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Music

Why Crosby, Stills & Nash were better off without Neil Young

It’s no wonder that Graham Nash abandoned England when he recognised the potential his efforts with David Crosby and Stephen Stills created. At that point in his career, Nash was a member of The Hollies, fleshing out some of Graham Gouldman’s lo-fi efforts into something grander and more polished. Stills was a member of Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby was a mainstay of The Byrds, outfits that were heavily focused on the harmonies in question, signalling a change from hard rock to more sophisticated folk-rock. It was the confluence of influences – English blues, Nashville jazz and psychedelic rock – that made their first album such a strong combination of styles.

Although the band would later team up with keyboardist Neil Young, it was their original debut, Crosby, Stills & Nash, that stood out as the group’s out-and-out masterpiece. The trio immersed themselves in the landscape, sculpting whole elegies in response to the desert plains and historical monuments that awaited them. The finished result was an album of dizzying ambition, foible, failing, extravagance and lush grandeur, culminating in an album that was sure of its place in the canon of 1960s rock.

The album opens up ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’, one of Stills’ more inventive works, a composition that was written in close conjunction with Judy Collins. “[Stephen] came to where I was singing one night on the West Coast and brought his guitar to the hotel,” she recalled, “and he sang me ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,’ the whole song. And of course, it has lines in it that referred to my therapy. And so he wove that all together in this magnificent creation. So the legacy of our relationship is certainly in that song.” Then there’s ‘Marrakesh Express’, written as a response to Nash’s trip from Casablanca to Morocco.

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The tune proved to be a strong overview of the composer’s standing as a guitar player in search of a destination. Then there was ‘Guinevere’, steeped in the mythos of the world at large, creating an overview of the Arthurian legend. Crosby had an idiosyncratic nature to his personality that fed into his work as a songsmith. “I’m not a sailor so I wasn’t watching all the stuff that Crosby was watching,” recalled Nash. “I was left alone to think and to write and to fill my notebook with ideas. I’d never sailed before, and the next thing I knew we’re going past Cuba, through the Panama Canal and then up the West Coast. What a trip for your first trip!”

That was what made Crosby,Stills & Nash so influential, and enabled them to inspire musicians from genres as disparate as prog and reggae. Anyone with this level of diversity was always destined for greatness, but the band made the curious decision of adding a fourth member, just as they were beginning to harness their own sound.

With Young, the band had a superstar whose solo career overshadowed their efforts, both as a three-piece and a group. The frontman brought the band millions, but his legacy proved an albatross, as he could frequently demand that the group work to his schedule and not theirs.

The moody Young frequently absented himself from the recording sessions for Deja Vu, barely adding of note to the songs that were stockpiling in the canon of work, but availed himself of the other members, who were chipping into his work. When he inevitably left the orbit, it was to the detriment of Crosby, Stills & Nash, who were viewed as also-rans in the eyes of the grand public, rather than the tightly coiled powerhouse their debut had shown them to be.

And yet the album is powerful enough by itself to withstand the passing of time. The first album was recorded as a one-off, giving every man an out if he so chose to do so. The rich textures of harmonies, instrumentation and deep love for the American landscapes are as tangible in 2022 as it was when it was released. It’s not a document of a bygone era, but a fable that grows ever stronger with every passing year. The times change, the fashions change, but the structure of the album is as strong as ever.