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How Crosby, Stills And Nash’s Debut Album Birthed The Ultimate California Supergroup
Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

How Crosby, Stills And Nash’s Debut Album Birthed The Ultimate California Supergroup

Establishing the trio’s signature sound, Crosby, Stills And Nash’s self-titled debut album made its creators voices of their generation.

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Considering the decades of disagreements that followed the release of their harmonious self-titled debut album, it’s unsurprising that Crosby, Stills And Nash have never quite been able to agree on the fateful evening, in July 1968, that the three of them first sang together.

Listen to Crosby, Stills And Nash’s debut album here.

The spark: “We knew we wanted him to sing with us right then”

David Crosby and Graham Nash maintained the meeting happened at Joni Mitchell’s house, suggesting that, on hearing Crosby and Stephen Stills duetting on the latter’s new song You Don’t Have To Cry, Nash asked the duo to play it again and added the high harmony that completed their trademark vocal blend.

Stephen Stills remembers it differently, claiming that the meeting of minds – and voices – happened at the home of Cass Elliot, of The Mamas And The Papas. But there is one thing all three agree on: that the moment they sang together for the first time changed everything. Crosby later said, “Stills and I looked at each other and we knew we wanted him to sing with us right then. Immediately.”

The snag: British beat combo The Hollies

By the time Nash returned to England in August, the trio had pledged their future to one another. Both Crosby and Stills were free agents: the former had been sacked from The Byrds in October 1967, while Stills’ former group, Buffalo Springfield, had gone their separate ways in early ’68. There was just one snag – Graham Nash remained a member of the British beat combo The Hollies.

On his return to London, Nash took part in a final recording session with the group, during which he told producer Ron Richards of his plans to join Crosby and Stills. Word spread, and Hollies’ lead singer, Allan Clarke, was informed by a friend that Nash was leaving the band they’d formed together in 1962.

The formation: “I hadn’t found anyone who could play these parts like I heard them”

Flush with a loan from Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun, Crosby and Stills decamped to London, where the new supergroup shared a flat on Moscow Road, Bayswater, which soon became a hive of late-night revelry as the trio workshopped the songs that would make up their self-titled debut album.

Nash still had Hollies commitments and played his last show with the group at the London Palladium on 8 December. His new pals showed up backstage, much to the displeasure of his old bandmates. It was around this time that Crosby, Stills And Nash casually auditioned for The Beatles’ Apple Records, with George Harrison and Peter Asher dropping by the group’s flat to hear them play (presumably Ahmet Ertegun was not aware of this). Apple passed, perhaps as the label was intended to be for fledgling talent, though Apple’s Chris O’Dell later speculated that CSN’s party antics might have proved a factor in the decision.

In the end, Crosby, Stills And Nash’s management team of Elliot Roberts and David Geffen managed to negotiate the contractual complications the trio found themselves in and landed their charges a six-album deal with Atlantic. Meanwhile, having moved back to the US, the group were honing their material during rehearsals in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York, with drummer Dallas Taylor. News of the trio’s formation broke in late December, and in early February 1969 work began on CSN’s self-titled debut album at noted engineer Wally Heider’s Studio 3, at 1604 North Cahuenga Boulevard, Hollywood.

The recording: “We worked together and still gave each other room”

Crosby, Stills And Nash were primed, and by the end of the first day of sessions, they had the foundations of two Stills songs: the epic ode to former lover Judy Collins, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, and You Don’t Have To Cry, the song that had brought them together.

Amazingly, Stills laid down the entire acoustic guitar track for all seven and a half minutes of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes on the first take. Straight after, his bandmates joined him around a single microphone to record vocals – the CSN sound was truly born.

“The mic would capture the blend,” Stills told American Songwriter in 2008. “Where you stand from the mic is everything. Often it would sound almost right and the engineer would say, ‘OK, Crosby – take one step backwards,’ or, ‘Graham, take one giant step backwards.’”

Stills then returned to the song to add instrumental flourishes – percussion (achieved by slapping the back of his guitar), a strident bassline, electric guitar – which established a way of working that suited the studio wizard Stills was fast becoming, earning him the nickname “Captain Many Hands” from his bandmates. His other material on the album – the yearning Helplessly Hoping and the spry closer 49 Bye-Byes – was further proof of a writer and arranger approaching a peak.

“I hadn’t found anyone who could play these parts like I heard them,” Stills later recalled. “And I was just trying to get the best out of everyone’s songs. So they let me run with it. There were no egos. Everyone was surprisingly co-operative. We worked together and still gave each other room. I’ve never felt such support since.”

For the irresistible Marrakesh Express – the poppiest moment on CSN’s debut album – Graham Nash turned to a real-life experience for inspiration. “In 1966, I was visiting Morocco on vacation to Marrakesh,” he told Rolling Stone in 2008. “I got on a train and realised that the first-class compartment was completely boring – it wasn’t my scene at all. So I decide I’m going to go and see what the rest of the train is like. And the rest of the train was fascinating. Just like the song says, there were ducks and pigs and chickens all over the place and people lighting fires. It’s literally the song as it is – what happened to me.” Nash’s Pre-Road Downs has a similarly goofy appeal, while the elegiac ballad Lady Of The Island reveals a more contemplative side.

David Crosby’s material provided something different again, giving CSN’s debut album a swashbuckling, jazz-infused and subversive edge. Wooden Ships was Crosby, Stills And Nash at their most psychedelic, and Long Time Gone was a simmering blues-rock workout.

In a 2012 interview with MusicRadar, Crosby opened up about his spaced-out ballad Guinevere. “It’s three women – three verses, three different women – one of whom is Joni [Mitchell]; one of whom is Christine Hinton, my girlfriend who got killed; and one is another girl whose identity I promised I wouldn’t reveal,” he said. “You know, it’s hard to judge your own work, but I think this might be my best song – although I’m still trying to beat it. Musically, it’s really intricate and delicious.”

The release and legacy: “We knew that it was going to be a hit”

“We were in love with each other at the time we recorded that album,” Graham Nash told Rolling Stone of the camaraderie surrounding CSN’s debut. “We were new friends discovering new parts about each other and we had songs. And we had the ability to translate those songs into records that was astounding and we knew it. When we walked out of the studio with that two-track under our arm, we knew what it was going to do. We knew that it was going to be a hit.”

Released on 29 May 1969, Crosby, Stills And Nash’s self-titled debut album sold half a million copies in the US and went on to be certified four-times platinum. The band were immediately heralded as the voices of their generation. And yet more success – not to mention a fourth member – were just around the corner…

Check out the best Crosby, Stills And Nash Songs.

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