Certain Songs #1249: Neil Young – “Revolution Blues”

Album: On The Beach
Year: 1974

Recorded at Sunset Sound, Hollywood on April 6, 1974

There’s a reason that “Revolution Blues” sounds different from most other Neil Young songs: rather than the more straightforward rhythm sections he normally worked with he got Rick Danko and Levon Helm from The Band to play on it, as well as David Crosby on rhythm guitar.

The result is a song that is nervous and jumpy and jittery, Helm hitting his snare drum at seemingly random moments throughout, while Danko & Crosby are continually riding along with him. It all sets up a song where Neil is singing in character as one of the most notorious figures in American history: Charles Manson.

Well, we live in a trailer at the edge of town
You never see us because we don’t come around
We got twenty five rifles
Just to keep the population down
But we need you now and that’s why
I’m hanging around

Of course, Charles Manson was a wannabe songwriter, and it was widely known that he was friendly with the Beach Boys — totally incongruous, image-wise, I know — especially Dennis Wilson, as well as Neil Young. As a matter of fact, Neil was so impressed with Manson’s near-improvised lyrics, he pitched Manson to Reprise Records label chief Mo Ostin.

This, of course, was before the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders, which of course, freaked Neil out, and a few years later, he exorcised the whole thing with “Revolution Blues,” a song dark enough that David Crosby later regretted even playing on it, though his rhythm guitar played incredibly well with the jumping rhythms and as support for Neil’s typically exploratory guitar soloing, none of which was going to lighten the last verse of the song.

Well, I’m a barrel of laughs with my carbine on
I keep ’em hopping until my ammunition’s gone
But I’m still not happy
I feel like there’s something wrong
I got the revolution blues
I see bloody fountains
And ten million dune buggies
Coming down the mountains
Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars
But I hate them worse than lepers
And I’ll kill them in their cars

For his part, Neil Young wasn’t one of those famous stars: apparently he was one of the celebrities that Manson liked, or at least respected. Which, honestly, probably didn’t make things any better in Neil’s mind. As it turns out, “Revolution Blues” is not a song that Neil has consistently played over the years: it was part of the 1974 tour with CSNY, but after that he sat on it for over forty years, rarely if ever playing it.

“Revolution Blues”

“Revolution Blues” performed live w/ Promise of the Real, Barcelona, 2016

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