“re-ac-tor” by Neil Young & Crazy Horse (1981)
Around 1990, I read a profile in a magazine – I can’t recall what it was – about Neil Young, focusing on his comeback after a series of a relatively weak and low-selling releases during the ’80s.
The writer included ratings for each of Young’s albums to date, with 10 scoring highest and 1 the lowest.
The usual suspects appeared on each end of the spectrum – “Rust Never Sleeps” and “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” near the top; “Trans” and “Everybody’s Rockin'” near the bottom – but one album deviated for the normal type of rating: The writer gave it a 1 AND a 10.
The writer’s explanation: Listeners either love or hate “re-ac-tor,” with no middle ground.
I wasn’t surprised to read about the “hate” factor. After “Rust Never Sleeps” and its companion “Live Rust,” Neil explored a variety of musical tangets, none of which seemed to click with fans or critics. Later he revealed he was preoccupied with caring for his son Zeke, who is autistic.
But at the time, people were scratching their heads over his output, including David Geffen, who signed Young to a record deal in 1981. As Don McLeese explains in a Rolling Stone article:
“Neil Young is the only artist in the history of modern recording to be sued for refusing to be himself. The suit, filed by Geffen Records, Young’s label for much of the ’80s, charged that he was violating his contract by recording ‘unrepresentative’ albums. In other words, Neil Young wasn’t making Neil Young music.”
Young and Geffen eventually shook hands and settled, but Neil didn’t regain his relevance until re-signing with his original label Reprise and releasing “Freedom,” which included two versions of his anti-George H.W. Bush anthem “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
Just before he left Reprise, Young turned in “re-ac-tor,” with Crazy Horse backing him instrumentally. At the time, the album received a warm response; Rolling Stone’s reviewer gave it four stars and complimented it as exhibiting something along the lines of combining the distortion of Blue Cheer with the tightness of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
I was a sophomore in college, and we certainly enjoyed “re-ac-tor,” which is reminiscent of the electric half of “Rust Never Sleeps.” It became a near-constant play in our apartment the last few months of ’81.
But time certainly has not been kind to “re-ac-tor.” Reprise didn’t bother to put it on compact disc until 22 years after its initial release, and by then it was generally considered as one of Young’s definite low points. William Ruhlmann’s review on allmusic.com, for example, calls it a “half-baked effort” and accuses Neil of “sounding like second-rate Talking Heads.”
I guess you just had to be there …
For those who enjoy Young’s rocket-fueled collaborations with Crazy Horse, believe me when I say “re-ac-tor” won’t disappoint. From the riff that opens “Opera Star” to the feedback that closes “Shots,” the band doesn’t let up whatsoever, resulting in probably the hardest-rocking album of Neil’s career.
“Opera Star” tells the story of a working-class type whose girlfriend from ran off “with some highbrow from the city light,” but that’s OK with the guy, who decides instead to “stay out all night gettin’ fucked up in that rock and roll bar.” With any luck, he’ll find a new lady who shares his musical interests.
Musically, “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze” rides a two-chord riff that melds into a minor-chord progression for the verses, which deal with a pair of characters from the beach. Some catchy Young guitar carries the chorus: “Come on down for a pleasure cruise/Plenty of women, plenty of booze.”
When critics take aim at “re-ac-tor,” they usually single out the song “T-Bone,” the lyrics of which consist, in total: “Got mashed potatoes/Ain’t got no T-bone.” For nine-plus minutes. But what’s important is the jam that occurs between Young, guitarist Frank Sampedro, bass player Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina, who tear through the song with the gusto of a heavy-metal band.
“Get Back On It” is a relatively straightforward, modified 12-bar-blues song about a trucker who may have something underhanded going on: “I may be late comin’, though/I got some things I gotta do.” Maybe something similar to Lowell George in “Willin'”?
Fans of “Powderfinger” on “Rust Never Sleeps” might also enjoy “Southern Pacific,” the tale of a railroader who reaches the end of the line: “I rode the highball, I fired the Daylight/When I turned 65, I couldn’t see right/It was, ‘Mr. Jones, we’ve got to let you go/It’s company policy, you’ve got a pension, though.'”
“Motor City” laments the decline of the American automotive industry and the influx of Japanese imports: “There’s already too many Datsuns in this town.” Anyone who experienced what came out of Detroit during the ’70s will identify with Neil’s assessment of the situation.
The title of “re-ac-tor” seems to have its roots in the song “Rapid Transit,” which refers to “meltdown” and “containment,” two pertinent words in the wake of the near-disaster at Three Mile Island. Frankly, I’m not sure what they have to do with what seems to be the overriding theme of the song, a swipe at a type of music that was popular at the time: “No wave rockers/Every wave is new until it breaks.” In “Cinnamon Girl” fashion, Young plays a one-note guitar solo that actually works as such.
If one “re-ac-tor” tune gets a begrudging nod, it’s usually the anti-war “Shots,” in which Young makes his guitar sound like gunfire while using his high-pitched voice to effectively convey the album’s strongest set of lyrics. Molina’s rapid-fire drumming provides the song a military-like cadence as Neil reminds the listener, “I keep hearing shots.”
I wouldn’t rate “re-ac-tor” at 10 out of 10; perhaps the original Rolling Stone assessment is more like it. But anyone who veers toward 1 is going on reputation alone, rather than giving the album an objective listen.