Neil Young‘s performance at the BBC on February 23, 1971, has become a somewhat iconic one. The in-studio show is a stripped-back session by the Canadian singer-songwriter, where he plays the guitar, harmonica and piano. It features many of what he describes as “new songs”, a collection of ‘Heart of Gold’, ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ and ‘Old Man’. These would go on to feature on his classic album, 1972 effort Harvest.
It is the nature of this performance as a preview that has led to it going down as a key moment in Young’s history. The album, Harvest, went on to become one of the Godfather of Grunge’s most beloved long players.
It features the London Symphony orchestra on two tracks: ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ and ‘There’s a World’. Adding to this, it featured noted guests David Crosby, Graham Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Stephen Stills and James Taylor. This added to the sonic allure of the album.
For two weeks, it topped the Billboard 200 album chart and spawned two hit singles. ‘Old Man’ peaked at number 31 on the Billboard Hot 100, and ‘Heart of Gold’ reached number one. Upon release, it became the best selling album of 1972 in the United States.
The album’s success caught Young off guard, and his first reaction was to pull away from stardom. He would later write that the record “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.”
According to a note posted on Young’s official website in 2019, much of Harvest “was written about or for Carrie Snodgress, a wonderful actress and person and Zeke Young’s mother.”
Showing the autobiographical nature of the “new songs”, ‘Old Man‘ has an iconic backstory, attributed in part to this 1971 performance. It was written for the caretaker of Broken Arrow Ranch, the Northern California property Young purchased for $350,000 in 1970.
‘Old Man’ compares a young man’s life to that of an elderly man’s and outlines the fact that the young man and old man have a similar degree of needs, highlighting that it is mainly age that separates them. When thought about properly, this topic is highly pertinent.
On the track, James Taylor sang and played a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar, with Linda Ronstadt also contributing backing vocals. In the 2006 documentary, Heart of Gold, Young describes the song: “About that time when I wrote (‘Heart of Gold’), and I was touring, I had also—just, you know, being a rich hippie for the first time—I had purchased a ranch, and I still live there today. And there was a couple living on it that were the caretakers, an old gentleman named Louis Avila and his wife Clara. And there was this old blue Jeep there, and Louis took me for a ride in this blue Jeep. He gets me up there on the top side of the place, and there’s this lake up there that fed all the pastures, and he says, ‘Well, tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?’ And I said, ‘Well, just lucky, Louis, just real lucky.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s the darnedest thing I ever heard.’ And I wrote this song for him.”
During the BBC performance, Young recounts the tale, in which he describes the real owners of the property as “two lawyers”. This backstory adds to the tangible nature of the lyrics which make the song a classic.
Watch the captivating footage of Young performing ‘Old Man’ at the BBC below.