The 10 best Neil Young songs, as chosen by The Virginmarys

a shot of neil young live
(Image credit: Tore S\u00e6tre \/ Wikimedia)

Given that they themselves are a band on a mission to “give rock its spine back”, it should come as little surprise that the work of the outspoken – if ever so slightly curmudgeonly – rock legend Neil Young sits chief among The Virginmary’s influences. Citing his passion, his dedication to standing up for his beliefs and his knack for storytelling as three of the things which have most inspired their own songwriting, hints of Young’s work pepper both their infectious brand of anthemic hard rock and the furious live performances from which they first made their name.

So, to pay their dues and to celebrate the release of their new EP Sitting Ducks, we invited frontman Ally Dickaty joins us to run through the 10 best tracks from Neil Young’s back catalogue.

Old Man (from Harvest, 1972)

“There was a BBC session Neil did in 1972, [which] my dad used to have recorded on video long before the days of YouTube. I’d been brought up listening to his music but could never get on with it – I think it was the voice more than anything which I now absolutely love. Old Man is great in this performance, and it went on to be released on Harvest. It was one of the first times I fell in love with lyrics and the power of poetry. The way he crafts his lines in this song and the content matter really got to me and showed me the importance of the words.”

Man Needs A Maid (from Harvest, 1972

“I love the loneliness, honesty and vulnerability of this song. The content matter does sound a little outdated possibly in today’s world, and more fitting with old blues songs, but if you scrap the internal ‘is it completely pc?’ dialogue and take it for what it is, you sense it’s a bit of a cry for help, and written from [the perspective of] a man who can’t look after himself. It’s blatantly honest and I love that about it. It all breaks down and seems to be centred on the line ‘when will I see you again?’ Which is one of the most beautiful lines and parts of any song to me.”

Revolution Blues (from On The Beach, 1974)

“Such a cool song, spitting out lyrics over a really top-chorded riff and backbeat. I used to sing this all the time when I was practicing acoustically – [there’s] such a swagger to it. My favourite line is ‘well, it’s so good to be here, asleep on your lawn, remember your guard dog? Well I’m afraid that he’s gone, it was such a drag to hear him, whining, all night long.’

On The Beach (from On The Beach, 1974)

“Absolutely love this song, probably one of Neil Young’s bluesiest. You sense that he’s really down and disillusioned on this album, [and] it has some of his best songs. Again, incredibly honest with his feelings and it really shines through; you can’t fake that stuff without people sensing it a mile off. There is also very beautiful guitar on this track. He’s an underrated guitarist in my book. I think he doesn’t get classed as ‘up there’ with some of the best because he doesn’t mind it being scrappy and messy – it’s his style. But he can play incredibly sweetly, too, and his acoustic work is amazing.”

Borrowed Tune (from Tonight’s The Night, 1975)

“I used to listen to Tonight’s The Night when I was growing up and first started smoking weed, which was quite apt as I think he was wasted when he was recording it. His voice is all broken up through this album, I really like it. This is another one of his painfully honest songs [on which] he admits to taking the melody from the Rolling Stones. I always get sense that gentle stuff of his like this song was an influence on the likes of Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev.

My favourite line is, ‘I’m climbing this ladder, my head in the clouds, I hope that it matters, I’m having my doubts’ – laying it all on the line again and again.

Cortez The Killer (from Zuma, 1975)

“This is one of his favourites to play live it seems. It’s an epic, full of guitar solos. It’s a good example of where he’s absolutely fine with leaving the odd ‘duff’ note in his guitar work. You sense that a lot of his stuff is live within the studio, it’s beautifully loose. As always, quality lyrics, this time in a fantasising style. My favourite line is when he’s talking about a promised land, ’and I know she’s living there, and she loves me to this day, I still can’t remember when or how I lost my way.’ It’s a shivers down the spine type of moment.”

Like A Hurricane (from Live Rust, 1979)

“I prefer this live version than the album version, it was the one I always knew growing up – it was one of the few songs I liked of his when I was a young lad and my dad would play it. Neil Young is full of moments in songs that blow me away, and in this song it’s when he says ‘I wanna love you but I get so blown away’. His voice sounds vulnerable when he’s saying it and it’s at the perfect penultimate part of the song, before going into a guitar solo. Always a winner.

He’s been such an influence to me as a writer. His integrity to do whatever the hell he wants and extend songs and just keep jamming over them and changing them live. There’s something spiritual about his long epic stuff and it reminds me of the feeling between our band and fans at one of our shows.”

Powderfinger (from Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)

“Another one that seems a favourite for him to play live. I love the vibe of this song and it’s another I used to practice with acoustically, there is a proper country vibe to it. How he crafts his words to music is beautiful and so skilful - there’s something so effortless about what he does. He’s got an unmistakable style and sticks to his guns, and I think this gains you really hardcore fans. Also, ‘Godfather of grunge’ is a pretty special title for anyone to have acquired.”

Thrasher (from Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)

“I’ve always preferred Neil Young to Bob Dylan. I know I’m in the minority, and that Bob will have been a big influence on him, but I just prefer the flavour of Neil Young; it feels more personal and vulnerable.

This song is just him, a 12 string and a harmonica – the lyrics are incredible and effortless, it makes him sound like a complete natural. He writes about having to leave his old bandmates behind because of the drugs taking their toll and how they’re becoming ‘dead weight’ to him. A brave line to write.”

Rocking In The Free World (from Freedom, 1989)

“I used to play this song as a cover with Dan [way] back when, it’s one of the very few covers that we’ve ever played. I love the way he never shies away from politics and his beliefs, too many artists don’t have the bollocks to voice what they truly think and feel, and I think this is where it all goes wrong; when artists are thinking about trying to write for the masses, money and a purpose other than what they hold close to their heart.

[There are] beautiful lines in this song and another one of those moments that sends a shiver down my spine, when he mentions how it’s ’one more kid, that’ll never get to go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool’. Something about saying that a kid won’t get the chance to fall in love and be cool makes me tear up.”

The Virginmary’s new EP, Sitting Ducks, will be released on 22nd September.

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