The first American “supergroup”, this ensemble changed the face of early 70’s music in much the same way that Bob Dylan had transformed the music of the early 60’s.
Dylan had built a bridge from folk to rock, plugging the conscience of the protest song into a big electric amp. Then along came CSN&Y, out of their respective source bands: David Crosby from the venerable Byrds, who had been more than merely instrumental in helping Dylan push the folk-rock envelope; Graham Nash from The Hollies, who had set new standards of precision for jangly British pop; and Stephen Stills and Neil Young from Buffalo Springfield, who had startled the hell out of everyone by jumping on their pop rock soapbox and pointing a finger at the insanity of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention.
This motley quartet reinforced Dylan’s bridge in the other direction, starting with a bright mix of radio-friendly pop and lean, muscular rock, then infusing close harmonies, warm acoustic guitars, and a rich, dark vein of cautionary messages for the younger generation. As subversive as their politics might have been to some, however (and their blistering Ohio makes no bones about whom), they also wore a sweetly benign countenance, completely unfeigned and without irony. Songs like Teach Your Children and Our House were not just sentimental warm fuzzies, but practical illustrations of what would one day come to be known as “family values.” And nobody’s mother would have suspected that Marrakesh
Express might not be entirely about a train. Yet make no mistake, these guys were cool. Hey, they not only played at Woodstock, man, they sang the freaking theme song.
Neil Young’s on-and-off relationship with the others (he did not even join the band until after their first album) actually enhanced their dynamics, ensuring a shifting flow of big sounds and little, loud and intimate arrangements, simple harmonies and elaborate vocal counterpoint. What with all the comings and goings, though, and through their occasional squabbling, and what with David Crosby’s problems with drug addiction and his years spent in jail stemming from those problems, the group did not release a second studio album as a foursome for another eighteen years after the phenomenally successful Deja Vu.
The thing about breakups, though, is that they are best followed, at whatever length, by reunions. This band has had its passion reignited this way numerous times over the intervening years, to the group’s betterment, and to no small acclaim. All four, additionally, have supplemented their catalogues with very fine (and in a few cases, classic) solo projects. Stills and Nash sneaked in a couple of sterling duo efforts. Old Mr. Young crept off and paved the way for grunge somewhere in there, and Crosby clobbered his demons and came up singing. If you would like to read about it, check out Crosby’s autobiography, Long Time Gone. If you’d prefer to hear it, listen to any of their fine albums.