Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Cortez The Killer

After becoming a star with Harvest, Neil Young got back together with Crazy Horse for Zuma, creating the epic guitar extravaganza of Cortez The Killer.

I can’t think of any other musician who plays two very different styles of music – gentle acoustic folk songs and heavy rock songs with squealy electric guitar solos – who is equally popular with his fans for both.

This is firmly in the second camp: “ditch music” as Neil Young calls it.
Neil Young wrote it way back when he was studying history in high school in Canada, though it did not appear until he released his 1975 album Zuma with Crazy Horse.

Presumably young Neil was learning about European colonisation of the New World, since the song is about Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who conquered Mexico, ending the Aztec Emppire in the early 16th century.

When I first heard the song I didn’t care about the history lesson about the evils of colonisation; I was doing my own history revision for A-levels at the time, and the syllabus didn’t cover the Aztecs.

If the lyrics made little impression, it’s hardly surprising since it’s nearly three and a half minutes before Young starts to sings of the arrival of Cortes, “Dancing across the water with his galleons and guns, looking for the New World and a palace in the sun.”

All I really noticed for a long time was that it contains some pleasingly off-kilter guitar solos by Neil Young, who is probably my favourite electric guitarist – especially when he lets loose like this.

I’ve now discovered that the song only ends, after seven and a half minutes, because all that squealy guitar had, not unsurprisingly, blown a circuit in the studio.

The mixing console went dead, losing the rest of the solo – and, apparently, a final verse – and Young, ever the contrarian, told the producer David Briggs when he was informed that he had “never liked that verse anyway.”

I now learn that when Zuma came out it was banned by General Franco because of this song, and only released in Spain after his death later in 1975 (with the abridged song title Cortez).

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