You see, 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.
Neil Young at 50, interview by Nick Kent, Mojo magazine, December 1995
One of Neil Young‘s most underestimated albums is also one of his most sincere. The story of attempting to communicate with a seriously handicapped son and an angry record company.
During the inception of Reprise Records the record company was synonymous to its founder Frank Sinatra, but from 1968 onwards, and especially in the early 1970s, the Reprise Records label was linked to Neil Young. In 1976 all label operations were transferred to main label Warner Bros., with the exception of Frank Sinatra (because he regarded his recordings as his personal property) and Neil Young (at his personal request).
Following the release of the Re·ac·tor album on November 2, 1981, Neil Young signed a deal with the recently founded Geffen Records. Besides his wish for “creative freedom” being granted, Young would receive $1 million per album.
In 1972 Young became a father for the first time when his son, Zeke, was born. Zeke had a mild form of Cerebral Palsy (CP), which is a group of movement disorders that appear in early childhood caused by abnormal development or damage to the parts of the brain that control movement, balance, and posture. Parts of the brain don’t work or work differently with people with CP.
Zeke’s mother, Carrie Snodgress, decided to take care of her son when her relationship with Young ended in 1975. Young met Pegi Morton and they married in 1978 and the same year their son Ben was born. Ben had the same syndrome as his older brother, yet his symptoms were far more severe. From 1980 to half 1982 Young spent almost every minute of his free time on a therapy program for his son, who was unable to speak.
The world didn’t know of Young’s private issues, but noticed something was different. The music became more repetitive (representing the exercises he did with his son), which was also apparent on his latest Reprise Records album.
By the end of 1981 Young started work on the successor to Re·ac·tor. Songs for the next album were recorded with Crazy Horse. As time went on the influence of Crazy Horse changed and synthesizers and a vocoder entered the music. The music was inspired by Kraftwerk, which represented a completely new influence for Young. However, the main reason for the songs and the new approach weren’t born from a new musical challenge, but to give a voice to the effort Young put in trying to communicate with his son. But, by this time, the music wasn’t intended for immediate release.
In May 1982 Young recorded a number of in Hawaii, entitled Island In The Sun, which Young described as “a tropical thing all about sailing, ancient civilizations, islands and water”. The songs were rejected by David Geffen (founder of Geffen Records). Anyone remember the promise of “creative freedom”?
Young returned to the synthesizer/vocoder songs and compiled an album under the moniker Trans: 3 songs off the rejected Island In The Sun project , supplemented with 6 synthesizer/vocoder songs.
By then, Young had been home for quite a while and was eager to go out on tour. From July 13 to October 19, 1982, the so-called Neil Young & The Trans Band Tour was organized, which brought Neil Young and band to the US and Europe, where Young debuted songs off the upcoming album to a, at times, stupefied audience. Due to the tour, time was scarse and the new album was rush-mixed and rush-finalized. So swift even, that the cover and lyric sheet contained the existence of a 10th song, named If You Got Love, which didn’t make it to the eventual album. A unique feat for Young, who was known for his meticulousness.
On January 10, 1983, Neil Young’s 12th studio album, Trans, his first for record company Geffen Records, was released. Both fans and critics didn’t know what to do with the album. At the time, no-one knew of the illness of Young’s zoon Ben, and the cause for the album, never mind the message Young tried to convey. The shock of the use of electronics and the fact that Young’s voice was practically unrecognizable on 6 of the 9 songs, due to the vocoder use, was too great for many, especially when compared to the previous Re·ac·tor album, which was heavily influenced by guitar, post-punk and krautrock. Besides, the combination of synthesizer/vocoder songs with the 3 regular Island In The Sun songs seemed illogical. With Mr. Soul, the album contains a (beautiful) update of the 1967 Buffalo Springfield original.
Geffen Records didn’t believe in the album, and the supporting film Young wanted to make, was scrapped. The film was meant to provide background information to the album’s storyline, which would probably have helped the press and audience’s appreciation for the album’s messages, and could have helped album sales. With promotion at an absolute low, bad reviews and an audience that didn’t get the album at all, Trans was the worst selling Neil Young album ever (to date).
Neil Young’s vision
So, what’s Neil Young’s take on Trans? Neil Young talks about the album on his website neilyoungarchives.
TRANS is one of my best records, from a standpoint of being misunderstood. Trans was made with the idea of supporting it with a series of videos that went with the story.
Bots of all kinds, with their digital voices sang the words and melodies of a tale of communication for the disabled, those of us who cannot speak. Here, these folks, especially my son Ben Young, were cared for by robots trying to help them learn how to communicate. The story (not the same as HARVEST) was never understood by GEFFEN records and they cancelled funding for the videos, eventually suing me for making ‘music uncharacteristic of Neil Young.’
© neilyoungarchives, June 12, 2019
The neilyoungarchives website sites December 29, 1982, as the release date for Trans, even though Neil Young, when answering a question of a fan, mentioned the release date as being January 10, 1983:
I have read that TRANS was actually released in early January 1983, after being pushed back by Geffen from its original release date. Everywhere else I have seen the December 29 release, so I was wondering if there was truth to this, or if it’s nothing but a rumor.
Release date was 1 10 83
© neilyoungarchives, February 16, 2022
Despite neilyoungarchives citing the ‘old’ date on the Trans information page, I stick with January 10, 1983, as the official date of release.
I realize I have the advantage of hindsight. At the time I didn’t know the album. I purchased it much, much later, after the release of 1993’s Unplugged album. That album contained both Mr. Soul and Transformer Man, two songs off the Trans album. Two beautiful songs to be exact. Transformer Man in particular, possesses a moving beauty.
Trans indeed sounds like no other Neil Young album, and with its electronics and vocoder holds a unique position in his entire body of work. Yet, songs like Computer Age, We R In Control, Sample And Hold and Mr. Soul are truly magnificent. To me (again with the advantages of hindsight) it’s inconceivable that people were unable to look past the presentation. That’s particularly true for the stunning Transformer Man, which is part of the best work Young ever recorded. The lyrics are tear inducingly gorgeous and moving.
Transformer man, transformer man
Sooner or later you’ll have to see
The cause and effect
So many things still left to do
But we haven’t made it yet
Every morning when I look in your eyes
I feel electrified by you.
© Neil Young 1982
The closing Like An Inca is a classic Young song with some great lyrics (“I feel sad but I feel happy as I’m coming back to home / There’s a bridge across the river that I have to cross alone”).
Despite the lack of faith in the album, Geffen Records still released 4 singles off the album.
- Sample And Hold
(released in 1982)
- Little Thing Called Love
(released in December 1982)
- Mr. Soul
(released on March 14, 1983)
- Computer Age
(released in June 1983)
All songs written by Neil Young.
- Little Thing Called Love
- Computer Age
- We R In Control
- Transformer Man
- Computer Cowboy (AKA Syscrusher)
- Hold On To Your Love
- Sample And Hold
- Mr. Soul
- Like An Inca
- Neil Young – vocals, vocoder, guitar, bass, Synclavier, electric piano
- Nils Lofgren – guitar, piano, organ, electric piano, Synclavier, background vocals, vocoder
- Ben Keith – pedal steel guitar, slide guitar, background vocals
- Frank Sampedro – guitar, synthesizer
- Bruce Palmer, Billy Talbot – bass
- Ralph Molina – drums, background vocals
- Joe Lala – percussion, background vocals
From July 13 to October 19, 1982, the Neil Young & The Trans Band Tour was organized in the US and Europe. Five days before the Trans album’s release, Neil Young went on tour again, using the moniker Solo Trans Tour. He played in the US and Canada from January 5 to March 4, 1983. In 1986 the laserdisc Neil Young In Berlin was released, containing the last show of the Neil Young & The Trans Band Tour on October 19, 1982.
Following the release of Trans David Geffen apparently more or less demanded a rock ‘n’ roll album from Young. True of false, in 1983 Young released the 25 minute rockabilly album Everybody’s Rockin’, which sold even worse than Trans. David Geffen had had it: in 1984 he claimed $3 million in a lawsuit, because Young didn’t make typical “Neil Young-albums”. The reply (predictably) was: “By definition, Neil Young makes Neil Young-albums”. Young counter-sued Geffen for $21 million for breach of contract and for limiting his artistic freedom. Both lawsuits were dropped and David Geffen apologized to Young in person.
In 1985 the country album Old Ways was released, which sold slightly better than its both predecessors. In 1986 Young released Landing On Water, on which, 5 years later, Young himself commented he considered it to be “a piece of crap”. In 1987 the live album Life saw the light of day, which wasn’t a real success.
In the summer of 1987 Warner Bros. announced it would reinstate Reprise Records again. In October 1987 the label paid $4 million to Geffen Records: Young was back home. After the bluesy This Note’s For You (1988), which sold more than all Geffen Records albums, Young’s commercial status was completely restored in 1989 with the release of Freedom. The album sold over 2 million copies.
For years Neil Young has stated that Island In The Sun will be released, as would be the case with the Trans movie, in the way it was originally intended in 1982. To this day, both remain unreleased.
In 1984 daughter Amber Jean was born. In 1986 Neil and Pegi Young organized a (acoustic) concert to fund a new school in California, especially equipped for children with physical and speech problems. This concert became an annual event up to 2016 (called the Bridge School Benefit Concert). Over the years the Youngs were helped by artists like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Don Henley, Willie Nelson, Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel and the former colleagues of Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young).
Pegi often accompanied her husband on the road, bringing their son Ben with them. In August 2014 the divorce of Neil and Pegi Young was announced. Neil had met actress Daryl Hannah while working on an Amnesty documentary. In 2018 Young married Hannah. That same year Pegi was diagnosed with cancer, to which she succumbed on January 1, 2019.
Trans is a special album in Neil Young’s body of work and within the history of (pop)music. What’s your opinion? Let me know!
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Neil Young schocks with the release of Trans.
Because Neil Young has deleted all his music from Spotify in February 2022, the A Pop Life play list hasn’t been updated.
Non credited quotes coming from Neil Young at 50, interview by Nick Kent: Mojo magazine, December 1995
Neil Young – Live 1982 image: ultimateclassicrock.com
Neil Young – Trans – Ad image: invaluable.com
Neil Young – Trans image: songssmiths.wordpress.com
Neil Young – Live 1982 image: yahoo.com
Neil Young – Trans – Singles & Neil Young – In Berlin images: discogs.com
Neil Young – Trans – Back cover (including If You Got Love mention) image: twitter.com
Neil Young – Soundcheck Birmingham 1982 image: weartemutants.com