‘Trans’: An Album So Controversial, The Label Sued Neil Young Over It

Revisiting The Legend’s Robot Rock Opus

On February 6th 2018 » By Gary Suarez

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More so than Canada or California, Reprise Records is Neil Young’s home. For much of the last 50 years, the Frank Sinatra-founded imprint has been the generous fount from which the renowned rock ’n’ roll singer-songwriter’s music springs forth. Following his tenure in Buffalo Springfield, Young signed there in 1968 and released his eponymous solo debut in January of the following year. That fruitful working relationship subsequently yielded dozens of full-length recordings, including established classics like Harvest and Tonight’s The Night along with less-heralded fan favorites such as Freedom and Le Noise. Young continues to produce there on a yearly basis, most recently with the December 2017 offering The Visitor.

The arrival of the Neil Young Archives late last year seemed the logical modern expression of his enduring artistic residence at Reprise. Currently available for free, with the mild threat of a subscription fee looming later in 2018, the extensively detailed website serves as a living history for classic rock, allowing visitors to virtually explore his library of works. Nestled in a gorgeous interface with analog vintage charm, on-demand streaming audio available in two outstanding hi-fidelity options comes couched with lyrics and credits, with Easter Eggs and other surprises lurking throughout.

Yet like many museums, certain wings of the Neil Young Archives remain closed to the public. You won’t have much luck with the Buffalo Springfield or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young discographies here, for example. Half of the collaborative Long May You Run LP proves maddeningly elusive, namely the tracks written by Young’s erstwhile bandmate Stephen Stills. Obviously, these omissions have something to do with the thorny arena of digital rights, a situation that inadvertently highlights the brief few years Reprise and Young spent apart.

Seeing greener grass and the promise of greater creative freedom with David Geffen, who more than a decade prior had landed Crosby, Stills & Nash the Atlantic Records deal that eventually housed two CSNY albums, Young headed to the record executive’s namesake label in 1982 after his previous two Reprise albums Hawks And Doves and Re·ac·tor flopped. Founded in 1980, Geffen Records had a handful of successful albums under its belt by the time Young showed up, such as Donna Summer’s RIAA gold certified The Wanderer and the tragic John Lennon and Yoko Ono set Double Fantasy.

At the age of 37, he was still too young for the legacy set. Of course, he could very easily have rested on his laurels at Geffen, doling out predictable folk and rock with or without the aid of his faithful Crazy Horse cohorts, or made moderately risky moves toward the mainstream. Neither of those options would have satisfied Young, an artist presumed difficult and genius in the same breath by fans and critics alike. So he made his most controversial and hated album ever. In line with other eyebrow-raising departures of the period like Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog or Lou Reed’s Mistrial, Trans makes an attempt at modernizing the sound of a restless creative. The effectiveness of said attempt is another story.

Thirty-five years have passed since Trans’ original January 1983 release, and even with the twin benefits of context and distance, it’s still clear why it remains one of his most controversial albums. Though opener “Little Thing Called Love” harmlessly smoothes the rougher edges of Re·ac·tor into more palatable soft rock, the majority of the succeeding tracks deprive listeners of Young’s signature nasal voice. This first becomes apparent on “Computer Age,” with its overtly Kraftwerkian intro giving way to a chugging automaton boogie led by thin, processed vocals and a virtual vocoder choir on the hook.

Not only are Young’s precious pipes replaced by space-age Düsseldorf devices, but his band sounds assimilated by androids as well. The cold sterile pop of “Transformer Man” and jarring synclavier redo of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” hardly resemble the work of his not-infrequent collaborators Ben Keith, Joe Lala, Nils Lofgren, Ralph Molina, Bruce Palmer, Frank Sampedro, and Billy Talbot. The Cerrone-meets-Crazy-Horse aesthetic favors the former more so than the latter. The robot rock phenomenon continues with “We R In Control,” a post-disco clash of campy sci-fi verses, choppy guitar-esque riffs and automatic dialers. A sort of Daft Punk prototype, “Computer Cowboy” and “Sample And Hold” wouldn’t have sounded altogether out of place on 2005’s Human After All alongside “Emotion” or “Technologic.”

By the time “Like An Inca” rolled around, straightforward and straightlaced like “Little Thing Called Love,” an unsuspecting listener at the time might be rightfully perturbed by this shock to the system. This wasn’t what anyone wanted from the guy, the extremity of the material making some of his less celebrated works automatically better by comparison. Even prepared modern ears, conditioned by decades of groans and whispers about Trans by record collectors and Young fans alike, might need reminding of the personal lore behind it, namely how Young’s interest in electronic voice manipulation at the time derived from his attempts to communicate and interact with his son Ben, born with cerebral palsy.

Apart from that revelation, Young biographer James McDonough captured the mixed emotions around Trans in his 2002 book Shakey, including those of its co-producer David Briggs, who’d had a hand in the making of nearly every one of Young’s preceding Reprise releases. He expresses pride in Young for embarking on such an ambitious project, yet laments its hurried timeline. With the band due to go on tour, Briggs had to finish the mixes in about a week, absolutely hating the end results after the fact.

An album so controversial, the label would sue the artist for making it.

Though originally slated for a Christmastime release December 29, 1982, Trans found itself nudged into the new year by a Grinchy Geffen with a revised date of January 3. That Monday also saw a solo debut by Young’s labelmate Ric Ocasek, who had also seen his record bumped. The Cars’ frontman’s Beatitude reached No. 28 on the Billboard 200 album charts and managed a charting single on the Hot 100 with “Something To Grab For.” Though not a commercial success in the end, Trans still made it to No. 19 on the Billboard 200, surpassing the peaks of both Hawks And Doves and Re·ac·tor.

In his 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, Young expresses his main regret about Trans was letting Geffen have too much say in its composition and promotion. He concedes the album was based around “a very deep and inaccessible concept,” one diluted by the inclusion of material from Island In The Sun, a self-described tropical record he’d submitted before Trans to no avail. According to an interview cited in Shakey, Young had planned multiple music videos to go with the work, clips populated by robots and humans, though Geffen wouldn’t back them financially—even after he offered to match half of the total budget dollar for dollar with his own money.

Even still, Young found a way to get these songs some screen time. Human Highway, a surreal bit of slapstick cinema that precedes the offbeat likes of “Mr. Show with Bob and David” and “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” deserves its own article. Co-directed and co-starring Dean Stockwell and Young under his Bernard Shakey pseudonym, the scarcely seen nuclear comedy features a few Trans tunes alongside those of the band Devo, whose members also play parts in the absurdist film alongside Dennis Hopper and Russ Tamblyn—both of whom subsequently played notable roles in David Lynch projects.

A manifestation of a bad fit between Geffen and Young, the compromised album made neither party happy, setting the stage for acrimony and conflict around 1983’s Everybody’s Rockin’ and 1985’s Old Ways. The label sued Young for making what they billed “uncharacteristic” music, citing Trans as one of the offending projects. It was public and ugly, a galling act that in essence defied the spirit of his signing with Geffen in the first place. He missed working with Reprise’s Mo Ostin, an executive who valued and respected Young’s art even if he didn’t happen to love a particular album the artist handed in. He would release two more underperforming studio albums with the unappreciative label, Landing on Water in 1986 and Life in 1987, before returning to his rightful home at Reprise.

Even with Geffen Records’ ill-fated lawsuit ultimately ending with an apparent apology from David Geffen himself, Young got his proper revenge in February of 1993 when recording his MTV Unplugged episode at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. The setlist for the intimately staged affair included relatively stripped down takes of three songs that had appeared on Trans, a characteristically defiant move given the comparatively safer series selections of his classic rock peer Eric Clapton. The previously rigid Trans arrangement of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” dissolved into the ethereal blues of this bare-bones version. Where “Transformer Man” once felt alien and inscrutable, here it became familiar flesh, reacquainting keen listeners with the scent of a needlessly distant acquaintance. Regrettably left off the eventual broadcast, “Sample And Hold” swings organically with Young’s backing band in tow, a group that tellingly included Trans players Keith and Lofgren.

The few knowing members of the small audience caught on quick, letting out delighted if smug noises in recognition of what they were witnessing. A full decade after Trans, it was a self-righteous creative middle finger, demonstrating both the inherent quality of the heretofore challenged songs and his tenacity for having endured the ignominy of the civil dispute, as if to say uncharacteristic my Ontario ass.

Released on compact disc in June of 1993 with Reprise, Young’s Unplugged reached No. 23 on the Billboard 200 and secured RIAA gold certification by November. Since coming back home to the label for 1988’s This Note’s for You, he’d enjoyed an uptick in critical and commercial success. The cheeky yet cutting music video for its title track earned him MTV’s 1989 VMA for Video of the Year, beating out younger stars Madonna and Michael Jackson. Later that year, Young put out Freedom, a mix of folk rock ditties and comparatively harder-edged material, to the approval of contemporaries like Christgau and David Fricke of Rolling Stone. It went gold within months. Coupled with 1990’s Ragged Glory record with Crazy Horse, it contributed to his subsequent establishment as the Godfather of Grunge, a somewhat goofy yet inherently respectful designation he’d affectionately earned.

By the time the wistful Americana of 1992’s Harvest Moon hit double-platinum, the Geffen records were like a distant boondoggle, a prodigal son’s wholly forgivable folly. But the inclusion of Trans songs on Unplugged means that, despite its imperfections, the album still mattered to Young. Listening to the record now, it’s not as if he’s the long-lost uncle of electronic music. But as one of the 20th century’s most important songwriters, he cared about Trans. If you can get past the dated aspects of this strange yet sentimental work, you might find yourself caring about it too.

Gary Suarez

Gary Suarez

Born, raised, and still living in New York City, Gary Suarez writes about music and culture for a variety of publications. Since 1999, his work has appeared in various outlets including Backstage, Billboard, Complex, Deadspin, Four Pins, High Times, Pitchfork, and Noisey, among others. His Digital/Divide column appears monthly on Vinyl Me, Please.

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