This week’s pick goes back to the end of the 1970’s and a highlight record from one of the decade’s most outstanding artists. A tour comprising of split acoustic and electric sets fueled the idea to do the same on an album and the result would become one of the more iconic albums in a crowded discography already laden with immortal records and songs.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Rust Never Sleeps
Released June 22, 1979 via Reprise Records
My Favorite Tracks – Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black); Thrasher; Powderfinger
The story of Rust Never Sleeps is a bit of a long and winding one – many of the songs were collected from earlier points in Young’s career, a typical thing for a guy who has had multiple “lost” albums in the course of his history.
While Young had made waves with a folk and country-infused style, he had also veered off on other courses and was leaning hard into distorted guitars by the late ’70’s. He would marry both concepts with split-set performances on the tour dubbed Rust Never Sleeps in 1978, which would serve as the birthplace and even live studio for portions of the album.
As for the album and tour title’s name, that came courtesy of Devo singer Mark Mothersbaugh. Devo and Young were collaborating on a film project when they took time to enter a studio and work on the electric track Hey Hey, My My. Mothersbaugh threw the line “rust never sleeps” in the lyrics – it was the marketing slogan for Rust-Oleum.
Of the album’s nine songs, seven were initially recorded live and then overdubbed in studio later. An effort was made to remove crowd noise but that was not always possible with studio technology at the time. Two songs – Pocahontas and Sail Away – were not cut live and were studio recordings instead.
My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)
The album features different renditions of the same song, the opener done acoustically. The song was born of Young’s fear of becoming obsolete in music and also would shout out Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten and liken his rise with the fall of the recently-departed Elvis Presley. This first version of the song also features the lyric “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” which became one of Young’s most famous and widely-quoted lyrics. While used in a wide variety of places, it was a part of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note in 1994 and Young was greatly affected by that.
A masterfully done acoustic tune that sees Young rambling off on his own, away from society and its machinations. The song is actually about Young’s bitter relationship with his former bandmates in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. While Young and Stephen Stills were able to maintain a working relationship through the ’70’s, David Crosby and Graham Nash were on the other side of the fence and a lot of animosity came through various failings to record a new CSNY record. It’s interesting to note the actual genesis of the song of course, but even without that knowledge this is a fantastic tune.
Ride My Llama
A short tune, though far from to-the-point. Here Neil takes a trip with a guy from Mars and also rides a llama from Peru to Texarkana. Not sure what ideas or substances Young might have been engaged with here, but the song works pretty well in its fanciful outlook.
Another highlight of the acoustic side of the record, Pocahontas sees Neil again approach the issue of European settlers massacring Native Americans. He had previously sung about that on his acclaimed track Cortez The Killer from 1975. Pocahontas is one of three songs from Rust Never Sleeps that were originally intended for the never-released Chrome Dreams album a few years prior.
Pocahontas is also a bit of a weird song, as Young goes from a muddled recount of the massacre, to living in the present day with Marlon Brando and the Astrodome. The song really showcases Young’s vocal abilities and creates an uplifting atmosphere despite the grave subject matter.
The acoustic portion of the album ends with this nice, light and airy tune that really isn’t about much more than getting away. It’s a nice, clam and smooth way to get the hell away from it all for a few minutes.
It’s on to the electric songs now and another cut meant for the shelved Chrome Dreams record. Young tried doing something else with the song, namely giving it to Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Skynyrd never got around to recording the song before the 1977 plane crash that claimed the lives of Van Zant and others. Young would eventually retool Powderfinger for his own use here.
Powderfinger sees a young man forced to defend his home from an arriving gunboat. Thinking quickly, he decides to grab his own gun and fire on the ship, which would lead to his own death. The lyrics tell a pretty heart-wrenching tale that isn’t the conventional approach to a war or combat song.
Powderfinger is held in the highest regard – often considered one of Young’s best, and in 2014 Rolling Stone magazine ranked it as his best overall.
The next track is a nice rock number but also a bit of a strange one – if we’re to take the song literally, then Neil is suggesting we head to the laundromat and pick up divorced, down on their luck mothers as they’re better lovers. There’s probably some kind of social commentary here that means one shouldn’t take this track literally but honestly no one really talks about this song much so the listeners are left to make their own guesses as to what’s up.
The third song intended for Chrome Dreams appears in here electric and quite distorted form. It’s almost a punk or metal tune with its rendition here. The song could just be about some guy’s life or maybe about drugs of some kind, it’s not evident what’s going on here.
Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)
The album closes with the electric version of the opener. They lyrics are altered slightly on this version but the song is essentially the same, just with Young and Crazy Horse bashing their way through this amped up version. It’s another of Young’s most famous tracks and has been covered by about half of all music artists in the decades since release.
Rust Never Sleeps was a massive artistic statement from Neil Young. He wove his own fears of being cast aside into the kind of riffs and noise that punk and other artists were making, and cranked out a set of immortal songs to stave off his obsolescence. And on the acoustic portion he worked within more familiar parameters to craft engaging songs that added to his legacy in the folk/country realm.
The album would reach number 8 on the Billboard Album Chart, the precursor to the Billboard 200. It charted well in many other countries as well. The album has a lone US platinum certification but that might be more of an issue with a record label’s lack of desire to re-certify albums than an accurate picture of sales figures.
A year later Young and Crazy Horse would release Live Rust, featuring both tracks from this album and other Young standards. It too would chart highly and also gain platinum certification. The somewhat unconventional Rust Never Sleeps approach paid huge dividends for Young, who was about to kick off a very strange and meandering period when the 1980’s hit.
At the end of the day, Rust Never Sleeps was a career high point for Neil Young and proof he could carry on even as he’d put some years behind him. He would strike gold again and again in the years since, both carrying on as he saw fit and also keeping his finger on the pulse of the music of the moment. The conversation over the best Neil Young album is a tough one considering both the size and scope of his total output, but Rust Never Sleeps is certainly a part of that conversation.