When Nils Lofgren was 17 years old he left Washington D.C. for Los Angeles to make music with Neil Young. The sessions produced Neil’s 3rd solo LP “After the Goldrush” (1970), a melodic masterpiece in synch with the then current propensity for sensitive singer-songwriters, though Neil was always tougher than the rest. Nils’ piano underpins the rocking “Southern Man”. If that’s him on the haunting title track well…precocious is the word. The perpetually creative Young was busy, along with Crosby, Stills & Nash, as a member of America’s #1 group of the time. Lofgren hung out & played with the “Goldrush” band, Crazy Horse. Their eponymous debut LP is a dark, dense thing, country-tinged but of the city night, an essential record (more later). This line-up of Crazy Horse was never built to last. One reason was that Nils had his own songs to record with his own band, Grin, his boys from back in Maryland.
Grin made 4 LPs between 1971 & 1974. They were all produced by David Briggs, Neil Young’s producer, who liked to keep it simple & let it rock. “White Lies”, a single from the 2nd record “1+1”, a power-pop belter was hoping for but missed out on radio airplay & major sales. Grin became the memorable & enjoyable support act but never the main attraction. The records, especially the first 2, are good enough to be somebody’s favourite American rock music of the time. Here in the UK they were a very well kept secret. In 1974 the band broke up & Nils, still only 23, began a solo career.
In 1975 Zigzag, a fanzine written by & for the discerning listener, were championing this Nils Lofgren record & their word was good enough for me. Damn they were right, “Nils Lofgren” is a manifesto from a rock & roll romantic. Briggs was still around, his uncomplicated approach employing just 2 other musicians. The classy rhythm section, Wornell Jones (bass) & Aynsley Dunbar (drums), brought a consistency to the blend of swagger, sincerity & a bunch of fresh, positive tunes. It’s a great record which got a lot of play round our yard & is one I still reach for when I want to hear some good straight ahead rock music.
Nils could play guitar just like ringing a bell. “Back It Up” & “Keith Don’t Go”, a song for his Rolling Stone hero, became show-stopping displays in his live act. Here’s the recorded version because it’s tough, it’s tight & it’s just 2.18, you’re busy people. In May 1976, on a UK tour promoting his next LP “Cry Tough” we caught front row seats for a show at the Birmingham Town Hall. His band, including brother Tommy, were as solid as, the mix of older Grin songs with his newer work made for a very strong set. When Nils reached back to the Crazy Horse days for a tribute to his bandmate, the late Danny Whitten, an intimate & heartfelt “I Don’t Want To Talk About It” was as effective as the impressive guitar pyrotechnics.
“Cry Tough” used up the songs from the David Briggs sessions & brought in Al Kooper (that’s the great…) to produce the rest of the LP. It’s another good collection, perhaps not all as good as its predecessor but Nils’ guitar virtuosity is more featured & the songs that really cut it, the title track, “It’s Not a Crime”, “Can’t Get Closer”, have a punch & a brightness that can be associated with his best work.
His label, A&M, were promoting Nils as the next big thing in American rock, a new guitar hero. “Cry Tough” had sold well enough & 1977’s “I Came To Dance” got a big push. That year’s UK tour was in bigger venues, the Birmingham gig moved down the road to the Odeon. The LP is a solid effort but there was no big radio-friendly track that could break Nils to a wider audience. At a time when music was getting back to basics “I Came to Dance” was a step away from Lofgren’s Grin/debut LP template. The arrangements were busier but the set of songs less consistent. Support on the tour was from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, young gunslingers with a fine debut record & something to prove, just where Lofgren had been 2 years earlier. Nils would have to go some to match Petty’s band & he put on a good show. Playing his guitar while somersaulting on a trampoline is impressive the first time but a little too flash. Tom Petty sold a lot of records in the UK on the back of that tour.
Later that year a double live LP, like the 2 preceding records, made the US Top 50. In 1979 “Nils”, produced by Bob Ezrin, including 3 songs co-written by Lou Reed, was less successful. In 1982 Nils hooked up with his old buddy Neil Young for “Trans”, Young’s surprising swing into the Computer Age. The LP received mixed reviews but Neil was still a big draw & Nils joined the band for the Transworld tour. It was as a sideman, a featured lead guitarist, that Nils became best known, playing major stadium gigs around the world. In 1984, just as Bruce Springsteen became ubiquitous with the release of “Born in the USA”, his guitarist Steve van Zandt stepped down & Lofgren became his replacement. Now, 30 years later, he’s still a member of the E Street Band.
There were more LPs from Nils Lofgren. “Night Fades Away”, “Flip”, “Wonderland”, I’ve got my share of them & they all have their moments. One week in 1985 my mate Carl was visiting & going to gigs was what what we did for fun. It was a quiet time in London & Nils Lofgren at the Hammersmith Odeon seemed to be the best option. We didn’t listen to his music as much as we used to, it was just a night out. From the opening “No Mercy”, a distinctive song about boxing, more dynamic live than on record, it was clear that we were in the right place. We knew & liked all these tunes, an encore of the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy” had us dancing in the aisles. When the emotional tone of Nils’ lyrics & playing matches up with his straight ahead melodic take on rock & roll it’s a pretty good feeling. There are collections of his best solo work & with Grin which hit the spot. It is that 1975 debut solo LP when it really all came together but which never found the audience it deserved. Here’s another track from that “Fat Man Album”.