Little Thing Called Love / If You Got Love / Computer Age / We R in Control / Transformer Man / Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher) / Hold on to Your Love / Sample and Hold / Mr. Soul / Like an Inca
by Jeff Dove
As either a description of the transformation to a techno-Orwellian society or as a method of communication with a special child, Trans could not be created from the traditional approaches of solo, acoustic rock (Comes a Time, Rust Never Sleeps, Hawks and Doves) or fuzzed out, dueling guitar, electric rock (Rust Never Sleeps, Re-ac-tor) that Neil Young worked with over the previous four years. Trans required a new methodology. The core of this record features Neil contributing synthesized rhythms through the use of a Synclavier, and distorting his voice through a device called a Vocoder, to create a distant, metallic, robotic sound. It has been reported that the use of this gadgetry was borne from Young's attempts to reach his cerebral palsy afflicted son, but what emerged is a bit of negative science fiction about society's transistion to the computer age. The five central tracks, "Computer Age," "We R in Control," "Transformer Man," "Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher)," and "Sample and Hold," tell of a cold and mechanical society. "Computer Age" is a plea for warmth and humanity, while "We R in Control" spells out a technological anti-Utopia:
"We control The data banks /
We control The think tanks /
We control The flow of air"
As its title suggests, "Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher)" updates the mythology of the old west maverick to a modern electronic rebel. "Sample and Hold" describes a commercial venture that can provide a "unit" for a wanting man, made completely to the height, weight, skin and eye color, and other specifications of his desire. The song's protagonist, through Neil's vocals, requests not "the angry one" or "the lonely one" but "a new design - new design." "Transformer Man" is the key song, as it takes the idea of new technologies directly to the inspiration for this record, as the transformer man is Young's son:
"Direct the action with the push of a button..."
"Let us throw off the chains that / Hold you down"
The overall message is one of the mechanization of mankind, and this is symbolized by the cover art. On the front a hippie with bongos thumbs a ride into the horizon (and into the album itself) from a convertible Chevy on a tree-lined road, while his counterpart on the other side of the street is an automaton making the return trip by hitching a space car traveling through the brave new world. The transition from one state to the next is described within the record, which is the unseen point in the distance. The back cover sums up the state of this future with a drawing of a human heart peeled open to reveal its transistor and microchip interior. The album is not completely techno, however, and these theme songs back their synthesized sounds with real guitars, bass, and drums - the beat is there. "Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher)" has a pretty raw guitar lead running through it, and "Sample and Hold" straight-out rocks through all of its weirdness. These five tracks weren't enough for an album, and thus Trans is filled out with two interesting pairs of songs. "Hold on to Your Love" and "Mr. Soul" maintain the sonic effect described above, although the former drops the Vocoder and presents an older, simple love song with the new style of music. "Mr. Soul" is the classic, given the complete futuristic treatment with distorted vocals and all. "Little Thing Called Love" and "Like an Inca" have a traditional sound to them. Each has none of the Kraftwerkesque effects, but are still somewhat unique when stacked up against the whole of Young's work. They seem to be the products of the same session, as each has a similar make-up. Though they employ a full rock band, the subtle electric lead guitar, strumming acoustic rhythm guitar, understated bass and drums, and calm singing don't sound like a lot else of what Neil does when he goes electric. They begin and end Trans, and I suspect that they had been in the can, not really fitting on previous records. With the need for more material for this record and a desire (however unsuccessful) not to completely alienate the new label (Geffen), Trans was seen as a good place to pull them out. "If You Got Love" is a phantom track (at least on my LP). It's listed on the jacket and the sleeve (with lyrics) but isn't on the disk.
That Trans is Neil Young's first release for Geffen is also of interest. It is doubtful that he was intentionally trying to deliver uncommercial product, but likely that the record is just the result what he felt at the time. Dedicated Neil fans know that this is not unprecedented - just look back to Journey Through the Past. Geffen, however, wanted a big payoff from their new artist and probably were hoping for Harvest II. There have been several accounts of the label's initial rejection of Trans and the subsequent struggle to get it out. In 1994, we are well aware of the strange turns Neil's music can take, with Everybody's Rockin', Landing on Water, This Note's for You, and even Trans behind us. However, in 1982 the listening public wasn't prepared for these sounds, at a time when "new-wave and punk sucks" was the mantra of the FM rock stations who were fighting with everything they had to dismiss rock-and-rollers like the Ramones and the Clash as worthless. If you can accept the mechanical vocals you'll find some great, solid rock sounds behind them. All of Crazy Horse are involved (they are probably the band on "Little Thing Called Love" and "Like an Inca," although the liner notes don't break down musicians by song), as well as Nils Lofgren, and regular Young contributors Ben Keith and Bruce Palmer. Trans doesn't seem intended as a swipe at Geffen, but the bad blood between artist and label started with it, and led to the giant FU that is the next record, Everybody's Rockin'. At a time (1983) when the fad was a rockabilly revival (with the fluff of the Stray Cats leading the way), Neil probably wanted to put Geffen off and show the youngsters how it's done at the same time. How else can you explain an album that is just over twenty minutes long and is completely detached in style from any of his recorded work that came before? The tour that followed Trans was also an interesting experience. It was mostly a solo acoustic event, with Neil shifting between upright piano, grand piano, and acoustic guitar, until the encore. At that point in the show he emerged, complete with futuristic shades, behind his synth and with Vocoder in place to deliver a trio of songs from the record, including "Transformer Man" and "Mr. Soul."