Canadian artist Neil Young has had a stellar music career, propelled ever forward by his tendency to experiment and do things a lot musicians wouldn’t even think of. And nowhere was this more apparent than in the recording of his seminal album Harvest, America’s best-selling album of 1972. An intriguing rumor has persisted for years about how he put it together. It took Young many decades to speak out about the story, but come June 2016 he finally did.
Neil Young might have been born in Canada, but he loved American music. Growing up, Young listened obsessively to the songs of Elvis Presley, as well as other ’50s rock’n’roll artists. He began to teach himself the ukulele, before graduating to other instruments. Realizing that his future lay in the world of music, Young then dropped out of high school to pursue his dreams.
And it turned out those dreams were well within reach. While working the Canadian music scene Young met lots of future big names, including Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills and the Guess Who. He joined a band in the ’60s called The Mynah Birds, but the group split before achieving any joint success. Subsequently, Young decided to try and make it in Los Angeles.
When in LA, Young put together the band Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Dewey Martin. 1966 saw the group release their first record, which proved to be a success. But despite the band’s achievements – they essentially helped create country rock as a genre – they didn’t last long. The quartet split in 1968.
From their ashes, a different band would also go on to hit the big time. After Buffalo Springfield, Stephen Stills formed the trio Crosby, Stills & Nash along with David Crosby and Graham Nash. And Young wanted in. The group was subsequently renamed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the quartet made an appearance at Woodstock in August 1969. It was only their second ever live performance, but they pulled it off impressively.
However, there were constant tensions within the band. While putting together their first album Déjà Vu, Young and Stills were at each other’s throats. And Stills’ substance addiction issues didn’t help matters much. By 1970 the band had broken up – and not very amicably. It was time for Young to set out on the next leg of his musical journey.
As he embarked on a solo career Young became more and more popular – and more and more rich. His 1970 album After the Gold Rush was a smash hit, and that same year he purchased a ranch in Redwood City, California, named the Broken Arrow Ranch. It was a huge, sprawling property, complete with barns to house animals in.
It was at this ranch that Young began working on songs for his next offering, Harvest. And the album involved a lot of experimentation with music. Some of the songs were recorded in one of Young’s barns in a most unorthodox way: Young and his producer Elliot Mazer set up a PA speaker in the barn so that all the musical instruments would “leak” into each other.
And the creation of Harvest ended up forming a story that went down in the annals of rock’n’roll history. It had been common knowledge to Young aficionados since at least the ’90s, but in 2007 Mazer spoke about it to the performing rights organization BMI. Young had invited Crosby and Nash to his home, Mazer said, in order to hear the songs from the new album.
“For a laugh, we ran the left channel into the barn and the right channel to the JBL monitors, then faced the speakers in the direction of Neil, who was sitting in a rowboat in the middle of this small pond that was located directly in front of the house,” Mazer said. “During the playback I asked Neil through the talk-back how the balance was, and he yelled back, ‘More barn!’”
Graham Nash, who remained friends with Young, also recounted the tale to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2013. “The man is totally committed to the muse of music,” he said. “And he’ll do anything for good music. And sometimes it’s very strange. I was at Neil’s ranch one day just south of San Francisco, and he has a beautiful lake with red-wing blackbirds. And he asked me if I wanted to hear his new album Harvest. And I said sure, let’s go into the studio and listen.”
“Oh, no. That’s not what Neil had in mind. He said, ‘Get into the rowboat,’” Nash continued. Nash assumed, he said, that Young would offer him a cassette player and headphones. But instead, “He has his entire house as the left speaker and his entire barn as the right speaker. And I heard Harvest coming out of these two incredibly large loudspeakers louder than hell.”
Nash was impressed. “It was unbelievable,” the rocker concluded. His story didn’t mention Crosby being there, but it did mention Mazer. “Elliot Mazer, who produced Neil, produced Harvest, came down to the shore of the lake and he shouted out to Neil, ‘How was that, Neil?’ And I swear to god, Neil Young shouted back, ‘More barn!’”
It was that sort of creativity that made Harvest such an enormous hit. After the record’s release it topped the Billboard 200 album chart for two weeks, and the song “Heart of Gold” made it to the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100. But the album’s success actually frightened Young. In liner notes for 1977’s Decade, Young wrote that “Heart of Gold” actually “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.”
The “More barn!” story persisted over the years, but Young himself never seemed to comment on Nash’s telling of it. He was, to be fair, very busy. In November 2014 Young released his 35th studio album, and the following year he followed that up with a concept album protesting genetically modified food.
But in 2016 the rocker spoke to the Huffington Post and finally got around to confirming the famous yarn. When interviewer Todd Van Luling questioned Young about his new album Earth, he also took the opportunity to bring up the old anecdote. “Well it’s funny, it’s just a little thing that happened one day and it keeps growing and getting crazier,” Young told him.
“But I had the left speaker, big speakers set up in my house with the windows open,” he said. “And I had the PA system – that we used to rehearse and record with in the barn where I recorded ‘Alabama’ and ‘Words’ and a couple other things – over there playing the right-hand channel. So, we were sitting in between them on a little lake and that’s what we were doing.”
Young also confirmed the truth about what was arguably the best bit of the story, at least in the minds of all his fans. When Van Luling asked him if he really had shouted “More barn!” back across the lake after hearing the song, Young burst out laughing. “Yeah, I think it was a little house heavy,” he answered.
After all that time, then, the story was finally delivered straight from the horse’s mouth. It was true! But yet, no matter how much of a game-changer Harvest or the making of it was, it’s still actually only a small part of Young’s incredible career. He’s in his early 70s now, but he’s still going just as strong as ever.
Indeed, in May 2018 Young announced a new run of concerts, to be played in St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit and Boston across June and July. And knowing his prodigious output, after the tour he’s sure to have plenty more album ideas up his sleeve. Fingers crossed, over the next decade there will be plenty more good anecdotes about how Young makes his music.