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A Guide To: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

By Nathan McLaren Stewart

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In 1970, legendary San Francisco music promoter Bill Graham called Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young “the American Beatles”. It’s a comparison that's stuck with the supergroup to this day - something they undoubtedly deserve, having cemented themselves as one of the most successful groups of the late 1960s and early 1970s. With their political views nestled next to sincere love songs and hidden amongst ethereal harmonies, the group were arguably the only American band to have the same societal impact The Beatles had. This was due to two reasons: first, their ability to write immaculate lyrics and music, and second, they arrived at just the right time. After the British Invasion had calmed down following the disbanding of The Fab Four, the group offered an American alternative to the Rolling Stones and The Who, singing songs that worked parallel to the time. From their formation to this day, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young remain one of the most integral American bands in history.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where and when the group began. The earliest variation of David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash formed one night amongst a haze of marijuana at Mama Cass’ (of The Mamas & The Papas) house (this is certainly when Nash entered the picture), despite the band having continued to disagree with each other over this. As their harmonies were heard for the first time, music was inevitably changed forever. Stills had recently ended Buffalo Springfield; Crosby had been kicked out of The Byrds and Nash was persuaded by the sunshine of LA to leave The Hollies. After recording their debut, Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1969, the band were to embark on a U.S. tour, with additional support from backing musicians. Signed to Atlantic Records, label founder Ahmet Ertegun suggested Neil Young - Stills' former bandmate in Buffalo Springfield - join the group for the shows. Though there was initial reluctance from both parties, the band hit the road as a foursome and played their second-ever show at Woodstock.

It was Deja Vu, the group's second album that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, that totally changed everything for CSNY. With the addition of Young, the band's potential in writing and recording was unparalleled. Their political viewpoints hit harder, granting them acceptance as figures in the counterculture movement. Crosby in particular was not one to sit on his opinions - his rant on Nixon at Monterey Pop Festival did get him the boot from his former Byrd bandmates, after all - but together, CSNY channelled this into some of the boldest anti-war tracks committed to tape. ‘Ohio’, the most iconic protest song of them all, was a no-holds-barred number that took stabs at Nixon over the death of four college students in an Anti-Vietnam War protest on a college campus. ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, an offering from Crosby, is a hippie anthem awash with police paranoia and the call to let your “freak flag fly”. To totally juxtapose this, ‘Our House’, a song written by Nash during his love affair with Joni Mitchell, is one of the most beautiful and iconic love songs ever written. ‘4 + 20’ is a tragic ballad of a man who started and left this world with nothing, whilst ‘Teach Your Children’, inspired by a Diane Arbus photograph of a child playing with a toy grenade, is an honest call for setting good examples.

But inner turmoil within the group would become as notorious as their music would become popular. Over the years, the band have conflicted dramatically. Ego became the group's major downfall, exacerbating under the shadow of the 70s' relaxed attitude towards drugs and addiction. According to road manager Chris O’Dell, cocaine was hidden in vitamin pills on the bands ‘74 tour, while Nash recalls one crew member simply being there to provide various narcotics to keep them going. Dressing rooms were like war rooms; greed and selfishness were rife and it was remarkable the band made it on stage each night. To this day, the relationship of the band is fragile: in Crosby’s 2019 documentary, he stated, “All the guys that I made music with won't even talk to me.” In an interview with the Post Gazette, Nash confirmed this: “the truth is, none of us are speaking to David. Not me, not Stephen, not Neil. That’s the way it is.” Of course, it wasn’t just the band members that were the root of the issue. Managers, promoters and record companies were all looking to rip off the supergroup and steal every penny. True, the band have reformed occasionally over the years, but such underlying feuds aren’t so easy to get over.

Though each hold their own weight and influence on contemporary music, when put together, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and Neil Young created unwavering magic. Though a full CSNY reunion may never happen (their last show was in 2013 and their last tour was in 2007), the 50th anniversary of Deja Vu serves as a reminder of how important the supergroup were in the evolution of popular contemporary music. They created a sound that could never be achieved by another group of musicians; they wrote songs that remain, 50 years on, so relevant.

Here, Holler delves into the vital songs that made them one of the greatest groups of all time.

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'Marrakesh Express'

The first offering from Crosby, Stills and Nash was ‘Marrakesh Express’, the lead single from their self-titled 1969 record. Originally written by Nash for The Hollies, it was rejected for not being commercial enough. It bridged the gap between being in a quintessential British group to one that flew the flag for Los Angeles folk-rock like no other. It tells the story of a train journey Nash took in 1966 from Casablanca to Marrakesh, capturing what he came across on the ride. Stills was responsible for most of the musicianship on the track; the instrumentation embodying the breezy flow of the train journey carried through Nash’s lyrics and Jim Gordon’s drumming.

'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes'

In September 1969, CSN audaciously released the seven-minute ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ as a single from their debut record. Imitating the form of a classical music suite, an ordered set of musical pieces that were popular in dance music from the Baroque-era, the track has four distinct sections that are influenced by the ‘suite’ style of composition. Written by Stills about his ex-girlfriend Judy Collins, it pays testament to the deep knowledge the group possessed for various sounds, while exemplifying the stellar harmonies and unconventional creativity they could deliver.

'Guinnevere'

As noted by the man himself, ‘Guinnevere’ is possibly the best song David Crosby ever wrote. Such serenity fills the song with an intimate tenderness, as Crosby compares Lady Guinnevere to the three women he loved; Christine Hinton, who was infamously killed in a car accident, Joni Mitchell and another who he has never revealed. ‘Guinnevere’ became such a marvellous composition, that even the great Miles Davis recorded a version of the song, something which took Crosby many years to fully understand.

'Woodstock'

‘Woodstock’ is paramount to the understanding and appreciation of such an infamous era. Originally written by Joni Mitchell, CSNY released their version on Deja Vu and has since gone on to be a staple of classic rock, surpassing Mitchell’s version in popularity. The song comes full circle nevertheless; despite Mitchell writing it, she never attended the iconic festival – basing an account of the festival told to her by her then-boyfriend, Graham Nash. Original demos of CSNY’s version even feature Jimi Hendrix playing bass and overdubbing guitar. The anthem is synonymous with the 1960s counterculture, while unquestionably becoming the best version of the song.

'Teach Your Children'

Much like ‘Marrakesh Express’, ‘Teach Your Children’ was written by Nash for The Hollies. Known for collecting photographs, Nash was inspired to write the sincere and tender song by a picture taken by Diane Arbus, which depicts a child playing with a toy hand grenade. It’s a deeply moving composition; the country twang from Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel accompanies incredible harmonies that deal with themes of universal peace and love. After Garcia recorded his part for the song, CSNY would aid the Grateful Dead in improving their own vocal harmonies for years to come.

'Our House'

Joni Mitchell is a constant theme of CSNY’s music - the muse of various love songs out of Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon. The most known though is this iconic number from Nash; written whilst he was living with Mitchell, he described the song as “an ode to countercultural domestic bliss.” The song is simple but deeply effective; written in just an hour on Mitchell’s piano, he’s recalling a day where they went out for breakfast and bought a cheap flower vase. His ability to write a beautiful song from such an ordinary and relatable moment became a hallmark for the group.

'Ohio'

Here is one of the most important protest songs ever recorded. The band’s political standing was made crystal clear with Young’s brooding guitar tones and anti-Vietnam war sentiment. Unlike the majority of CSNY’s music, ‘Ohio’ is dark and unwavering; recounting the events at Kent State where four innocent, unarmed students protesting the expansion of the Cambodian Campaign were murdered by the National Guardsmen. Taking sharp jabs at Nixon’s Administration, the song was banned from AM radio stations, including in Ohio state. After its release, the band were made leaders and spokesmen for the American counterculture - truly coming to define CSNY.

'Helpless'

‘Helpless’ is a classic Neil Young song. Originally recorded for his band Crazy Horse, he saved it for CSNY - simply feeling that it would suit them better. After multiple demos, with the band struggling to decide on an arrangement, they settled on the slow and simple version heard on Deja Vu. The song focuses on Young specifically, referring to his upbringing in Ontario, Canada. It’s one of Deja Vu’s showpieces, his incredible vocal performance cementing how important he had become to the group.

The Deja Vu 50th Anniversary Edition is out on Friday May 14 via Rhino.