Mr Soul: Neil Young’s This Note’s For You

Take a look at your average photograph of Neil Young circa 1988. This wired, looming, 40-something in battered sports coat, tatty jeans and goony piano keyboard tie, straggling hair and ape-like sideburns spilling from under a black fedora, eyes shielded by impenetrable black sunglasses that eat up half his face. He looks like David Carradine starring in a violent, low-budget Roger Corman post-apocalyptic Blue Brothers rip-off.

Add that he hasn’t had a hit for the better part of a decade. And now ask yourself: what are the chances Pepsi or Coca-Cola would ever really have wanted this man to front some shiny 80s advertising campaign for them?

Nonetheless, it was “This Note’s For You” Young’s ornery, grooving declaration that he wasn’t going to join the corporate sponsorship party he’d probably never been invited to, that put him back onto America’s pop cultural radar. More particularly, it was the single’s Julien Temple-directed video, a merciless pastiche of Eric Clapton’s Michelob beer commercials (Young’s song is a play on the old “This Bud’s For You” slogan), featuring a Michael Jackson-lookalike setting his head on fire (as Jackson had during the filming of a 1984 Pepsi ad), while a Whitney Houston clone douses the flames with the Coke she’s shilling for.

Aghast, a morally and financially outraged MTV banned the clip, thereby making it a sensation. Brilliantly, by the end of the year, forced by demand to put it back into heavy rotation, the channel actually gave it its “Best Video Of The Year” award.

Largely missed amid this pantomime, however, was the fact that the album the single was promoting was easily Young’s best since Comes A Time. “This Note’s For You” itself helped obscure it. With its horn section hook and sharp shards of blues guitar, the track is a wicked little earworm, but essentially a dumb novelty protest song, and only added to the ongoing confusion over what Young was up to.

He’d finally got free of Geffen and returned to his old label. But following those long, weird years of faux-rockabilly, cranky country and computer worldisms, the This Note’s For You LP looked like yet another of Young’s wayward genre experiments: this time he’s trying out horns, some flaky combination of BB King-style blues big band and Stax-like soul revue.

But listen, and you hear him sounding meaner and more engaged than he had in a long time. Crucially, you also hear him, here and there, pick up his guitar and begin to play in a way he hadn’t quite in years. Admittedly, there are throwaways and low points: “Sunny Inside,” makes an unconvincing case for Neil Young as an upbeat new Wilson Pickett; “Married Man” offers a faintly unpleasant, mostly redundant menopausal blues stomp; “Hey Hey” is an energetic, but witless pastiche.

Of the uptempo numbers, in fact, only “Life In The City,” really stands out. It comes on fast, fat, blaring like the pastiche soundtrack to a film noir cartoon, a police raid on an alarmed Cotton Club. But in the middle, there’s Young, howling away on Old Black and sounding lethally pissed off as he spits bluntly about “people sleeping on the sidewalks” and “starving in the city while the farm goes to seed… Don’t that trouble you brother? Don’t that trouble you, pal?” It’s the first step in the path toward the following year’s watershed Freedom.

Where This Note’s For You really comes alive, though, is in its quieter moments. On the simmering, brooding, genuinely blue likes of “Coup de Ville”, “One Thing” and “Twilight,” Young sounds dangerous. Warm, careful, considered, but with a wildness, these three moments alone make the album worthy of rediscovery. The latter is one of his greatest bruised ballads.

As it is, though, This Note’s For You, which suffers slightly from brash, overly bright production, isn’t the best representation of Young’s time with The Bluenotes. That happened out on the road.

He had first started messing with horns during his 1987 tour with Crazy Horse, bringing guitar technician Larry Cregg onstage sometimes to blow rudimentary saxophone. When the tour ended, he pursued the idea, assembling a brass section of established LA players, but keeping the edges rough by drafting veteran associates into unaccustomed roles: Ben Keith trying alto sax, Crazy Horse guitarist Poncho Sampedro on keyboard.

In a move reminiscent of his time fronting The International Harvesters, whose tours pointedly avoided the rock circuit for country-music friendly fairs and rodeo arenas, Young took The Bluenotes out in a series of determinedly small club dates either side of the album’s release. As the bootleg recordings prove, it was here the album’s flat up-tempo numbers – traditional show opener “Ten Men Workin’” with the assembled band’s great, ragged shouts and grunts – really blasted and made sense. Far more arresting, though, is how Young’s gnarly old side increasingly comes out: his guitar grows vicious and melds with the horns, and the R&B melts and mutates into something else entirely.

Young recorded all these shows, and a double live LP, Blue Note Café, was prepared and then  – as is his way – not released. (Two tracks, one the definitive version of “This Note’s For You”, later turned up on his contract-obliging 1993 compilation for Geffen, Lucky Thirteen).

A version of Blue Note Café finally came out in 2015 as part of Young’s Archives series, a mere 27 years after the fact, and a thick, funky, gritty stew it is. The best This Note tracks rage and brood (“Crime In The City” remade as widescreen Peter Gunn adventure; spine-tingling simmers through “Just One Thing” and “Twilight”), while unexpected back catalogue reworkings are head-spinning: the closing, wasted, 20-minute prowl across “Tonight’s The Night,” complete with garage-Batman bass and “Knock On Wood” horns, is a thing of particular wonder.

All the same, it’s the new songs Young was writing while he was working with this band that really showed him catching fire again: long, strange, scary trips like “60 To 0,” which would turn up in drastically truncated form as “Crime In The City,” on Freedom, and the extraordinary epic “Ordinary People,” the Bluenotes’ 1987 recording of which eventually saw light of day on 2007’s Chrome Dreams II.

This Note’s For You is a pretty easy album to like. A third of the songs you could love. But in retrospect, what’s truly exciting is the thing you hear brewing beneath it all, the thing that would soon explode.