How Neil Young’s ‘Trans’ Plan Turned Out To Be An Epic Failure

In music, artists often venture into uncharted territories, experimenting with new ideas and genres in hopes of artistic breakthroughs. Artists take these risks, but sometimes, they result in projects that are remembered more for their ambition than their success. Neil Young’s album ‘Trans’ stands as an example of this creative gamble.

With ‘Trans,’ Young took a sharp departure from his established sound, embracing the world of electronic music and synthesizers. Still, This bold move was met with mixed reactions. Young shared what he aimed to do with this album in a 1995 interview with Mojo Magazine, referring to his son, Zeke, who has cerebral palsy:

“At that time he was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people. That’s what ‘Trans’ is all about. And that’s why, on that record, you know I’m saying something but you can’t understand what it is. Well, that’s exactly the same feeling I was getting from my son.”

Young’s Artistic Dilemma

Speaking to Rolling Stone in 1988, the rocker further explained what inspired him to make this record. He said that songs like ‘Transformer Man,’ ‘Computer Age,’ and ‘We R in Control’ include many references to his son and the idea of people trying to control their lives using technology. He talked about communicating with those who can’t speak using computer-generated voices and mentioned that these themes are subtly woven throughout the album. He then added:

“But it has to do with a part of my life that practically no one can relate to. So my music, which is a reflection of my inner self, became something that nobody could relate to. And then I started hiding in styles, just putting little clues in there as to what was really on my mind. I just didn’t want to openly share all this stuff in songs that said exactly what I wanted to say in a voice so loud everyone could hear it.”

His Transition To Geffen Records And ‘Trans’ Reception

Just before releasing ‘Trans,’ Neil had just signed with Geffen Records after working with Reprise Records for 13 albums. He saw Geffen as a new platform for his creative ideas, but things didn’t go as planned for either party. ‘Trans’ reached No. 19 on the Billboard 200, but it wasn’t a commercial hit, leading to disappointment from the label.

In response to their demand for a rock album, the singer offered ‘Old Ways,’ a country album he had previously recorded, but Geffen rejected it. He told the following about the issue during an interview with the Los Angeles Times:

“They thought I was all over the map and didn’t understand why I was out there playing country, although to me it sounded like B.B. King more than country. All my music comes from all music — I’m not country, I’m not rock ‘n’ roll, I’m just me, and all these things are what I like.”

The Young-Geffen Dispute And The Lawsuit

Attempting to satisfy Geffen, Young then released a rockabilly album, ‘Everybody’s Rockin’,’ which received harsh reviews and further disappointed the label. This tension escalated to Geffen suing the musician for not producing commercially viable music, to which Young countersued, claiming his right to artistic freedom.

The dispute was eventually settled, with Geffen apologizing and releasing ‘Old Ways’ and two more of Young’s albums. After fulfilling his contract with the label, Young returned to Reprise Records and has been releasing albums there since.

You can listen to the album below.