Crazy Horse (Reprise ’71) Rating: A-
One of the great lost albums of the ‘70s, this debut album by Neil Young’s backing band should greatly appeal to anyone who likes Neil’s early ‘70s albums. “Gone Dead Train” immediately sets the pace with a loose, chugging groove and the band’s ragged but right harmonies, while “Dance, Dance, Dance” is an even catchier, fiddle-led sing along. “Look At All The Things” exemplifies the album’s hauntingly moody quality, while the band then gets gritty on the intense “Beggars Day” (later notably covered by Nazareth). I personally think that the band’s beautifully affecting version of “I Don’t Want To Talk About It” blows away Rod Stewart’s later hit version (itself pretty good), and “Downtown” provides another sing along that’s so catchy that it’s easy to forget about its deadly serious subject matter (ominously, it’s about scoring drugs). “Carolay” is another melodic if less memorable composition with a singable chorus, and though the band falters in the songwriting department on “Dirty, Dirty,” the song is still worth hearing for guest Ry Cooder’s stinging slide guitar playing. “Nobody” is another excellent, funky little rocker with intensity aplenty, and “I’ll Get By” delivers an optimistic message with another timeless melody. Most of these succinct songs are driven by dual guitars, the band's forceful rhythm section, and tasteful piano support from co-producer Jack Nitzsche (who also wrote or co-wrote three songs and unfortunately sings the countryish “Crow Jane Lady,” which still has its moments). Neil Young also supplied the band with two songs ("Dance, Dance, Dance" and "Downtown," the latter a co-write that later appeared on his own Tonight's The Night) and Nils Lofgren, who contributed two songs ("Beggars Day" and "Nobody") and a strong second guitarist, while Ry Cooder provides slide guitar support on three songs. Thanks for all the help, guys, but the true star here is Danny Whitten, who wrote or co-wrote five songs, played lead guitar, and sang most of the songs. Although not a technically “good” singer, Whitten had a ragged vulnerability to his twangy voice that greatly moves me. Unfortunately, his voice would forever be silenced a year later as a result of a heroin overdose. The band continued without him with dramatically reduced results, and in 1975 Frank Sampedro permanently replaced Whitten’s guitar and they again asserted themselves as one of rock’s all-time great backing bands. However, Whitten’s uniquely sad voice and strong songwriting skills were never replaced. Had he lived, Crazy Horse might be remembered as a great band rather than a great backing band.