Neil Young isn’t just a gifted lyricist; the singer is also one of the finest vocalists the rock world has ever witnessed, even if it is a little divisive. During the heady days of the 1960s, the plethora of singer-songwriter talent was there for all to see. Led by Bob Dylan, an army of songwriters began taking the stage ready to deliver their rock and roll songs, but while the freewheelin’ troubadour excelled as a writer, his singing voice left a little to be desired. Not so for Neil Young.
Young’s vocals have always set themselves, and in turn, Young himself, apart from the rest of the rock alumni. From Buffalo Springfield through to his Fireside Sessions, Young has a unique tone that has transcended the genre and made Young a hero despite being a touch on the nasal side. He wasn’t just a fascinating songwriter and esteemed performer but a wonderfully gifted singer too. One moment in which we see all these facets of fame combine is on the isolated track for Young’s song, ‘Heart of Gold’.
If one song sealed Neil Young’s transformation from counter-culture stalwart to a new rock and roll poster boy, then it has to be ‘Heart of Gold’. Another brilliant song from the Harvest album, which could have easily dominated this list, sees Young transcend rock and roll and turn pop, if only for a short while.
Featuring backing vocals from none other than James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, the song shot Young into stardom and was later despised by the songwriter. It’s a song that, ironically, Bob Dylan saw as purposely copying him: “The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was ‘Heart of Gold’,” he once commented.
“I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to ‘Heart of Gold.’ I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me’.”
In truth, artists had been biting on Dylan’s style for some time, and there’s no denying certain similarities in this song. It’s a sentiment Young was dutiful enough to share in his famous 1977 liner notes for the compilation album Decade, saying: “This song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there.”
To ignore how important this song is to Young’s iconography is to ignore one of his most cherished songs. Perhaps its finest performance came in 1971 when Young visited the BBC for a round of impressive renditions of his growing catalogue. It’s a sacred show that will live long in the memory of those who witnessed it but it has also provided us with the opportunity to hear Young’s vocals in a whole new way.
While it is not exactly the cleanest isolation of Young’s vocals, it does provide us a moment to not only revel in his singing voice but let the lyrics he’s singing land more significantly than, perhaps, ever before.
Listen below to Neil Young’s isolated vocals for his song ‘Heart of Gold’ from 1971.