Neil Young – Chrome Dreams – “Where Chaos Reigns”

by | Aug 18, 2023 | 0 comments

In what was one of the most prolific eras for any songwriter in rock and roll history, Neil Young’s mid- 1970’s output was met by few if any. In the years 1974-1977, Neil released  the albums Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach, Zuma, and American Stars and Bars. He left the records Homegrown, Hitchhiker, and the subject of today’s rock room rant, Chrome Dreams in his vaults. 
Similarly, to his friend and contemporary Bob Dylan, Neil often left his most affecting work on the cutting room floor or behind a locked door.

Now, over 45 years later, Young has pulled the long rumored and legendary record from a dusty tape box and officially released it. While it’s impossible to know Neil’s true intent, by tracing a broken arrow’s journey toward its end target the artistic design of Young’s music comes into a sharper focus. Neil has opened the weighted doors of his historical vaults, he has excavated several legendary songs and discarded artistic choices for reassessment. His unreleased records hailing from the same era, Homegrown and Hitchhiker both share connective tissues with Chrome Dreams. All of the songs Young was composing during this era were related, floating around, and often considered for the current or next project. 

For several years a bootleg, purported to hail from an acetate circulated among collectors under the title Chrome Dreams. In hindsight, and taking Neil’s working methods into account, it’s easy to deduce that Chrome Dreams, was an early working version of what would become American Stars and Bars. The title originated from a sketch that Young producer and friend David Briggs made of a grill of a car. When the picture was turned sideways, it looked like a beautiful woman. For the current version of Chrome Dreams, a Ronnie Wood drawing has replaced the now long gone Briggs sketch.

The record ironically collected the best of the songs that Young laid down during his most creative era. Neil has always had a backlog of material; the proof can be found in the sheer volume of unreleased music he has already freed from his library. In the case of this era, some of his compositions didn’t fit into his specific vision for that time. The balance of Young’s records is found in the proper dispersing of thematic ideas, and melodies. Neil played Chrome Dreams for his friend Carole King shortly after compiling it and remembered later her saying, “Neil, this isn’t an album. It’s not a real album. I mean, there’s nobody playing, and half the songs you’re just doing by yourself.” Neil continued, “She was just laughing at me. Because she crafts albums.” 

Chrome Dreams plays like a greatest hits album, full of Young’s biggest guns it’s a conglomerate of recording studios, time periods, and ideas. It can be deduced that Young thought that there were too many of his “best” songs on one album. The official version retains the same song order as the original bootleg, lending credence to the fact that the circulating recording was at one point legitimate. Oddly, there is an alternate track listing in the new packaging listing two 24-minute sides in Young’s handwriting. In the alternate running order Young’s “White Line” was included on the hypothetical album. 
The album opens with “Pocohantas,” the same version sans overdubs that appeared on 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps. One of Neil’s most beloved songs, the timeless narrative a deft balance between Neil’s historic reporting and shifty artistic license. This original demo version recorded on August 11, 1976 is just Young and his guitar, and that’s all it needs to be. 
“Will to Love,” was recorded by Neil at Broken Arrow Ranch by a crackling fire. The track was analyzed in detail by the rock room here. The version of Chrome Dreams is the same the as the one that later graced American Stars and Bars.

Continuing the acoustic theme, “Star of Bethlehem,” shimmers with the stoned sounds of 1974’s On the Beach. The song’s first official appearance would be on Young’s career compilation, 1976’ Decade record. It was originally slated for a place on the unreleased Homegrown, record, and the Chrome Dreams record. One of Young’s most exquisite and enduring melodies, and a song he obviously thought a great deal about for the number of times it was bounced around and considered.

One of Young’s major compositions, “Like a Hurricane” opens side two of the new Chrome Dreams with Crazy Horse in full gallop and the song becomes the focal point of the album due to its sheer electricity. While the song sits in striking contrast to its surroundings, it in no way loses any of its stormy power. The song would elicit the same effect on the American Stars and Bars album.

Neil Young

A live concert staple and a song that didn’t appear on an official record until 1989’s Freedom. The Chrome Dreams studio version of “Too Far Gone” is a mellow, after coke binge sunrise. Neil’s silvery acoustic guitar and a plucky mandolin played by Pancho, act as lacy accompaniment to the singalong story of a prolific burnout. 

 “Hold Back the Tears,” is a brand-new version unique to the official Chrome Dreams. It’s an early demo highlighted by delightful and shaky double tracked vocals on the chorus. Sparse and stony, Young’s earnest delivery features a unrecorded verse and Young’s beautiful wordless la, la la’s. A completely different waltz styled version was released on American Stars and Bars. That one sounds like a lost track from Dylan’s Desire record, replete with steel guitar, violin and Linda Ronstadt vocals. 

 “Captain Kennedy,” a Neil Young Sea shanty, was designated for Young’s unrealized Hitchhiker project. It was first released officially on Young’s 1980 record Hawks and Doves. Percussive finger picked guitar and a salty sea fairing melody drive the mixed narrative through choppy waters. 

“Stringman,” is one of those spectral Neil Young piano ballads, similar to “Here We Are In the Years,” or “A Man Needs a Maid,” that defy simple descriptions. This reading is a fragile recitation, pregnant with soulful spaces and silences. Young sings his ode to a knotted-up loser, who is hanging by a tenuous thread. The version on Chrome Dreams was recorded live on March 31, 1976 to an entranced audience at the Hammersmith Odeon. The very next day Young performed overdubs on the live track at a studio in London, though the song remained unreleased until 2020. Young did perform a live version in 1993 for MTV’s Unplugged.
The next electrified offering on Chrome Dreams is the official debut of the famed slow version of 

“Sedan Delivery” recorded on May 22, 1975 with Crazy Horse. Recorded on the same day that two members of the band were screaming high on goof dust, the Horse move the groove like a hearse with a flat tire. Young’s guitar elicits a prismatic vibrato, and is scribbled over the Horse’s hard clop increasing the nervous energy of the song. The raucous sludgy mantra had it’s rpm’s jacked on the live stage, but this grungy version has its own special charm. 

 The acoustic reading of “Powderfinger,” is the penultimate song on the record. A song Young recorded in 1976 for his Hitchhiker project, by the time it saw official release on Rust Never Sleeps it was a packed musket of explosive riffs and devastating chord changes. The song is one of Neil’s most played and enduring cuts. The Chrome Dreams version is a testament to the diversity of Young’s catalog. The reading is a simple wooden arrangement with Young’s pleading voice and acoustic guitar. It amazing that the song would be transformed into a stadium sized story, buzzing with distortion and charged with the power of Crazy Horse by 1978. 

 The album concludes with “Look Out for My Love,” in the exact same guise as on 1978’s Comes a Time. It’s Young and the Horse at their most patient and tender. Recorded similarly to Young’s CSNY track “Helpless,” the group worked late into the night, the vibe had to be right, and when they found it, they got the take. 

While Neil Young continues to tear apart his ample vaults, we continue to be the lucky recipients of his finds. Some discoveries are lost songs and misplaced track listings, and in the case of Chrome Dreams fully unrealized albums. Each piece that is excavated and curated is an important musical part of a bigger picture that further completes the spectacular panoramic view of Neil Young’s career.


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