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Neil Young - G-Geffen Vs Young

  by Andy Cassidy

published: 16 / 4 / 2012

Neil Young - G-Geffen Vs Young


Andy Cassidy, in his 'A-C's A-Z of Music', examines the 80's lawsuit between record company boss David Geffen and Neil Young, which ensued after Young released a set of experimental albums

Eighty years ago, around four miles from where I’m sitting now, civil law (as we know it today) was born. The story of Donoghue vs Stevenson is well-known the world over, but the gist of it was that, for the first time, it provided legal precedent for an individual to seek financial remuneration for a harm caused by another, whether deliberately or through negligence. Litigation has, as we see every day, expanded into a billion dollar industry, and, as with any industry, it is not without its oddities. Take Ernie Chambers, the US Senator who, in 2008, filed a law suit against God seeking an injunction against God’s harmful activities. His lawsuit failed because God could not be provided with the statutory notification of the suit on account of His not having an address… Then there is the case of the Romanian prisoner, identified only as Pavel M, who endeavoured to sue the Romanian Orthodox Church (as God’s agents on Earth) for failing to keep him from the devil. Gerald Mayo tackled the problem from another angle when, in 1971, he attempted to sue “Satan and his staff,” alleging that “Satan has on numerous occasions caused plaintiff misery and unwarranted threats, against the will of plaintiff, that Satan has placed deliberate obstacles in his path and has caused plaintiff's downfall,” thereby depriving him of his constitutional rights . A brief google search for “strange lawsuit” yields the following oddities: The tenants who sued to have their rent refunded on account of their home being haunted ; the circumcised man who sued on account of having been “robbed” of his “prowess” , and the New York bartender who is suing his ex-employer and colleagues for sexual harassment and assault, claiming that her co-workers would often make penis-shaped dumplings and then hold them to "their crotch areas making it look like they had big penises." Perhaps with all of that in mind, David Geffen’s lawsuit against Neil Young in 1983 wasn’t so unusual. As any fan will tell you, it can be hard work following Neil Young. No sooner did he strike commercial gold with ‘After the Goldrush’ and ‘Harvest’ than he delivered a series of albums (‘Journey Through the Past’, ‘Time Fades Away’, ‘On the Beach’ and ‘Tonight’s the Night’) and live shows which left his fans wondering where the gentle folkster whose ‘Heart of Gold’ had stormed the charts in 1971 had vanished to. Then, as has become customary with Young, he changed direction, reuniting with Crazy Horse for the acclaimed ‘Zuma’. For the remainder of the seventies, he switched between country folk (‘Harvest’, ‘Comes a Time’, one side of ‘Rust Never Sleeps’, one side of ‘American Stars and Bars’) and overdrive soaked hard rock (‘Welfare Mothers’, ‘Like a Hurricane’, ‘Powderfinger’, ‘Fontainebleu’). The eighties began with the now out of print soundtrack to the Hunter S Thompson biopic ‘Where the Buffalo Roam’ (don’t bother to look out for it – it’s mainly Young performing instrumental versions of ‘Home on the Range’.’). Young’s first “real” release of the decade was the similarly schizophrenic ‘Hawks and Doves’, and was followed closely by his most ambitious, and perhaps most detested album to date, ‘Re*ac*tor'. One can imagine label bosses at Reprise were happy to get Young off their books when, in 1982, he signed to David Geffen’s label. His first album for Geffen was the ambitious ‘Trans’, and, as a project, it very nearly worked. The album’s Kraftwerk-style music and Young’s vocoder-treated vocals are incredibly effective, especially on tracks like ‘Sample and Hold’ and ‘We R In Control’. Sadly, it seems that either the label or Young himself lost their nerve and decided to play it safe by including some “straight” songs on the album. This diluted the power of the concept, and the album was generally received as a failure. His second offering for Geffen, the 24 minute ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ REALLY pissed people off. Geffen reportedly hated it. Young, his characteristic contrariness to the fore, championed it and took it on the road with new touring band, the Shocking Pinks. It came down to two strong-minded individuals with two opposing views: David Geffen wanted another ‘Harvest ‘and another ‘Heart of Gold’. Neil Young wanted to grow as an artist. This opposition came to a head over Young’s third project for Geffen, ‘Old Ways’. A straight-out country record, Geffen rejected it flat. Young insisted. Geffen insisted. Eventually, Geffen opted for legal action. His opinion was that, when he signed Neil Young to his label, he had signed someone who would make albums like ‘Zuma’, ‘After the Goldrush’ and ‘Harvest’. Young had, for the time at least, moved on. It was Geffen’s contention that Young’s music didn’t sound like the sort of music that one would expect from Neil Young, and so one of the strangest legal actions in rock history was born – David Geffen sued Neil Young for “deliberately sabotaging his career” by releasing “uncharacteristic” music, in other words, suing Neil Young for not behaving like Neil Young. Young reacted with characteristic coolness, and firmly stated that as long as Geffen stalled on the release of his country music, he would keep playing country. “I told them,” Young said, “the longer you sue me for playing country music, the longer I’m going to keep playing country music.” Fortunately, the matter was resolved without bloodshed. Young’s return to Reprise in 1987 saw a return to form that many doubted was possible (his first ten years back with Reprise yielded ‘This Note’s for You’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Ragged Glory’, ‘Harvest Moon’, a triumphant ‘Unplugged’ set, the ‘Weld/Arc’ live album, ‘Sleeps with Angels’ and a collaboration with Pearl Jam on’ Mirrorball’). Geffen went on to make millions from Nirvana, the Stone Roses, Sonic Youth and many, many more and is one of the three founders of Dreamworks Studios. He is also deeply involved in ongoing litigation to prevent the public from accessing the beach in front of his Malibu home. Old habits die hard… As for lawsuits, well since researching this piece, I’ve subscribed to literally dozens of legal websites’ mailing lists – you just never know when the next woman will blame McDonald’s for driving her to prostitution or file for divorce because her husband wants her to dress as a Klingon … Remember: if there’s blame, there’s a claim… 1. Donoghue vs Stevenson [1932] UKHL 100 2. http://journalstar.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/chambers-sues-god-in-protest-of-another-lawsuit/article_4d2e1076-aa4e-5d8b-865f-818061e657ff.html 3. United States ex rel. Gerald Mayo v. Satan and His Staff, 54 F.R.D. 282 (W.D.Pa. 1971) 4. http://blogs.findlaw.com/legally_weird/2012/04/tenants-fear-rental-house-is-haunted-sue-for-refund.html 5. http://blogs.findlaw.com/legally_weird/2012/04/man-28-sues-over-circumcision-that-robbed-him-of-prowess.html 6. http://blogs.findlaw.com/legally_weird/2012/04/nyc-restaurant-fed-celebs-penis-shaped-dumplings-lawsuit.html 7. http://blogs.findlaw.com/legally_weird/2012/03/prostitute-blames-mcdonalds-for-driving-her-to-prostitution.html 8. http://blogs.findlaw.com/legally_weird/2012/04/wackiest-reason-for-divorce-being-forced-to-dress-as-a-klingon.html

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