In recent weeks, I have become obsessed with Cortez The Killer from the 1975 album Zuma by Neil Young with Crazy Horse. So much so, that I’ve started pestering my son to jam it with me and have ordered multiple copies of the album from Amazon, so I can share the masterpiece with friends who I think will appreciate it.
Zuma was Neil Young’s seventh studio album, and his second with Crazy Horse (Frank Sampedro – guitar | Billy Talbot – bass and vocals | Ralph Molina – drums and vocals). Cortez The Killer is about Europe’s exploitation of the Americas and focuses on Hernán Cortez, a conquistador who conquered Mexico in the 16th century.
The song uses one of Neil Young’s favourite tunings, DADGBD, known as double drop D or D modal tuning – often associated with Celtic music. A few simple open chords, repeated in the following sequence, make up the structure of the song: Em7, D and Am7/A7sus4. It’s one of those strange, intoxicating chord sequences you never tire of, no matter how many times it’s repeated. The song doesn’t follow any conventional structure. There’s no chorus, just verses sung over a repeating chord pattern. The track starts softly, with Neil Young building a beautiful solo which drones, ebbs and flows for 3 minutes 23 seconds before any lyrics are sung. This should be required listening for all those who approach guitar playing as if it’s an Olympic sport. The message is simple – play fewer notes, and play them with feeling.
The lo-fi analogue recording and loose guitar playing generate the groove and vibe of a jam session. The song seems to grow and take shape naturally. The tone is exquisite; raw and organic. For years, Neil Young’s favoured rig for rich, high gain sound has centred around Fender Deluxe valve amps and a Gibson Les Paul, called Old Black. The guitar is, allegedly, a 1953 Gold Top Les Paul which has been heavily modified. In addition to customisation of the bridge pickup, other modifications include the replacement of the original trapeze bridge with a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece. The Old Black/Fender combination is key to the sumptuous tone which lies at the heart of Cortez The Killer. Neil is notorious for cranking his Fender amps all the way to 12. This, he believes, is where they breathe and scream freely. Heaven knows how he can hear anything these days, after cranking his amps like that for decades.
After seven minutes the song begins to fade out while entering another instrumental phase. According to Scott Young, Neil Young’s father, in his book Neil And Me, an electrical circuit blew in the recording console during the Cortez session. Both the bulk of the instrumental section and the final verse were lost. When producer David Briggs broke the news to the band, Neil simply replied “I never liked that verse anyway.”