Neil Young’s God Save the Queen and other childhood songs
Unexpectedly, unimaginably, I find myself very interested in Neil Young’s new album Americana. Ie, Neil Young reunited with Crazy Horse. Positively excited. It’s been ages (well, April) since anything has had as much rock in it as, oh, Jack White’s Sixteen Saltines. “I eat sixteen saltine crackers then I lick my fingers.”
I haven’t cared for a Neil Young record since Tonight’s the Night. No? Alright, Stars ‘n’ Bars. Trans? Honestly — Sleeps with Angels, and that was 1994. C’mon, there was Live Rust (1979!) and there was the stuff after. (Pcitured: Chief Crazy Horse)
But, but here’s Americana. And the extra good extra contemporariness of it is that Young did not write any of the songs; they’re old tunes, schoolyard ditties: She’ll Be Coming Round the Bend; O My Darling Clementine; Oh, Susannah; God Save the Queen (Young sang it every school morning growing up in Canada). He has hacked the lot, ripped them up. For his Jubillee cover of God Save the Queen, Young has resurrected and mashed in a rarely sung verse from My Country ‘Tis of Thee (there were many, folk kept adding to suit their needs), America’s pre-Star Spangled anthem, which, ironically, repurposes the imperial tune:
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their empty tricks,
Fondly our hopes we fix…
God save the Queen
This sweetly elegant album (kidding, *sigh*) has confused the critics, poor things, with the Guardian critic making this headscratch: “It sounds great – there’s space between all the instruments, with none of the compression that blights many albums today. It also feels almost impossibly pointless.” Oh dear, what the point is of those lyrics above, who could say? What Americana feels like (to me, if we must make that explicit) is old school, ie Neil Young the Godfather of Punk, Crazy Horse, Ohio, 1972, wild horses — what happens on the instruments after the calculations.
(Naturally, another reviewer, at Consequence of Sound, hears it the other way: “Of these [Dylan's, Springsteen's, et al] folk re-visitations, Young’s record is the least ambiguous, eager to make a point.“)
Here’s the video for God Save the Queen, showing the coronation of QEII. The use of archival black and white footage seems a handy trope for the videos released for this set (worth watching just for some very old clips). But as the song segues into My Country ‘Tis of Thee note the visual punchline: the identification of the “Queen.” Maybe that’s so blunt it’s “impossibly pointless”?
NPR’s Terry Gross has usefully interviewed Young about this album. He talks about God Save the Queen/My Country ‘Tis of Thee at the 14:00 mark; “It’s a great song,” he says.
I love the swampgroove of this version of Oh, Susannah with its antic cry, “Oh, Susannah, don’t you cry for me, Cuz I come from Alabama with my b-a-n-j-o on my knee.” The video — featuring Walker Evans-dirtpoor farm types — has a gorgeous little boy jitterhopping to his Pop playing his b-a-n-j-o, and then (the boy) lighting up a fag, and . . . smoking it. Exhaling through his nose. Ah, those old timers. (But look closely at their faces — there are nine of them in this video — the mother’s shy weariness, the pretty blonde girl with her unutterable sadness.) One part of the work these versions do is to excavate the dark roots, the rumours of violence and travail in these children’s singalongs; they function exactly the same way as the unsanitised fairy tales of the brothers Grimm — forewarnings of the life ahead.
I expect further exposure will make this all seem dirgey and obvious, or even impossibly pointless, but nothing lasts. Eh? Let’s rock, oh, Susannah!