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It's Like Deja Vu All Over Again

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performs on day 2 of the 2013 Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amphitheatre on Sunday October 27, 2013 in Mountain View California.
John Davisson/John Davisson/Invision/AP
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performs on day 2 of the 2013 Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amphitheatre on Sunday October 27, 2013 in Mountain View California.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's classic album "Deja Vu" is being reissued in a 50th Anniversary edition. 1970 was the peak year for this band of four strong individuals.

After 51 years, the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album "Deja Vu" has sold over 8 million units, making it the best-selling album from the four members in any combination. That includes their many solo albums, even Neil Young's stellar catalog from the 1970s. "Deja Vu" was skillfully created, and it came at just the right time.

The album was overdue for a retrospective edition. The "Deja Vu- 50th Anniversary (Deluxe Edition)" is out May 14, with the original album plus three discs of extra material. The band members haven't been getting along that well in recent years, but they did manage to vote on the 38 demos, outtakes, and alternate versions that are included in this lavish new package.

The original record was released on March 11, 1970, at a time when the 1960's hadn't quite ended yet, despite the calendar. Opposition to the growing involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War was heating up. Hippie culture was still the youth culture. Music festivals were drawing thousands of attendees, most famously over 400,000 to the Woodstock Festival a few months earlier.

Crosby, Stills & Nash formed in 1968, the three members coming from three established bands; David Crosby had been fired from The Byrds, Stephen Stills' band The Buffalo Springfield had broken up, and Graham Nash was dissatisfied with his position in The Hollies. Their self-titled debut album, released in May of 1969, was a major success, with two hit singles and airplay on the increasingly influential FM radio stations that featured the album rock format.

Songwriting was evenly divided on their debut. Crosby, Stills and Nash all sang, both individually and collectively, utilizing their fantastic vocal harmonies. Crosby and Nash strummed their acoustic guitars. Dallas Taylor did most of the drumming. Stephen Stills played not only rhythm but also lead guitar, keyboards and bass. If this group was going to tour, they would need an additional instrumentalist.

Atlantic Records was the band's label. Co-founder and label president Ahmet Ertegun suggested that the additional member should be Neil Young, from Stills' old band The Buffalo Springfield. There had been some friction between Stills and Young in that band, but it was agreed that Young would sign on.

CSN&Y including their rhythm section of Dallas Taylor (drums) and Greg Reeves (bass) embarked on their first tour in August 1969. Famously, their second live gig was the Woodstock Festival. The band played other festivals on that tour, including the infamous Altamont Free Concert in December 1969. They finished up the sessions for a new studio album in January 1970.

By all accounts, there were plenty of arguments during those recording sessions, with four strong individuals expressing their opinions and protecting their songs. Neil Young, unlike the other three, had already released two solo albums of his own. He brought one of his most definitive ballads, "Helpless," augmented by those beautiful CSN harmonies. His other contribution was the big studio production "Country Girl," which included a reworking of some unreleased Buffalo Springfield material.

Stills also drew upon one of his Buffalo Springfield songs, "Questions." He edited a new version onto "Carry On," the album's stunning opener. The song's intricate vocal harmonies shine, including the unforgettable brief acapella section: "Carry is coming to us all." It was a message the culture needed to hear in 1970.

Stephen Stills also contributed "4+20," a heartfelt solo guitar and vocal piece. Graham Nash's two songs, "Teach Your Children" and "Our House" were direct expressions of sentiment and would become perennial crowd-pleasers.

David Crosby wrote and sang alone (with no vocal harmonies) one of the record's full-band rockers "Almost Cut My Hair." The electric guitar dueling between Stills and Young is a reminder of the rock edge that Young helped the band to maintain. Crosby also wrote the philosophical "Deja Vu." It was this striking track that gave the album its title.

Another full-band rocker is CSN&Y's popular version of Joni Mitchell's song "Woodstock." The "Woodstock" film hit theatres two weeks after the record's release. The album concludes with a short full-band jam co-written by Stills and Young. "Everybody I Love You" may have been as much a message from CSN&Y to themselves as it was to the world at large.

The non-album track "Ohio," written by Young upon hearing the news of the Kent State shootings, was quickly released three months after "Deja Vu" came out. The band was in the midst of their second tour. Having their names on the front cover of "Deja Vu" didn't save Dallas Taylor and Greg Reeves from being fired (separately) at the start of that tour. The acrimony and ill-feeling continued, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young broke up when the tour ended in July 1970.

Music fans loved the band enough to carry the individual members through a successful decade after that- solo records, duo records, a CSN (without Y) record, and tours of all kinds, including another brief CSN&Y reunion tour in 1974. In the ensuing decades, there have been a couple more studio albums with all four members, and a few tours.

Currently, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are four musical brothers who love each other, but reportedly aren't speaking to one another. Their work together has been fraught with tension since the beginning, but the art remains. Now we have the opportunity for a deeper dive into this peak set of songs from 1970. It's "Deja Vu"-all over again.

Mark Simmet is a Senior Producer and Studio One Host