Danny Finkleman of CBC’s Finkleman’s 45s used to rail against the influence of post-1965 Beatles on rock music, among other things—including the blue centre of toothbrushes, designed to tell you when to throw away your toothbrush and buy a new one. But he had a good point about the Beatles. The first time I heard the Beatles on their rooftop sessions I thought they had screwed up some songs and got others right; it turns out I was hearing Phil Spector as The Beatles and The Beatles as screw-ups. It was Neil Young who set me straight with Tonight’s the Night and Time Fades Away.
Both albums had terrible production values. Meanwhile the AM airwaves were saturated with perfect this and that and the move was on to produce live performances that sounded like studio work. The airbrush was at work at Penthouse, Playboy, and music studios. The anomalous Beatles moment with their rooftop session—ironically put in the hands of Phil Spector of all people!—and then Neil’s sparse pieces hinted that reality could once again be part of music.
Roll Another Number
“Albuquerque,” a name forever associated in my mind with Bugs Bunny, was the first real number to suggest to me that poorly recorded songs could be great. This was probably the album that changed Neil’s life, encouraging him to record minimalist tunes, tunes that do not suit everyone, and also to revisit abandoned projects. Tonight’s the Night was recorded raw two years before it was released, and it was released as an afterthought, a rediscovered and previously abandoned work.
Neil does not support Time Fades Away with reissues but he does support the raw, emotional, bold Tonight’s the Night. Tonight’s the Night was recorded after the deaths of two of Young’s close friends, Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry. It is not a nice album. It does make it clear that emotion and production may be antithetical, though, as does Let It Be Naked.
Neil Young Naked
Tonight’s the Night is certainly one of the best Neil Young albums thus far. A Letter Home has much in common and may prove to be a major—if ironic—contribution to the Neil canon. There are rumours that a more direct and unrelenting version of Tonight’s the Night is as yet unreleased, and that would be a realism to outlive even his latest release, 2014’s A Letter Home and all else he has produced.