The four songs Neil Young wrote in a fever that became classics
Neil Young has got a pretty hefty dose of songs in his canon. Across an impressive array of albums, Young has written so many songs that he even has time to bring some songs back from early in his career, as he did with ‘Come Along and Say You Will’ which he dropped this week. Playing so many shows around the late sixties and early seventies, Young was absolutely the most prolific and potent songwriter around. He was even able to write tracks while in a fever dream.
On his seminal album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young’s first step into the wild with his new backing band Crazy Horse, the singer-songwriter came down with a serious bout of the flu during the recording sessions. The singer’s temperature soared above 39.5 degrees and there was genuine concern for his wellbeing. However, during the fever and the hallucinations that came with it, Young wrote four classic tracks for the album.
On the album, there are a collection songs which have outlasted the record as Young classics. ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘Down By The River’, the title track of the LP and ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’, were all composed during the feverish day. “Sometimes [when] I get sick, get a fever, it’s easy to write,” Young explained to Uncut. “Everything opens up. You don’t have any resistance. You just let things go.”
‘Cinnamon Girl’ was the first track to be recorded of the fever four and it is one of Young’s most beloved and covered tracks. In the liner notes for Decade, Young said of the song: “Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me through Phil Ochs’ eyes playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife.” The song is one of Young’s finest.
Another track which was featured was ‘Down By the River’, a timeless piece of folk-rock joy from Young. It was a track written and recorded on Young’s favourite guitar ‘Old Black’ and was so loud it became a defining moment of Young’s career: “Immediately, the entire room started to vibrate. I went, ‘Holy shit!’ I had to turn it halfway down before it stopped feeding back,” he said.
The title track of the album is also a noteworthy moment. It not only has the signature sound Young was so desperately trying to find as he escaped the “fabricated” and move towards a more authentic sonic landscape. Young’s vocal was actually a temporary scratch vocal he sang through a low-quality talk-back microphone on the mixing board, with no effects. Young liked the obvious contrast to the rest of the recording.
‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ may well be the least known on this list but the song is a searing moment of Neil Young’s repertoire, largely because of the wrenching guitar from Danny Whitten. “Nobody played guitar with me like that,” Young says of the guitarist, who passed away after a heroin overdose in 1972. “That rhythm, when you listen to ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’, he keeps changing. Billy and Ralph will get into a groove and everything will be going along and all of a sudden Danny’ll start doing something else.
“He just led those guys from one groove to another, all within the same groove. So when I played those long guitar solos, it seemed like they weren’t all that long, that I was making all these changes, when in reality what was changing was not one thing but the whole band. Danny was the key. A really great second guitar player, the perfect counterpoint to everything else that was happening.”
The fact that these four incredible songs could be conceived while Young was in the throes of a deadly fever, shows just how impressive a songwriter Neil Young truly was. Take a listen below to all four of the songs and get ready for the fever four.