This was the ultimate West Coast super-group of the sixties.
Graham Nash had left the Hollies because of their narrow Pop sensibilities and headed for the delights of Laurel Canyon with its band of pioneering musicians and singer-songwriters. He was looking to soak up that alternative vibe being created by the West Coast bands and wanted broader horizons with more depth than could be achieved with a British Beat group still looking to churn out chart hits. He was fired with idealism and the desire to change the world, produce music that had integrity and feel fulfilled. He ended up living with Joni Mitchell who was one of the greatest songwriters of the era so I guess things went well.
Stephen Stills was a major force in Buffalo Springfield who were one of the top West Coast bands. He brought his song-writing skills, voice and exceptional guitar playing.
David Crosby was a founder member of the Byrds but fell out with the others and got kicked out. He was outspoken, out on the edge and extreme and brought his maverick personality, song-writing and beautiful voice.
Neil Young was brought in following the first couple of albums to boost the instrumental attack, particularly live. It was a strange decision to bring him in because he was also a member of the ill-fated Buffalo Springfield and it was the clashes of egos between him and Stills that had largely been the reason the band had broken up. But he was an immense talent and brought his incredible song-writing, guitar playing and unique voice.
On paper this was a volatile group of people, unlikely to come together in the first place and with an amoeba’s brain chance of lasting. Strangely they did. At least the band went forth in a variety of combinations – duos, trios and quartets and has lasted through to this day. We can largely lay that at Graham’s door as he was the master mediator who managed to pour oil on those troubled waters.
I caught them, as Crosby Stills and Nash, at a gig in the MEN arena in Manchester and got an escorted tour backstage. Seemingly the band does not get along. They each play on a square of their own carpet because they swore they would never play on the same stage together. They each have their own luxury coaches equipped with bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms so they can travel separately. They each book into different luxury hotels wherever they gig and they never socialise together. The only one to appear at the lavish backstage do was Graham. It was his home town and he was meeting up with old mates. The other two had scarpered to their respective hotels.
This brings me to the music which was powerful and divine. It certainly made all of Graham’s efforts worthwhile. They were sublime.
It was the music that united them and superseded their animosity towards each other. When they came together jamming in their front rooms in Laurel Canyon they discovered that their voices created a unique blend. It was so good that it over-rode all other considerations. This was a band that had to form. The musical chemistry was a sure-fire catalyst for the production of something extraordinary. When you combined the beauty of that vocal harmony with the equally dynamic song-writing talent, personalities, musicianship and performers it was unbeatable. When you added in the ingredient of the political and social message that they all felt inspired to ally themselves to you had a package that had substance. They were a powerful force on the West Coast scene with its anti-Vietnam stance and desire for social change. They were the voice of the counter-culture. They stood for equality, freedom and justice against the might of the establishment.
The pinnacle of their performances for me was the brilliance of Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’ a paean to the four students gunned down by the National Guard when protesting the war on campus at Ohio State University. Neil wrote the most powerful song that encapsulated the feelings of a generation and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young delivered the message like a nuclear warhead.
Those sixties albums are immense and then to see them reform to deliver another blow for freedom and justice with their anti-Gulf War concerts was really stimulating. They helped galvanise a generation to bring about change.
They are still just about together on stage and their music is as powerful as ever.