Neil Young’s Landing on Water highlights an overlooked, endlessly fascinating period

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When people think about Neil Young at the height of his powers, the default thought goes to his oft-praised 1970s era. But Landing on Water arrived in an equally intriguing moment, as we found a restless Young discontent with plowing the same old row. The Geffen years from 1982-87, a time frame that many fans dismiss, saw Neil Young craft some of his most challenging music.

Chief on my list of Neil Young albums during that time is Landing on Water, released on July 28, 1986 by Geffen Records. This album resulted from a failed Young/Crazy Horse session where the guitarist felt his longtime collaborators weren’t playing the songs the way he heard them in his head. As a result, Young decided to go for a more modern sound and enlisted producer/guitarist Danny Kortchmar.

Known for his considerable guitar chops, Kortchmar had by then become a much sought-after producer, working with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Toto and on the first three Don Henley solo albums. Neil Young also sought out a modern drum sound, asking Kortchmar’s friend and ace drummer Steve Jordan to play on the album.

Forgoing a bass player (Young, Kortchmar and Jordan all played synth bass and keyboard parts), the three holed up in an L.A. studio and literally bashed out 10 songs. It is said that Neil Young asked Steve Jordan to repeatedly play louder and wanted Danny Kortchmar to get the biggest snare drum sound possible for the project. After completion of the album, Neil Young is rumored to have continued his electronic tinkering to enhance the drum sound, while also adding additional synthesizer parts.

The results are interesting: “Hippie Dream” (an ode to David Crosby) is perhaps one of the most poignant songs in Neil Young’s 1980s-period catalog. It’s almost an admission that his generation’s excesses and quests for enlightenment were for naught. “Touch the Night” sounds as close to a song from a Crazy Horse album as anything here, yet the synthesized children’s choir distracts from the impact of the song. “People on the Street” sounds downright funky, and is enhanced by Jordan and Kortchmar’s vocals.

Young didn’t stay in this musical space for long, however. He would tour the album with Crazy Horse, though he kept the electronic theme during those live shows. I still have images of the Crazy Horse boys punching out these songs on keyboards. It was like watching John Wayne drive a Datsun. Soon, he was off to other experiments.

In keeping, Neil Young’s catalog from the time is often and unfairly dismissed, but it was essential for his artistic growth. If you are a fan of Young, Landing on Water is a must have. I’m also a big fan of Trans, too, but that’s a story for another time.

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