California Dreaming: The Old Laughing Lady

Neil Young’s solo career began inauspiciously. At a business meeting with Buffalo Springfield, he’d screamed abuse at the band’s manager Elliot Roberts, telling the band he would refuse ever to work with the man, and forcing them to split with him.

A week later, he turned up on Roberts’ doorstep — he said that the reason he’d insisted on Roberts being fired by the band was that he was going solo, and wanted Roberts to be his manager, and not the band’s.

Young fundamentally wanted independence, and not to rely on any band members any more. Much as he’d enjoyed Buffalo Springfield, he wanted to make something of his own. So even though he was already jamming with a band called the Rockets (who would later rename themselves Crazy Horse), and making plans to work with them, he wanted to work with people who would help him realise his own vision.

Obviously Jack Nitzsche, his current main collaborator, would be involved as arranger and keyboard player, and Nitzsche brought in Ry Cooder, who was playing on almost every worthwhile record coming out of LA at the time, to act as a second guitarist for Young to play off. The band for the album was rounded out by Jim Messina — who had been a member of Buffalo Springfield towards the end of the band’s career, and was rather surprised to be asked, having thought that Young disliked him — and George Grantham, the drummer for Messina’s new band Poco.

While Nitzsche, Cooder, and Young produced a handful of tracks on the album themselves, the bulk of the album was co-produced by Young and a new producer, David Briggs, who had picked up Young while Young was hitch-hiking, and whose most notable production credit at the time was an album for the stand-up comedian Murray Roman. Briggs and Young chose to record in Wally Heider’s studio, according to Young, because of Young’s huge admiration for the Beach Boys — Young apparently not realising that while the Beach Boys recorded much of their stripped-down Wild Honey album, and some vocals for Smiley Smile, there, almost all their earlier recordings had been at United Western, Columbia, or Gold Star.

Briggs and Young soon found that they shared a common approach to production — with a belief that what mattered was not any technical tweaking, but just getting the performance down on tape as accurately as possible, with the minimum interference in the signal between the microphone and the tape. This garage-rock approach to recording, though, was applied to Jack Nitzsche’s sophisticated multi-layered arrangements and Young’s mournful acoustic songwriting, to produce an entire album in the style of the orchestral experiments Young had been doing with Buffalo Springfield, but sounding more organic and rootsy, as was increasingly the fashion in 1968, and less psychedelic.

Probably the best example of this style is The Old Laughing Lady, considered by most Young fans to be the standout track of the album. Young sings three country-flavoured verses, backed by acoustic guitar and strings, telling a story about addiction, drink, and death, in allusive lyrics whose precise meaning Young’s fans still argue about today. But in between these verses, we get wordless call and response wails, arranged by Nitzsche, sung by one of the best sets of soul singers ever gathered in one place, including Merry Clayton (who would soon go on to become much better known for her song-stealing guest spot on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, having been chosen for that session by Nitzsche), Gloria Jones and Brenda Holloway (both of whom are best known for their definitive recordings of Ed Cobb songs — Tainted Love and Every Little Bit Hurts respectively).

This combination of country instrumentation, orchestration, and soul was definitely in the air at the time, with Michael Nesmith, Gram Parsons, and even Elvis Presley all moving in the same direction, but Young’s eponymous solo album was the best realisation of the style to date, and was destined for massive success — right up until the mastering stage.

At this point, stereo was only just becoming the dominant way to listen to records, and a lot of people still had mono record players. Stereo records when played through mono systems could sound odd, with phasing issues, and with cancellation and reinforcement of sounds. At the same time, though, it was uneconomical to keep producing separate mono mixes of albums.

The solution Reprise decided on was to use the Holzer Audio Engineering–Compatible Stereo Generator. What this did was, essentially, to cancel out large parts of the centre of the stereo spectrum, in such a way that it would uncancel itself when played through mono reproduction equipment. This had the result of making the records sound horrible in stereo and mono — in stereo the centre would be buried, so the lead vocals would sound weak and distant, and often the bass would be all but gone, while it was impossible to accurately predict the effect it would have on any specific mix when played in mono. But the record would sound equally bad on both stereo and mono, so could be sold for both, saving the record company money.

This system had a short life, and was mostly applied to records aimed at the older generation who still had their old record players, but Young’s album was given this treatment, to Young’s horror. Young and Briggs went back into the studio after the album was released, remastered and partially remixed it, and rereleased it several months later, but the damage had been done. Young’s first solo album had already been written off, and despite it being one of the best albums of the year was regarded as a flop.

He would have to do something special now…

The Old Laughing Lady

Composer: Neil Young

Line-up: Neil Young (vocals, guitars, keyboard), Ry Cooder (guitar) Jack Nitzsche (electric piano), Jim Messina (bass) George Grantham (drums), Merry Clayton, Brenda Holloway, Patrice Holloway, Gloria Jones, Sherlie Matthews, Gracia Nitzsche (backing vocals), [FOOTNOTE: Wikipedia claims that Carol Kaye and Earl Palmer played on this album along with those listed. It provides no source for these claims. The credits here are those listed by CSNY archivist Joel Bernstein on for the full album.] Unknown strings and horns
Original release: Neil Young, Neil Young, Reprise RS 6317

Currently available on:
Neil Young, Reprise CD

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