Over 50 Years of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
This folk-rock supergroup fought, broke up, and reunited enough times and ways to make Fleetwood Mac’s heads spin.
With the glaring exception of the Rolling Stones, all our bands so far have come together from the dregs of other projects, even if those projects weren’t commercially popular. (Mick, Keith, Ian Stewart, and Brian Jones just met and fell in love. Awww!) The CSNY boys were fully superstars when they started jamming together, and their second gig ever was Woodstock. So not only did they form the latest of any of our bands so far — each member had a back catalog with at least one other group, and each brought ambitions and ideas whose reach exceeded the grasp of those other gigs.
This makes choosing songs trickier than usual, because I’m interested in this band, not the solo noodlings of David Crosby or anyone else in particular. I’ve tried to pick cohesive songs that involve all three or four members — CSN versus CSNY — and the characteristic harmonies that define the band.
Who Are These People?
For the first time in this series, I might need to really introduce people to the band Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young rather than deprogram their classic rock radio expectations. Longtime fans know the music but there are far fewer overexposed hits. Even on Spotify, Fleetwood Mac’s tenth most popular song there has 75,000,000 plays, while CSNY’s has just 3 million.
David Crosby helped found the Byrds, a folk-pop band tapping into Beatlemania with their 1965 hit “Turn, Turn, Turn,” written by Pete Seeger and recorded first by another group in 1962 and then Judy Collins in 1963. The Byrds had other hits, but “Turn, Turn, Turn” is an oldies mainstay and part of the boomer-legend Forrest Gump soundtrack. By 1967, Crosby felt constricted by and tired of the Byrds. Their other major hit was a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man,” and their label wanted a whole album of just Dylan covers. Crosby left the band.
Stephen Stills met Neil Young in 1965, and the two were musically simpatico enough to form Buffalo Springfield the next year, along with Richie Furay. Stills wrote and sang Buffalo Springfield’s biggest hit, “For What It’s Worth.” In 1967, David Crosby helped at a Buffalo Springfield gig when Neil Young was out of town. Later in their brief run, the band brought in bassist Jim Messina. This made it a lot easier for Messina and Furay to immediately form Poco after Buffalo Springfield broke up. (Buffalo Springfield is the namesake of Angela Chase’s favorite band Buffalo Tom.)
Graham Nash is the biggest surprise. In 1962, he helped form the Hollies, a pop band influenced and inspired by early American rock like, of course, Buddy Holly. The Hollies had a handful of hits, moreso in their native UK, but nothing I especially like until Nash’s wild 1967 song “King Midas in Reverse.” Bands like the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who began in pop and branched out, but for every legendary band to do it, there are probably 100 that tried and failed. After “King Midas” was considered a failure, Nash wrote shorter, “catchier” pop songs through gritted teeth until he quit the Hollies in 1968.
Neil Young stands alone in this list. He’s had a giant solo career for like 50 years after getting his start with Buffalo Springfield. But the reason Young was free to join that band at all was that his previous project, with literally Rick James (!!!), fell through when James was arrested for draft dodging. I like Neil Young but stick with two or three albums I truly love. Imagine my surprise that he’s put out nearly 50 albums in 50 years, excluding ones he made with CSNY and Buffalo Springfield and any other group projects. This number is nearly twice as many as the other three guys put together.
Wooden Ships (1969)
David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner wrote “Wooden Ships” on Crosby’s boat in 1968. Like Grand Funk Railroad’s “Closer to Home/I’m Your Captain,” this is a nautical-themed protest song. Crosby and Stills sing alternating parts as opposing soldiers who share insights and information out of both loneliness and ennui with the battles they were supposed to be fighting. Everyone else has been destroyed in some kind of final conflict — a nuclear war, some other apocalyptic event? Toward the end, the song breaks into an aimless and even discordant jam, ending on an unresolved “Guess I’ll set a course and go . . .”
Carry On (1970)
It was hard to choose between “Carry On” and the song Joni Mitchell wrote for CSN, “Woodstock,” but please listen to Joni sing that instead: “Woodstock” is a gorgeous poem-song. “Carry On” is a triumphant piece about realizing you’ve moved on from a breakup, and it’s made of two sections separated by one of the single most beautiful moments in popular music. For just a few seconds, all three voices join for an explosive reverie like something from a gospel song. After that, the harmony remains, but the jam slows down and becomes much more swingy. Recommended for fans of “crying at the end of Sister Act 2.”
King Midas in Reverse (1971)
Aha, sneaky, because I already mentioned this as a Hollies song.
At live gigs, the boys performed a bunch of songs together and then gave each other space to do a couple of their favorite solo songs. All four of these guys are dedicated songwriters above all else, and “King Midas in Reverse,” recorded for their 1971 live album 4-Way Street, is just Stills alone with an acoustic guitar. Especially after the very cool production and arrangement of the Hollies version, it’s a delight to hear just the bones of the song as Stills must have originally composed it.
Neil Young’s political songs tend to rub me the wrong way, which is tough, because they’re 99% of what he produces by volume. I love “Ohio,” though. It’s a protest anthem in response to the shooting deaths of four unarmed Kent State University students by the National Guard in 1970. Adding three harmony voices only makes the song more effective, and these four all excel at the kind of forceful yell-singing that makes for good protest songs, I think. It’s really hard to sound dynamic and angry but stay on pitch and in tight harmony! It’s really hard.
Love the One You’re With (1980)
This version of Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With” is a curiosity of the nature of CSNY. It’s an actual solo Stills release from ten years prior, later on a 1980 CSN collection called Replay. Crosby and Nash sing backup, which I think is how this made it onto a CSN greatest hits. During the 1970s, all four men argued pretty regularly. They often split into two factions, Crosby and Nash on one side and Stills and Young on the other — both duos recorded their own material together at times. But all four also went back and forth on each other’s solo records and in support of these and other projects. David Crosby guested with the Grateful Dead. Stephen Stills’s solo project Manassas included Joe Walsh and Bill Wyman. Crosby and Nash sang backup on Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country?” But these were cameos, not bandmates.
Southern Cross (1982)
Something is happening where I realize almost all the songs I chose are written by Stephen Stills. “Southern Cross” is another nautical song, in fact covered by James William Buffett for a much later album. There are some ’80s trappings in this song, and you, a cynic, might tell me it’s a yacht rock classic. Joining CSN are Poco-then-Eagles high tenor Timothy B. Schmit, journeyman keyboardist Mike Finnigan, and even Art Garfunkel. Maybe because there are so many voices, this harmony arrangement sounds smoother and more mellow than a lot of other CSN or CSNY songs. It’s a gorgeous song that makes you want to close your eyes and think about a heartbreak but feel positive about it.
War Games (1983)
This is one of the single wildest items to ever appear on my radar, pun intended. And the biggest surprise is how much I really like it. (Again, a Stephen Stills song! Stephen, call me.)
Matthew Broderick’s starmaking 1983 role in War Games is as a hacker who unwittingly enters real weapons systems and brings down the impending global war. It’s a thriller with a specific Cold War trill, but this aborted title song—released to MTV but not included in the final movie—is a pure protest song. Like my favorite ’80s boomer releases by the Moody Blues, “War Games” brings the best parts of CSN into the best parts of the sound of the ’80s, and the themes of following orders and questioning your part as one cog in the machine are just more literal versions of longtime CSN themes.
Feel Your Love (1988)
I’ve hinted at the volatility of the relationships between members of CSNY, but mixed into that dynamic, David Crosby used a ton of drugs and got into more and more trouble over the 20-year period culminating in a brief jail sentence in 1986. (He discusses this in my favorite interview with NPR host Jesse Thorn.) Crosby has been clean since 1986, which is probably its own reward. But in the immediate aftermath, one huge upside was that Neil Young returned to CSN for the second-ever studio CSNY album, American Dream. This album hasn’t aged well, but it did really well at the time and sold nearly two million copies around the world.
After the Dolphin (1990)
Is yacht-dystopia a thing? Dystopiyacht? Either way, we finally welcome Graham Nash back to the list. “After the Dolphin” is, I think, about a quite old and famous bar in London. The track closes with a trailing sample of some barroom piano, which helps my case. From there, Nash seems to tell the story of some kind of apocalyptic event, I’m not sure. Something happened in the late ’80s where rock musicians realized they could use samples like in hip hop, and this song includes a running track of, maybe, just some dudes talking over a CB radio. But you can hear that CSN were trying to adapt and try new things, and the song is fine.
In My Life (1994)
CSN’s least successful album is 1994’s After the Storm, which nonetheless includes this pretty, thoughtful, and melancholy cover of the Beatles’s “In My Life.” Over the decades, all the different iterations of CSN, with and without Y, loved to include Beatles covers in their live sets. Crosby refers to the Beatles as their favorite band. 1994 was a huge year not just for CSN but for all of “classic rock,” because it formed the 25th anniversary of everything from 1969, including when the band publicly debuted at Woodstock. I don’t really like this album, but there’s no specific reason it should have sold so badly, unless it was just washed away by the absolute flood of nostalgia band releases this same year. And because each guy had his own solo career and the last CSN album had been a few years prior, there was no built-up anticipation or reunion for CSN — this is just an album, not Hell Freezes Over for the Eagles.
Looking Forward (1999)
In 1999, CSNY released their last (to date) album, Looking Forward. Most of the tracks are solo tracks, but Neil Young’s beautiful, simple title track “Looking Forward” brings the whole four-part harmony together. One of the great unsung (ha!) strengths of Neil Young’s unusual and high voice is that he blends into harmony in a very special way. Every band with legendary harmony has a fingerprint all its own, and because of its unique setup, CSN has one fingerprint and CSNY has another.
“Looking Forward” is about deciding to enjoy the rest of your life — indeed, David Crosby is the oldest of the four, but remains the most active apart from maybe Neil Young, who is . . . the youngest. (Wow, I really didn’t expect so many opportunities for inline puns in this piece.) The obstacle to future CSN or CSNY outings is that, like any group of four men in their 70s, they can’t get along. Anytime two or more are in the same place, it eventually becomes a TV sitcom Thanksgiving meltdown.
For five decades, Crosby, Stills, and Nash have operated first as solo songwriters and second as members of a collective, despite all three having massively more success together than apart. The modular addition and subtraction of Neil Young is part of this as well. David Crosby is in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame as a member of CSN and the Byrds. Stephen Stills is in for CSN and Buffalo Springfield, the only person to be dual inducted on the same night. Graham Nash is in for CSN and the Hollies. And Neil Young is in for Buffalo Springfield and as a solo artist. Even if they can’t stand a sitcom Thanksgiving ever again, it’s still been an okay run.
Here’s a link to the Spotify playlist with my picks. If you have a burning need to see your favorite band next (is your favorite band the Who? Because that’s where I’m leaning. Who’s Next, get it, except I do mean it), let me know below.
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