Opera Star / Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze / T-Bone / Get Back on It/ Southern Pacific / Motor City / Rapid Transit / Shots
by Jack "Shakey" Mullins
In 1979, Neil Young released Rust Never Sleeps, and side two of that album proved that he could dish out punk with the best of them. Then after an odd (but good) 1980 album Hawks and Doves, Neil followed up his punk effort with even rougher rock-and-roll. The outcome was Re*Ac*Tor. This 1981 album, with Crazy Horse, features some of the finest and rawest (not to mention overlooked) music of Neil Young's career; this album is a prerequisite to Grunge 101.
Side one opens with "Opera Star," and reveals what would be in the future musically, with synthesizers quite up-front in the mix. It's uncompromising nonetheless, and the lyrics sting: "So you stay out all night getting fucked-up in that rock-and-roll bar," Neil sings. Following this, "Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze," might remind one, thematically, of a heavier version of Three Dog Night's (or Randy Neman's -JF) "Mama Told Me Not to Come."
The next song wasn't even meant to be recorded, apparently, but wound up so because Neil and the Horse still felt like playing after they recorded the album. Nine-plus minutes of Neil playing wildly falanged guitar solos and repeating "Got mashed Potatoes, ain't got no T-Bone." This would be a show stopper if Neil ever took this song on tour! The side closes with "Get Back On It," a very jumpy tune, like "Are You Ready for the Country" with no steel and a grunge backbeat. It has a tough spot on the LP following the first three songs!
Side two begins with what is probably the most accessible song on the album, "Southern Pacific," a rolling three-chord rocker about forced retirement - just like a Springsteen song, only with balls. The pretty hokey (but amusing) "Motor City" follows, and demonstrates how varied a Neil Young album can be from song to song. "Rapid Transit," along with the first three songs, would create the most perfect album side of all time - a very crunchy trip through power-chords, and Neil's stammering, which would offend some people. It's classic Neil, and almost a one note guitar solo again as well!
"Shots" closes the album, and it takes on a completely different form than when Neil presented it in concert three years before, much as how the electric version of "Cowgirl in the Sand" compares to the Four Way Street version. But this song is much more sloppy and rough than "Cowgirl," which in fact sounds tame by comparison.
Listening to one song at a time does not do justice here, folks. The album on a whole is a classic, and sadly it's a very underrated one. The forthcoming CD release of Re*Ac*Tor will hopefully give it another chance to be noticed, and I think it will be well received by people hearing it for the first time, since the roots of grunge show so clearly.