Graham Nash on his greatest albums: “No amount of technology can make a bad song into a good song”

The songwriting legend on his finest work, from The Hollies to CSNY

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To California, for harmonies in the canyons on the trio’s mighty debut

The West Coast was a change for me – full of sunshine, music, women, drugs, unbelievable. But the overwhelming thing was the music that we were creating. It was a very plain studio, there was only one tracking room plus the control room. I’d never been there before, but Stephen had worked with Bill Halverson, our engineer, a couple of times. When Stephen sat down and started to play his acoustic guitar, the equipment and settings Bill had been using on a previous session were still in play and it made the sound very different – Stephen loved it and he felt that Halverson was a genius. It was only later that we realised it shouldn’t have happened that way. Stephen wanted that sound from the acoustic guitar from that moment on. He had “49 Bye-Byes”, “Helplessly Hoping” and “You Don’t Have To Cry”, all those great songs, and of course Crosby had “Long Time Gone”, while I had “Lady Of The Island”, “Marrakesh Express” and “Pre-Road Downs”. Yeah, we had the songs, we just chose the best ones. We had about 15 between us, that we chose 10 from. I’d written “Marrakesh Express” when I was in The Hollies and in the EMI vaults there’s a version of it done by The Hollies. And it sucks. We knew that the album was unique and quite frankly we knew it was going to be a big hit. We just knew. For instance, after “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, what the fuck are you going to do? Go up to the record player and turn it off? I don’t think so.


Neil Young is added for this millions-selling follow-up

It was a risk adding Neil, but it was a pretty good move. The reason why we got him in is that Stephen virtually played every instrument except the drums on the first record. When that record was a hit and we would have to go on tour, we realised that Stephen couldn’t play every instrument. So we had to get somebody. The other difference was that during the first CSN record, I was living with Joni, Stephen was in love with Judy Collins and David was in love with his girlfriend, Christine. By the time we got to Déjà Vu only about nine or 10 months later, I wasn’t with Joni, Stephen wasn’t with Judy Collins, and Christine had been killed [in a car accident]. Neil is a brilliant musician, of course, and he gave a harder, maybe darker, edge to everything, on top of all we were feeling personally about losing our girlfriends and stuff. That’s the difference between the sunny, acoustic feeling of the first CSN record and Déjà Vu. There were a lot overdubs, it took a lot longer than the first record. I went to Stephen about halfway through the session and said, “You know, we don’t have a ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’,” and he says, “Nah, we used it on the first record”, and I was like, “No, no, no, we still need a song where you’re not gonna take the needle off the record.” And he came back two days later with “Carry On”. But it was all very harmonious, there was no competition at all. We knew we wrote the best songs, we could choose the best songs. Seriously, we never competed with each other about songs.

Nash strikes out alone with this tender, confessional classic

A Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album consisted of three songs of Crosby’s, three of mine, three of Stephen’s and three of Neil’s. But we all wrote much more than that, so what the fuck do you do? We had tremendous energy and tremendous passion, which is something we still have. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been around for so long. So I just made a record with a bunch of songs I needed to get out of my soul, and that’s what Songs For Beginners was. How did I arrange these tracks? You write a song, you show the band the song, that’s it. It was an easy process, very much so. And it was very real, which is one of the reasons I love making records, I guess. I wanted it to be as real as possible, and on Songs For Beginners it’s pretty much a live record. I think a couple of hip-hop records have sampled the beginning of “Chicago” – a lot of the groove on the album has to do with Johnny Barbata on drums. We had Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh from the Dead on here, too, as well as Joe Yankee on piano, who is, of course, Neil. The songs on here are confessional, yeah – but what else am I gonna play? I can only write about what I know. It was an incredible time for music – I remember when we got our first eight-track machine for the first CSN album, and by the time we got to San Francisco to do Déjà Vu, it was 16 tracks. Now you can have a thousand tracks on your fucking iPhone. I will tell you this, no amount of technology can make a bad song into a good song. That’s one of the things about recording live, you know, you don’t have all those options. So it’s more direct. I wrote “Be Yourself” with Terry Reid. I’ve always enjoyed Terry’s work as a lead singer; even when he was with Peter Jay’s Jaywalkers when he was 16, he was a kid with incredible talent. And he had this quarter of a song, and it sounded good to me so I wrote the words for it. Songs like “Chicago” and “We Can Change The World” and “Immigration Man” are all still relevant today and that’s sad. But I’m an optimistic person, a positive person and I try to find
an answer to a problem.


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