When Neil Young Was Sued For Not Sounding Like…Neil Young
Neil Young live in 1971 - GatoFelix1300 / Youtube
Have you ever been called out by someone for being not yourself? It must’ve been a totally weird experience, as when are you not truly yourself? But if you think that’s awkward enough, imagine being Neil Young on December 1, 1983. Young was served with a lawsuit from his then-label, Geffen Records, for not sounding how a Neil Young should sound.
Like any other artist, Young sought for creative growth after releasing 13 catalogs under Reprise Records. After being released by the label, he signed in with the new and budding Geffen Records, where both sides saw each other as an opportunity to expand horizons. But things didn’t go as expected.
Young released Trans as his first entry under the label, this time relying on vocoders, synths, and other electronic means of music that surprised most of his longtime patrons. He later revealed that the inspiration for the album was his son, saying: “My son is severely handicapped, and at that time was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people. That’s what Trans is all about. And that’s why, on that record, you know I’m saying something but you can’t understand what it is. Well, that’s the exact same feeling I was getting from my son.”
The album still fared well, though not the stratospheric success Young enjoyed earlier on. Geffen didn’t like how it sounded though, which led to Young offering them a country album called Old Ways. The label didn’t even let the idea fester, and instead demanded a rock n’ roll album from the singer-songwriter. In an interview with Los Angeles Times, Young said “They thought I was all over the map and didn’t understand why I was out there playing country, although to me it sounded like B.B. King more than country. All my music comes from all music — I’m not country, I’m not rock ‘n’ roll, I’m just me, and all these things are what I like.”
To put out the flames, Young offered the rockabilly album Everybody’s Rockin’, where he disclosed that “They told me they wanted me to play rock ‘n’ roll, and told me I didn’t sound like Neil Young. So I gave them Everybody’s Rockin’ and said, ‘This is a rock ‘n’ roll album by Neil Young after someone tells him what to do; this is exactly what you said you wanted.’ And we got way into it.”
The album fared far worse than expected, however, which disappointed Geffen even more. Young reacted with: “When I made albums like Everybody’s Rockin’ and everyone takes the shit out of ’em… I knew they could do that. What am I? Stupid? Did people really think I put that out thinking it was the greatest fuckin’ thing I’d ever recorded? Obviously I’m aware it’s not. Plus it was a way of further destroying what I’d already set up.”
Geffen took this as Young intentionally not wanting to make marketable music, which led to the label suing him. He countersued, and after a lengthy legal debacle, the two parties settled with Geffen apologizing to the singer-songwriter. Geffen would then allow the release of Old Ways, along with two more albums, completing Young’s commitment with them. Young eventually signed back in with Reprise Records, where he continues to write material for upcoming releases.