It’s an album many Neil fans dislike, if not despise, due to the clinical rhythms and distorted vocals that accent much of the music. For me and my tastes, however, it’s a great, if eccentric set that’s well worth a few listens. As I wrote in the CSN/Y discography on the original Old Grey Cat (1997-2006) website, “if you listen past the surface, you’ll hear a strong heartbeat – and many treasures. [It] also features the mini-epic ‘Like an Inca,’ which includes this couplet from its last verse that aptly sums up Neil’s ’80s career path: ‘There’s a bridge across the river/that I have to cross alone.’” It’s not my most-played Neil album, but it’s one I’ve returned to, time and again, throughout the years.
After a lifetime with Warner Bros.’ Reprise Records, in 1982 Neil Young signed with Geffen Records in a deal that reportedly guaranteed him $1 million per album. However, when he turned in his first effort, Islands in the Sun, Geffen rejected it. In 1995, Neil explained to Mojo that Islands “was a tropical thing all about sailing, ancient civilizations, islands and water”; a prototypical Neil LP, in other words. But, as he recalled in Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (page 556), “[David Geffen] didn’t think it was good enough. ‘Neil, you can do more with these songs – keep going.’ It was healthy what he was telling me. But instead of going forward, I went back – to all the stuff that had been buried. I really did all the Trans stuff at the end of Warner Bros., not at the beginning of Geffen.”
Young continued to record with the Horse. Poncho recalls Young – all jacked up after seeing the Rolling Stones play San Francisco – coming in with a song sporting Stones-like riffs entitled ‘Computer Age.’
Around this time, Young also purchased a vocoder, an odd device that enabled him to mask his voice as a variety of characters, none of which sounded too human – imagine robotic voices from fifties science fiction movies. Young then took the mutated vocals and played them through the Synclavier keyboard, which essentially turned it into music.
‘When we got the vocoder, we started listening to Kraftwerk,” said [David] Briggs. All this would eventually become Trans. Even a version of ‘Mr. Soul’ – complete with backward guitar – got the machine treatment. And the further Neil got into the new music, the less company he took with him.
‘Trans started like we do always – two guitars, bass, drums,” said Poncho. “Next thing we knew, Neil stripped all our music off, overdubbed all this stuff – the vocoder, weird sequencing, and put the synth shit on it.” Briggs felt no one around Young tried to understand. “Billy and Ralph and Poncho, all the other participants, they dismissed it. They played on the stuff, but didn’t think it was music.”
Thus, the resulting album mixed six tracks from the old sessions with three from the new; and Geffen Records, believing it had a dud on its hands, simply shrugged and dumped the LP in the arid sales stretch that lies between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Radio, at least as I remember it, pretty much ignored it.
The critical consensus was (and remains) decidedly mixed. In the February 3rd, 1983, Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbaugh gave it four (out of five) stars and wrote, “In truth, once you get past its radical sonic veneer, Trans turns out to be a pretty whimsical treatise on the theme of man-meets-machine, with Young wisecracking his way through the high-tech numbers – note the wild coyotes who yowl on the computer cowboy’s range, and the mate-hunting automaton who sings. “I need a unit to sample and hold/But not the angry one, a new design, new design” – and tossing off the treacle of the straight love songs with casual disinterest.”
In the Rolling Stone offshoot magazine Record, however, Stuart Cohn was much less kind. He says “the listener is left like Dorothy in Oz, discovering there’s no wizard behind the curtain”; and sums up with: “Trans…is just a closed circuit: no future, no options. Just a man and his toys, without the songs or ideas that can make the toys so much fun to play with.”
Neil, for his part, describes it well on the Neil Young Archives: “Trans is one of my best records, from a standpoint of being misunderstood. Trans was made with the idea of supporting it with a series of videos that went with the story. Bots of all kinds, with their digital voices sang the words and melodies of a tale of communication for the disabled, those of us who cannot speak. Here, these folks, especially my son Ben Young, were cared for by robots trying to help them learn how to communicate.”
Looking back, I can understand why many longtime fans were (and remain) dismayed by the shift to electronica beats – but I didn’t have the same longterm connection. Re*ac*tor was my first Neil LP, which I purchased at age 16 in late 1981; Hawks & Doves was my second, which I picked up a few months later; and, in the final week of 1982 – when I was flush with Christmas cash – I picked up not one, not two, but five Neil Young albums on cassette to play in the Sanyo Mini AM/FM Stereo Cassette Recorder my parents had gifted me with.
A week later, I picked up the tape for Trans (along with Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask). I didn’t know the backstory. I just knew the beats were cool, the distorted vocals even cooler, and that “Like an Inca,” one of those prototypical Neil Young songs, soared.
In many respects, as I noted last week, McCartney II – Paul McCartney’s own eccentric electronica collection from 1980 – helped prepare me for Trans. Such off-kilter excursions, to me, were just something artists did from time to time. Maybe that’s why, from the moment I heard it, Trans just felt right; yeah, it’s odd, but it speaks to my heart and soul – perhaps because, as a child, I had a speech impediment that sometimes made it difficult to communicate with others.
Anyway, I enjoyed the set so much that, within a few months, I also bought it on LP – something I did on occasion. In this instance, it was to better appreciate the fascinating (to me, at least) cover art, which shows an old-school Neil and digital-age Neil hitching rides into the future and past. Oh, and though it’s listed on the album jacket and in the lyric sheet, “If You Got Love” was yanked at the last minute; the version of “Sample and Hold” on LP is three minutes shorter that the CD; and the version of “Like an Inca” on LP is a minute-and-change shorter than on CD. (Let’s hope that Islands in the Sun – which, as I write, isn’t listed in the NYA timeline – is one day released as part of Neil’s archival series; my hunch is it will be a sublime set.)
So…give Trans a go, sometime, be it on the LP (or, if you can find it, cassette) or CD. It’s not Neil’s best, by any stretch, but holds within it a lot of intriguing sounds. You may be disappointed, but you may be surprised.