Neil Young's TRANS: An Underrated Masterpiece, or Justly Ignored?

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Conventional wisdom holds that Neil Young's Trans was a misstep. Mr. Rockin' Granddad tries to ape his friends in Devo (and show off his acquaintance with Kraftwerk and Human League), momentarily throws down his electric twanger, straps on a vocoder, and gets himself a synth. He then gets pilloried by the critics, and eventually sued by David Geffen, for making a record not sufficiently "Neil Young"-like.

As for me, I think that it's the best thing he did in the Eighties (much better than Freedom). By no means perfect -- coulda done without the dumb electro-remake of "Mr. Soul" -- but it has some pretty solid (and even touching) songs. Plus Hanle y also likes it, so that settles it!

Tadeusz Suchodolski, Friday, 26 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

An especial favorite is "Sample and Hold" -- lyrical conceit is kinda dopey (think of "Heart of Gold" applied to a cyber-dating service, though it does precede match.com by a good decade), but being a doofus is a default condition with Mr. Young so that's never a fatal flaw with any of his songs. But what I like is the really distorted, downright shitty sound he gets for his guitar intruding in the electro -- feed through the synthesizer, I imagine (Brian Eno and yer "snake guitar" had nothing on Neil, I think).

Overall, I get a kick out of the early-Eighties view of computers (and its view of how they will affect music and life). Charming in many ways, especially from a 20 years-after-the-fact hindsight view (the same way it's entertaining to watch Clockwork Orange and think about its view of what those in the early Seventies thought the future [which is today] would look like).

Oh yeah, I like "Like an Inca" -- mostly 'cause I'm a sucker for anything with an Inca theme.

Tadeusz Suchodolski, Friday, 26 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

Truth: Trans actually has a number of really good moments, including "Sample and Hold" and "Computer Age", moments that may seem baffling at first but which make a lot more sense given the reason for Young's wacky digital vocals (meant to represent attempts at communication with his disabled son).

Truth: Trans is the high point of his misadvantures on Geffen Records. If David G. thought the album was unrepresentative at the time, he hadn't heard anything yet.

Untruth: "much better than Freedom"...that's just plain perverse. ;)

Sean Carruthers, Friday, 26 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

A t first I thought " Oh he useda vocoder." Then the next song was all vocoder too. Then the next. Then I thought I really like this man. I ear he also made some weird experimental albumin the 80s. All electronical. He was somewhat Thurston Moore?

mike hanle y, Saturday, 27 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

Trans is my favorite Neil Young album, and I own every album Neil Young has ever released as well as dozens of bootlegs. So, I vote for "Underrated Masterpiece."

Search: the "Neil Young Live In Berlin" video/DVD for a great document of the Trans tour. Totally fucking crazy performance by old Neil, I can't recommend it highly enough.

clotion, Saturday, 27 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

I ear he also made some weird experimental albumin the 80s. All electronical.
I think Trans is the closest he came to ALL electronic, though Landing on Water certainly had an electronic aspect to parts of it. I remember really liking the song "Weight of the World", but apparently I was the only one.

Sean Carruthers, Saturday, 27 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

Underrated? - yes. Masterpiece? - no.

J Blount, Saturday, 27 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

"Computer Age" is really good, as is Sonic Youth's cover of it. Lots of the album sounds very sad. It's not great but it has personality.

Kris, Saturday, 27 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

anyone I know who has heard Trans speaks highly of it.

I haven't heard it.

DV, Saturday, 27 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=Aal6zef5khgf8

mike hanle y, Saturday, 27 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

Search: the "Neil Young Live In Berlin" video/DVD for a great document of the Trans tour. Totally fucking crazy performance by old Neil, I can't recommend it highly enough.
Saw it this christmas, its pretty good. Much Music used to play Computer Age as their video for the song.

Mr Noodles, Saturday, 27 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

Neil battles against technology in this album...he goes on a journey and rejects it all...as witnessed by last song "Like an Inca" where he is back to guitars and drums and no vocoder.

I prefer Zuma.

jel --, Saturday, 27 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

The latest interpretation of Trans (only vaguely hinted at by Neil) was that Neil was frustrated with attempts to communicate with his disabled son and Trans sort of came out of it.

Chris Barrus, Saturday, 27 April 2002 00:00 (seventeen years ago) link

one year passes...
"i've been trying to get to you,
just like an inca in peru"
?

bob snoom, Sunday, 22 June 2003 13:22 (sixteen years ago) link

An Inca in Peru would surely stand even less chance than Neil himself at communicating w/his disabled son; what a heartbreaking lyric.

Andrew Thames (Andrew Thames), Sunday, 22 June 2003 13:33 (sixteen years ago) link

underrated, but no masterpiece. im a big neil young fan, to me theres little better than seein the big man up there with Ol' Black under his arm.

Bob Shaw (Bob Shaw), Sunday, 22 June 2003 14:17 (sixteen years ago) link

Ridin Mort!

Andrew Thames (Andrew Thames), Sunday, 22 June 2003 14:23 (sixteen years ago) link

i just slung it on for a listen. "computer cowboy" that's good. his rhythm section are funereal

bob snoom, Sunday, 22 June 2003 16:22 (sixteen years ago) link

for more about Young's adventures with vocoders, Kraftwerk, etc, check out McDonough's Shakey. He gets into it in microscopic detail and Young talks directly about the connection with his son. Strange and moving stuff.

popeye, Sunday, 22 June 2003 17:31 (sixteen years ago) link

the shakey book is pretty much a must have for anyone wanting to learn about young. sure it can ramble, but depth-wise its unequalled, its not over-reverential (although the writer is clearly in love with his favorite young albums). good summer reading.

did anyone else see neil young solo on his european tour, with his new "greendale" material? i saw him twice, and it was very good. the second time especially, cos i was more familiar with the new material, theres some potentially good stuff on there, although i think some of it will work better when played with the band on the album (which is ralph and billy of crazy horse for the most part from what i hear, which is promising news). im gonna see him when im in the lazing around in the US next month too, at concord CA.

Bob Shaw (Bob Shaw), Sunday, 22 June 2003 17:38 (sixteen years ago) link

There are some good songs on Trans, but the beats are pretty weak when you compare it to Kraftwerk.

Some of these tracks if remixed by Drexicya (RIP), Two Lone Swordsmen, Adult. or someone similar could be quite good and could perhaps become somewhat popular. The songs themselves are better than most techno/electro pop song matierial.

Neil Young had some cajones to even make a record like this one, no wonder David Geffen thought he had flipped.

earlnash, Sunday, 22 June 2003 17:59 (sixteen years ago) link

six months pass...
"computer cowboy" has been my favourite track for the last three weeks -- i remember hearing tracks from Trans on the radio as a kid, but i just got the album the other day

while "sample and hold", "we R in control" and "computer age" seem like compotent if slightly boring yet tongue-in-cheek rock-disco "crossover" attempts,
"computer cowboy" is such a very well constructed song, with great noises as well as the vocoder, lyrics that could be applied to George W Bush (see also "we r in control"), and a nice momentum, build up of tension, and noise
(it seems playing the track may destroy speakers on some stereo systems, reminding me a bit of that "oomph" i'd have more likely expected of some throbbing gristle).

i wonder, could anyone recommend any contemporary "dance music" or "rock music" that is as well-constructed with respect to noise, 4-on-the-floor and those "oomph" dynamics ?

george gosset (gegoss), Friday, 26 December 2003 05:37 (fifteen years ago) link

I like Trans a lot, but Re Ac Tor is better.

Sean (Sean), Friday, 26 December 2003 05:41 (fifteen years ago) link

i like the stubborn element to "shots" and "t-bone" (which is also nicely absurd) -- don't like those pop song beginning each side so much though

I guess reactor is a better consistent rocker, but i wish he'd kept those synth bass noises onboard as part of his rock music sound, sounds that he used sparingly and appropriately (cf: typical synth-only music)

perhaps i should check out "Weight of the World", even if landing on water seemed very light-weight when i heard that (again years ago)

the heavy synth really adds something to the rock sound i think when as here it's added to the conventional rock'n'roll arsenal and not merely substituted for good bass playing (since said substitution often seems to translate to bad bass-paying, emulation)

please someone recommend some rock music that does that (ie real rythym section of bass and drums (not drum and bass machines) plus synth oomph)

george gosset (gegoss), Friday, 26 December 2003 05:59 (fifteen years ago) link

george gosset wrote: please someone recommend some rock music that does that...

I'd say try some Chrome and mid-period Six Finger Satellite (Severe Exposure especially).

Ernest P. (ernestp), Friday, 26 December 2003 18:04 (fifteen years ago) link

Has anyone seen the Trans Tour DVD/video? Not exactly Neil's finest hour...

Naive Teen Idol (Naive Teen Idol), Saturday, 27 December 2003 05:01 (fifteen years ago) link

You're insane. Neil is on fire throughout that concert. I suspect you couldn't see past the (admittedly horrible) lime green '80s clothing he's got on.

retort pouch (retort pouch), Saturday, 27 December 2003 08:16 (fifteen years ago) link

Or perhaps it was Nils Lofgren and his horrible headbands, I dunno...

Naive Teen Idol (Naive Teen Idol), Sunday, 28 December 2003 22:27 (fifteen years ago) link

I was hoping he'd just combine all of his 80s experimentations into one band... Neil And the Shocking Pink Transbluetones

donut bitch (donut), Sunday, 28 December 2003 22:31 (fifteen years ago) link

You'd be leaving out the CSNY revival.

Mr Noodles (Mr Noodles), Sunday, 28 December 2003 23:01 (fifteen years ago) link

two years pass...
"We R in Control" sounds like Kilroy was Here-era Styx, albeit with better chord changes and ugly guitar breaks.

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn (Alfred Soto), Wednesday, 14 June 2006 02:08 (thirteen years ago) link

'but it has some pretty solid (and even touching) songs. '

I like Little Thing Called Love, like a faster, happier version of 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart':

Only love puts a tear in your eye
Only love makes you hypnotiyized
Only love makes you choose
Only love brings you...the bloooz.


Carlos Keith (Buck_Wilde), Wednesday, 14 June 2006 10:13 (thirteen years ago) link

eleven months pass...
Thank you to my friend who told me about this album, I'm not that into Neil Young, but Transformer Man is so beautiful, it's really lovely melody getting strangled by the vocoder. *shudders*

I know, right?, Monday, 14 May 2007 16:06 (twelve years ago) link

"Sample and Hold" is the best thing on the record ... that album is brilliant songwriting mixed with a poignant concept (past, present future through the prism of his son). Makes me forgive the analog vocoder shit. I'm endlessly fascinated it.

Jiminy Krokus, Monday, 14 May 2007 16:31 (twelve years ago) link

the vocorder stuff is the best part! my biggest complaint w/trans is that he didn't go synth pop enough...i wish there weren't the bet hedging trad songs....but it's still a great record.

M@tt He1ges0n, Monday, 14 May 2007 16:35 (twelve years ago) link

I'll agree that it doesn't go far enough; some tracks are underwritten. "Like an Inca" should be the epic song of this period, the nearest rival to "Rockin' in the Free World" several years later, but it's not weird enough: it sounds like Thomas Dolby hired to put synth touches on a Santana number.

Alfred, Lord Sotosyn, Monday, 14 May 2007 16:37 (twelve years ago) link

It is Neil Young's best album.

The Real Dirty Vicar, Monday, 14 May 2007 16:58 (twelve years ago) link

i love it, but that's going a bit far

jaxon, Monday, 14 May 2007 17:29 (twelve years ago) link

Underrated, not a masterpiece.

M.V., Monday, 14 May 2007 17:34 (twelve years ago) link

Neil Young:Trans::Martin Scorsese:King of Comedy

sanskrit, Monday, 14 May 2007 18:13 (twelve years ago) link

i think i needed spaces in there, but you know what i meant

sanskrit, Monday, 14 May 2007 18:13 (twelve years ago) link

Charming in many ways, especially from a 20 years-after-the-fact hindsight view (the same way it's entertaining to watch Clockwork Orange and think about its view of what those in the early Seventies thought the future [which is today] would look like).

Wait a minute! Today is the future? Then what the hell is tomorrow?

Tinky-Winky, Monday, 14 May 2007 18:54 (twelve years ago) link

This is a good album with some great songs but I actually like Everybody's Rockin more. Wonderin' is such a beautiful song and it has a beautiful video.

filthy dylan, Monday, 14 May 2007 18:59 (twelve years ago) link

It sounds like its from some really good 80's cartoon video. Like one of those weird ones you'd get on old VHS bunged in with My Little Pony.

I know, right?, Monday, 14 May 2007 19:10 (twelve years ago) link

two years pass...

Listening for the first time - this is a very timely album.

I am using your worlds, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 19:32 (ten years ago) link

this album's great! kinda marred by the inclusion of the non-synth/electro stuff though. so unnecessary.

girlish in the worst sense of that term (Shakey Mo Collier), Wednesday, 22 July 2009 20:13 (ten years ago) link

but I adore "Like an Inca" though. I've listened to it more often than "Cortez the Killer," I think.

Heric E. (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 22 July 2009 20:18 (ten years ago) link

(I guess that one's non-synth besides the two-note synth motif in the chorus)

Heric E. (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 22 July 2009 20:19 (ten years ago) link

It is Neil Young's best album.
^^^^belongs in the challops hall of fame ... not even in Neil Young's top ten best albums, though you could make a case for it being the best of the 80s, maybe. it is pretty fascinating overall -- is there an example of another major 60s rock artist trying something so weirdly daring in the 80s?

tylerw, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 20:29 (ten years ago) link

i fixed a facebook quiz so that i could get this as my 'what neil young album are you'

like totally gr80 to the max (jaxon), Wednesday, 22 July 2009 20:31 (ten years ago) link

five months pass...

Is Human Highway ever going to get rereleased? If they put it on BlueRay, that would be the thing pushing me into buying a player.

I X Love (Abbott), Wednesday, 30 December 2009 00:27 (nine years ago) link

i don't know about a re-release, but if you just need a copy you can e-mail me @ dr.carl.sagan at gmail

ian, Wednesday, 30 December 2009 00:35 (nine years ago) link

You kick ass.

I X Love (Abbott), Wednesday, 30 December 2009 00:40 (nine years ago) link

haha, enjoy ....

tylerw, Wednesday, 30 December 2009 00:43 (nine years ago) link

or rather, "enjoy"

tylerw, Wednesday, 30 December 2009 00:43 (nine years ago) link

just remembered that the non-LP single version of Mr Soul was better than the one on Trans. Never checked to see if it was available. I remember it as being a denser/louder sound. Anyone know if it's out there as MP3, bonus track .. ( I could search, I guess.)

dave225, Wednesday, 30 December 2009 00:50 (nine years ago) link

I've seen Human Highway before & I totally enjoyed it.

I X Love (Abbott), Wednesday, 30 December 2009 00:56 (nine years ago) link

Underrated half-assterpiece. The half that's good is my favorite Neil Young I've ever heard.

Nate Carson, Wednesday, 30 December 2009 01:50 (nine years ago) link

two years pass...

Trans is so fucking good. Especially loud.

harmonies on Sample & Hold are godlike.

Jamie_ATP, Wednesday, 29 February 2012 11:13 (seven years ago) link

three years pass...

yeah, seriously, "sample and hold" owns. juiced up severed heads with sweet harmonies or a kinder gentler skinny puppy

brimstead, Sunday, 19 April 2015 08:09 (four years ago) link

Rated #20 (out of 35) in this piece of click bait. FWIW I like Trans a lot; would certainly make the bottom half of my top 10 Neil records.

http://www.stereogum.com/1445091/neil-young-albums-from-worst-to-best/franchises/counting-down/attachment/trans/

Bloody Snail, Sunday, 19 April 2015 09:09 (four years ago) link

eight months pass...

Listening to this in full for the first time (on slightly hissy O.G. VINYL that I've actually had for a long time) after dipping into Shakey again, and being intrigued by the perverse idea of Neil using the Synclavier to do note for note replacements of Crazy Horse backing tracks. The non-electro songs would've been at quite at home on a mythical early 80s CSNY album (or Daylight Again, if S & N went to Y instead of ringers and the then at death's door C).

I wonder how pissed Geffen got when he heard ZZ Top's Eliminator, which dropped a few months after Trans and used electronics in similar ways, and realized how horribly right this project could have gone.

"Damn the Taquitos" (C. Grisso/McCain), Saturday, 2 January 2016 01:00 (three years ago) link

I'd call it Unjustly Not Ignored. But I know it has lots of defenders.

clemenza, Saturday, 2 January 2016 01:57 (three years ago) link

After I got done with Trans, I put on a vinyl copy of The Bridge tribute (which I think scored in the same haul about 7 years ago). The Sonic Youth "Computer Age" was nice, but I get the feeling they could've picked anything from the Young catalogue and it would have come sounded exactly the same as that cover.

"Damn the Taquitos" (C. Grisso/McCain), Saturday, 2 January 2016 05:16 (three years ago) link

three years pass...

In case anyone cares, a whole raft of recordings from the Solo Trans tour have just been upped on D1mead0zen.

Maresn3st, Saturday, 5 October 2019 16:11 (one week ago) link


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