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Revisiting 'Zuma', Neil Young's underrated grunge masterpiece

Zuma, the 1975 album by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, is one of the best in all of Neil Young’s back catalogue. Across its 36 minute duration, there’s never a down point and is subsequently one of, if not the most complete record he ever released. 

While the purists would say that the crown belongs to HarvestJourney Through the Past, or After the Gold RushZuma certainly makes a good claim. It has always been a contentious point though, as all of Young‘s output from 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere up until Zuma was stellar.

Not known for being the most optimistic or upbeat songwriter, particularly during this legendary period, Zuma also makes a strong claim for being one of Young’s most depressing and emotionally bleak. It’s heartfelt and sorrowful, and the sad, blues-inspired guitar licks on the record are an embodiment of this. 

Across the time of recording from summer 1974 to summer 1975, Young was at one of the most depressing points he’d ever been. The story is a tragic and well-known one. Crazy Horse guitarist and bandmate Danny Whitten passed away owing to an alcohol/diazepam overdose in 1972, which affected Young and the rest of the band greatly. It had such an earth-shattering effect that it led to the hiatus of Crazy Horse.

Of Whitten’s death, Young told Rolling Stone‘s Cameron Crowe in 1975: “(We) were rehearsing with him and he just couldn’t cut it. He couldn’t remember anything. He was too out of it. Too far gone. I had to tell him to go back to LA. ‘It’s not happening, man. You’re not together enough.’ He just said, ‘I’ve got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends?’ And he split. That night, the coroner called me from LA and told me he’d O.D.’d. That blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible. And from there, I had to go right out on this huge tour of huge arenas. I was very nervous and… insecure.”

After Whitten’s death, Young released the eminent but incredibly dark ‘Ditch Trilogy’ without Crazy Horse. The albums that make up the trio are Time Fades AwayOn the Beach and Tonight’s the Night, all incredible in their own right. In 1975, Young decided it was time for Crazy Horse to reform, and brought in Frank Sampedro on guitar. This decision was to be momentous. 

Bringing Sampedro into the fold meant that Crazy Horse developed their hard-rock sound, moving on from the free-form approach of the Whitten era. This became a huge influence on the development of grunge and noise rock in the future and helped to augment Young’s lead playing. Arguably, Zuma was where Young truly started his path to becoming ‘The Godfather of Grunge’, and his playing on the record is on a different level.

Every song on the album is incredible. The opener, ‘Don’t’ Cry No Tears’, is an introspective piece that can be taken as a deep dive into Young’s feelings following his split from his girlfriend – and mother of his son Zeke – Carrie Snodgress. A portion of the lyrics read: “Well, I wonder, who’s with her tonight? / And I wonder, who’s holding her tight?”.

Track two, ‘Danger Bird’, is one of the album’s highlights, and one of Young’s best ever. Written in a minor key, it is ostensibly about the break up of Young and Snodgress’s relationship. Inspired by Snodgress’ infidelities, backed by brooding and atmospheric music, the following lyric is heartbreaking: “‘Cause you’ve been with another man / There you are and here I am”. 

Even Lou Reed was a massive fan of ‘Danger Bird’, which ultimately says all it should in terms of public perception. He considered it to be the best he’d ever heard, plainly stating: “It makes me cry, it is the best I have heard in my life. The guy is a spectacular guitarist, those melodies are so marvellous, so calculated, constructed note to note… he must have killed to get those notes. It puts my hairs on end”.

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Then there’s the album’s highlight, ‘Cortez the Killer’. The separate side of the same coin to ‘Danger Bird’, musically it is very similar, in its dark atmosphere and tonality. Featuring one of Young’s most iconic solos and set of lyrics, it and ‘Danger Bird’ have also been taken as harking back to Young and Crazy Horse’s style on early songs such as ‘Down by the River’, with their long, distortion driven guitar passages. 

‘Cortez the Killer’ ultimately defines proto-grunge. On the song, you can really hear where the genre – and noise-rock – took many of their cues. There are many parallels that can be drawn with it and many Sonic Youth tracks such as ‘Pink Steam’. Lyrically, the song concerns itself with retelling the Spanish conquest of Mexico, but repositions it as an allegory of love lost.

All nine tracks show every side to Neil Young. Track three, ‘Pardon My Heart’, is another very introspective take on the end of his relationship, as he sings: “And the love isn’t flowing / The way it could have been / You brought it all on / Oh, but it feels so wrong”. ‘Looking for a Love’ is a melodic anthem, and you can really hear flecks of the stirring sound that Teenage Fanclub would perfect in the 1990s.  

‘Drive Back’, it has to be said, is also an underrated moment in Neil Young’s back catalogue. Slow, grooving and sinister, we’re handed some classic Young licks. It preceded the sort of romantically augmented desert rock that Queens of the Stone Age became characterised by towards the end of the 2000s. Young’s use of pinched harmonics during the song reflects his status as the ultimate guitar hero of alternative rock. 

A classic album, Zuma is one of the most enjoyable and consistent Young ever released. As thrilling today as it was back then, all the emotions he and Crazy Horse channelled into it, give it a tangible essence, something we can all understand through our own lived experiences. Like love itself, it is tempestuous, calm, heartfelt and angry, and on it, we really got a clear reflection of the man behind the opaque Neil Young mythos.

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