How I wrote ‘Marrakesh Express’ by Crosby, Stills & Nash
Graham Nash takes us on a journey to Morocco in order to explain the origins of a classic. All aboard!
Before taking the world by storm as a part of the supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash, Graham Nash had already experienced huge acclaim with quintessentially British band The Hollies. One of the most successful group of the 60s (with 231 weeks on the UK singles charts during the decade), Nash’s departure was accelerated by his desire to push their music forward. A listen to their 1967 track King Midas In Reverse and its parent album Butterfly shows the direction that he was trying to lead the band, but neither the public nor his band mates were willing to embrace this more experimental sound and this creative frustration led Nash to head across the pond to join his esteemed colleagues.
All of which brings us to Marrakesh Express. Though one of the best known songs in the CSN repertoire (and the first single released), it was actually intended for The Hollies but was rejected by the group as yet another misstep. Thankfully the song, and the man himself, found a home with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. It’s over to Nash to explain further…
“I recently found a small book of notes, a nothing 10 cent book, and in it were my original words to Marrakesh Express and it reminded me of how I came to write that song. In the mid-60s, I think 1966, I decided to follow the footsteps of the American Beat poets. The information I had suggested that they loved to go down to Morocco, smoke a lot of pot and write poetry. That sounded like a good idea to me so I decided I would try it one day. I was living in London with my first wife and we got on a plane and flew to the north coast of Africa before getting a train down from Casablanca to Marrakesh.
“In those days first class tickets were pretty reasonable, so I was in a first class compartment with two older American ladies who had their grey hair dyed blue and I’d never seen that before and it was quite interesting to me – but it was pretty boring in there. I had my guitar with me and as there was nothing happening in that compartment I went back to the third class compartment where it was party time. There were people cooking food, there were ducks and pigs and chickens running all over the place, it was a fabulous time. I spent about an hour or so there soaking up the vibe and then went back to my compartment and wrote Marrakesh Express. It was something that came out pretty quickly, within the hour it was finished.
“Everything in those lyrics was based on real things. As a matter of fact, I recently saw that there was an auction of equipment and items that belonged to Jimi Hendrix and his band and one of the items for sale was the djellaba that is mentioned in the song. I sent that to Mitch Mitchell who was my friend and was the drummer in The Hendrix Experience.
“They were charming cobras in the square in Marrakesh; this snake would come out of a basket because this guy was blowing a flute thing. It was a fascinating time and I think I managed to really pin down exactly what I was feeling. So every word is true.
“There’s actually a version of the song done by The Hollies which is deep in the bowels of the tape vault at Abbey Road in London, and it’s awful. I think the issue was a lack of belief in it from the band. I‘d written King Midas In Reverse and we’d made a pretty good record of it but it wasn’t as commercially successful as usual. Normally everything we did went into the Top 10 whereas this only made it into the Top 20 and so The Hollies stopped trusting my musical direction and my energy of trying to be better and move forward. You’ve got to believe in a song, that’s one of the things which always kept Crosby, Stills & Nash alive. We had a reality rule which goes like this – if I sit Stephen and David down and play them a song and they don’t say anything, you’ll never hear that song again. If I sit them down and play them a song and David goes, ‘Oh man I know what I can sing in the chorus,’ or Stephen goes, ‘I know what I can do in the opening, I’ve got a great guitar part,’ then you’re up and running. That’s what we did, we only do the stuff we believe in. When you don’t believe in it, like The Hollies and Marrakesh Express, it shows.
“I had heard me and David and Stephen sing and once I heard that vocal blend, my life changed completely. I realised that I would have to instantly leave Joni Mitchell’s living room where I heard this incredible sound and I would have to go back to England and leave The Hollies and leave my wife, we weren’t really together at that time. As I said, my life changed completely on the power of that vocal blend.
“I played the song to Crosby and told him that I’d tried it with The Hollies but it was awful. He said, ‘Look you’re not crazy. This is a really interesting song, don’t let them make you think that you’re crazy,’ and in a way Crosby saved my arse by saying that. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is if people are rejecting your stuff out of hand. You begin to lose your confidence and wonder what you’re doing. But it was Crosby that said, ‘No, no, no – they’re the crazy ones!’
“I think it’s one of those songs that it’s hard to forget the melody after you’ve heard it a couple of times. I love to write songs like that, I’m much more interested in grabbing your attention right now rather than waiting until the end of the second chorus before you understand what the fuck I’m talking about.”
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Download the latest issue of Songwriting for our full interview with Graham Nash. His new album, Over The Years, contains the original demo of Marrakesh Express and is out now. Find out more at grahamnash.com