Thursday, July 19, 2018

Certain Songs #1268: Neil Young – “Transformer Man” | Medialoper

Album: Trans
Year: 1982

Recorded at Broken Arrow Ranch on December 11, 1981

(Or I How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The BEEP BOOP)



What the fuck?

No, seriously, what the fuck?

This is the fuck: Trans was Neil Young’s 12th solo album, but it was the first album he recorded for Geffen Records after leaving Reprise for his longtime friend David Geffen’s brand-new label. And while all of the usual suspects are on it — Crazy Horse, Nils Lofgren, Ben Keith, even Bruce Palmer from Buffalo Springfield — it didn’t sound like anything he’d done before, which was on purpose: Neil stripped all of the “normal” instrumentation from the songs and added synth riffs via the Synclavier and ran his vocals through a vocoder.

Transformer man, transformer man
You run the show (duh-dul-duh-duh-diddle-duh)
Remote control (duh-dul-duh-duh-diddle-duh)
Direct the action with the push of a button
You’re a transformer man
Power in your hand
Transformer man, transformer man

The goal: to reproduce the frustration he felt trying to communicate with his son, Ben, who had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and had necessitated Neil and wife Pegi go through a very long and arduous therapy program for much of 1980 – 1982. This has already affected his focus on the two previous albums, and now it affected the actual music.

But here’s the thing: none of this music was ever intended for release: it was all recorded while he was under contract w/ Reprise, and he’d actually decamped to Hawaii with the gang and they’d recorded a whole album called Islands in the Sun, which was scrapped when David Geffen thought “meh.”

So my take on it was Neil was like fuck this and went back to the new wave tracks instead of recording new ones, commissioned an actually pretty cool album cover and just combined the two projects. Neither the first nor the last time he’d do such a thing. But it was the first time where nothing on the album sounded like what you’d expect from an artist so established.

What threw me even more than the new wave songs — I mean the man had worked with Devo in the late 1970s — were the rock songs bookending the whole thing: “Little Thing Called Love” nor “Like An Inca” felt like Neil Young lite, and made even less sense bookending all of the synthy-new wave songs than flat-out Crazy Horse rockers would have.

In any event, twenty-year-old Jim was having none of it. The rock songs were wussy and the synth songs were unintelligible, and even though Tim stanned hard for Trans, it felt like a misfire, an instant punchline, and while I occasionally tried to get it, it escaped me.

Transformer man, transformer man
Sooner or later you’ll have to see
The cause and effect
So many things still left to do
But we haven’t made it yet
Every morning
When I look in your eyes
I feel electrified by you. Oh yes


After becoming the manager of the Video Zone, I purchase Neil Young Live in Berlin — which I vaguely recall watching on probably Nite Flite or some such thing — to play at the store on occasion. But I usually skip the Trans songs for the more rockier stuff, because of course I do.


Over a decade later — a no doubt a few failed attempt to to wrap my head around trans — Neil Young Unplugged comes out, on the heels of his commercial rebirth, and while most of the performances are . . . fine, the one I truly love is “Transformer Man,” which, stripped back to an straightforward folk rock song — backing vocals emphasized and Spooner Oldham’s organ replacing all of the synths — is absolutely gorgeous. So I went back to Trans, and kinda got it a little more. Nah. Not really. But I tried.

Nevertheless, “Transformer Man,” at least this version, sticks in my head, and makes it too all subsequent Neil Young best-of tapes, CDs and playlists.


During the heyday of Usenet, somebody posted a rip of the DVD of the aforementioned Neil Young Live in Berlin, and both “Transformer Man” and “Sample and Hold” jumped out at me, though admittedly they weren’t all that different from the album versions — and in the video I’m posting below only reinforces that fact, though I kinda love the goofy dance the as-always-up-for-anything Nils Lofgren is doing — and at the time, the highlight of the set from me was the song “Berlin,” written specifically for the show, and probably never performed since.

But I didn’t go back and dig up Trans proper. I’d already done that.


In preparation for these posts I want to be throrough and give Trans (and Landing in Water) (though not Everybody’s Rockin’ cos there are limits) one last go-round in light of my tastes widening as I’ve gotten older. And maybe because we’ve had a decade of auto-tune and robots and ever other damn thing, in popular music, Trans finally made sense to me. I got the juxtapositions between the vocodered leads and human backing vocals, and the tension between the synths and Neil’s never-tamed guitars and suddenly, it wasn’t just “Transformer Man,” but “Computer Age,” “Sample and Hold” and even “We R in Control.” Hell, even “Like an Inca” stole some of its melody from “Hitchhiker.” It all really is one song.

I’d never say that Trans is a great Neil Young album, but I do now think that it’s his best record between between Rust Never Sleeps and Life — which sure, isn’t saying that much — and even with the yacht rock songs, pretty much succeeds on its own terms. Transformer man, indeed.

“Transformer Man”

“Transformer Man” live in Berlin, 1982

“Transformer Man” MTV Unplugged, 1993


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