In last March issue Uncut , we brought you the inside story on Neil Young’s long-awaited Archives project. We spoke to his friends, colleagues and conspirators and, over the next few weeks on www.uncut.co.uk , we’ll be printing the complete transcripts of these interviews.
Part Three: RANDY PETERSON
Briefly drummer in The Squires. Played on the band’s last-known recording session in 1965
Neil would write his own songs, where we’d really practice and work on stuff like “I Wonder”, but he was also very good at doing arrangements for cover tunes. He did a cover of The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” and you wouldn’t even recognise the song. It didn’t sound anything like the original. It was something totally unique. And I remember him doing a cover of “Oh! Susanna”. It was Neil blending his folk styling with rock’n’roll. I mean, Neil was doing folk-rock before it really happened, as this was back in the early ‘60s.
At places like [folk club] the 4D, it was a very laid-back kind of crowd, very earthy. It wasn’t like when we played the community clubs in Winnipeg. I mean, in Winnipeg, you’d play in the high schools, but these community clubs where places where sports teams would play. Then at weekends and on Friday nights, they’d have bands playing there. The other places were the churches and the folk clubs, like the 4D. But typically, you wouldn’t see a rock band playing at a coffeehouse. So The Squires were straddling both camps. I was just being carried along because Neil was doing that. He liked to go to the folk places.
When we got to Montreal, we’d play a club called the Penelope. One of the problems I had was that when I was in the band I was only 15 years old. So Neil used to come and pick me up. He was like a big brother to me. My own brother [Guess Who drummer Garry Peterson] didn’t have time for me, because he was on the road, probably with Chad Allan & The Reflections. So I joined Neil’s band while my brother was playing with all the other guys. And they were the top band in the city. But Neil was separate from all the others. He was unique and different. He’d play cover tunes but would play them the way Neil Young does. There were three elements of Neil Young. One was that he’d play cover versions of songs by The Kinks, and songs like “Farmer John”. I mean, that one would go on for fifteen minutes. Secondly, he’d redo cover tunes like [folk song] “Tom Dooley”. And thirdly, he’d write his original stuff. And who else was doing that? No one. He was unique. And of course he had that very trembly kind of voice and would rip up those guitar solos, which would go on for a long time. So when you were in his band, you had to reassess things. I’d played in other bands before, but when I was in Neil’s band it was different to anything else.
Neil was a very intense guy. He did his own thing. But maybe because he was like a big brother to me, I was always able to converse with him. I think it worked both ways too, with his father not being around. He was more introverted with other people, but with me he was different. We’d always travel with each other from gig to gig, so I got to know him more openly than some of the other guys. Other people have gotten to know him in a different kind of way since, but I always found Neil to be a good guy. We’d talk about the music he was working on, but the one thing I always remember him telling me was about what his destiny was. He’d always tell me about what he wanted to do and how he wanted to be a star. He was ultimately preparing me for the fact that he was going to leave town and go to the big markets. So he started by going to Eastern Canada, which at the time was the biggest market: Toronto and Montreal. And then, of course, to LA. Was there any doubt at all that he was going to be a star? No, none at all. He was totally committed. And that used to scare the hell out of me because I was the guy who wanted to stay with him. But I was fifteen years old and my mother and father wouldn’t let me go. If I’d been a couple of years older I would have gone.
Neil needed to be around good players. A lot of guys were in bands with their friends, and they weren’t always good players. But with Neil you had to be a player. I was a good drummer but I think other guys had difficulties with him because they couldn’t really play their instruments and didn’t add anything to the music we were making. I tried to add to the music rather than trying to upstage Neil. And because I was a lot younger than he was, we had this unique relationship which made it special.
We’d practice at Neil’s mother’s house. Neil’s mother was just a hoot. She did her own thing, but was really a nice woman. She was 150 per cent behind Neil, there was nothing she wouldn’t do to support him. We’d run through our material for the upcoming gig, but would also work on his new songs. We’d try stuff out and be very experimental in many ways. So we’d do the cover songs he’d rearranged, practice the Top 40 stuff we were playing and then play Neil’s songs. Randy Bachman was a big hero to Neil. In fact I think he really looked up to The Guess Who as a whole band. He’d try and go see them as often as he could. Neil also really enjoyed a lot of the folk artists. I mean, Canada had some really good folk players, like Ian & Sylvia [Tyson] and Gordon Lightfoot. Lenny Breau was a Winnipeg jazz guitarist who was one of the greatest guitarists ever. I would imagine Neil saw him play too, because Randy Bachman was strongly influenced by Lenny Breau. In fact The Guess Who’s “Undun” was written as a tribute to Lenny. Chet Atkins was also an influence on Neil in that way. Neil had the same Gretsch guitar that Randy Bachman had. The Shadows were a big influence on The Squires. Most people have no idea how good those guys were. As a guitarist, Neil would have been influenced by the same people who’d made an impression on Randy Bachman: Lenny Breau, Chet Atkins and Hank Marvin.
I was there when Neil started out singing. I always thought he had style. There are people now who might not think very much of him as a singer or a great guitarist – I mean, he’s certainly not an Eddie Van Halen or an Eric Clapton – but there was always something about Neil. He had style and class. And what he has today is just what he had back in the ‘60s: he always had it. And unless you were a good player and saw the guy play, you wouldn’t know that. So you might hear him play one of those songs at a high school dance or a community club, or even a converted barn, and you’d have to really listen. Neil was an original from the beginning. He’d be doing these extended solos, then get up to the mike and sing. It was a great blend.
One of our most memorable gigs was when we played a barn dance somewhere. It was one of those old places with a hardwood floor and was very echoey. Neil was always known for his lengthy guitar solos, so when you got into a place like that, you could really rip the guitar. I remember that night well because it was my first entrée to the hearse, driving up to the place and passing all the equipment up. This great hollow-sounding building lent itself very well to the way Neil played. After the gig, all the people would be hanging around afterwards. It was one of those times when magic was created on the stage.
I’ve had no contact with Neil since 1965. He’s said some nice things about me though. One of the things about Neil is that he had a very avid fan club. And they really used to take care of the guys in the band, y’know? But one of the things Neil did was keep me out of trouble. I was too naive to know about all that. I mean, there weren’t really groupies in those days, but you could get into trouble. If your band was good, which we were, you’d always get a following. I suppose it was kind of the start of the groupie thing. But I loved playing in the band with Doug McKenzie, Ken [Koblun] and Neil. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. For me musically, the best time in my life was playing in Neil Young’s band.
INTERVIEW BY ROB HUGHES