For years I shied away from the work of Crosby, Stills and Nash (both with and without Neil Young). There was something a little too soft and fluffy about them, and they seemed to embody the self-congratulatory happy-clappy West Coast vibe of millionaire rock stars totally out of touch with their audience. They were the posterboys of the peace and love generation, but they just seemed a little too disconnected from any sort of reality to be credible. Sure, their credibility was enhanced a hundred-fold when Neil Young joined them, thus making CS&N CSN&Y, but that move ultimately highlighted the shortcomings of the original trio rather than strengthened their music.
My initial misgivings aside, when I saw So Far at the right price, I was emboldened to give it a shot. A compilation that cherry-picks the supergroup’s first two albums and a standalone single may seem somewhat redundant (certainly no less an authority than Graham Nash himself seemed to think so at the time), but it was a strong seller at the time and it boasted cool artwork by the band’s contemporary Joni Mitchell. A release like this you would hope would highlight CSN&Y’s strengths and downplay their weaknesses, thus making it an ideal purchase for a fair-weather fan like me who wants the best, but can do without the rest.
Kicking off with the David Crosby’s haunting “Déjà Vu” works well, as it’s one of the strongest songs penned by one of the original trio, infact it’s fair to say that the first few tracks show Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at their best, both as a trio or as a quartet. The harmonies frequently sound like an even more lush Simon & Garfunkel, and each of the four members of the band bring their own songwriting strengths to the table, though it’s obvious from the twin twee guilty pleasures that are “Teach Your Children” and “Our House”, that Nash was a former member of The Hollies, and Stephen Stills always clung to the belief that he was the rock musicians rock musician.
Then it happens, that seismic shift in the group’s dynamic that would underline that while they were a supergroup, the star of one of their number would always shine a lot brighter than the others. “Ohio” is a great protest song, certainly one of CSN&Y’s signature tunes, but it also demonstrates that while CS&N needed Y, Y didn’t particularly need CS&N. I get the impression that if Neil Young had gone into the studio with Crazy Horse to record “Ohio” it would have sounded even more angry and ragged, but not hugely different, thus confirming that Young could stamp his authority on a song regardless of who he was recording with. It’s not just “Ohio” either, as “Helpless” is very much a Neil Young song with Crosby, Stills and Nash on backing vocals. Egos have always played a major role in the story of CSN&Y, but it has been a regular pattern that Crosby, Stills and Nash will always come running whenever Young calls. Sure, they have a grumble about him when he’s off playing with other musicians (even to the point where they badmouth the individual musicians), but they always seem happy to hoover up nostalgic dollars with him when he does tour with them.
The last third of this compilation is where Crosby, Stills and Nash’s weaknesses are most apparent, with the limp “ Guinnevere” and the not-that-impressive “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, two of the best known tracks from their debut album. At under 45 minutes running time, there was probably room for “Marrakkesh Express” too, but it was inexplicably omitted from this compilation.
Following the release of this compilation in the mid 70s, CSN&Y became even fractious, argumentative and ego-driven. When they did stop squabbling long enough to record new material it was rarely as impressive as what is on offer on So Far, thus making this probably the best purchase for anyone except the out and out CSN&Y fan. If you’ve never been particularly convinced of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s worth, then I would encourage you to give this economical compilation a chance. While you may not become a total convert, it certainly made me realise that there was a whole lot more to CSN&Y than I had always assumed.