Following the large commercial and critical success of Neil Young’s 1972 release Harvest, which charted at number one across the country, not only in Canada, but the US, the UK and other places, Neil Young’s music went into a transitional period. While the success of Harvest and the song “Heart of Gold” in particular did very well and brought Young success, there were a few other factors that would add to his personal situation, changing his outlook on music and the world.
While preparing for a tour in support of Harvest, Crazy Horse guitarist (of Neil Young’s backing band) Danny Whitten was fired from the band due to his inability to function properly in band rehearsals due to his drug use, shortly after he was found dead of a drug overdose. The vicious combination of success and loss changed something in Neil and it subsequently resulted in a series of three albums that at the time were not commercially or critically successful, often referred to as “The Ditch Trilogy”. The situation at the time can be best described by Neil Young himself as written in the linear notes to his 1977 compilation album Decade when discussing the song “Heart of Gold”:
“This song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."
It was also from this quote in which Neil’s next three albums (Time Fades Away, On The Beach, and Tonight’s The Night) were given the title of The Ditch Trilogy. In addition to this a few months after the death of Danny Whitten friend and roadie Bruce Berry passed away in a similar fashion. Young’s next release was the live album Time Fades Away that was released in 1973. This album was not like other live albums in many ways for one, it was a live album composed of previously unreleased material, which was unheard of at the time. Time Fades Away was recorded directly from the soundboard onto a 16 track Quad 8 CompuMix, which was the first digital mixing soundboard. This was done at the request of Young, producer David Briggs was strongly against this method. As a result of this unorthodox recording approach (a proper master tape was never made) the album features a muddy sounding mix. Time Fades Away was released on Vinyl, Cassette and 8 Track tape in October of 1973. Neil Young has been very outspoken as his dissatisfaction with this album. He has stated that it is his “worst release”, as a result Time Fades Away has never been released on CD. In 1995 a CD release was planned and test pressings were even made, but it was shelved and not released. Recently, it has been stated that it will be released on Neil Young’s second volume of his Archives Box Set along with Time Fades Away II. Young has been quoted from Guitar World in 2009 as saying about Time Fades Away II “It's a completely different thing, with completely different songs”
Time Fades Away was a sign of things to come musically for Neil Young, while Time Fades Away ventured into different music territory, his following two releases would continue the trend of being recorded live, but in the studio. Neil Young recorded the album Tonight’s The Night next in 1973. The album was inspired by the deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and Young friend/roadie Bruce Berry. For the album Neil Young put together a new backing group known as The Santa Monica Flyers, which was a band featuring the rhythm section of Crazy Horse and Nils Lofgren on guitar. The albums title track “Tonight’s The Night” mentions Bruce Berry by name and the track “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” features vocals and guitar from Danny Whitten (the song was a live recording from 1970). The album is known for featuring darker subject matter and for its raw, often crude production style. The album was recorded live with no overdubs and was meant to capture the band in the moment, with or without mistakes. Neil had this to say of the production values in Shakey: A Neil Young Biography:
"I’ve made records where you analyze everything you do 3,000 times and it’s perfect. I’m sick of it. I want to make a record that’s totally stark naked. Raw. I don’t wanna fix any of it. I don’t care if it’s totally out of tune, man, let’s play. Fuck it…. I like the idea of capturing something. Record something that happened. I’m a musician. I don’t wanna sit there and build a record. I built a couple of records. Big deal. Tonight’s the Night doesn’t care. And that makes you feel good about it. There’s no pretense."
Despite being recorded in 1973, Tonight’s The Night’s released was delayed Young’s record label, it would be two years (1975) before it finally saw its release. In the meantime during the delay of this release Neil Young recorded what would be his 1974 release On The Beach.As opposed to the two previous recordings made in the trilogy, On The Beach was a more upbeat and melodic album. The album was recorded in a similar method as Tonight’s The Night and lyrically addressed more universal themes such as the collapse of the 60s Folk values and counter culture as well as addressing the underbelly of seedy California lifestyles. While The Ditch Trilogy is known for addressing darker and at time haunting themes lyrically and musically, the song “Walk On” which opens the On The Beach album is perhaps one of the most positive, yet cynical outlooks on life. The song can be seen as a sense of closure for this period stressing the need to move on and keep living. On The Beach was released in July of 1974, and despite being the third album recorded in The Ditch Trilogy, it was released second with Tonight’s The Night following in 1975.
The initial releases of the three aforementioned albums in The Ditch Trilogy are known for their haunting brilliance. At the time of their release they were for the most part negatively received commercially and critically, but are now seen as very important recordings in the career of Neil Young. In addition to this, these albums are seen as the key to understanding Neil Young’s body of work as an artist and can be seen as an ultimate artistic expression. The Ditch Trilogy shows an artist amidst overwhelming success and loss, expanding creatively, musically and lyrically, finding a voice.
1. Tonight’s The Night (Tonight's The Night 1975)
2. Time Fades Away (Time Fades Away 1973)
3. Walk On (On The Beach 1974)
4. World On A String (Tonight's The Night 1975)
5. The Bridge (Time Fades Away 1973)
6. For The Turnstiles (On The Beach 1974)
7. Yonder Stands The Sinner (Time Fades Away 1973)
8. Last Trip To Tulsa (Live) (Time Fades Away B-Side 1973)
9. Don’t Be Denied (Time Fades Away 1973)
10. Last Dance (Time Fades Away 1973)
11. Lookout Joe (Tonight's The Night 1975)
12. Mellow My Mind (Tonight's The Night 1975)
13. Revolution Blues (On The Beach 1974)
14. Vampire Blues (On The Beach 1974)
15. Ambulance Blues (On the Beach 1974)
16. Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown (Tonight's The Night 1975)
17. Tonight’s The Night Part II (Tonight's The Night 1975)
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