“More Than Just a Number”: Defending Neil Young’s ‘Trans’

By Richard McKenna / January 16, 2017

neil-young-trans-19821982 was the year The Future began to supplant The Past. It began with Time magazine’s claim that “Video Games Are Blitzing the World,” and ended with the home computer being made the publication’s “Machine of the Year” (allegedly bringing Steve Jobs, who coveted the title, to tears). 1982 was also the year that Disney released Tron, perhaps the film most responsible for a generation obsessed with the idea of fusing the real world with a digital one. It was understood that this was to be a world made by and for the young, their fearless, agile digits tapping away on the keyboards of the estimated 621,000 home computers in American households. By the end of the year, six percent of U.K. families owned one, twice as many per capita as the U.S., and the “highest penetration rate in the world.” The socially suspect hobbyists of only a year or two before were becoming the innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

The year also witnessed the compact disc “revolution,” the small, neat, expensive piece of silver and rainbow technology that would consign its cardboard and vinyl predecessor to the tomb, as well as the release of Robert Moog’s MIDI interface, that nemesis of the “authentic musician.” As the popularity of disco music had grown in the late 1970s, rock critics had become suspicious of the synthesizer—unless utilized in its rock/prog incarnation. Unlikely futurist paladin Barry Manilow’s decision to replace his live orchestra with synthesizers spooked the U.K.’s Musician’s Union so much that their Central London Branch moved to ban or restrict their use “in both live and recorded work.”

As absurd as it might look now, the MU’s defensiveness as regards jobs was understandable. In recession-steeped Britain, Margaret Thatcher was staring down an unemployment rate of nearly 13%, the worst it had been since the 1930s, while in the U.S., Ronald Reagan watched unemployment sink into double figures for the first time since 1941. Traditional industrial and manufacturing jobs were disappearing, the ones that remained were as insubstantial as holograms, and there was widespread worry that industrial robotics and automation were taking over what jobs were left. The 1982 music charts, though, seemed to have been beamed in from another dimension. The biggest hit singles of that year were “Eye of the Tiger,” “Down Under,” “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Ebony and Ivory,” and “Come On Eileen”—hardly the frigid, precision-tooled robot rock today’s revisionist narratives make of the ‘80s charts; it is proof, instead, of how important concepts of “authenticity” played out at the time, from Survivor’s yob-rock to Dexy’s ersatz-Irish traveller schtick.

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Neil Young soundchecking before a gig at the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre, September, 1982

A conflicted world, then, equal parts inspired by the luminous beeps emerging from the dark arcade and terrified by the unfeeling chrome clippers snipping off our human futures. It was a world where parents who had grown up surrounded by the reek of petrol and oil watched their children engage with the dream of a sleeker, cleaner world that spoke its own languages, and where even Clive Sinclair, the British computer mogul behind the ZX81 and Sinclair Spectrum, admitted he was concerned that computers might have desocializing effects: “We have to watch very carefully that you do not remove the rituals of things like shopping or banking. Sometimes it is possible for something to disappear before people realize that it is what they want to keep.” This was the context into which Neil Young—who, despite repeated attempts to disillusion his audience of the idea, was still seen as an earthy, backwards-looking rocker—released his 12th LP, the glossily packaged, computer-themed Trans, which many of his fans saw (and still see) as an unforgivable betrayal.

Trans as Artifact

Trans is famous and infamous for several reasons: in addition to being possibly Young’s least loved LP, it was also nominally the record that caused his record company to sue him for supplying them with deliberately non-commercial, “uncharacteristic” material. The story behind the record is a well-known and genuinely affecting one: Young’s son Ben suffers from severe cerebral palsy and the record was made after an unproductive couple of years spent trying to create a communicative bridge between them. Young, a lifelong model train lover, customized the electronic controls of a train set to allow Ben to use it, and adopted the vocoders, synthesisers and Synclaviers he had been introduced to by Kraftwerk in an attempt to find ways to facilitate communication. (Young and his family can be seen speaking about trains and Ben’s condition here.)

The first striking thing about the Trans LP is its cover: there are no gauche paintings, grainy photos, or wholesome folksy typefaces. Even the modern-feeling but still “authentically” Young cover of his previous album, Reactor, looks cheap and a tad retrograde in comparison. The cover of Trans sets out Young’s manifesto for the record right from the off: it looks like the high-gloss packaging for a video game—a great video game.

trans-sleeveOn the right side of the image, a bongo-carrying, Young-like rocker is set against a wooded backdrop, hitching a lift into the vanishing point. On the left side, a digitized essence—a glowing wireframe humanoid—is hitching a lift towards a future city street of expressionist skyscrapers. The interpretation is an easy call, given Young’s rep: the empty sheen of the future versus the authenticity of the past. Except that it doesn’t look like the Chevy is slowing down, while on the other side of the picture the gull-wing, clearly DeLorean-esque door of the sleek vehicle is already open. The Chevy is heading towards the sunset for consignment to the past—and not even deigning to help a fellow relic get there—while the futuristic car is heading out of the cover and into the present. The picture (painted by Barry Jackson, the artist who provided the covers for ZZ Top’s Afterburner and Recycler, as well as the best-known poster for Escape From New York) deliberately creates ambiguity, using the right side of the image to create feelings of comfort that contrast with actual events, and performing the same trick the other way round on the left. Dissonance and mixed messages create a tension Young plays with all the way through Trans.

The LP’s inner sleeve is a photo by Moshe Brakha (who had provided covers for the Ramones and photographed Devo), showing Young with his Gresch guitar and a Harley Davidson t-shirt seen reflected in a kitschy, guitar-shaped mirror, his shadow stretching out towards the motorbike visible in the background. In front of his mouth is not the usual singer-songwriter harmonica but the headset microphone of a Cape Canaveral operator. The back cover collage illustration of a mechanical heart, credited to one Tetsu Nishi, deepens the record’s mystery.

I Sing the Body Electric

The misconception about Kraftwerk’s music is that there is something inhuman, perhaps even fascistic, about its implied longing for a world free of the terrifying mess of existence. But Kraftwerk never wanted a world of gleaming, emotionless roboter; they wanted a world in which nobody has to suffer, and that’s why attempts to parody them, and often even to imitate them, usually fall flat.

“Kraftwerk were sad,” said music journalist and rhetorician Paul Morley of the groundbreaking electronic band in his 2003 book Words and Music:

It was the sadness of life… The sadness of doing something knowing that it all comes to nothing. This came from the way their music was based around a pointless longing for a new version of the past that would never be brutalized by the Nazis, for a past that looked forward to a utopian future they knew… could never come true…

Kraftwerk were sad because we cannot remain innocent for long.

kraftwerk-circa-1980

Kraftwerk, circa 1980

Somehow, despite the gulf between them, Young understood this about Kraftwerk, and realized too that the sounds of electronic music—those deep, internal thumps, clicks and pulses, cracks and gurgles—run at least as deep within us as the twangs, screeches, and reverberations of our “real” instruments. In fact, in the context of Trans, it is the guitars and the untreated vocals in the three “normal” songs on the album, originally recorded for another record altogether, which often sound artificial, the electronic music sounding in comparison smoothly organic—“The computers and the heartbeat all have to come together here—where chemistry and electronics meet,” as Young himself put it to biographer Jimmy McDonough in McDonough’s 2002 Shakey.

As opposed to sounding like Neil Young doing a pastiche of Kraftwerk, Trans sounds surprisingly as though Young is appropriating the approach Kraftwerk took to motorway travel, trains, and computers, and applying it to himself—and he shows a gift for identifying what made Kraftwerk’s vision so compelling. His plaintive melodies fit perfectly, and his keening cry prove oddly suited to the Vocoder and chorusing, often making the lyrics themselves redundant, allowing the timbre of his voice alone to become the instrument. Young also shows mastery of the Kraftwerkian habit of using unresolving nursery-rhyme melodies to create emotional tension, making these songs seem at once from the far future and the distant past—or perhaps from the future of which we once dreamt, leaving us with the elegiac sensation of a post-humanity still experiencing the emotions—ambivalence, love, melancholy—of its makers.

Confusingly, given the album’s cover, Trans starts with the bluesy rocker “Little Thing Called Love,” one of the three non-electronic tracks mentioned above, which Young seems to be using to cushion the introduction of his new sound. It’s a sweet, catchy song that must have reassured those dreading the arrival of the robots. The shift to the second track, “Computer Age,” is as disorientating as emerging from a time machine in a different epoch. With its looping, mechanistic riff and Young’s voice, initially untreated, gradually turning into a wavering signal over the length of the song, “Computer Age” makes a perfect introduction to the ambivalent world Trans offers us, with a middle eight that sounds like an anthem for the synthetic networks now blanketing the world: “Precious metal lines/Molded into highways/Running through me/So microscopically.” It’s a confusing place, but there’s hope and emotion and even a strange sense of dignity: “I’m all right/Standin’ proud before the signal/When I see the light, I know I’m more than just a number.”

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Young accompanied by Jawa-attired roadies during the Rust Never Sleeps tour, 1978

The “precious metal lines” return in “We R in Control,” which, though nominally a rant against the encroaching dominance of technology in our lives, seems almost to take pleasure in the increasing, reassuring functionality of the world. When the voice reeling off a list of the things “we” control suddenly starts rendering them as computerized tones rather than words, it is a beautiful little metaphor for the human race’s “dominion” over nature starting to slip.

The electronic beats that start the next track, “Transformer Man,” seem to promise more alienation, but then Young’s voice comes in, vocoded yet full of tenderness, and the song reveals itself to be a plaintive, hopeful song of encouragement to his son, a touching belief in the future and the power and possibility of communication and change—especially through the power of electronic interfaces.

After the catchy and uptempo “Hold on to Your Love,” the first song on side two, lulls the audience once again into familiar terrain, Young launches into “Sample and Hold,” a long, grinding jam that describes, tongue-in-cheek, the ordering of a robotic perfect woman. What stands out are the sounds Young brings together, the vocal melody made luminescent by the vocoding soaring over the Crazy Horse-like rumble in the background (unsurprisingly, members of Crazy Horse play on the record).

“Sample and Hold” is followed by Mr. Soul, a cover of one of Young’s own songs, written while he was in Buffalo Springfield, and turned here from garagey, vaguely “Satisfaction”-esque R&B stomp into a pulsing electronic boogie, the snarled vocals of Young’s original tirade against celebrity calm here against a chorus of vocoded, pitch-shifted voices. With only the searing guitar solo seeming to contain any of the spleen of the original, it almost seems some kind of self-parody—Young’s attempt to do to his own classic what Devo did to the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” And Trans ends with “Like an Inca,” which closes without a trace of sequencers, synthesizers, or vocoders, but is rather a wistful—and long—apocalyptic rambler that asks, “Why should we care about a little button/Being pushed by someone we don’t even know?”

trans-world-tour

* * *

In Rolling Stone‘s four-star review of Trans, the ominously-named Parke Puterbaugh commented that “despite his penchant for shifting gears from record to record,” Young “has always sunk his roots deep into the good earth, the fertile loam, of the American singer songwriter tradition,” and fretted that Young and his ilk were turning into “computer clones.” It would be disingenuous to pretend that Trans isn’t in some ways a confusing mess—it is, and the dissonance between the rock and electronic stylings risks alienating lovers of both. Yet, with a little perseverance, Trans feels almost prescient, perhaps because the borders between the various perceived city-states of popular music are so much closer to one another nowadays than they were at the time. Kraftwerk is obviously the most direct influence on the album, but there are also echoes of Devo and other bands that were working in the overlap between electronic pop music and rock, like San Francisco’s The Units.

Despite the album’s poor reception, the songs are catchy and affecting. As music critic Robert Christgau wrote at the time, “robots sound more lifelike if they’re singing those grade-A elegiac folk melodies Young makes up when he’s in the mood, because (Trans) is as tuneful as Comes a Time.” Given the entrenched prejudice against anything sounding un-rock, however, Trans was marked a sellout before it was even spun. The robots that were stealing the jobs were now stealing the music, and Young was cashing in, taking the side of the Silicon Valley autarchs. To Young’s fans at the time, if you liked computers, you didn’t give a shit about human emotions. It was as simple as that.

But Trans was pertinent upon its release—to the atomization of traditional manual work, to the integration of the PC into human existence—and it is timely once again today, as the reality that brain may soon join muscle in the refuse bin of economic history begins to make its presence felt. Voices that a couple of years ago were sounding off about the profound opportunities awaiting whoever adapted quickest to “new technologies” are sounding slightly less confident now that their own nicely-appointed offices risk becoming a quietly humming server farm in Bangladesh or Greenland.

Trans is an album about transcending boundaries, about communication and incommunicability between generations and between individuals. Despite the contrasting messages, Young is always underlining his belief that love, humanity, and perseverance will still exist, even in the postulated computer age. Without pointing fingers at either the nostalgic traditionalists or the future-eager technophiles, Young attempts to create a bridge of optimism and hope between both worlds—the past and the future—that must inevitably become one.


McKenna AvatarRichard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.

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3 thoughts on ““More Than Just a Number”: Defending Neil Young’s ‘Trans’

  1. I would have bet money that “Parke Puterbaugh” was a pseudonym for Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, parachuted in by Rolling Stone to review a perplexing album that they thought was up his alley. But it seems he’s actually a real person.

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