On August 26th, in Malibu, Neil Young recorded ten songs in a single sitting. He then sobered up and did something else. “Hitchhiker” adds very little to Young's back catalogue, which is bristling with incredible, surprising and occasionally baffling work
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Neil Young has a cupboard full of unreleased material that diehard fans would sell vital organs and body parts just to hold in their hands. Sometimes he’ll resurrect old material, give it a spitshine and record it; sometimes he’ll delve back into the archive and yank out something fully formed – something like “Hitchhiker”, which dates back to 1976 and is as raw an album as you’re likely to get from a major artist. Recorded live, with no overdubs and very much “warts and all”, it’s been spoken about in hushed whispers in americana circles for years. And now, after 41 years, Neil has finally put it out. Is it any good? Sort of.
On August 26th, 1976, Neil Young entered a Malibu recording studio with his longtime producer David Briggs and a friend, the actor Dean Stockwell, to record a clutch of new songs. And that’s what he did, pausing only, in his own words, “for weed, beer, or coke”. Briggs had little to do but roll the tape while Young accompanied himself on Guitar or Piano. Many of the songs he recorded that day, would be re-recorded on subsequent albums, but three – “Hawaii”, “Give Me Strength” and the title track make their debut here. If Young intended this to be a follow up to the magnificent “Zuma” he was misguided. These songs range from the excellent (“Powderfinger”) to the just-about-OK (“Campaigner”), the performances however, lack the ragged majesty of his recordings with Crazy Horse or his more considered work on albums like “Harvest”.
You can’t second-guess Neil Young. Maybe “Hitchhiker” was intended to sound narcotically woozy, complete with instrumental fluffs and the occasional out of time knocking on the body of a guitar. As a document of a moment in time, it’s peerless. As an album that would sit between “Zuma” and “Long May You Run” – well, there’s not a record company in the world that would have allowed it to come out in this state. Young’s career swerves are the stuff of legend, throwing in oddball rock and roll, grunge and just plain atonal albums almost at random, into his discography. Maybe “Hitchhiker” was the “stoned troubadour” album he’d planned to make all along. Or maybe he just went into a studio, got “comfortable” and recorded some new material. It then quietly slipped into legend, along with “Smile”, CSNY’s “Human Highway” and dozens of “lost” albums that never quite live up to their mystique.
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“Hitchhiker” is aimed purely at Young obsessives. If you really want the first recorded versions of “Pocahontas”, “Ride My Llama” and a bunch of others, here they are. Cherish them. Everyone else should be directed to the albums that these songs first appeared on. There is something charming about these recordings – raw, spontaneous and heartfelt and if you’re the kind of person that enjoys looking at blueprints and sketchbooks, you’ll enjoy this record. If you judge this album on “importance” in the context of Young’s discography, then it’s up there with his most “important”. If you’re judging it purely aesthetically, well, you’ll be disappointed. They sound like demos. Demos that occasionally hint at greatness, but demos nonetheless. Only “Powderfinger” really impresses here, but that song is so robust, it would probably sound incredible no matter what the circumstances were.
August 1976. Elvis had just twelve months to live. Punk rock was just beginning to make the old guard nervous. Disco was poised to conquer the world. On August 26th, in Malibu, Neil Young recorded ten songs in a single sitting. He then sobered up and did something else. “Hitchhiker” adds very little to Young’s back catalogue, which is bristling with incredible, surprising and occasionally baffling work. If you’re the kind of person that has to have this album, you’ll love it. Everyone else – move along. There’s nothing to see here.