by Joshua Templin
In one of his least technical solos, Neil Young proves that attitude goes a long way.
Artist: Neil Young Song: “Vampire Blues”
Album: On the Beach Year: 1974
Genre: Rock Soloist(s): Neil Young
Solo begins at: 3:14
There are three tracks on Neil Young’s 1972 masterpiece On the Beach with “blues” in the title. Of those three tracks, only “Vampire Blues” resembles a traditional form for a blues track. Although it is very similar to a 12-bar blues, it is not quite one. This feeling that things are not quite right permeates through every fiber of the song and indeed the album.
Throughout “Vampire Blues,” the band plays a slow-footed groove that is casual and inviting. Young has told stories that the band members were often baked on a homemade syrup consisting of sauteed weed and honey and the music, with its addled pace, reflects that.
A woozy organ stumbles into a chord change about a bar late. Elsewhere, the drummer bangs out a fill that parallels the burnt-out feel of the track: there’s no need to adorn the fill with extra frills, it simply shows up to do its job.
The thing that keeps the track from descending into lazy cliches, and indeed keeps the whole ramshackle thing from falling apart, is that Young’s sense for songwriting in 1974 was unparalleled. Young’s composition and production on “Vampire Blues” matches the world-weariness of its lyrics. Young and camp avoid complexity here because the song’s effectiveness lies in its simplicity.
It’s hard to say whether Young wanted to pay homage to pared-down barroom blues or if he wanted to take the piss out of what blues had become. In ’74, playing the blues was a marker of “authenticity” for white musicians, a sort of shortcut to street cred. But artists like Eric Clapton and Paul Butterfield often played it with a po-faced reverence that ignored its ballsier, soulful side. Musicians like Clapton would pull blues further towards the mainstream, and further towards suburban white sensibilities, away from its hard-time back-alley beginnings. But “Vampire Blues” is not a boring retread, and it is defiantly un-mainstream. From its anti-corporate lyrics to the final solo that threatens to slide from a bar stool onto the dirty floor, “Vampire Blues” shows little concern for what might be popular.
There is a short first solo, and while it is a fine solo, it’s that second solo that sticks out as a rare bit of physical comedy told through the guitar. It is, essentially, an extended impression of the world’s saddest mosquito. Possibly, it’s the most effective example of an “anti-solo” ever put to record. In about forty seconds, Young makes his case for why he’s the godfather of grunge: it’s not just about his chops or his style, it’s about his attitude.
Musically, the solo is a game of chicken. Young rapidly picks the tonic note over and over, bending it and flattening it like a hunk of raw iron. With every second spent strangling that same note, Young dares the listener to blink. And the punchline to the joke is that the song never does open up. It ends on a simple little improvisation, fading out at around the four minute mark. Just when Young has set the scene for something, he sweeps the solo offstage like some poor schmuck at the Apollo.
The solo is a kind of sly inversion of that old adage that jazz is the notes you don’t play. On this bluesy rock track, it’s clear that Young has mastered the art of concision, stripping the solo down to one howling note. And Young sells the hell out of that one note, forcing it into the role of the tonal anchor of the song.
Throughout On the Beach, there are great riffs and melodic, lyrical solos. There are better changes, better lyrics and more interesting interplay between Young and his band members. “Vampire Blues” is the least essential song on the entire album, the whole of its strength relying on unbridled sloppiness. The song exemplifies Young’s attitude that rock ‘n’ roll can and should come unglued from time to time. “Vampire Blues” proves its blues acumen by laying bare Young’s humanity.