Neil Young is one of the most well-respected musicians of all time. Without his pioneering steps in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll, alternative music as we know it today would not have come to fruition. The out and out ‘Godfather of Grunge’, Young’s detuned, amped-up guitar work paved the way for Sonic Youth, Nirvana and countless others.
He, like his contemporary Jimi Hendrix, saw the guitar for what it is, a piece of wood that can be used as a direct channel to the heart. Young was one of the first figures to popularise emotive, feeling driven playing, rather than placing technique at front and centre.
Young explained his guitar playing ethos in a 1992 interview with France’s Guitare et Clavier. When asked about those who are trained formally on the guitar, he said: “It would give you a rather sad view of your future, wouldn’t it? First off, nobody cares if you know how to play scales. Nobody gives a shit if you have good technique or not.”
Continuing, he explained: “It’s whether you have feelings that you want to express with music, that’s what counts, really. When you are able to express yourself and feel good, then you know why you’re playing.”
Young instils all of his work with his emotions. Whether it be the classic 1969 record Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, 1974’s On the Beach, or even 1992’s Harvest Moon, Young’s music has a palpable essence, something that resonates with all of us, even if we can’t quite figure out why. The topics he discusses are universal, augmented by his meandering guitar licks, he manages to tap into music’s key underlying feature, the human condition.
The interesting thing about Neil Young is that he doesn’t save this power for just his original songs, he also instils it into the numerous covers he has undertaken over the years. Whether it be a Gordon Lightfoot or Rolling Stones track, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the song covered is one of his originals, due to how good the redux is.
This is the true genius of Neil Young. Pretty much all of his work, original or covers, are captivating sonic mood boards that pull us in. Join us, then, as we list Neil Young’s five best covers of all time. This was no easy feat, but it shows just how versatile of a musician Neil Young really is.
Neil Young’s five best covers:
‘All Along The Watchtower’ – Bob Dylan / Jimi Hendrix
This is his best cover by a country mile. Taking the Bob Dylan original but paying keen attention to the Jimi Hendrix version, seeing Young play with Frank Sampedro and Booker T. & The MGs is a dazzling sight. Young’s delay drenched, overdriven guitar permeates the airwaves and dances around the organ solo. It elevates even Jimi Hendrix’s version to an entrancing level.
To have witnessed such a moment at 2002’s Rock Am Ring would have been the stuff of dreams. Young and band storm through the track, which they draw out into some cacophonous psychedelic freakout. I’d wager that Dylan and Hendrix would have loved it.
‘On The Road Again’ – Willie Nelson
This 2014 cover is fantastic. A take on Willie Nelson’s 1980 classic, Young strips the song down to an almost Delta blues style, giving it a traditional feel. Fuzzy, trebly, sounding as if it’s being played from an old transistor radio, the cover is also significant because it features another modern guitar hero.
That’s right, Jack White produced and played the guitar on this entry. Old fashioned and punchy, you could imagine Young fitting right in with the Delta bluesmen of all, spinning and yarn and then proceeding to deliver a good ol’ lament.
‘I Wonder If I Care As Much’ – The Everly Brothers
Another Jack White production, this cover appeals to the rudimentary rock ‘n’ roll that preceded Young’s generation. Southern, swooning and introspective, Young’s emotional guitar playing makes this one of the most heartfelt covers he’s ever undertaken.
He and White’s vocal harmonies give The Everly Brothers a run for their money and transport you right back to 1958. The brilliance of Young’s version should not be a shock, as Young is a rock ‘n’ roll purist at heart.
‘Imagine’ – John Lennon
I don’t think anyone could have thought that John Lennon’s classic 1971 masterpiece would ever be challenged for the crown of the definitive take; however, Young’s 2001 rendition at ‘America: A Tribute to Heroes’ is beautiful.
A real tearjerker, backed with some pathos infused strings, it’s a glistening ode to those lost in the tragedy of 9/11. It sends a chill down your spine, given Lennon’s iconic lyrics. In the end, when Young sings “And the world will live as long”, Lennon’s original intent is made clear. Humanity still has a long way to go.
‘When the Levee Breaks’ – Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie / Led Zeppelin
This is truly something special. The fact that Led Zeppelin and Neil Young joined forces is still mindblowing, even 26 years later. Undertaken as part of the celebrations for Young’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, watching Jimmy Page and Neil Young dovetail is like watching two rare birds in flight.
Interestingly, Page takes the rhythmic duties, leaving Young to solo to his heart’s content. He gives the song and raw edge, and his solo is incredible. Effects laden and heavy, this is perhaps the best version of the song out there. They even managed to throw in Buffalo Springfield’s classic ‘For What It’s Worth’ as well. Genius.