Friday, November 19, 2021

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Ranch Romances (1976)


Neil Young released his seventh studio album, Zuma, in November 1975 through Reprise Records. It was the first of his to be co-credited to Crazy Horse since 1969, a six-year-long absence caused mostly due to the premature death of guitarist Danny Whitten in 1972. The rhythm section of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina never ceased recording with Young, however, making significant contributions to most of Young's records during the 1973/74 period, even serving as the bass/drums duo for the Santa Monica Flyers. By November 1974, the idea of a version of Crazy Horse without Whitten became a possibility, when he was introduced to Talbot's friend and guitarist Frank Sanpedro. After recording a single song together, the foursome decided to try again sometime in the future, and so they did at a rented house in Point Dume, California in May 1975. From these sessions came what became the Zuma album, with Young stepping away from the darkness of the Ditch period into something different, more fun and upbeat, but still with an edge. If Neil had changed, so had the Horse, as they no longer sounded like the Whitten-led group of 1969 and 1970 in the slightest. Sanpedro's style of playing was considerably different to Danny's, and in Frank's own words, Neil had to "dumb down" many of the songs for him to play them properly. This lead to a very heavy and distorted sound, which would end up becoming the trademark of this new Crazy Horse, which lasted a good 40 years.

With the rebirth of the backing band he so dearly loved and going through one of the most prolific phases of his entire career, Neil and the Horse went on the road in Dec. 1975, touring anonymously in random California bars, and also spent a lot of time at his studio at his home at Broken Arrow Ranch, recording new songs for future use. A mere two months after the Point Dume sessions were done, the group was already back in the studio recording more material, as fast as NY could write it. It was in this atmosphere that the concept of an album called Ranch Romances was born. First as a working title for a future Young album, which would feature all of the songs the Horse had been recording on and off at the Ranch in between late 1975 and early 1976. This concept didn't go as far into the planning stages as something like Oh Lonesome Me or Last Dance did, though, as no final tracklist was ever agreed upon, and we only have a pretty vague idea of what it was. But, Neil being Neil, he did as he always does and abruptly decided to do something else, this time recording an album with former Buffalo Springfield bandmate Stephen Stills and going on tour with him. The band only heard of this way later, and were confused as NY had promised them they'd tour in the summer of '76 after their album came out, which was shelved in favour of the Stills-Young project. Neil would later regret this decision, but for now, the damage was done, and the Ranch Romances album was left unfinished.

So, what we're going to tackle today is: what if Neil and the Horse had released a follow-up to Zuma? And to answer that question, some rules have to be put forth first. First of all, everything in this reconstruction has to have been recorded at Broken Arrow Ranch, as per the name of the album, during the September 1975 to January 1976 period, with one main exception to be explained later, as well as one song which wasn't recorded but is from the same batch of songs and only was performed live. Neil wasn't the type to follow recording sessions and album concepts too literally, so we have a lot of leeway when considering what to include on the album and what not to. The fact that he never specified what the Ranch Romances concept meant certainly helps as well. Thanks, Neil! To mirror Zuma even further, we'll be aiming at replicating its roughly nine-song, 40-minute format, adjusting our material to fit it. Most of the songs should and will feature CH, obviously, but up to two solo acoustic Neil songs are allowed as well, as was the case with "Pardon My Heart" and "Through My Sails" on Zuma. All songs will be sourced from official releases and will be studio recordings, with the main exception of the aforementioned "Country Home", which will come from a Timeline Gig release by Neil, which was released exclusively on his web archives, and is the highest quality we have. Without any further ado, let's have a look at what this hypothetical Ranch Romance could have looked like:

Country Home (Live in Boulder, 1976)
Lotta Love (Archives Vol. 2)
Like a Hurricane (Archives Vol. 2)
Too Far Gone (Archives Vol. 2)
-
Pocahontas (Archives Vol. 2)
No One Seems to Know (Archives Vol. 2)
Let it Shine (Archives Vol. 2)
Sedan Delivery (Chrome Dreams)
Look Out for My Love (Archives Vol. 2)


Molina, Talbot, Sanpedro, and Young in late 1975

Throughout this period of September 1975 through January 1976, Neil and the Horse recorded eight songs at Broken Arrow Ranch's studio, and debuted one more during their December 1975 Bar Tour. That September, they recorded the electric version of "Pocahontas", the solo "No One Seems to Know" and the famous take of "Too Far Gone" with Poncho on mandolin. In November, time was devoted for remakes of "White Line" and "Homegrown", both from the then-unreleased Homegrown album, as well as one of Neil's greatest ever songs, "Like a Hurricane". During the month, "Country Home" was also rehearsed with the band, and even debuted live at the Boots and Saddles Bar in La Honda on the 7th of December, but was not recorded properly in the studio until 1990, when it became part of Ragged Glory. Why that is is frankly a mystery to me, as it's easily one of his greatest songs, and remained the opening song of their electric set throughout 1976. After the Bar Tour in January, and right before Young went to Miami to record with Stephen Stills in early February, he and CH recorded the final two songs from the sessions, "Lotta Love" and "Look Out for My Love", which serve as mellower and more acoustic counterparts to the rest of the album's material. With almost a whole album's worth of material recorded entirely at Broken Arrow Ranch and most of those songs' lyrics being about falling in of love, you can see why he considered Ranch Romances a good album title.

However, we won't be able to simply package those nine songs together and call it a day for continuity reasons: "White Line" and "Homegrown" belong in the Homegrown album, and including them here would make our whole timeline go out of whack. So, we will need to replace them with something, and for that, we first look at a song from the Point Dume sessions: "Sedan Delivery". Considering a take of it was included in Chrome Dreams in early 1977, we can tell he considered it to be release-worthy and good enough for an album, and he might as well have released it on this one. From Neil's Feb. 1976 sessions with Stills, "Let it Shine" is the most Horse-like, and since they played it live with no changes to arrangement, you can almost pretend it's them. And so we will, making it the only song not from our stipulated timeframe. And since we don't have a 1975 "Country Home", a live version from a November 1976 Timeline Gig from Boulder, Colorado will have to do instead. It's pretty good, and the fact that it was officially released means it's one of the few release-quality versions of it we have. As for the album's sequencing, half of it was taken from their setlists ("Country Home" as the opener, "Lotta Love" and "Hurricane" following each other), and the other is taken from Chrome Dreams ("Like a Hurricane" followed by "Too Far Gone", "Look Out for My Love" as the album closer, "Pocahontas" as a side opener, and so forth), making the album as cohesive as possible by combining them. And I think we have managed to create a record that flows pretty well and works as a piece.

With two sides that clock in at precisely twenty minutes, Ranch Romances is the mellower part two to Zuma, exchanging the former's more agressive and sometimes even resentful tone for a more laid back, relaxed and even sometimes acoustic sound, which is not without its exceptions, of course, as the album has its fair share of rocking songs. As far as the songs go, Neil was at his absolute peak during this time period, and it clearly shows when we examine this reconstruction track by track. This record stands up pretty well next to Zuma, equalling it or even surpassing it in individual quality, only maybe losing in cohesion and feel. To reinforce this album's connection with what was supposed to be its predecessor, we use another drawing by Mazzeo, the same man who made the Zuma cover, but color inverted to be white on black instead of black on white. A little bit of conceptual continuity never hurts! As for its commercial performance, I could actually see it doing pretty well, if only for the fact that "Lotta Love" is on this record. That song is probably one of the simplest, catchiest things Neil ever wrote, and had it been released as a single, it could have been a pretty big hit for him at a time where he needed it most. It's a shame the Horse couldn't carry on its improbable rebirth and triumphant return before Neil, as he often does, got sidetracked and decided to do something else. But it's good that he saw this decision was a mistake and that he should be playing with Crazy Horse, changing his mind, going back to the band, and telling Stills to go eat a peach.

Sources:
Neil Young - Archives Vol. 2
Neil Young - Chrome Dreams
Neil Young - Timeline Series: Live in Boulder, Colorado 1976

2 comments:

  1. Thank you very much for this one. Very interesting reconstuction indeed. Mostly appreciated.
    Keep on rocking in 2022

    ReplyDelete