Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Neil Young: Trans (1982)

The heroes of the late 70s/early 80s futu-pop: Kraftwerk, Ultravox, John Foxx, The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Gary Numan, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Soft Cell, Visage, Depeche Mode... and Neil Young? Yes, so it seemed when Young released in 1982 Trans, a synth and vocoder-laden (Moog 16-Channel MBVO Vocoder, to be exact) album featuring futuristic paeans to electronic age in general.

This happened way before ZZ Top added synthetic sounds to their own boogie rock on albums like Afterburner (1985). Old Young fans more accustomed to his earthy singer-songwriter style were baffled, to say the least, the reviews were mixed and this remained Young's only foray into electronic pop. Young's interest to vocoder may have originated when he found out using this device it was easier for him to communicate with his son who had a cerebral palsy. Also hearing Kraftwerk's now-classic Computer World (1981) seems to have inspired Young to explore this sort of sound.

Tracks such as 'Computer Cowboy' preceded the mid-80s cyberpunk craze: "Ride along computer cowboy / To the city just in time / To bring another system down / And leave your alias behind: Computer syscrusher". (I think some echoes of the part-utopian/part-dystopian songs of Trans can be found on the postrock band Trans Am's 1999 album Futureworld -- Young also has a track called 'Trans Am' on 1994's Sleeps With Angels.)

Some commentators tell Neil Young later disowned this record, though a page at Human Highway dedicated to the album claims: "Contrary to most people's opinion, Neil Young says that this is the one of his best two albums. The other was Everybody's Rockin'". Anyway, something about the difficult reception to the album is revealed by the fact that Trans has never been re-released on CD in the US. Nevertheless, as an electronic curio diversion to its creator's usual output and representing the era of early home-computers and futuristic dreams still prevalent in pop those days, I find the album quite enjoyable: Neil Young, the original cyberpunk cowboy?

Some fan-made videos of Trans songs at YouTube:

  • 'Computer Cowboy'
  • 'We R In Control'
  • 'Sample and Hold'
  • 'Computer Age'


  • Trans @ Rolling Stone Reviews
  • Trans @ Shelf Life
  • Trans @ Line Out
  • 1983 reviews in Finnish by Markku Into and Pekka Koskivaara

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