H I S T O R Y
This biography is from The Rough Guide to Rock.
THE ROUGH GUIDE TO ROCK
CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG
Formed California, 1969; disbanded 1971 but re-formed at intervals
|For a family tree of CSNY click here|
"Thank you, we needed that. This is the second time we've ever played in front of people, man. We're scared shitless." Stephen Stills at Woodstock
Rock journalist David Hepworth memorably described Crosby, Stills and Nash as 'Three of the most conspicuously stoned individuals that ever fumbled with a finger-pick', a neat summary of a band that captured the imagination of a generation but too often failed to deliver due to the debilitating effects of drugs and ego. The fact that neither David Crosby, Stephen Stills nor Graham Nash knows for sure when they first sang together gives some indication of the collective state of their heads in 1969.
Crosby's cosmic leanings had eventually finished his membership of The Byrds; Stills had been a member (with Neil Young) of Buffalo Springfield, who had delivered fleeting moments of brilliance but ended in a mixture of acrimony and apathy; and Nash's membership of English popsters The Hollies had faced similar pressures to Crosby's tenure as a Byrd. The trio first teamed up either at Joni Mitchell's or John Sebastian's house, when Nash spontaneously joined a Crosby/Stills jam, hitting three-part harmonies that were to become an enduring and spellbinding aspect of their music.
Recording their first album, Crosby, Stills and Nash (1969), in London (a correspondent writes this album was in fact recorded in Los Angeles, partly to allow Nash to legally extricate himself from The Hollies, CSN were an instant hit. The record started a marathon run in the US charts and launched the group to international fame. Their only problem was an overreliance on Stephen Stills' instrumental skills, a problem solved with the recruitment of Neil Young. With Young in place, the quartet played Woodstock - their second gig; the recordings indicate they played a patchy set, but history records that they had arrived.
To American audiences who had seen The Beatles as mythical figures, CSNY seemed like the rightful successors to the crown. They wrote songs of insight and feeling, had the musical expertise to stretch out and dazzle audiences, and produced a four-part vocal sound that could wrap the most mundane lyric with beauty. Their live work combined acoustic sets of fragile beauty with storming electric workouts featuring the twin lead playing of Stills and Young.
The quartet's first album, Déjà Vu (1970), was a strong and varied set, laced with anti-war and anti-government sentiments, mainly from Crosby and Stills. By the time Young's song "Ohio", written in response to the killing of protesting students by the National Guard, had stormed the US Top 20 in the face of a radio ban, CSNY were near enough the official band of the hippie generation. All the more sad and ironic, then, that a band that seemingly represented the ideals of peace and love blew such a strong beginning on years of puerile ego battles that would have been beneath even most of the politicians they railed against.
Logging further big sales with the live album Four Way Street (1971), the quartet set about recording solo projects, in Young's case with phenomenal artistic and commercial success. The lack of future action as a foursome would be largely down to his solo career eclipsing the work of the other three. Stills worked through part of the 70s with the seven-piece Manassas, who could play up a storm on stage and managed to get some of this down on vinyl. Crosby and Nash worked on as a duo, basing recording and touring projects on close vocal harmonies and well-crafted, if rather unsubtle, songs.
A CSNY reunion in 1974 produced a stadium tour that swelled bank accounts to embarrassing levels for a bunch of hippies. The projected reunion album got as far as some promising sessions and the cover artwork. Further attempts at albums in 1975 and 1976 collapsed in interpersonal difficulties, and when the contributions of Crosby and Nash were wiped from the tapes of the 1976 reunion, Nash vowed he would never work with Stills or Young again. A year later, however, Crosby, Stills and Nash re-formed.
The late 70s and early 80s were marked by CSN projects that showed the harmonies in fine shape and the songwriting pretty much where it had been at the start. Both CSN (1977) and Daylight Again (1982) satisfied the old fans and sold well - indeed Stills' "Southern Cross" from the 1982 album was arguably the best song the trio had ever recorded. Touring behind the albums, CSN were now a respected if predictable fixture of the rock big league. Individually, none of the trio had the commercial or critical clout to play the same venues or sell as many records. Young on the other hand was continuing to outperform his former cohorts on both fronts.
Crosby's lack of input on Daylight Again had been ominous, and following some failed drug cures a spell in jail in the mid-80s finally cleaned up his act. Young had promised a reunion if Crosby got straight and the quartet did play together at Live Aid while Crosby was out on bail. The second CSNY studio album, American Dream, appeared against all expectations in 1988, but only Crosby emerged with real credit, as his song to his new-found spirit, "Compass", briefly dragged the band back to their earlier heights. However, there was to be no live reunion and things continued, more or less, as they had at the start of the 80s.
With Freedom (1989) Young hit awesome solo heights that put further albums by the trio into the shade. CSN's career became noted for studio work that relied heavily on session friends and some songs co-written with others. Live It Up (1990) was also notable for one of the worst sleeves in rock history, featuring steeplejacks attending to giant cocktail sausages on the surface of the Moon. The trio seemingly had little to offer by way of new music; their live work was frequently superb, but nostalgia played a big part.
Crosby staged a low-key solo rally after signing to A&M with Oh Yes I Can (1989), winning back a few old fans and critics. His most meaningful contribution to rock may turn out to be his autobiography, Long Time Gone (1989), a chronicle of unremitting drug abuse that makes the man's continued hold on life nothing short of miraculous. His voice and songwriting survived in better shape than his liver, which was swapped for a less damaged model.
The 'Unplugged' sets for MTV donated by CSN and Neil Young provided something of a contrast in the mid-90s. CSN relied on faithful reworkings of the old stuff while Young managed to re-invent and surprise within the acoustic format. By this time the two acts seemed so far apart that any further CSNY action seemed unlikely, a situation underlined by the execrable After the Storm  in which CSN were reduced to covering The Beatles 'In My Life' for the album's high spot. By 1997 they were label less but their gigs were still drawing praise. Young, by contrast could still make the cover of the glossy rock monthlies. The quartet are still lumped together because their moment in the early 70s promised so much. That they would develop into the American Beatles was a possibility, given the talent on offer. It would be harsh to rate CSNY as a failure, but there have certainly been missed opportunities.