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Music

Remembering the first paid gig Neil Young ever played

Neil Young is one of the most eminent living musicians. Known as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, he’s influenced everybody from Nirvana to Oasis, and the way he placed emotion at the heart of his guitar-playing during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was groundbreaking.

Hailing from the same artistic standpoint as B.B. King and Peter Green, his wailing guitar found a place in the hearts of Generation X’s budding guitarists, and after they adopted it, it became the ubiquitous guitar style in contemporary music, a testament to Young’s legacy. 

His rise was meteoric, and he’s been a superstar for 50 odd years, but like the man himself, his beginnings were humble. On February 1st, 1963, as a 17-year-old aspiring musician, he went directly from the garage to the stage, and played his first professional gig at a small country club in Winnipeg, Canada, as part of his first stable group, The Squires. 

Young had started his long road to the stage in the late ‘50s when he began learning chords on a ukulele that his father gifted him. He then played in his high school band, The Jades which soon developed into The Squires. After that first gig in 1963, The Squires would become local celebrities, and played across venues in Winnipeg and Manitoba for three years, even scoring a local hit with their track ‘The Sultan’.  

The success of Young’s early career would stand him in good stead for the rest of his career. Famously, he dropped out of school to work in the folk club scene, and it was here that he first met another future icon, Joni Mitchell, and their paths would cross on numerous occasions over the years.

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During this period, he’d score a handful of minor hits, such as ‘Sugar Mountain’ and the local band, The Guess Who, took his song ‘Flying on the Ground Is Wrong’ into the Canadian Top 40. The hit that The Guess Who scored was an indicator that Young could find more success, he just had to keep at it. 

As of 1966, Young played in the short-lived outfit The Mynah Birds, which featured a then-unknown Rick James. Before too long, they disbanded, and Young and the bass player of The Mynah Birds, Bruce Palmer decided to make the long, Dumb and Dumber-esque trip to Los Angeles.

Here they met Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Dewey Martin, and they formed Buffalo Springfield. Their eponymous debut album was released in December 1966, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Young would then go on to work with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and then find an astounding level of success as a solo artist, often backed by Crazy Horse. It’s been a long road to where he is now, wielding the power to bring Spotify to its knees, and it’s a genuinely mind-blowing fact that it all started in a small country club in Canada. It is safe to say that if that gig had been unsuccessful, this piece may not have been written. 

Listen to The Squires ‘The Sultan’ below.