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Neil Young & Crazy Horse

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Crazy Horse is an American rock band best known for their association with Neil Young. They have been co-credited on a number of albums throughout Young’s career and have released five albums of their own.

The band’s origins date to 1963 and the Los Angeles-based a cappella doo wop group Danny and The Memories, which consisted of main singer Danny Whitten and supporting vocalists Lou Bisbal (soon to be replaced by Bengiamino Rocco), Billy Talbot, and Ralph Molina. The latter two would become the only members of Crazy Horse present in every incarnation of the band.

Making its way to San Francisco and back to Los Angeles again, the group evolved over the course of several years into The Rockets, a psychedelic folk hybrid comprising Whitten on guitar, Talbot on bass, Molina on drums, Bobby Notkoff on violin, and brothers Leon and George Whitsell also on guitars. This lineup recorded the Rockets’ only album, a self-titled set released in 1968.

With their album complete, the Rockets reconnected with Neil Young, whom they had met two years earlier during the early days of Buffalo Springfield. In August 1968, three months after Buffalo Springfield dissolved, Young jammed with the Rockets on stage during their show at the Whisky A Go-Go and soon after enlisted Whitten, Talbot, and Molina to back him on his second solo album.

Credited to Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere includes the minor pop hit “Cinnamon Girl” and the extended guitar workouts “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Crazy Horse toured with Young during the first half of 1969 and, with the addition of Jack Nitzsche on electric piano, in early 1970. The 1970 tour was showcased on the 2006 album Live at the Fillmore East.

Shortly after beginning work on his third solo album with Crazy Horse in 1969, Young joined Crosby, Stills & Nash as a full fourth member, recording an album and touring in 1969 and 1970. When Young returned to his solo album, Crazy Horse found its participation more limited. The group as a whole appears on just three of the eleven tracks on After the Gold Rush: “When You Dance I Can Really Love” plus “Oh Lonesome Me” and “I Believe In You” from the sessions in 1969 prior to Young’s first tour with Crosby, Stills & Nash.

As Young experienced back problems and remained committed to other endeavors from late 1970 through most of 1971, Crazy Horse capitalized on its newfound exposure and recorded its eponymous debut album for Reprise Records that year. The band retained Nitzsche as producer and keyboardist, and added second guitarist Nils Lofgren (whom the band met during the 1970 sessions for After the Gold Rush). Whitten’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” would later be covered by a wide range of artists including Geoff Muldaur, The Indigo Girls, and Rod Stewart. Stewart would record the song three times and score a hit with it on the same number of occasions - including a UK Number One in 1977 as a double A-side with “The First Cut Is the Deepest.” In 1988 the song would become a top-ten hit in the UK again, this time a Number Three for Everything but the Girl.

Shortly thereafter, Lofgren and Nitzsche moved on to other endeavors, while Whitten’s drug problems pushed the group to turn to outside musicians. Crazy Horse released two albums with different lineups (save for the rhythm section of Talbot and Molina) in 1972, Loose and At Crooked Lake. The former saw Rockets’ guitarist George Whitsell briefly return to the fold as frontman, while the latter was dominated by the rootsier stylings of Rick and Mike Curtis (formerly of These Vizitors and best known for their later work as The Curtis Brothers). Meanwhile, Young placed Whitten on retainer in the fall of 1972 with a view toward including the guitarist in his touring band, the Stray Gators. Because of Whitten’s poor performance in tour rehearsals, however, the band pressured Young to dismiss him. Young let Whitten live on his ranch in Northern California and worked with him one-on-one during off-hours in an unsuccessful effort to keep him in the group. Whitten returned to Los Angeles and died that night, his death attributed to a fatal overdose of alcohol and Valium.

After Whitten’s death, Talbot and Molina were the only full-fledged members of the band. They let the Crazy Horse name go unused without retiring it altogether. In mid-1973, Young brought together a band comprising Talbot, Molina, Lofgren, and pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith to record Tonight’s the Night, the majority of which eventually saw release (in bowdlerized form with some earlier songs and different takes than originally intended) in 1975; it is frequently acclaimed as Young’s best album. That autumn, the ensemble toured as the Santa Monica Flyers; Molina and Whitsell would subsequently contribute guitar and drums and percussion (respectively) to Young’s On the Beach in 1974.

Shortly after aborted sessions at Chess Studios in late 1974, Young, Talbot, and Molina spontaneously convened at Talbot’s Echo Park home in 1975 with rhythm guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, who proved to be just the right person to help resurrect Crazy Horse. “It was great”, Talbot would say of the coming together and the chemistry it evoked. “We were all soaring. Neil loved it. We all loved it. It was the first time we heard the Horse since Danny Whitten died.” After a five-year hiatus Neil Young and Crazy Horse was born again, and Young marked the occasion by finishing off the lyrics to “Powderfinger”, soon to become one of the new lineup’s signature songs.

With Sampedro and producer David Briggs in tow, Young and Crazy Horse quickly recorded Zuma later that year in the basement of Briggs’ rented house in Malibu, initiating their most prolific period of collaboration. Sampedro’s lack of technical proficiency (“Neil kept writin’ simpler songs so I could play them”) and desire to see Young “rockin’ and having fun and seeing chicks swaying in the audience” would greatly inform the tenor of the record, which largely assays conventional hard rock styles and ribald misogyny with few of the country and folk flourishes that had dominated Young’s music since 1970. In early 1976, Young and the band toured Japan and Europe; they were shut out of a proposed summer stadium tour when Young rekindled his collaboration with Stephen Stills. They toured America that autumn when Young was forced to make up a series of canceled concert dates after walking out midway through the tour with Stills. Throughout late 1975 and into 1977, Young recorded feverishly in various solo and group configurations; Crazy Horse appears on all but two songs of 1977’s country-inflected American Stars ‘n Bars (with many tracks featuring an augmented lineup [The Rockets] that included Ben Keith, Carole Mayedo, Linda Ronstadt, and Nicolette Larson), while Comes a Time features two performances with Crazy Horse: “Look Out for My Love” and “Lotta Love.”

In 1978, Crazy Horse released their fourth album (Crazy Moon, which features some lead guitar by Young), and also joined Young on the tour that led to the successful Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust, both credited to Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

As Young spent much of the eighties working in genres mostly outside the band’s idiom, Crazy Horse recorded with him more sporadically, appearing only on Re-ac-tor, an unspecified portion of Trans, and Life. Sessions for a planned 1984 album with the band ended after they were “spooked” by the addition of a professional horn section, although a contemporaneous bootleg of a performance at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz containing many of the intended songs remains an enduring fan favorite. Several years later, Young included all three members of Crazy Horse in another horn-driven ensemble, the Bluenotes. But when Talbot and Molina proved ill-suited to a blues-oriented approach, Young reluctantly replaced the Crazy Horse bassist and drummer while retaining Sampedro, who would remain with Young in various band permutations over the next two years. Immediately thereafter, Talbot and Molina replaced Sampedro and recorded the pointedly-titled Left for Dead; released in 1989, it is the group’s fifth and, to date, final album independent of Young.

The split with Sampedro and Young proved relatively short-lived as Young and Crazy Horse reunited in 1990 for the acclaimed album Ragged Glory and for a tour in 1991 that generated the live album Weld. Over the next twelve years Crazy Horse would steadily collaborate with Young once more, joining the singer for Sleeps With Angels, Broken Arrow, the live Year of the Horse, “Goin’ Home” on Are You Passionate?, and Greendale. Sampedro agreed to sit out the recording of Greendale, as Young felt the material called for only one guitar; he joined the band onstage for the ensuing tour.

According to Young’s biography Shakey, Crazy Horse had begun a sixth album of its own in the mid-1990s, but left the project unfinished when Young called upon the group to join him for some secret club dates in California (for which the quartet billed themselves as the Echoes) and for the recording of Broken Arrow. Young and Crazy Horse attempted to record for three months in San Francisco in 2000; few takes were finished to the band’s satisfaction, and Young re-recorded most of the material (except for “Goin’ Home”) with Booker T & the MGs for Are You Passionate?. Recordings from the San Francisco sessions, entitled Toast, were announced for release in 2008 as part of Young’s Archives series; as of 2011, the album remains unreleased.

Crazy Horse has remained inactive since touring with Young in support of Greendale in the winter of 2004. According to Young in a 2011 interview with American Songwriter, “They have to be together before I can be together with them. They haven’t been doing anything together, so they need to be able to do it. I don’t have the time to support things. I have to go with things that are going to support me. But I think they can do it.”

On January 22, 2012 the Master Class at Slamdance Festival featured Coffee with Neil Young & Jonathan Demme for their new film Journeys. A report from the coffee with Neil and Jonathan event by Bob & Kim C. revealed that Neil Young has been recording with Crazy Horse; one album is complete and they are working on another.

On April 17, 2012 it was announced that Crazy Horse would be playing the Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California. The show will mark the first time Crazy Horse has performed live since the MusiCares benefit honoring Paul McCartney in Los Angeles in February 2012 and will be the first full-length public live performance by the band since the Greendale tour in 2004.

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