Although Eric Clapton’s Cream are often credited as the world’s first rock supergroup, it was only Clapton himself who had really done anything of note in the music industry prior to the band’s formation. If any band are deserving of the title of the first supergroup, it ought to be Crosby, Stills and Nash.
David Crosby had played in The Byrds for around three and a half years and had scored two number one singles in his time with the band. Stephen Stills was a pivotal member of Buffalo Springfield and wrote their biggest hit, ‘For What It’s Worth’. And Graham Nash was in The Hollies, an acclaimed Manchester group with 13 top ten singles in the UK.
So, it’s easier to make a case for CSN being the first supergroup than for Cream on these grounds alone. After the trio left their respective bands in the late 1960s, they joined forces in 1968 after discovering how wonderfully they harmonised together. They were just as at one with one another’s voices as The Beach Boys and The Beatles, if not more so.
CSN’s first album, Crosby, Stills & Nash, came out in May 1969 and was nothing short of mind-blowing. From the rollicking trip of ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ to the deliciously crafted lamentation of ‘Helplessly Hoping’, via the ‘sound-of -1969’ encapsulating ‘Wooden Ships’, Crosby, Stills & Nash was folk songwriting at its absolute best and featured some of the best vocal harmonies ever likely to be recorded.
Following the release of their debut, CSN needed to recruit a keyboard player. They initially approached Steve Winwood, but he was busy with his new group Blind Faith (with Eric Clapton). Ahmet Ertegun, who had signed the band to Atlantic Records, suggested Neil Young. Young, who had played with Stills in Buffalo Springfield, was primarily a guitarist but was also proficient on the keys.
The band were initially sceptical of allowing Young into their group; he had previously shown himself to be unreliable in Buffalo Springfield, constantly quitting and rejoining. David Crosby once said, “We didn’t want him at first. Well, we knew Buffalo Springfield had imploded.” Still, despite their reservations, CSN welcomed Young into their group, and they became Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Graham Nash would later reveal: “What Neil brought to Crosby, Stills and Nash was not only the ability to bring a darker edge to our music – because the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album was kind of sunny, kind of acoustic, kind of gentle – but all of a sudden Neil steps up, and it’s darker, it’s more intense. What Ahmet really loved about Buffalo Springfield was the way that Stephen and Neil would converse with their guitars. Neil would play something, eight bars of this, and then Stephen would say, ‘Oh yeah motherfucker? Well, try this!’ That was very attractive to Ahmet, and he felt we needed it.”
As we commemorate the first time Young performed as part of the group, his second would be at the famous Woodstock festival on August 18th, 1969. CSNY went on to record their first album, Déjà vu, which was released in 1970. Like CSN’s debut, the album is fantastic and features some of the best songs of the 20th Century.
However, while Crosby, Stills and Nash was the work of three songwriters in complete and utter harmony, the inclusion of Young on Déjà vu showcases a band whose individual styles are seemingly at odds with one another, well, at least between Young and the rest of the group. Young’s efforts, the admittedly heartbreaking ‘Helpless’ and the longing for love ‘Country Girl’, just don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the album’s tracks. They are wonderfully crafted and performed songs in their own right, but somehow they feel as though Crosby, Stills and Nash were essentially saying, “OK, Neil, you can do your songs now.” They sound like much of Young’s solo output, effortlessly talented but at once his own.
While Young added a dynamic and dark edge to the group with his songwriting and guitar skills, he also brought along the mood swings and unpredictable behaviour that had essentially caused Buffalo Springfield to split. Young fought with drummer Dallas Taylor, which led to Taylor’s dismissal from the band. All the more fractious, though, was his relationship with his ex-bandmate Stills. The two regularly argued on tour, which, astonishingly, led to the sacking of Stills rather than Young himself.
Stills rejoined soon after, although following the last show of a 23-date live tour, the infighting would ultimately prove too much and the band split in July 1970. CSN/Y would go on to perform together in reunion tours over the years, most notably as CSNY between 1973 and 1976, which birthed the live album CSNY 1974. Personal tensions in the band would once again prove too much and, along with CSNY’s excessive lifestyles, led to the group’s estrangement.
CSN had something extraordinary in their grasp; they were all truly gifted songwriters in their prime who possessed the most envious vocal harmonies conceivable. By allowing Young into their group, they let in someone who had a known reputation for in-band disruption, who most likely had one eye on his solo career (potentially using CSN as a further leg up following the dissolution of Buffalo Springfield) – and someone who ultimately had a style at odds with their mellifluence.
When asking if Neil Young’ ruined’ CSN, perhaps it’s best to leave it to the words of the often (admittedly) vehement David Crosby: “Well, he’s probably the most self-centred, self-obsessed, selfish person I know. He only thinks about Neil, period. That’s the only person he’ll consider. Ever!”