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When Geffen sued Neil Young for not being "commercial"

Neil Young has always been a firm believer in doing things his way and his way only. It may seem difficult or troublesome, but his artistic rigidity derives from his passionate pursuit of creative integrity. The now-legendary rocker became one of the all-time great artists by operating in his own unconventional lane, never backing down to follow instructions by somebody in a suit.

Young, entirely in charge of his own destiny, has ensured that any decision made in his career has been one that he ardently believes in and would still defend to this day. He doesn’t worry greatly about the potential ramifications of the messages in his music; he creates anything he desires and then lets the universe decipher the rest.

In truth, Young’s method makes him an unusual fit for a major label record contract. His non-conforming style would aggravate the big bosses at Geffen Records to such a mammoth degree that on December 1st 1983, they astonishingly opened a lawsuit against the artist.

The record label was furious with Young because they believed the records he was producing were “unrepresentative” and “uncharacteristic” from the artist that they had signed a lucrative contract with. At the time, the musician had only signed with Geffen a year earlier in 1982, a period when he decided to seek pastures new after spending over a decade on former label Reprise. Despite his last couple of records failing to land commercially or critically, failure wasn’t the sole reason for swapping labels — although Geffen had that assumption.

In fact, his first full album on Geffen was 1982 effort Trans, a project which charted at number 19 in the States and secured a higher position than his previous two releases, giving him ample room to push his creative buttons on the next record. The album was a far cry from what fans had come to expect from a Neil Young album and, on the Kraftwerk inspired Trans, he experimented with new technology and introduced synthesisers that put his music through a whole new chasm.

Young would later explain the deeper meaning behind the confusing record to Mojo in 1995, detailing why Trans was more than the sound of him experimenting for the sake of it. “My son is severely handicapped, and at that time was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people,” Young defiantly stated. “That’s what Trans is all about. And that’s why, on that record, you know I’m saying something, but you can’t understand what it is. Well, that’s the exact same feeling I was getting from my son.”

Despite his efforts, Geffen remained unhappy with what they perceived as being a self-indulgent release and, with concern running through the head office, urged the musician to return to ‘classic Neil Young’ for the next release. Taking on their feedback, singer-songwriter offered the executives a country album, one which he had recorded the previous winter. However, that was swiftly rejected by the bosses who wanted to hear a thundering rock ‘n’ roll record — but Young would have other ideas.

If you force Neil Young into a corner and tell him to do something in a certain style, chances are he’s going to make you mince your words and Geffen learned the hard way. Rather than make Harvest 2.0, Young decided to go rockabilly in a defiant response to the label demands. “They told me they wanted me to play rock ‘n’ roll and told me I didn’t sound like Neil Young,” the singer recalled to the LA Times. “So I gave them Everybody’s Rockin’ and said, ‘This is a rock ‘n’ roll album by Neil Young after someone tells him what to do; this is exactly what you said you wanted.’ And we got way into it.”

Young was all too aware that there would be a backlash to the record, stating years later: “When I made albums like Everybody’s Rockin’ and everyone takes the shit out of ’em. I knew they could do that. What am I? Stupid? Did people really think I put that out, thinking it was the greatest fuckin’ thing I’d ever recorded? Obviously, I’m aware it’s not. Plus it was a way of further destroying what I’d already set up.”

Everybody’s Rockin’ failed to crack the top 40 in the Billboard Chart, and Geffen were left dumbstruck at the artist that they had signed. Rather than stand by one of the greatest songwriter’s of the previous decade, they instead hung him out to dry.

On December 1st, 1983, Geffen Records entered into completely uncharted territory when they took legal action against Young for not releasing music that was commercially viable. In a rock and roll showdown, their efforts were met by bemusement from the singer who filed a $21million countersuit that pointed to his contract stating that he has complete creative freedom. The suit monumentally backfired against Geffen, with label owner David Geffen then taking it into his own hands to personally apologise to Young for the inconvenience. Young, somewhat remarkably, would go on to release two more records on the label before returning to his spiritual home of Reprise.

Take a few moments to revisit Young’s forgettable rockabilly phase, below.