I want to write about the Neil Young album ‘Trans’ today, one of the most interesting albums about fatherhood I know of. Back in 1982 when the album was released most people still thought of Neil Young as a hippyish singer-songwriter, so were surprised to say the least when he released a drum machine and vocoder heavy album influenced by Kraftwerk. Even his die hard fans who were a little more familiar with the other sides of his music (improvised guitar wig-outs, 15 minute songs about ancient Aztecs) couldn’t believe he’d made a, shock horror, electronic album. The boss of his record label David Geffen actually tried to sue Young, partially because of this album, for making ‘records uncharacteristic of Neil Young’
What most people didn’t know at the time was that Young had recently had his second son Ben diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and has spent 18 months performing repetitive exercises with Ben to help improve his condition. The repetitive beats on the album were meant to reflect the repetitive nature of his work with Ben. Not only that, but the vocoders used on the record were intended to reflect Ben’s struggles to communicate. On the album you know Young is trying to say something but the vocoders preventing you from understanding, in the same way his son was trying to communicate with him, but he could not understand.
So an album that many people thought was a half-hearted attempt to jump on the electronic music bandwagon was actually a heartfelt tribute to his disabled child. Many musicians write songs or lyrics about their children, as indeed Young does on Trans “Every morning when I look in your eyes, I feel electrified by you”. But this is the only album I know of where the whole sound and concept of the album is so directly influenced by the writer’s child. As a piece of music, Trans is not as bad as is often claimed (it often appears on lists of worst albums by major artists). It’s actually a charming if flawed stab at early electro, and whilst the songs are not among Young’s best (the eighties were not his strongest songwriting decade) neither are they awful. As a massive fan I am somewhat biased though, so I have posted one of the videos and the Spotify link to the album below so you can judge for yourself. One thing I love about Young is that he will release exactly the music he wants regardless of the critical, commercial or fan reaction, whether it is Trans, a album composed entirely of feedback and guitar noise (Arc) or a concept album about the Iraq war backed by a 100 person choir (Living With War).
Young followed through his interest in how technology and music could help children with communication problems, by sending his son to The Bridge School, which uses alternative communication and assistive technology to help children with severe physical impairments and complex communication needs. He also hosts an annual benefit for the school, using his contacts to bring in the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Foo Fighters and many many kore to perform. More than any other artists I know of, fatherhood has affected his music, and music his fatherhood.