David Crosby (14 August 1941, Los Angeles, California, USA), Stephen Stills (b. 3 January 1945, Dallas, Texas, USA) and Graham Nash (b. 2 February 1942, Blackpool, Lancashire, England) first came together in the 1969 supergroup Crosby, Stills And Nash before recruiting Neil Young (b. 12 November 1945, Toronto, Ontario, Canada). ex-Clear Light member Dallas Taylor (b. 1948, Denver, Colorado, USA) who had played on the debut album from Crosby, Stills And Nash became the full-time drummer. ex-Tamla-Motown session man Greg Reeves joined as bass player, but both Taylor and Reeves were only hired hands. That same year, the quartet appeared at the Woodstock Festival and established a format of playing two sets, one acoustic and one electric, which showed off their musicianship to remarkable effect. Instant superstars, their 1970 album, Déjà Vu, was one of the biggest sellers of the year and one of the most celebrated works of the early 70s. Its power came from the combined brilliance of the contributors and included some of their finest material, at a time when they were at their most inventive. Stills, the maestro, offered the startling Carry On with its driving rhythm and staggering high harmony, plus the stark melancholia of 4+20. Young contributed the suitably maudlin Helpless and an ambitious song suite, Country Girl, which remains one of his most underrated songs. Nashs Teach Your Children, with Jerry Garcia on steel guitar, was the groups personal favourite and remained a permanent number in their live set over the years. Finally, Crosby provided the jazz-influenced title track and the raw, searing Almost Cut My Hair, one of the great anti-establishment songs of the period. There was even a US Top 10 single, courtesy of their reading of Joni Mitchells Woodstock.
During May 1970, National Guardsmen opened fire on demonstrators at Kent State University and killed four students. Crosby handed Young a magazine reporting the incident and watched in fascination as the song Ohio emerged. Recorded within 24 hours of its composition, the song captured the foursome at their most musically aggressive and politically relevant. Sadly, it was to remain a frustrating statement of all they might have achieved had they remained together. A series of concerts produced the double set 4 Way Street, which revealed the groups diversity in contrasting acoustic and electric sets. By the time of its release in 1971, the group had scattered in various directions to pursue solo projects.
Their unexpected and untimely departure left a huge gap in the rock marketplace. During 1971, they were at their peak and could command gold records as soloists or in a variety of other permutations of the original foursome. Many viewed them as the closest that America had reached in creating an older, second generation Beatles. Part of their charm came from the fact that their ranks contained former members of the Buffalo Springfield, the Hollies and the Byrds. Wherever they played part of the audiences psychological response contained elements of that old fanaticism which is peculiar to teenage heroes. While other contemporaneous groups such as the Band might claim similar musical excellence or stylistic diversity, they could never match the charisma or messianic popularity of CSN&Y. The supergroup were perfectly placed in the late 60s/early 70s, defining their time with a ready-made set of philosophies and new values which were liberally bestowed on their audience. They brilliantly reflected the peace, music and love ideal, as popularized by the Woodstock promoters. While other groups exploited the hippie ideal, CSN&Y had the courage to take those ideas seriously. At every concert and on every record they eulogized those precepts without a trace of insincerity. It was a philosophy exemplified in their lifestyles and captured in neo-romantic compositions of idealism and melancholia. A brittle edge was added with their political commentaries, both in interviews and on record, where civil unrest in Chicago, Ohio and Alabama were pertinent subjects.
With such cultural and commercial clout, it was inconceivable that the quartet would not reconvene and, during 1974, they undertook a stadium tour. A second studio album, Human Highway, originally begun in Hawaii and resumed after their tour, produced some exceptionally strong material but was shelved prior to completion. Two years later, Crosby And Nash attempted to join forces with the short-lived Stills/Young Band only to have their harmony work erased amid acrimony and misunderstanding.
By the late 70s, the CSN&Y concept had lost its appeal to punk-influenced music critics who regarded the quartets romanticism as narcissism, their political idealism as naïve and their technical perfection as elitist and clinical. It was a clear case of historical inevitability - one set of values replacing another. Remarkably, it was not until 1988 that the quartet at last reunited for American Dream, their first studio release for 18 years. It was a fine work, almost one hour long and containing some exceptionally strong material including the sardonic title track, the brooding Night Song, Crosbys redemptive Compass, and Nashs epochal Soldiers Of Peace. This time around, however, there was no accompanying CSN&Y tour.
The quartet regrouped in the late 90s to record material that was finally released on 1999s Looking Forward. At the time of its release Nash had a horrific boating accident resulting in two broken legs above the knee. Nash performed with pins in his legs on the accompanying tour. The reviews were surprisingly favourable, and the album made a good showing in both the UK and USA (debuting at 26 in the Billboard album chart). A number of critics appeared way off beam with their appraisal of the recording. Some praised Youngs lightweight acoustic material too highly. In reality the songs he put forward were dull, ponderous throwaways. Only Crosby and Stills seemed to have a spark of energy left and their songs, respectively Stand And Be Counted and No Tears Left, were a reminder that these loveable old characters could still sing well, play like demons and above all, still rock.
Another tour was undertaken in 2006 under the name of Freedom Of Speech; it was an opportunity for the band to demonstrate their opposition to the George W. Bush administration. A film documentary of the tour was released at the start of 2008.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.