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Classic Tracks: Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”

By the time Neil Young rolled into Nashville to begin recording his Harvest album, he had already enjoyed several different careers as a musician.

This article was first posted May 1, 2001.

By the time Neil Young rolled into Nashville to begin recording his Harvest album, he had already enjoyed several different careers as a musician. And, as we learned subsequently, he was only warming up for what has been one of the most fascinating odysseys of any rock musician.

After playing folk and rock in his native Canada during his teens, Young and his friend/bandmate, bassist Bruce Palmer, moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and, the following spring, formed the groundbreaking country-influenced rock band Buffalo Springfield with guitarists Stephen Stills and Richie Furay and drummer Dewey Martin. Over the next two years, Buffalo Springfield would go through various personnel changes (including the departure of Palmer and the addition of Jim Messina) and record two well-received albums for Atco. It was a band filled with strong singers and songwriters, and Young quickly established himself as an utterly distinctive presence, as songs such as “Mr. Soul,” “Broken Arrow” and “Expecting to Fly” showed. However, by May of ’68, the battles between Young and Stills had led to the dissolution of this promising group. At that point, Young became a solo artist, releasing his eponymous first album, produced by the eccentric genius Jack Nitzsche, in January 1969. In the course of making that album, Young encountered a group called The Rockets (guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Bill Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina), and he hooked up with them and changed their name to Crazy Horse. Together, they cut the classic, hard-rocking Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere album, which contained such defining Young numbers as “Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand” and the epic “Down By the River.” Then, just as that album was taking off, Young joined Crosby, Stills & Nash for a tempestuous year or so that included the making of the multi-Platinum Déjà Vu album. A third solo album, After the Goldrush (featuring Crazy Horse, Stills and an up-and-coming young axe-slinger named Nils Lofgren) came out in September of ’70, and continued Young’s incredible rise. At this point, Young took a turn in a somewhat different direction, heading to Nashville to record Harvest.

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Elliot Mazer, producer of that album tells the story of the recording of this issue’s “Classic Track”, the Number One single “Heart of Gold.”

“Heart of Gold” was recorded during the first set of the Harvest sessions at Quadrafonic Sound Studios in Nashville in early 1971. This project was full of coincidences and surprises. Neil, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and Tony Joe White were in town to shoot the final Johnny Cash Show for ABC-TV. I was living in Nashville, working mostly at Quad, which I co-owned with David Briggs — the Nashville musician, not the David Briggs who had produced other Neil Young records — and Norbert Putnam. I decided that the studio would host a dinner for some of the [Cash show] guests and some of our studio friends. I called Elliot Roberts, Neil’s manager then and now. Elliot and I had known each other in New York; I produced some demos with a group he called Roberts Rules of Order. He took Neil to the party. I had produced Linda’s Silk Purse LP. So, I called Peter Asher, Linda’s manager, and he brought Linda and James Taylor. We had around 50 people for dinner. During dinner, Elliot introduced me to Neil, and we started talking about studios and musicians. Neil had heard of our band, Area Code 615, and asked if I could get the drummer, a bass player and a steel player into my studio the next day. Kenny Buttrey was available and keen to play [drums] with Neil. Norbert had gone home to Muscle Shoals for the weekend, and Weldon Myrick, the steel player in Area Code 615, could not make it, because he had to do his regular gig on the Grand Ole Opry. So we found Ben Keith — he’s still working with Neil after 30 years [see story in “Recording Notes”].

Neil and I met for breakfast Saturday morning at the old Ramada Inn, and we decided to meet up at the studio that afternoon. Neil showed up and asked us to move things around so that he could be next to the drums. We got Troy Seals, an amazing songwriter, to play bass, and Teddy Irwin, a session player-friend, played guitar. A few hours later, Tim Drummond showed up with his bass. Marshall Falwell, the photographer, had seen Tim walking on the street and told him to go to Quad with his bass.

“Heart of Gold” was the second song we cut. Teddy, Ben, Tim and Kenny played on it. I used a [Neumann] U87 on Neil’s voice; a [Neumann] KM86 on his guitar; drum overheads were KM86s, snare most likely a [Shure] SM56, hi-hat a 224E; bass was direct; we had a KM86 on Teddy’s guitar and an 87 on steel. We were recording to 2-inch 16-track Scotch 206, 30 ips, no noise reduction. The console was a Quad Eight 20×8×16. No compressors were used. I hand-rode his voice, which meant I had to learn the song and anticipate his moves. The vocal effect on Neil’s voice is 15 ips tape slapback, and it is on the multitrack.

A vivid recollection of the session that produced “Heart of Gold” was hearing Neil play and sing the song for us the first time. The song and arrangement came alive. Kenny Buttrey and I made eye contact while listening, and we both raised a finger that said we knew it was going to be a Number One hit. It took a few minutes for the band to learn the song and figure out how to capture the magical feel that Neil was laying down. Neil was very specific to Kenny about what not to play. Tim Drummond and Kenny played together so much that they just connected to each other. Teddy Irwin found some harmonics and rhythm chops, and Ben Keith just sailed through the song. We did one or two takes. Neil and the band played live, same as every song on Harvest. After we got the master take, we got Linda and James to add their harmonies in the control room while sitting on the couch. They were facing the control monitors and the vocal mic; an 87 on cardioid was facing them. They listened to the studio monitors and sang along listening to each other. Two passes, and it was finished. I guess it took less than two hours to record everything on “Heart of Gold.” I can’t remember where we mixed it — either at Quad or in Neil’s house. We did a mono and a stereo mix — 15 ips, no noise reduction.

A side note: It was very easy to get good sounds in the studio in Nashville. The rooms were set up properly, the musicians knew how to tune and make their instruments sound good, and the engineers were expected to get sounds quickly and to give the musicians good earphone mixes. At Quad, we had a 3-channel cue system that sounded great. In my studio in San Francisco, His Master’s Wheels, we had a 4-channel system. Each musician got a box with controls for level. We only spent a few minutes getting sounds for Neil. I had listened to After the Gold Rush, and we all seemed to respond to the intimacy of Neil’s music. I don’t recall why we started to use slapback on Neil’s voice, but that worked wonderfully. Neil really got excited when he heard the first playback. Later on, after he had gone home to California, he told me that this was the first time a tape sounded better at home than in the studio.

In the ’70s, Bob Dylan said that when he first heard “Heart of Gold” on the radio, he got mad, because it should have been him; it sounded like him! The song peaked at Number One in Billboard, as did the album.

Where’s everyone now? Neil, obviously, is still writing, making records and touring. Ben Keith is still playing; he also produced Jewel’s first album. Teddy Irwin is living in Nashville, playing and composing music for TV shows. Teddy has toured with Roy Buchanan, Petula Clark and Doc Sevrenson, among others. Tim Drummond worked with Neil and CSNY and Bob Dylan and many more in what has been a long and brilliant career. Kenny Buttrey made many, many great records over the years; he is retired now. And these days, I’m living in New York, working in the technology world and making the occasional record. Quadrafonic Sound Studios is now associated with Quad Studios of New York, which is owned by Lou Gonzalez, who was an engineer I worked with on a Gordon Lightfoot record back in the ’60s!