Neil Young’s Return to Glory

More than a comeback record, 1990’s Ragged Glory set the table for a rock music revolution

Ragged Glory at 30

The 1980s weren’t particularly kind to Neil Young.

After lording over the rock and roll universe from the late 60s through most of the 70s, the singer limped through a decade where he never quite found his footing. The hits that came almost second nature with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and as a solo artist dried up. Instead, the 80s marked a sort of lost era for Young, who spent much of the decade fighting with his label, experimenting unsuccessfully with new musical styles and making other records that only half heartedly played to his strengths. It wasn’t until the very end of the decade, in fact, that Young got back to his true rock roots. 

1989’s Freedom arrived when Young needed a hit more than any other time in his career. Trans, released in 1982, befuddled listeners by leaning heavily and unexpectedly into synths and electronics. The next year, Young pivoted too sharply in the opposite direction by making a ridiculous detour into 50s-infused rockabilly on Everybody’s Rockin.’ 1985’s Old Ways was in some respects a return to Young’s folk pedigree, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy Geffen Records, which had unsuccessfully sued the singer for making non-commercial music. As for 1986’s Landing on Water and 1987’s Life, the less said about them the better.

What Young needed and eventually found by the close of the 80s wasn’t a reinvention, but a retreat back to the brawny rock and roll that has always burned hottest inside him. After finally severing ties with Geffen, Young responded, ironically, with his biggest hit of the decade. Freedom’s skillful mesh of heartland folk and shit kicking rockers put Young back in the driver’s seat like the previous eight or nine years never happened. It also set the table nicely for Ragged Glory, which not only further cemented his reemergence as a Godlike elder statesman from rock and roll’s old school, but also bridged his music over to a whole new wave of music. 

Neil Young + Crazy Horse Ragged Glory, Reprise 1990

After years spent bubbling beneath the surface, grunge was poised to change the face of popular music, but it arguably needed someone with some mainstream bona fides to help it cross over. Young was almost 45 at the time of Ragged Glory’s September 1990 release, old enough where on paper it seemed his time had passed for leading any sort of musical youth movement. But he was nonetheless exactly the kind of raunchy, defiant time-tested icon that could soften up mass audiences to this new sonic shift. To that end, Ragged Glory wasn’t just the best record Young had put out in more than a decade. It arguably served as a catalyst for the impending grunge explosion the following year. 

Unlike the try-too-hard efforts that dominated much of his output the previous decade, Ragged Glory is a far less deliberate record that benefits from a decidedly back-to-basics songwriting approach. With his Crazy Horse cohorts in tow, Young retreated to his Broken Arrow Ranch in Redwood City in April 1990 to record the record, stripping away the gimmicks and heady concepts that weighed down much of his 80s work like excess baggage. By contrast, Ragged Glory is a loose, shaggy affair that dwells in volume, distortion and the uglier, baser side of rock and roll. The record starts off with “Country Road” and “White Line,” two tracks the band took out of mothballs after having originally written and performed them in the 70s. “Country Home” spells out the gnarled record’s M.O., stretching more than seven minutes in length to give space for multiple extended guitar solos. It’s one of four tracks that barrel past the seven minute mark, all of which at some point overstay their welcome. But if Young and Crazy Horse go (too) long at times on Ragged Glory, the record’s indifference to tight pop structure is ultimately its reason d’etre. Young lets go of any fucks he had to give in favor of letting everything hang out. As he put it on the stomping garage rager “Fuckin’ Up,” “It’s how you look and how you feel, You must have a heart of steel.”

The songs on Ragged Glory are given a long leash, but they don’t stray much from many of Young’s most classic attributes. Musically, it’s a brasher descendant of 70s masterworks like Zuma and Tonight’s the Night. But it also covers a lot of familiar thematic territory, locking in firmly to the singer’s proud hippie ideals.

Imagined Neil Young + Crazy Horse Ragged Glory Tour 1991 poster (Art: Ron Hart)

“Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” celebrates the splendor of nature while also ruing a devastating future that potentially awaits it. “Respect Mother Earth and her giving ways, or trade away our children’s days,” Young and Crazy Horse caution over a backdrop of distorted guitar. Pacifism also looms large over the record, with “Love and Only Love” acting as a plea for peace in the face of mankind’s many ills. Even with middle age setting in, Ragged Glory proved Young’s unwillingness to let his values and ideals age with him.

At its core, Ragged Glory is a garage rock record, and a pretty impeccable one at that. But its most commonly associated with grunge. Young evidently felt some sort of kinship with younger bands who, having cemented their reputations as underground kingpins, were on the cusp of breaking through to the mainstream. Social Distortion opened for Young and Crazy Horse on the heels of the release of its self titled major label breakthrough in 1990. So too did Sonic Youth, who built off the success of Daydream Nation with its second offering for Geffen Records, Goo.

A year later, Ragged Glory’s influence on grunge became even more evident with the rise of the Seattle sound, and it particularly struck a chord with Pearl Jam. Ten’s agile mix of arena rock heroics and punk rock grit mirrors the sound and attitude Young and Crazy Horse harnessed on record the year before, and the band would only strengthen its bond further with Young in the years to come.

 

VIDEO: Neil Young + Pearl Jam perform “Rockin’ In The Free World” at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards 

In 1993, the singer joined the band onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards for a roaring rendition of “Keep on Rockin’ In The Free World,” a collaboration that sowed the seeds for 1995’s Mirror Ball, for which Pearl Jam served as Young’s backing band. ‘Fuckin’ Up,” meanwhile, continues to be covered regularly by Pearl Jam in concert to this day. 

After a prolonged period spent lost in the creative weeds, Young emerged anew in the 90s with a new moniker in tow. The Godfather of Grunge not only cemented his legacy as a rock hero, but by embracing rock music’s new guard he established credibility with younger audiences and a new generation of fans, many of whom undoubtably found their way back to yesteryear classics like Harvest and Rust Never Sleeps.

Ragged Glory not only allowed Neil Young to be Neil Young again. It also empowered a new musical movement that helped return rock music to mainstream supremacy.  

 

 

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Ryan Bray

Ryan Bray has written for Wicked Local, Consequence of Sound, AV Club, Village Voice, and Washington City Paper. Follow him on Twitter @feedbackbos.

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