Crosby, Stills & Nash were the first rock supergroup, and their ascendancy in 1969 presaged huge changes in rock 'n' roll — although virtually no one thought so at the time. Back then, the idea that rock was moving from triumph to triumph on the backs of The Beatles was inviolable. Still, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Beatles themselves were already old hat by the time Crosby, Stills & Nash was released in May 1969. In a pop scene that had already produced Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Chicago, the guitar-guitar-drums-vocal formula those lovable mop-tops had pioneered seemed as hackneyed as Frank Sinatra or Rosemary Clooney.
So along came Crosby, Stills & Nash, who didn't bother to come up with an interesting band name, but who had come from groups with poetic, allusive monikers: The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies. They didn't need to get fancy about their name, since David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash probably thought of themselves as veterans of the rock 'n' roll wars who wanted to make it on the strength of their musicianship, not on some gimmick. Much like The Band, which would make waves the same year with their proto-Americana full-length, The Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash presaged a return to good vibes and communal feeling.
Meanwhile, rock 'n' roll soldiered on, and it's safe to say that such relatively unheralded-at-the-time albums as Hackamore Brick's One Kiss Leads to Another, The Velvet Underground's Loaded and The Stooges' Fun House now sound like classics, while Crosby, Stills & Nash and its follow-up, 1970's Déjà Vu, strike me as a trifle genteel and smug. They're skillful, accomplished and, to my ears — I've been listening to them since the day they appeared — rather sterile.
That's not to take away from the craft and artistry that went into them. The Crosby, Stills & Nash track "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" is quite an achievement, with Stills' guitar work supporting the trio's faultless harmonies. Nash's "Pre-Road Downs" is a brilliant throwaway, and Crosby's "Guinnevere" is as good as "Everybody's Been Burned" or "Dolphin's Smile" — songs Crosby had written for The Byrds in the mid-'60s. In fact, music writer Robert Christgau claims that Crosby based "Guinnevere" upon a motif from Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain, with Davis repaying the compliment by recording a long, abstract version of the song in early 1970.
With Neil Young on board for Déjà Vu, the first two Crosby, Stills & Nash albums were staples of radio throughout the '70s — "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" and "Ohio" were everywhere. By the time the trio released CSN in 1977, rock 'n' roll had made a comeback via The Ramones, Elvis Costello and Young himself. The clash between the old guard and the new was exemplified by the infamous 1979 argument between a drunken Costello and members of Stills' band in a Columbus, Ohio, bar. Costello deliberately baited Stills Band backup singer Bonnie Bramlett with racist remarks.
In a 1982 interview with Greil Marcus, Costello — who had been greatly influenced by '60s pop and soul music — said that Stills & Co. represented "a lot of things I thought were wrong with American music ... insincerity, dishonesty — musical dishonesty." I think Costello was wrong, but that illustrates just how out of fashion Crosby, Stills & Nash were in 1979.
The first two albums are listenable a track or two at a time, but there's not much to say about the later output of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Crosby and Nash's 1972 solo album Graham Nash David Crosby produced a hit single, "Immigration Man," that is notable only for being less insipid than the rest of the record. With Young again on board, the group made 1988's American Dream and, a decade later, Looking Forward. They're skillful and forgettable. They've just released CSN 2012, a live-performance video. Who knows, maybe Elvis Costello will join them on stage during their current tour, and lead them in a rendition of Nick Lowe's satirical ode to hippiedom, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."