and their second single overall was released by Vee-Jay Records. This followed rejections by Capitol Records, EMI’s U.S. label, and Atlantic. Chicago radio station WLS‘s Dick Biondi, a friend of Vee-Jay executive Ewart Abner, became the first DJ to play a Beatles record in the U.S. Initially, the tune, written by John Lennon and credited to him and Paul McCartney, was a moderate success, peaking at no. 35 on the WLS “Silver Dollar Survey.” It would take until the song’s re-release in January 1964 that Please Please Me became a major U.S. hit, reaching no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-March 1964, trailing I Want to Hold Your Hand and She Loves You. Three weeks later, The Beatles held the top 5 spots on the U.S. chart, with Please Please Me at no. 5. Chart-topper Can’t Buy Me Love was followed by Twist and Shout, She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand.
1970: Led Zeppelin topped the Official Albums Chart in the UK for the first time with their sophomore album Led Zeppelin II. The record also became a chart-topper in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Germany and The Netherlands, and reached no. 2 in Austria, Norway and Sweden. Recording sessions for the album had taken place at several locations in both the UK and North America between January and August 1969. Zep guitarist Jimmy Page was credited as producer. Eddie Kramer, who by that time had already worked with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Small Faces, Traffic and Jimi Hendrix, served as engineer. Here’s the opener Whole Lotta Love, one of my favorite Zep rockers that also was released separately as a single. The tune was credited to all four members of the band and, following settlement of a lawsuit in 1985, to Willie Dixon. Once again, the group had borrowed from somebody else’s work without acknowledgment. It’s an unfortunate pattern by one of my all-time favorite rock bands!
1970: Meanwhile, in the U.S., Dutch rock band Shocking Blue topped the Billboard Hot 100 with Venus. Their biggest hit also reached no. 1 in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and France, no. 2 in Germany and Norway, and no. 3 in The Netherlands. According to Wikipedia, the song’s music is from the 1963 tune The Banjo Song by American folk trio The Big 3 with lyrics by Shocking Blue guitarist Robbie van Leeuwen. Officially, only van Leeuwen was credited – sounds a bit like the previous item! Shocking Blue who at the time of Venus also included Mariska Veres (lead vocals), Klaasje van der Wal (bass) and Cor van der Beek (drums), were active from 1967 until 1974 and had a few short-lived reunions thereafter. In 1986, British girl group Bananarama took Venus back to no. 1 in the U.S. and various other countries. While I appreciate they revived a great song, I much prefer the original.
1976: Paul Simon scored his first and only no. 1 hit in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, one of my all-time favorites by the American singer-songwriter. Penned by Simon, the song was the third single off his fourth solo album Still Crazy After All These Years from October 1975. The distinct drum part, one of the coolest I can think of, was performed by highly regarded session drummer Steve Gadd. He also played drums on Steely Dan song Aja and has worked with numerous other renowned artists. Backing vocals on 50 Ways were performed by Patti Austin, Valerie Simpson and Phoebe Snow. According to Songfacts, In a 1975 interview published in Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews, Simon told the story of this song: “I woke up one morning in my apartment on Central Park and the opening words just popped into my mind: ‘The problem is all inside your head, she said to me…’ That was the first thing I thought of. So I just started building on that line. It was the last song I wrote for the album, and I wrote it with a Rhythm Ace, one of those electronic drum machines so maybe that’s how it got that sing-song ‘make a new plan Stan, don’t need to be coy Roy’ quality. It’s basically a nonsense song.”
1993: Neil Young recorded an installment of the MTV series Unplugged. Apparently, Young was not happy with the performances of many of his band members. It was his second attempt to capture a set he felt was suitable for airing and release. In spite of Young’s displeasure, the album still appeared in June that year. It was also published on VHS. Here’s Unknown Legend, a tune from his then-latest studio album Harvest Moon that had come out in November 1992. My ears can’t find anything wrong with how this sounds. Of course, it’s always possible certain kinks were fixed in the production process.
Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube
Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time
Can you believe we’ve reached the first Sunday in December? Soon those who celebrate will be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ before we all kiss this dreadful second pandemic year goodbye – fuck COVID! Sorry, usually I don’t swear, but I just needed to get this off my chest! On a more upbeat note, this also means it’s time to embark on another music journey. How do you like that transition? And, yes, I’ve put together another eclectic set of six tunes. Come on, hop on board and fugetabout the stupid virus, at least for some time!
Glenn Miller and his Orchestra/Moonlight Serenade
I’d like to start with a timeless jazz classic that takes us back all the way to 1939. When for some reason, Moonlight Serenade randomly came to my mind the other day, I immediately decided the beautiful swing ballad by Glenn Miller would make for a great Sunday Six opener. According to Songfacts, the tune’s origins date back to 1935 and a song titled As I Lay Me Down to Weep, with music by Miller and lyrics by Eddie Heyman. The tune wasn’t recorded at the time, but in 1938, the music became the theme of Miller’s radio broadcasts on NBC. The following year, when Miller who by then had his own band recorded a song called Sunrise Serenade, publisher Robbins Music suggested that he pair it with Moonlight Serenade to make it a theme. Moonlight Serenade was the original As I Lay Me Down to Weep with different lyrics. Miller kept the title but decided to record the music only – smart decision! When it appeared in May 1939, Moonlight Serenade became an immediate sensation and Miller’s signature song. And here we are, 82 years later!
Meat Loaf/Bat Out of Hell
In case Moonlight Serenade put you in a sleepy mood it’s time to wake up, as we jump to October 1977. Bat Out of Hell is the title of the debut album by Michael Lee Aday known as Meat Loaf. The album was produced by Todd Rundgren and written by Jim Steinman. It was based on the musical Neverland, a futuristic rock version of Peter Pan Steinman had written in 1974. Wikipedia notes the album’s musical style reflected Steinman’s fondness of Richard Wagner, Phil Spector, Bruce Springsteen and The Who. Not only did Bat Out of Hell become one of the best-selling records of all time, but it also marked the start of a successful long-term collaboration between Aday and Steinman. Sadly, Steinman passed away at the age of 73 in April this year. Meat Loaf’s most recent studio album Braver Than We Are dates back to December 2016. He was sidelined by back surgeries thereafter. But just last month on his Facebook, he announced a new album for 2022. Even though Bat Out of Hell like pretty much all Meat Loaf songs I’ve heard is a massive production, it’s just an incredible tune.
Percy Sledge/When a Man Loves a Woman
After Meat Loaf’s rock inferno let’s slow things down again with a beautiful soul ballad by Percy Sledge. Co-written by Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, When a Man Loves a Woman was first recorded by the R&B, soul and gospel singer and released in March 1966. The tune hit no. 1 in the U.S. on both the mainstream Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles charts. The title track of Sledge’s debut album also topped the charts in Canada and reached no. 4 in the UK. When a Man Loves a Woman became his signature song. I just don’t get tired of this tune, which is one of my favorite ballads.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd/Blue On Black
My next pick is by Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Southern rock-flavored Blue On Black was included on the then-20-year-old blues rock guitarist and singer-songwriter’s sophomore album Trouble Is… from October 1997. It was his first record that appeared under the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band moniker. Blue On Black, co-written by Shepherd, Mark Selby and Tia Sillers, became his most successful U.S. chart hit to date, topping the Mainstream Rock chart and reaching no. 78 on the Billboard Hot 100. In contrast, Shepherd’s records have enjoyed huge success on the Top Blues Albums chart, where eight of the nine albums he has released thus far hit no. 1. Shepherd is only 44 years old, so we can hopefully look forward to many more years of great music from him.
The Romantics/Talking in Your Sleep
I can hear the secrets that you keep/When you’re talking in your sleep…I always liked the lyrics of this song by The Romantics. The catchy pop rocker from September 1983 became the biggest hit of the American new wave band that was founded in Detroit in 1977. Credited to all of the group’s five members – Coz Canler (lead guitar, vocals), Wally Palmar (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, harmonica), Pete Solley (keyboards), Mike Skill (bass, rhythm guitar, backing vocals) and Jimmy Marinos (drums, lead vocals, percussion) – Talking in Your Sleep was the lead single off their fourth studio album In Heat that appeared at the same time. Luckily for the talkative dreamer, she only has sweet things to say about her lover who lies right next to her in bed. The song topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and the charts in Canada. It also became a top 30 hit in various other countries, including Australia (no. 14), Germany (no. 18), The Netherlands (no. 24) and Switzerland (no. 20). The Romantics remain active to this day, with Palmar, Sill and Cole being part of the present four-piece that since 1994 has also included Brad Elvis (drums, percussion). How many other bands can you name that have been around for some 44 years with their initial line-up largely intact?
Neil Young/The Painter
And once again we’ve reached the final stop of our Sunday music time travel. Why pick a seemingly arbitrary Neil Young tune? Why not! In fact, that’s kind of the point of The Sunday Six. Anything goes anytime as long as I dig it. The Painter is the opening track of Young’s 26th studio album Prairie Wind that appeared in September 2005. The record’s acoustic-oriented sound is reminiscent of Harvest Moon (1992) and Harvest (1972), which are both among my favorite Neil Young albums. While Prairie Wind doesn’t quite match the two aforementioned records, it still became one of Young’s most successful albums in the later stage of his remarkable 58-year-and-counting career. Like all other tunes on the album, The Painter was written by Young. BTW, speaking of his longevity, Young is coming out with a new album, Barn, on December 10, which he recorded with his longtime backing band Crazy Horse.
* This post has been updated to reflect that Blue On Black was co-written by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Mark Selby and Tia Sillers, not Shepherd, Danny Tate and Sillers, as had been stated initially.
Inspired by Hans Postcard’s fun 2020 album draft, where 10 participants pick albums in 10 rounds for a total of 100, I decided to put together my list of 10 albums I would take on a desert island. Essentially, I already came up with such a collection in May 2018, but some things have changed in the meantime and this list features five new picks, including three different artists.
While each of the albums are longtime favorites, I still can’t exclude the possibility that my picks might be different in a month or two. Since I couldn’t figure out how to rank my selections, I ingeniously decided to put them in chronological order. Conveniently, this means kicking things off with my favorite band of all time.
The Beatles/Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (May 1967)
While I dig all albums by the Fab Four, on most days, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is my favorite. The innovative use of recording technology, the cover art and the combination of different music styles like vaudeville, circus, music hall, avant-garde and traditional Indian music with pop and rock make Sgt. Pepper a true masterpiece. The first album after The Beatles had stopped touring was influenced by The Beach Boys’Pet Sounds, which Brian Wilson had created in response to Revolver, as well as Freak Out! by the Mothers of Invention. Had it not been because of silly pressure from EMI to issue Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane as a single, Sgt. Pepper hands-down would have been the strongest Beatles album. Still, with tunes like the title track, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, Within You Without You and the magnificent A Day in the Life, there’s lots of great music.
Carole King/Tapestry (February 1971)
Carole King’sTapestry perhaps is the ultimate singer-songwriter album. Her sophomore release from 1971 featured 10 new tunes and two reinterpretations of songs King had written together with her former husband and lyricist Jerry Goffin in the ’60s. Like many of their other songs, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman became hits, in these cases by The Shirelles and Aretha Franklin, respectively. There’s really no weak tune on Tapestry and I could have selected any. It’s Too Late has always been one of my favorites.
The Rolling Stones/Sticky Fingers (April 1971)
I know many fans of The Rolling Stones consider Exile on Main St. or Some Girls as their best albums. While I can’t claim to know all of their records in detail, my favorite is Sticky Fingers. This was the second full-length record with Mick Taylor who had replaced Brian Jones in June 1969. Between Brown Sugar, Wild Horses, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Bitch, Sister Morphine and Dead Flowers, there are so many classics on this album. I just think the Stones never sounded better. And interestingly, it’s the country-influenced Dead Flowers that has become one of my favorite Stones tunes. I just love the guitar work!
Marvin Gaye/What’s Going On (May 1971)
I think Marvin Gaye had one of the most beautiful soulful voices I know. This artist was a smooth operator, even when he sang about serious issues like on this album. …(Oh, crime is increasin’) Oh, woo/Trigger happy policin’/panic is spreadin’/God knows where we’re headin’/Oh baby/Make me wanna holler/They don’t understand/Make me wanna holler/They don’t understand…It’s remarkable these lyrics were written almost 50 years, yet they sound frighteningly relevant in America in the year 2020.
Neil Young/Harvest (February 1972)
I dig a good number of Neil Young songs and feel his first compilation Decade is one of the best greatest hits collections I can think of. When it comes to his albums, my favorites are Harvest from 1972 and Harvest Moon from 1992. While I think the title track of the latter is among Young’s best tunes, I have a slight preference for Harvest from an overall album perspective. Featuring David Crosby, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt as guests, it became Young’s most successful record and the best-selling album in the U.S. in 1972 – in part thanks to Heart of Gold, which remains Young’s only no. 1 song on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 to this day. There are many other gems on the record, including The Needle and the Damage Done.
Deep Purple/Machine Head (March 1972)
I don’t listen to hard rock a lot these days, but when I do, Deep Purple remain my favorite choice, especially their sixth studio album Machine Head from March 1972. I’ve always thought one of the cool things about this band are the equal roles the guitar and the keyboards play as solo instruments. Jon Lord was a true master of the Hammond organ who skillfully blended blues, hard rock and jazz with elements of classical music. Lazy is one of the tracks on which Lord shines in particular.
Pink Floyd/The Dark Side of the Moon (March 1973)
First, I was going to pick Meddle, Pink Floyd’s sixth studio album from October 1971. With the great Echoes, it foreshadowed the band’s classic mid-’70s sound on The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. All three albums are among my favorite Floyd records. Eventually, I settled on The Dark Side of the Moon. It’s a perfect album for headphones, and I’ve listened to it countless times at night in bed. The sound is just phenomenal. One of the standout tracks is The Great Gig In the Sky and the amazing vocal performance by British singer Clare Torry.
Bruce Springsteen/Born to Run (August 1975)
Bruce Springsteen entered my radar screen in 1984 with the Born in the U.S.A. album. While I’m still fond of that record, I subsequently explored and came to appreciate his earlier work. To me, Born to Run turned out to be Springsteen’s Mount Rushmore. After two albums that were critically acclaimed but not successful from a commercial perspective, he really needed a hit. Born to Run would turn out to be exactly that and catapult Springsteen to fame beyond the U.S. Apart from the title song, my favorite tracks on the album include Thunder Road, Backstreets, Jungleland and the beautiful soul-oriented Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.
Stevie Wonder/Songs in the Key of Life (September 1976)
Stevie Wonder has been one of my favorite artists for 40 years. I dig many of his songs starting from when he was known as Little Stevie Wonder. But it’s his classic period in the ’70s I like the most, especially the albums Talking Book (October 1972), Innervisions (August 1973) and Songs in the Key of Life (September 1976). The latter became the best-selling and most critically acclaimed album of Wonder’s long career. Here’s his beautiful tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington who had passed away in May 1974.
Steely Dan/Aja (September 1977)
I’m wrapping up this list with Steely Dan. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen made many great records, but it’s this gem from September 1977 that’s my favorite: Aja. As usual, Becker and Fagen assembled top-notch session musicians to record the album. There were also prominent guests, including Michael McDonald and Timothy B. Schmit. All of the tracks on this album are great. Deacon Blues is my favorite Steely Dan song, but since I previously featured it more than once, I’m going with the closer Josie.
It’s been a long time coming. Some 45 years. But it was worth the wait. Today, Neil Young officially released Homegrown, an album he initially had planned to put out in 1975. But written in the wake of the breakup of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, it felt too personal to him, so he decided to shelf it.
According to Apple Music, Young also had an entire second album written: Tonight’s the Night. In fact, he already had recorded it in August and September 1973, but had not released it. After deciding to stash away Homegrown in the drawer, he put out Tonight’s the Night.
Back to Homegrown. While these songs were written during what arguably was Young’s most creative period, I think it’s fair to say we’re not looking at another Harvest or Harvest Moon, to name two of my favorite Young albums. Still, this is a fine record, which takes Neil Young fans on what I think is a fascinating time travel journey back to the mid-’70s.
All of the 12 tracks on Homegrown were written by Young. Five of the tunes previously found their way on other Young records: Love Is a Rose (Decade, 1977), Homegrown (American Stars ‘n Bars, 1977), White Line (Ragged Glory, 1990), Little Wing (Hawks & Doves, 1980) and Star of Bethlehem (American Stars ‘n Bars). Additionally, Young had performed other songs like Separate Ways or Try live but not officially released on a record.
I’d like to start with the opener Separate Ways, a tune directly addressed at Snodgrass: …Though we go our separate ways/Lookin’ for better days/Sharin’ our little boy/Who grew from joy back then…The little boy is Zeke, who was born in September 1972. According to this New York Times Magazine story from September 2012, Zeke has a very mild case of cerebral palsy and works at Home Depot. Young’s second son Ben who he had with his second wide Pegi Young (née Morton) is quadriplegic with cerebral palsy and non-verbal. Young also has a daughter, Amber Jean Young, his second child with Pegi, who is a visual artist. To me, Tim Drummond’s melodic bass line and the pedal steel fill-ins by Ben Keith are the song’s musical highlights. BTW, none other than Levon Helms manned the drums on this track.
As previously noted, Homegrown first appeared on Young’s eighth studio album American Stars ‘n Bars from May 1977. While the two versions are similar, the original take feels “less produced,” starting out with some studio banter. Karl Himmel played drums on this recording.
We Don’t Smoke It No More is a nice, largely instrumental blues tune. Unlike the title may suggest, it actually does smoke quite a bit. Ben Keith, who also provided backing vocals and produced the track, did a nice job on slide guitar. And Young proofed that when it come to the harmonica he also some blues chops.
White Line is one of the album’s gems. The original acoustic country-oriented version we hear here sounds significantly different from Young’s previously released grungy take on Ragged Glory. I also feel it’s superior. In addition to Young on vocals, guitar and harmonica, this recording featured Robbie Robertson on guitar. According to Wikipedia, Young also recorded White Line for Chrome Dreams, yet another album that wasn’t released at the time – gee, I don’t believe I’m aware of any other music artists who creates entire only to shelf them! In October 2007, Young released Chrome Dreams II, but other than being an obvious reference to the shelved record, I don’t believe the two have anything in common.
The last track I’d like to call out is Star Of Bethlehem. While this recording is pretty much identical to the version Young previously included on American Stars ‘n Bars, it’s another highlight and as such simply too good to skip. Undoubtedly, that’s largely because of the beautiful harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris. Ben Keith also provided backing vocals, as well as dobro, but it’s really Harris who makes the song shine.
Like most of Young’s records since 1989, Homegrown appears on Reprise. The album was co-produced by him, Elliot Mazer, Ben Keith and Tim Mulligan. Apart from the above mentioned, additional musicians include Stan Szelest (piano) and Sandy Mazzeo (backing vocals.)
The final word here shall belong to Young. If you’ve read my previous posts related to this record, these words probably sound familiar. “This album should have been there for you a couple of years after Harvest, Young wrote on his website. It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind….but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean.
Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; New York Times Magazine; Neil Young website; YouTube