Teachers can have a huge influence on their pupils. I can remember two instances whereby my ability at Maths was made public to the whole class. The first time was probably when I was about nine years old and I found a way to multiply by nine and Mr. Ladlow was so impressed that he stopped the lesson to get me to explain my method to everyone. The second time was when I was about thirteen years old and I had factorised a quadratic expression one way but Miss Henson had factorised it another way. She marked my answer wrong and said, quite loudly, that I would never be any good at Maths. Despite that I chose to take two both Pure and Applied Maths at A level. I think the main reason I got good at Maths was because, as a family, we were always playing board or card games and I also played a lot of dice cricket which involved lots of mental arithmetic.
I never really thought about whether I wanted to take A levels or whether I wanted to go to University. It was only inertia that saw me apply to take Maths at Degree level. I never thought about anything else. My offer at Royal Holloway was that they would admit me if I got two grade “B”s at A level. I was quite pleased that if I didn’t manage to get these, they would let me in if I got two grade “C”s but I would have to take Maths with Statistics or Maths with Computer Science. I didn’t really know what Statistics or Computer Science involved but it was reassuring to know that I would have got a place if I just missed out. Modesty forbids me to talk about the two grade “A”s I got but I’ve always believed that by acquiring high grades, I deprived myself of a chance to become a millionaire.
In my First year at Royal Holloway, I studied four Maths modules but I got friendly with a great guy called Dave who, because of his A level grades was taking two Maths modules and two Computer Science modules. His course sounded interesting. In my Second year I had the chance to take a First Year Computer Science module and I loved it. Whereas I really didn’t like the Maths modules and I didn’t really have a clue as to what anything was about, the Computer Science module was fascinating and I spent hours and hours writing programs. It transpired that it was too late to change to a Maths and Computer Science course. Dave did well in his exams and subsequently got a very well paid job and the last I heard of him, he had highly successful career whereas I became a teacher. I don’t regret that but it’s interesting how things might have turned out.
In the early Seventies, the use of computers was not particularly widespread and anyone with computer skills was at an advantage. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers” lists the dates of birth of all the people who were successful in the early days of developing the use of computers. Bill Gates = October 28th 1955. Steve Jobs = February 24th 1955. Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google) = April 27th 1955. Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) = January 21st 1953. My date of birth? June 14th 1954. I’m not suggesting that I was ever as clever as any of these people or had anything like the drive to succeed that they did. However, I do think that if I had not done as well in my A levels, my skill levels at Computer Science would have been rare for the time. Any older and I would have been stuck in the mainframe business. In 1975, when I graduated, the computer age was just about to take off. As I said, I don’t regret anything – think of all the children that have sworn at me, insulted me, disobeyed me or ignored me over forty years. I wouldn’t have missed that for anything.
The computer age. “Trans” by Neil Young wasn’t released in 1975, it was released in 1982. It’s vilified, ridiculed or dismissed by a lot of people but that’s a mistake. In my opinion. The concept of the album is hugely interesting and it’s a hugely enjoyable, if ultimately very sad listen. If the excessive use of a vocoder is okay for Bon Iver in “22 A Million”, (2016) it should be even more impressive that Neil Young was adopting the same technique thirty four years earlier.
“Trans” (1982), “Everybody’s Rockin'” (1983) and “Old Ways” (1985) were all released on the Geffen label after Neil Young had left Reprise. Having listened to the electronic wizardry of Trans, David Geffen told him that he was expecting a rock’n’roll album so Neil Young made a very short album of rocakbilly songs, nothing like he’d ever made previously. When David Geffen asked him why he couldn’t make country albums like he had done previously, he recorded “Old Ways” which featured many traditional country and western artists and was nothing like “Harvest”. In the end David Geffen sued Neil Young for making “unrepresentative albums”. After David Geffen withdrew the lawsuit and apologised, Neil Young left Geffen records and returned to Reprise. The moral of the story is never, ever, attempt to tell Neil Young what to do. Here’s what he said about albums he released in the Eighties. “The 80s were really good. The 80s were like, artistically, very strong for me, because I knew no boundaries and was experimenting with everything that I could come across, sometimes with great success, sometimes with terrible results, but nonetheless I was able to do this, and I was able to realize that I wasn’t in a box, and I wanted to establish that.”
Neil and Pegi Young’s son, Ben, was born in the late Seventies with cerebral palsy and unable to speak. In his efforts to find ways to communicate with his son, and musically inspired by the music of Kraftwerk, Neil Young decided to release an album consisting of tracks from two projects he had been working on. He took three tracks from an unreleased album called “Island In The Sun” which are, in my opinion, nice, bog standard Neil Young songs with inoffensive melodies and vocals. He also used six other tracks which he originally recorded with Crazy Horse in the style of “Re-Ac-Tor” but, as Frank Sampedro, the electric guitarist with Crazy Horse put it, “next thing we knew, Neil stripped all our music off, overdubbed all this stuff, the vocoder, weird sequencing, and put the synth shit on it.”
After the opening song “Little Thing Called Love” which, presumably makes it clear that the whole album is made with love, the first track with unrecognisable vocals is called “Computer Age”. Neil Young’s voice is heavily treated by a vocoder and the words are great although we need the lyric sheet to hear the words. He is singing to his son, showing empathy for the electronic equipment that was being used to help and support him. He offers hope that one day things will be better but the use of the vocoder is a clear attempt to communicate. Here is what Neil Young said. “‘Trans’ is all about those robot-humanoid people working in this hospital and the one thing they are trying to do is to teach this little baby to push a button. ‘Trans’ is the beginning of my search for communication with a severely handicapped non-oral person.” I think that’s beautiful. There is a great video of the live performances that accompanied this album but, sadly, none of it is available on YouTube.
Using a vocoder to disguise his voice has two effects. One is to mimic the way in which Neil Young and his son are trying to communicate with each other. The other effect is to hide the sadness and frustration that Neil Young must have felt in this situation. During 1980 and 1981, Neil and Pegi Young signed up to the Institute For The Achievement Of Human Potential which meant that they were spending twelve hours every day in mental and physical exercises designed to help their son. Rather than dismiss this album as unlistenable, I think it is better to think about an artist expressing heartbreaking emotion in a particularly sensitive and appropriate way.
“Mr. Soul” was first recorded by Buffalo Springfield in 1967. It’s a brilliant song and expresses worry and anxiety about the effect of fame. One of the key lines occurs after he comes across a fan who says “You’re strange but don’t change“. In response, he sings “Is it strange I should change“? I guess that one of the reasons that this song is on this album (complete with vocoder effects) is to confirm to Neil Young’s fans that producing an album which doesn’t fit into their expectations is a way of life for him. Remember that he explained that after “Harvest”, he was in the Middle Of the Road but he later headed for the ditch because it was more interesting.
My favourite song on the album is “Sample And Hold” which is a dialogue between a human and a business selling robots. The human asks for “a unit to sample and hold” and he is told that they can provide “perfection in every detail – we know you’ll be satisfied when you see your unit come alive.” It’s hypnotic and although I’m not an expert on Kraftwerk, it seems to mimic the plodding insistent drone sound that I associate with “krautrock”.
I’m sure Neil Young has been a brilliant teacher for his son. Ultimately, this is a very sad, tragic album expressing real heartfelt emotion.