By Richie Unterberger

Although Fred Neil was already regarded as a major figure on the Greenwich Village folk scene by 1964, he had yet to record an album. He had released about half a dozen rare singles on almost as many labels dating back to the late 1950s, along with a few songs on the Hootenanny Live at the Bitter End compilation on the FM label. But Tear Down the Walls, recorded with Vince Martin for Elektra, was the first record to adequately capture the remarkable folk-blues fusion of the singer-songwriter, delivered in the richest low voice in all of pop music.

    Since the early 1960s, Neil had been friends with Martin, a fellow folk vet who had sung on the Tarriers' hit "Cindy Oh Cindy" back in 1956. By 1964 they were working steadily as a duo, sometimes with support by budding session men John Sebastian (on harmonica) and Felix Pappalardi (on guitarron, a Mexican bass). Elektra producer Paul Rothchild offered them the chance to record for the company after catching them live in the Village at the Gaslight. Both Sebastian and Pappalardi offered crucial sympathetic backup on the studio sessions that became Tear Down the Walls, an eclectic album that took folk in directions quite progressive for 1964, sometimes even anticipating the folk-rock Neil would devise as a solo artist.

    "Fred was a natural linkup of various musical styles," says Sebastian. "The thing that was so different about Fred was that he had not only a Southern background, but was one of the first guys that was crossing racial boundaries in his style in a sense. This gospel music that he had inherited was very much the gospel music of the black church. Some of his friends, like [black folk singers] Odetta and Len Chandler and some of the black musicians that were our first real close friends, had an affinity with Fred that they didn't have with the New York musicians. 'Cause we had very much of an Eastern background, and it simply didn't include as much of that rich musical heritage.

    "He was a 'oh, we'll just feel it and it'll work out' kind of a guy. It was Felix's and my particular lot for those years to get Fred in the studio and nail it down a little bit, actually plan where a solo would be so that the guy would be ready when the solo happened. Peter Childs [who played on Neil's subsequent Elektra solo LP, Bleecker and MacDougal became another member of this 'keep Fred in line' team. Felix and I were in some degree or another baby-sitting these recordings a little bit to help Paul, who we could see had an enormous job to produce these projects."

    Tear Down the Walls was still a folk album, not a rock one. It was also one in which Neil did share duties with Martin, Fred's dark soulful vocals contrasting with Vince's more conventionally clear, high folk ones, whether on harmonies or the occasional lead spots each singer took. Thus about half of the tracks were folk covers, sometimes in a travelin' troubadour style that looked to the past more than the future, including an energetic charge through "I Know You Rider," also recorded in the 1960s by the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, and Judy Henske. There was also "I'm a Drifter," by Travis Edmonson of Bud and Travis, learned by Martin from Fred Neil devotee David Crosby. The most impressive of the covers was "Morning Dew," which gave more force to the somewhat restrained, pristine original version by its composer, Canadian folk singer Bonnie Dobson. "Morning Dew" would subsequently become an oft-covered folk-rock staple, recorded by Tim Rose, the Grateful Dead, Lulu, Episode Six (featuring future members of Deep Purple), the Jeff Beck Group, Clannad, and others.

    It was on the original material, though, that Neil truly made his mark (though Martin wrote one song, "Toy Balloon"). "Wild Child in a World of Trouble" gave the world its first glimpse of the wizened existential troubadour persona that Fred would exploit to the hilt on his first two solo albums. "Baby," a nearly avant-garde inclusion for a 1964 folk LP, looked forward to the raga-influenced numbers that Neil would employ for some of his best subsequent work. "Linin' Track" had already been around the block a couple of times, both as one of the songs Neil did for the Hootenanny Live at the Bitter End anthology, and one of the tunes Les Baxter's Balladeers contributed to the compilation JackLinkletter Presents a Folk Festival while David Crosby was in that group.

    According to Martin, the album's diversity was quite deliberate. "At the time there was so much going on in the Village and in the music business, and the sin was eclecticism," he told Goldmine. "The thing was to have a bag, a niche that the record companies could put you in. The songs that we chose, we chose very agonizingly and fought over to a great degree."

    The arrangements, feels Sebastian, had more depth than was customary for folk recordings of the era. "Our instruments went well together," he says of his work with Pappalardi. "The harmonica and the guitar could kind of sandwich a folk performer in a very flattering way. Paul Rothchild also heard this, and we began to get work as a kind of team that would rock a little harder on something that was basically a folk arrangement."

    They would get their chance to rock even harder as accompanists on Neil's debut solo LP, released in May 1965. For Neil and Martin never did record together again, although Martin has said that a live album was planned as a follow-up for Elektra, to have been recorded at the Bitter End with the Bitter End Singers. Instead Neil went on his own, taking the first steps toward adding electricity to his already potent brew. That story is told on Bleecker and MacDougal, his sole solo effort for Elektra, also reissued by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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