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Neil Young reveals the secret to making a hit record

Neil Young is blessed with a rare skill set that makes every musician worth their salt gaze in awe at his jaw-dropping talent. He has a transcendent way with words that can illuminate even the coldest hearts, dimming the line between poetry and music. However, judging by his sage words on hit records, Young would disagree with that statement and, in turn, would argue that his success doesn’t rest solely on his own shoulders.

Whether he likes it or not, Young’s artistry is inexhaustible, and music is the food that he forages off to survive. Ever since his days as a dream-chasing troubadour, which took him to Toronto as a teenager, Young’s thirst to create has never grown old, even though his body has done. His prolific output speaks volumes about the integral part that music plays in his life, and he still gets tetchy if he sits still for too long. The innate thrill Young receives from the joy of entering a studio with a head full of ideas, transporting these thoughts into delectable gems crammed full of beauty, will never stop making his brain vibrate.

Authenticity is at the heart of everything Young produces, and it gifts his records with a level of intimacy some of his contemporaries have struggled to achieve. While, of course, some of his projects are received more warmly than others, but they all remain reflective of the version of Shakey that entered the studio during that emotionally charged period.

Hit records are an entity that Young understands the intricacies to on a superior level that we, mere mortals, will never quite comprehend. There are no question marks regarding Young mesmeric songwriting, but he believes there’s substantially more than meets the eye that makes his music strike a deep chord with his millions of fans.

Speaking to Musicians Hall of Fame in 2005, Young discussed how arrangers are the unsung heroes of the music industry, artists able to add the subtle but crucial details to a new creation. Shakey is insistent that they don’t receive the plaudits they deserve, and without them, hit records don’t come to fruition.

“I don’t know how you’re approaching arrangers,” an inquisitive Young says to the interviewer. “They seem to get left out in both fields. They are musicians. Not only are they musicians, but they are master musicians. They are organising musicians and helping them work as a giant unit.

“Guys like Jack Nitzsche and people like that are geniuses. They need to be recognised,” Young pleads. Shakey then adds how Nitzsche helped create the “soul of the Phil Spector sound” yet doesn’t get the righteous plaudits for his groundbreaking work.

Young then delved into further detail about the many elements that need to combine to shape a great song. He added: “Songs are the vehicle, the musicians are the ones driving it, and going into the curve the right way. They’re flooring it at the right time, but the song is the vehicle. Things all go together.”

Adding: “The problem is songwriters have been recognised. Bob Dylan is a wonderful songwriter and an irreplaceable part of American music. There’s people like that, and they are recognised, and everything.”

He continued: “But by the same token, on those great records that Bob Dylan made in the ’60s, Al Kooper had a lot to do with that sound on the organ, and those little riffs that were on the organ, The Band, and (Mike) Bloomfield. Those guys gave it the sound of 4th Street, and they gave it that. It wasn’t just Bob.”

These comments are a clear indictment of how Neil Young approaches music and his team-playing instincts. He doesn’t view himself as a genius who can work alone. Instead, Young believes he is a vital cog, but one that can only work if the machinery around him is requisite. Don Grungio understands that although it says Neil Young on the album sleeve, that record doesn’t exist if it wasn’t for assistance from the countless names who played their part in its creation, from the engineers right through to the session musicians.

Hit records are creations that come from hours of collaboration and experimentation with like-minded souls. They’re not something that you can pluck from thin air, and there are plenty of unsung heroes like Nitzsche that played an indispensable role in forging records that sit pride of place in all of our treasured collections.