The disastrous moment Bono tried to give Neil Young songwriting advice
Neil Young’s songwriting prowess is unparalleled; Old Shakey can make listeners feel every emotion under the sun within one song. He is a modern-day poet with rock ‘n’ roll DNA that, when put together, creates a match made in heaven. Surely nobody in the world would have the temerity to offer advice for a talent like Young? Somehow, Bono did decide to so, and the result was as disastrous as one would have expected.
Hardly any artists have been as prolific as Neil Young during their career. Never deterred by workload or expectation, Young has always been his own master and has made sure that everything he has done has been an accurate reflection of him. Whether that’s being involved with Farm Aid from the beginning or pouring his spare time into raising funds for The Bridge School, it’s impossible not to listen to Neil Young and not immediately feel more zestful about life.
“I don’t like to be labelled, to be anything. I’ve made the mistake before myself of labelling my music, but it’s counter-productive,” Young once said in a quote which typifies his approach to music. “The thing about my music is, there really is no point,” he added, nonchalantly. “I just do what I do. I like to make music.”
Young doesn’t overthink his music, and this gives everything he touches a visceral feel that ensures he leaves a part of him in every single thing he creates. Therefore, when the ever bothersome Bono couldn’t resist trying to offer up some words of wisdom to Young, it ended badly.
Old Shakey opened up about the incident during an interview with Howard Stern back in 2014. The legendary radio host asked if anyone had ever had the audacity to come to him telling him to try something a little different in order to make one of his songs a bigger hit. Young replied: “Yeah, someone said that to me.” Stern then probed Young about who the musician in question was to which Young replied, “Bono”.
“I was doing Greendale,” Young explained. “And I’d sung all the songs on Greendale he commented that they just needed to have hooks that went over and over again and more people could hear ’em.” The radio host then asked Young what his reply to the U2 frontman was and the singer said, “nothing”.
Whilst Greendale wasn’t Young’s highest-selling record of his career, it was never bidding to ever be a commercial success, and it was the songwriter flexing his storytelling muscles. Greendale wasn’t about big hooks to be sung in full-volume at stadiums across the world, it’s a nuanced and complex exploration of a fictional small town in America that is the polar opposite of an accessible radio-friendly record.
Seemingly this intervention from Bono has irked Neil Young ever since and quite rightly, too. Old Shakey proved this during a Twitter Q&A when he made a dismissive comment about the U2 singer after a fan asked what his opinion was of the band Foster The People. Young was asked: “What do you like about foster the people? Bono said he likes them, too… it is surprising two superstars like them.” Young replied, cuttingly: “Who is Bono?”.
That brutal comment whilst in jest does show that Young is a character that you don’t want to get on the wrong side of as Bono can now attest. The U2 frontman almost certainly came from a good place when he tried to offer Young some advice that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t ill-placed to tell the man who has penned albums like Harvest and Rust Never Sleeps words of songwriting wisdom. On top of that, this was during the harrowing ‘Beautiful Day’ and ‘Vertigo’ era of U2, which is a far cry from Neil Young’s wheelhouse.