Crosby, Stills, and Nash had not originally intended to form a band at all.
Crosby and Stills had both been at loose ends after leaving their respective bands, and were looking for something else to do, and had been jamming together a little and writing the odd song. Graham Nash had left his own band, The Hollies, and moved to LA recently. But when they first got together, it wasn’t with any particular intention in mind.
It was just normal for the musicians who hung out in the Laurel Canyon area, where most of the LA-based musicians had moved, to sing and play when they got together in Peter Tork’s pool or Cass Elliott’s kitchen.
And Cass Elliott’s kitchen might be where it happened — or it might have been Joni Mitchell’s house. No-one seems quite sure. But either way, there was a party, and Steve Stills and David Crosby were singing a new song of Stills’, You Don’t Have To Cry. Graham Nash asked them to sing it again. And then he asked them to sing it a third time, and improvised a high harmony line over them.
The three-part harmony sounded stunning to those listening — the three men’s vocals gelled in a way that Crosby and Stills on their own hadn’t. It was very quickly decided that the three would try to get signed to the same record label (Stills and Nash were at the time signed to different labels, while Crosby had been dropped by Columbia) and record an album. The result, Crosby, Stills & Nash, featured two top forty singles and was one of the most influential albums of the late 60s.
But they had a problem when it came to playing live. Apart from the drums, played by Dallas Taylor, and a couple of acoustic guitar parts, all the instruments on the album had been played by Stills, and neither Crosby nor Nash was an especially accomplished instrumentalist.
The original plan was to hire a bass player and keyboardist to fill out the band’s sound, but instead of the keyboard player, they were persuaded by Ahmet Ertegun, and rather against their own initial urges, to take on an extra lead guitarist — Neil Young.
Young became a full partner in the band, now officially a quartet, while Greg Reeves, their new bass player (and flatmate of Young’s former bandmate Rick James) did not, although the next album, Déjà Vu, was credited to (in large lettering) Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (in smaller lettering) Dallas Taylor & Greg Reeves.
Young joined half-way through recording that album, but in time for the band’s first gig, supported by Joni Mitchell (who was at the time Nash’s girlfriend). Their second gig was rather more stressful — a music festival in Woodstock, New York, whose organisers had decided at the last minute to make it free. Half a million people showed up.
Joni Mitchell hadn’t gone to Woodstock herself — she’d had other commitments — but she heard about it from Nash, and she wrote a gentle song about it, with the chorus “we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”. Her song, titled simply Woodstock, was released on Ladies of the Canyon and as the B-side to the hit single Big Yellow Taxi.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young also recorded the song. They made a few minor lyrical changes — notably adding the line “we are billion year old carbon” to the choruses (it had originally just been a backing vocal line in the last chorus of Mitchell’s version), but the major change was to the music. In their hands it was a loud, noisy, hard rock track, with duelling squealing lead guitars played by Stills and Young, and with Stills growling out a blues-rock lead vocal.
The result had little to do with the pastoral, gentle, song that Mitchell had originally written, but was chosen for the end credits of the film released of the festival, which became a massive success, and the single went to number eleven on the charts. And Déjà Vu, the album from which it was taken, did even better, going to number one and having two other top forty singles released from it.
The band’s success was short-lived though — Stills and Young’s relationship had always been fractious, and Crosby was going through a particularly difficult patch in his life — and by the end of their summer 1970 tour they had split up, having released one last single, Young’s Ohio, a protest song about the shootings at Kent State University, which went to number twenty. While they would all continue to work with each other in various combinations in the future, and there would be occasional reunion tours, there would not be another Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young studio album until 1988.
Composer: Joni Mitchell
Line-up: Stephen Stills (guitar, vocals, keyboards), Neil Young (guitar), David Crosby and Graham Nash (vocals), Dallas Taylor (drums), Greg Reeves (bass)
Original release: Déjà Vu, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Atlantic SD-7200
Currently available on: Déjà Vu, Atlantic CD