Millions of people like me grew up with Neil Young being a significant contributor to the soundtrack to their youth. From Buffalo Springfield to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, to his exceptional work with Crazy Horse and solo, Young was a pervasive influence. Yet despite so many songs considered absolute classics today — “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River” and “Southern Man,” to name just three — it was a more laid back approach that brought him his greatest commercial success.
Harvest, released in February 1972, not only became his best selling record, it also produced his only number one single. The song, “Heart of Gold,” with backing vocals by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, reached number one on March 18, 1972. Once again, though, Young was in a musical vanguard.
Harvest reflected his exploration of the increasingly popular country rock sound. Much of the album, partly recorded in Nashville, oozes country. It has more pedal steel guitar than Young playing electric guitar. Although Buffalo Springfield and even Young’s previous LP, After the Gold Rush, are part of country rock’s early endeavors, within about a year of Harvest we would see debut releases from the Eagles, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Pure Prairie League.
The more acoustic nature of the album also reflected two other, somewhat overlapping, trends. One was the growing popularity of the introspective singer-songwriter style. While not entirely new, it took off in the early 70s with artists like Taylor, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. Some of these artists — Browne in particular — were also a source of what would be called the Southern California Sound, also more mellow and introspective but which also included artists like the Eagles.
Like After the Gold Rush, this LP is heavily acoustic. Young’s unique electric guitar style makes an appearance only twice, the first time being eight songs in (“Alabama”) and the next being the last cut on the LP, “Words (Between the Lines of Age).” Young’s explanation for the acoustic emphasis of Harvest, though, is a bit more pedestrian. Suffering from a back condition, Young wore a brace through most of the recording sessions. He said the muscles on one side of his body were so weak he had difficulty playing electric guitar.
There were other interesting stylistic approaches. Both “A Man Needs a Maid” and “There’s a World” were Young on the piano — with the London Symphony Orchestra. Also, while Young was known for extended pieces like “Down By The River” and “Southern Man,” much of Harvest is in radio-sized bites. More than half the songs are less than three and a half minutes and only one, “Words (Between the Lines of Age),” breaks four and a half minutes.
Although Harvest would break the top 100 in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, many fans saw Harvest as just too middle of the road. I was one, preferring the rougher, electric feel Young achieved with Crazy Horse. In fact, I got so tired of hearing “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” on the radio and felt this was such a departure that I actually gave away my copy of the LP to a high school classmate. While I did buy it on CD a few years ago, my favorite songs remain the last three: “The Needle and the Damage Done” sandwiched between the two electric guitar pieces.
In retrospect, Young perhaps viewed Harvest, or at least parts of it, like those somewhat disenchanted fans. In the liner notes to Decade, Young’s 1977 two-LP retrospective, he wrote said “Heart of Gold” was a song that “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.”
And were it not for that ditch, Young may not be known today as “the Godfather of Grunge.”
There’s a world you’re living in
No one else has your part
“There’s a World,” Neil Young, Harvest