Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hawks & Doves by Neil Young (1980)

“ ‘Country and Western’? Wanna hear a country song? I’ll do this song, it’s a little novelty tune.” Responding to a drunken audience request during an impromptu gig at the Bottom Line club in New York, May 16th, 1974, Neil Young launches into “Roll Another Number (For The Road)” from the yet-to-be-released Tonight’s The Night (1975).

A full-band rendition of “Roll Another Number”, played on the Tonight’s the Night tour of 1973.

That might be how Neil Young looked at Country and Western in the early 1970s, but some ten years later, it had become a serious matter. Hawks & Doves followed hot on the heels of the all-conquering Rust Never Sleeps multimedia extravaganza Young undertook with Crazy Horse, finishing the 1970s with a bang. By contrast, Hawks & Doves is one of the shortest albums in his catalogue, over in less than thirty minutes. Six of the nine songs are under three minutes, most of them even closer to two minute bursts. What is carried on from Rust Never Sleeps is the division into two conceptual LP sides, in this case corresponding with the title. The “Doves” side is a casual grouping of several previously-recorded songs, some going back five years to the abandoned Homegrown project. The “Hawks” side is newly recorded material, whose 5 songs flitter past in thirteen minutes. The similarity between the new songs makes Side B more of a conceptual suite than a collection of songs.

The Hawks side presents the listener with the most uncompromising Country and Western Young had recorded up to that point. Of course the soft rock mega seller Harvest (1972) had already included some country tones, banjos and even a song with “country” in the title. Comes a Time (1978) had also served up a healthy dose of acoustic finger picking, harmonising and slide guitars, but the glossy sheen makes it more of a folky , slick soft-rock album. The closest comparison can be made with American Stars ‘n Bars (1977), in more ways than one. It too breaks the record into a previously-recorded odds and sods side (also in part from the Homegrown sessions), and a newly recorded side. The latter is also distinctly country and western, albeit in a more tightly produced and slick manner than Hawks. Hawks unleashes Young’s newly matured country twang and croon to full effect, fiddles are played and most worryingly for his liberal fan base, the genre’s reactionary politics are embraced.

A 1984 performance of the title track. This tour was also a “country and western” affair (see below), so the arrangement is similar to the album version released four years previously.

A sample of lyrics from the above title track: “I’m proud/to be living in the USA/Ready to go/willing to stay and pay/USA/USA”. “Got rock ‘n roll/got country music playin’/if you hate us/you just don’t know what you’re sayin’.” The same anti-establishment singer from “Southern Man”, “Ohio”, “Campaigner”, “Revolution Blues” and “Pocahontas” was now standing up for the silent majority. The material was not even written as a character piece to fit the Hawks concept; Young’s interviews of the time show a frustration with a soft post-Vietnam US foreign policy, the Iran hostage crisis in particular. For an in-depth analysis of the themes, as well as an unusually positive review of the album, Robert Christgau’s 1980 review gives a good contemporary take on Young’s shift in career. Other songs on this side of the album are similar in style, referring to unions (in this case the musician’s union), the “working man”, a lot of references to the collective “we”, and the state of the country. “Union Man” even has a jokey call and response part, with the usually charmingly Canadian-accented Young adopting a faux redneck twang (“ ‘Live Music is Better’ Bumper stickers/should be issued!”).

The first side of the album is the aforementioned pieced-together collection of session leftovers from the previous decade. Rather than start with the more homogeneous (and current) country material and padding out the rest of the album, therefore also matching the album title, the rag tag collection opens the album. This makes it a mirror of American Stars ‘n Bars, both albums theoretically making a double LP with country music bookending on sides one and four. Because Stars ‘n Bars was given the first pickings of unreleased material, its country material was expanded with “Like a Hurricane”, one of Young’s best; “Will to Love” and “Star of Bethlehem”. The barrel was in need of scraping for Doves; “Captain Kennedy” is a typical folk ballad in the traditional “Scarborough Fair” style; “The Old Homestead” is a plodding, cryptically deformed half-brother to Rust Never Sleeps’s beautiful “Thrasher”; and “Lost in Space” has tuned vocals that foreshadow the hit-and-miss Trans period of the early 1980s. “Little Wing” is a suitably “dovey” opening to the album, a remainder of the ambition to record songs with the same title as well-known songs by other artists.

Critical reaction was understandably muted when Hawks & Doves was released in 1980. The messy, unremarkable first side and the reactionary, rather monolithic second side added up to a remarkably brief, underdeveloped album. Gorged on the remarkable Rust Never Sleeps, Live Rust and solidly commercial Comes A Time in the previous two years, the brief Hawks and Doves is extremely underwhelming. Its marginal and flawed status is perpetuated by the history books; Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey dedicates a paragraph to H&D and an entire chapter to Tonight’s the Night. It only transpired many years later that Young was suffering in silence throughout the early 1980s. His second son was born with severe disabilities, and Young and his wife were preoccupied with the round-the-clock care and therapy his formative years required. This would explain the lack of attention given to Young’s albums in this difficult period, as would the lack of an accompanying tour.

Hawks & Doves, despite its obvious faults, is not entirely without its charms. They can be found in its inevitably scrapbook-like quality, and are more of a biographical than artistic nature. The conviction and harshness with which Young broke with his peacenik image (the Dove) and embraced his “Republican” side is thrilling to listen to, and as a genre exercise the Hawks material is played spiritedly and is quite enjoyable for the thirteen minutes that it lasts. Young would return to country and western in the mid-1980s, threatening to never play rock music again until his record company (Geffen) would stop interfering and pushing for commercially viable material. Hawks & Doves is an accessible taster of this style of Young’s material, and quite an intriguing mess.