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‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’: Behind Neil Young And Crazy Horse’s Landmark Debut
Rob Crandall / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’: Behind Neil Young And Crazy Horse’s Landmark Debut

Neil Young and Crazy Horse had chemistry from the get-go, tapping into the pure spirit of rock music with ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’.

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The albums Neil Young makes with Crazy Horse aren’t necessarily his biggest sellers, but they’re often held in particularly high esteem by his most committed fans. Usually resulting in spirited, rootsy rock records which prioritise vibe over precision, the two parties’ on-off 50-plus-year union has produced a catalogue of music liberally sprinkled with magic – and it began on a major high with their debut album together, May 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

The backstory: “Neil would come out and play acoustic with us”

Now widely regarded as one the best debut albums in rock music, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere came together in just seven days, and it established the relaxed, almost laissez-faire approach to making music that Neil Young and Crazy Horse have largely adopted together ever since.

Indeed, Young didn’t even audition the band’s original trio of guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina. He first encountered them when they were playing alongside violinist Bobby Notkoff and lead guitarist Leon Whitsell in The Rockets, a psychedelic-flavoured folk-rock group whose lone, self-titled album was released just before Young left Buffalo Springfield in 1968.

“Neil would come out to [Billy Talbot’s] house in Laurel Canyon, after he left the Springfield, and play acoustic with us and talk,” Molina recalled in a 2021 interview with Perfect Sound Forever. “After we became The Rockets, we were going to play the Whiskey [A Go Go] in Hollywood. We asked him to come sit in with us, which he did. We then formed into Crazy Horse and recorded Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.”

Listen to ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ here.

Young also expressed his thoughts on Crazy Horse’s formation in the 1997 documentary Year Of The Horse. “I asked those three guys to play with me as Crazy Horse. And I thought The Rockets could go on, too,” he said. “But the truth is, I probably did steal them away from the other band, which was a good band. But only because what we did, we went somewhere… This thing [with Crazy Horse] moved, this thing took off, and their other thing didn’t.”

The meaning behind ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’

The fact that Crazy Horse had a natural affinity as a unit gave Young a significant boost at a time when the Canadian American singer-songwriter was at a low ebb. He had tasted commercial success with Buffalo Springfield, but that band’s messy split and the relative failure of his self-titled solo debut album had left him feeling burned.

He expressed his disillusionment with the Los Angeles music scene in the lyrics to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’s title track: a concise, country-flavoured song which sounded relatively laidback, yet included lines such as “I gotta get away from this day-to-day running around” and “I think I’d like to go back home and take it easy”, all of which reflected a sense of disappointment in the illusory nature of success. Indeed, in his 2008 book, The Words And Music Of Neil Young, music lecturer Ken Bielen suggests Young firmly believed that fame and success were “nowhere for a performer to aspire to be”.

The recording: “The album caught the group as they got to know each other”

Nonetheless, hooking up with Crazy Horse gave Young a reason to believe again, and, as he later recalled, he was impatient to get the new band’s vibe down on tape as quickly as possible.

“We got together, started rehearsing and we went right in,” he told Rolling Stone critic JC Costa. “The whole album was like catching the group just as they were getting to know each other. We didn’t even know what we sounded like until we heard the album.”

The recording of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere also marked another significant milestone for Young. The band cut the album in two lightning-fast sessions – the first in January 1969 and the second in March – at Wally Heider Studio, in Los Angeles, where long-time Young production acolyte David Briggs manned the console for the first of many occasions. As Young later recalled in a 1970 Rolling Stone interview, Briggs was keen to help him attain a sound redolent of early rock’n’roll singles, on which singer and band achieved a tight, locked-in sound playing together live in the studio.

“I’m trying to make records of the quality of the records that were made in the late 50s and the 60s, like Everly Brothers records and Roy Orbison and things like that,” Young said. “It’s just a quality about them, the singer is into the song and the musicians were playing with the singer and it was an entity, you know. It was something special that used to hit me all the time.”

The songs: “The music just flowed naturally”

It also helped that Young had prepared his best batch of songs yet for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. In addition to the title cut, he also had the gentle, acoustic Round And Round in his locker from the Buffalo Springfield days, while The Losing End (When You’re On) and Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets) – which featured a guest slot from Bobby Notkoff on violin – also exuded folk and country-rock flavours. Incredibly, though, Young wrote all three of the album’s primary rockers during a single day – all while suffering from the flu.

“I was delirious half the time and had an odd metallic taste in my mouth. It was peculiar,” Young recalled in his 2012 memoir, Waging Heavy Peace. “At the height of this sickness, I felt pretty high in a strange way. I had a guitar in a case near the bed. I took it out and started playing…

“I had nothing to lose. I was on a roll,” he added. “The music just flowed naturally that afternoon… This was pretty unique, to write three songs in one sitting, and I am pretty sure that my semi-delirious state had a lot to do with that.”

What we can be absolutely sure of is that the three songs Young wrote during that fateful afternoon still rank among his finest. The first, Cinnamon Girl, was arguably Young’s first truly great pop song. With its zigzagging riffs, joyous chorus and one-note guitar solo, it made for the ideal opening cut for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

Elaborating further on his inspiration for the song, Young explained, Jimmy McDonough’s biography Shakey, “I remember this one girl, Jean ‘Monte’ Ray; she was the singing partner of Jim, Jim And Dean, a folk duo. Had a record out called People World, and she did a lot of dancing with finger cymbals. She was really great. [Cinnamon Girl] might’ve been her. Good chance. I kinda had a crush on her for a while. Moved nice. She was real musical, soulful.”

However, while Cinnamon Girl was concise and catchy, Young’s other fever-dream songs, Down By The River and Cowgirl In The Sand, both pushed the ten-minute mark – and they drew up the template for the epic, slow-moving, twin-guitar blowouts which would become Crazy Horse’s trademark in years to come. Both songs are credited to Neil Young, but, as Young later revealed, he believed much of the credit should really have gone to Danny Whitten.

“That’s what was so great about Crazy Horse in those days: Danny understood my music, and everyone listened to Danny,” he said in Shakey. “He understood what we were doing. A really great second guitar player, the perfect counterpoint to everything else that was happening. His style of playing was so adventuresome. So sympathetic. So unthoughtful. And just so natural. That’s what really made Cowgirl In The Sand and Down By The River happen: Danny’s guitar parts. Nobody played guitar with me like that.”

The legacy: “Neil walks in with a song, then we jump in”

Housed in a sleeve featuring a memorably grainy Frank Bez photograph of Young leaning against a tree, with his dog, Winnipeg, at his feet, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was first issued by Reprise Records on 14 May 1969. It was greeted by largely positive reviews and supported by Crazy Horse’s first US tour, in May and June of that same year.

However, Young’s priorities changed after he joined the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young during the summer of 1969. While their first album together, Déjà vu, topped the US Billboard 200, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere went on to become a sleeper hit, eventually breaking into the US Top 40 in the wake of Young’s follow-up album, 1970’s After The Gold Rush.

Critically, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere has continued to rise in stature ever since. Pioneering twin-guitar-based rock acts ranging from Pearl Jam to Teenage Fanclub and Wilco have sung its praises over the past three decades, and the album won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Heritage Prize in 2015 – well-deserved endorsements for a cult classic that continues to enchant successive generations.

“The [Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere] sessions went free and easy, like they are to this day,” Ralph Molina told Perfect Sound Forever. “Neil walks in with a song, then we jump in. We get it in one, two takes. After that, the feel, heart and emotion are lost. Any more takes, and you’re playing a part… When you’re young, there are no politics, nothing gets in the way. We just had fun playing – no thinking, just playing.”

Find out where Neil Young ranks among the best songwriters of all time.

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