In the wake of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s whirlwind ascendance, propelled by the success of their self-titled 1969 debut album and follow-up Déjà Vu the following year, intra-band tensions forced the quartet to take a much-needed break from each other. The group’s hiatus commenced upon the conclusion of their 1970 summer tour and lasted four years, until they reunited for another tour in 1974.
During their extended time apart, each member of the foursome focused on further developing his solo career, with Neil Young releasing his third studio album After the Gold Rush in September 1970, months before Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Graham Nash delivered their respective debut albums in succession. Seventeen months later, after a string of 1971 recording sessions in Nashville, London, and at his Woodside, California ranch, the 26 year-old Young unveiled the emotionally raw, noticeably more polished Harvest in February 1972.
A high-profile ensemble affair, Harvest features vocal contributions from each of Young’s CSNY bandmates, as well as fellow legends of song Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. The London Symphony Orchestra supplies orchestral arrangements on two songs, “A Man Needs a Maid” and “There’s a World.” The 10-track album comprises a handful of Young’s most beloved compositions across his prolific career, including “Out on the Weekend,” “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold,” and a live recording of “The Needle and the Damage Done,” lifted from his January 1971 performance at UCLA’s iconic Royce Hall.
The latter composition was originally inspired by the destructive (and ultimately fatal) heroin addictions of Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry, both of whom would pass away soon after Harvest’s release and subsequently influence the grieving Young’s 1975 album Tonight’s the Night.
A thematic extension of the poignant “Southern Man” from After the Gold Rush, the plaintively powerful “Alabama” offers a biting critique of the southern United States’ infamous legacy of racism and resistance to social and cultural change. Both songs prompted a defiant rebuttal from southern rock stalwarts Lynyrd Skynyrd in the form of “Sweet Home Alabama,” their 1974 southern pride anthem that directly addresses Young with the lines “Well I heard Mister Young sing about her / Well I heard old Neil put her down / Well, I hope Neil Young will remember / A southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
Unequivocally Young’s commercial breakthrough after years of garnering critical acclaim, Harvest became the best-selling album in the US in 1972, though its widespread acceptance never sat particularly well with its creator. “Something to avoid repeating is how I looked at [Harvest],” Young admits in the short 7-minute documentary that examines the making of the album. “I said, ‘this is good. Now, everybody likes this, and I could probably make another one. But I would hate myself for it.’ I didn’t want to make another one.”
Not surprisingly, Young’s next few studio albums, most notably the excellent On the Beach (1974) and the aforementioned Tonight’s the Night, are both darker and more musically ragged relative to Harvest, conscious attempts to defy expectations of further commercial triumphs nurtured by his label (Reprise Records) and fans alike.
Featuring rare performance footage and interviews with Young, as well as Taylor, the short documentary film opens with Young’s confession that the recording of Harvest captured a moment in time that can never be replicated. “I’m not sure that I could recreate that feeling. It has to do with how old I was, what was happening in the world, what I had just done, what I wanted to do next, who I was living with, who my friends were, what the weather was.”
Watch the documentary below, followed by a few memorable live performances of songs featured on Harvest for good measure.
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