Developments in popular music by the late 1970s would say goodbye to smooth, pompous and commercial rock, and give birth to new wave. As that decade drew to a close, Neil Young was a survivor from the 1960s, approaching his mid-30s. Challenged by the changing times, he had much to prove, and Rust Never Sleeps would be his defining statement at the closing of the decade.
The genesis of Rust Never Sleeps is a complicated one. First of all, the album is inseparably tied to two other releases of the same year; the eponymous film directed by Young, and the double LP Live Rust that acted as a soundtrack for the former. These two releases are documents of the 1978 tour Young undertook with his backing band, a highly theatrical affair with oversized props, surreal imagery (roadies dressed as Jawas from the recently released Star Wars amongst others) and the gimmick of watching the band rust on stage through special glasses that were handed out to the audience. The Rust Never Sleeps album is broadly speaking a collection of the unreleased songs that were toured at this time, and most are live takes from that tour. The overlap between the three releases is even more apparent when one considers that some takes that ended up on Rust Never Sleeps are identical to their Live Rust/Film performances.
Touring new material that the audience was unfamiliar with is something Young did frequently in the 1970s: the tour documented on the recently released Live At Massey Hall 1971 previewed material from Harvest (1972), and the discordant, loose and inspired material performed on the Tonight’s The Night tour of 1973 wouldn’t see the light of day until 1975. The nature of the Rust Never Sleeps tour also echoes an earlier episode of Young’s career, namely when he performed abrasive, unfamiliar music in the Time Fades Away and aforementioned Tonight’s the Night tours of 1973 following mass success with the soft-rock album Harvest. Similarly, Rust Never Sleeps follows Comes A Time (1978), Young’s most commercial and gentle album to date.
Not all “new” material was written, or even recorded, in 1978, as some songs date back to the mid 1970s. Alternative versions of Pocahontas, Powderfinger, and Sedan Delivery can be found on the Chrome Dreams bootleg, dating to sessions in 1976, some songs of which ended up on side two of 1977’s American Stars ‘n Bars. The same take of Pocahontas surfaces on Rust Never Sleeps, albeit with overdubs and effects not present on the 1976 take. The other songs received more radical makeovers in their 1978/79 guises.
As mentioned above, Rust Never Sleeps contains live and studio material, older and newer songs (though all unreleased at that point), and most importantly acoustic and electric material. To emphasize this duality, the first side of the LP contains only acoustic material, and the second side only electric. Illustrating this symmetry, the album is bookended by appropriately an acoustic and an electric, full-band version of Hey Hey, My My, subtitled "Out of the Blue" and "Into the Black" respectively. The two styles represent the extremities of Young’s 1970’s output. On the one hand stands the contemplative singer-songwriter who plays intimate solo performances on his acoustic guitar and harmonica, as found on After The Gold Rush, Live at Massey Hall, Harvest, the aborted Homegrown and Comes A Time. Side two finds its roots in Live at the Fillmore East, the livelier parts of Tonight’s The Night, and especially Zuma (1975) and solitary songs like “Like a Hurricane”. Bookending an album with alternate versions of the same song was first done by Young on Tonight’s the Night.
My My, Hey Hey and its electric counterpart are key tracks to Rust Never Sleeps. Famously claiming “it’s better to burn out/than to fade away” in the former, and “/than it is to rust” in the latter, the tracks are highly self-aware statements on the nature of rock and roll. Especially the stark opening track reads like a state of the union. Punk music had just risen in Europe and the United States, changing the game for all the rockers who had been coasting unopposed since the 1960s. By name-checking both Elvis Presley, who had died in 1977 (“The King is gone/but he’s not forgotten”) and the leader of snotty, anarchic upstarts the Sex Pistols (“Is this the story/of Johnny Rotten”), a certain changing of the guard is symbolised. Young was acutely aware of the new musical climate, being in danger of becoming an anachronism himself. He took the punk ethic to heart, having pioneered abrasive, simple and sloppy music many years before the term “punk” was used as a new genre. Ironically, a young Sid Vicious was apparently in the audience at the Manchester show of Young’s 1973 Tonight’s the Night tour, later claiming that the friction between the band’s music and the crowd’s expectations had deeply impressed him.[Source] Young’s acknowledgement of the new climate, and his artistic assertion towards the end of the decade paid off: his relevance was guaranteed through the many accolades Rust Never Sleeps would reap.
Thrasher is perhaps the most striking of all the tracks on the album. Its vulnerable tone and crystal-clear arrangement, combined with some of the most frank lyrics of Young’s career cannot fail to move the listener. The song is packed with nature-related symbolism, contrasted with the trappings of decadent Americana. This is a recurring theme of Young’s work (“Look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s” from After The Gold Rush, and the On the Beach cover to name but two). Part of the song shares a superficial similarity to Everybody’s Talking, as performed by Harry Nilsson in 1969. The following lines have similar lyrical themes and melodic structures:
Thrasher is largely a thinly veiled reflection on Young’s relationship with Crosby, Stills and Nash, with whom he’d collaborated on and off since 1969. While on the one hand referring to them as “companions” and “friends”, the rest of the lyrics are almost painfully harsh. CSN were lost in “crystal canyons” and “rock formations” (a clever pun), “poisoned with protection”, and “became park bench mutations”. Most dismissively of all to the point of arrogance were it not brought in such a beautiful song, “they were just dead weight to me”. Young cut them off, said goodbye to rock and roll decadence and headed off the beaten track “with a one-way ticket to the land of truth”. Considering the state of CSN around 1978, with most of its members too coked up to produce anything of value and just content with the perks of the rock star lifestyle, the triumphant tone in Thrasher seems another victory for the punk ethic against the soft rock aristocracy of the late 1960s.
Ride My Llama takes Rust Never Sleeps on a surreal sidetrack. While still somewhat steeped in imagery of the American West (the Alamo, Texakarna), this short narrative suddenly introduces the element of alien abduction. Similar territory would later be explored in Radiohead’s Subterranean Homesick Alien, another first person account of being snatched from a lonely road. The alien doses the narrator and takes him on a mind-altering “trip”, concluding with the narrator’s intention to ride a Llama from Peru to Texakarna. The juxtaposition of “Western” imagery and the futuristic and alien is not limited to this song. The aforementioned roadies in their Star Wars outfits and the distinctly “digital” space age font on the album cover lend the whole album a whiff of science fiction. Ride My Llama echoes earlier Young tracks, particularly Cortez the Killer which dealt with Indigenous American themes with more detail.
illustration 2: A particularly striking performance of Pocahontas, 1992.
One of the oldest songs on Rust Never Sleeps, Pocahontas was not only written, but also recorded in 1976. Presented here, the basic 1976 track is subtly overdubbed with additional guitar, backing vocals and a more prominent echo. The track’s use of rather surreal imagery can be traced back to an actual event in 1973, when Marlon Brando turned down his Academy Award for Best Actor (for his role in the Godfather) and instead sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the Oscars with a prepared speech about Hollywood’s portrayal of American Indians. She was threatened with removal from the premises shortly before her appearance, if she were to read out the entire 15-page speech as intended. Her brief appearance mutated into Young’s dreams of “Pocahontas” and Marlon Brando as described in this song. The song itself fits neatly into the themes laid out in the songs that precede it: it is an account of the plight of the indigenous American population following the Western expansion of the white settlers. References to “firesticks and wagons”, “massacring the buffalo”, “cutting our women down” and the flight to new lands abound. The familiar contrast of the noble savage with Western civilization is also present: a rather cryptic description of the current place of the natives in society mentions “taxis running across my feet” and sitting at the top of the stairs “with my Indian rug/and a pipe to share”. It seems to put in song form the famous 1971 advertisement campaign featuring Iron Eyes Cody as “The Crying Indian”. Young himself dreams of doing his bit to resolve the situation by wishing he was a trapper, so he could give a thousand pelts in order to sleep with Pocahontas. Add Marlon Brando and his stories into the equation, and a campfire sing-along seems only minutes away.
The last track of the acoustic side of Rust Never Sleeps is the somewhat unremarkable Sail Away. It is the only track that is not by Young alone or features Crazy Horse, rather it uses the same session musicians as much of the previous year’s Comes A Time did. Its sugary sweet production and backing vocals by Nicolette Larson are highly reminiscent of that album, suggesting this is a leftover of those sessions. This would make it one of the more current songs at the time of the 1978 Rust Never Sleeps tour, with most of the other tracks stemming from (demo) sessions in 1976. It starts with the line “I could live inside a tepee”, which continues on nicely where “Pocahontas” left off. A brief mention of “the losers in the best bars” hints at the themes of “Thrasher”, with Young leaving behind civilisation and seeking truth and purity amongst the wilderness and its inhabitants.
Kicking off the electric set relatively gently, Powderfinger soars into life straight away with the memorable line “Look out mama/there’s a white boat coming up the river”, and continues the enigmatic narrative along a drunkenly plodding pace. While never made explicitly clear, one can gather that the narrator is a 22 year old who finds himself defending the family farm against what appears to be some sort of water-bound law enforcement. Debating the course of action, he responds to a warning shot from the boat by lifting his own rifle, and subsequently finds himself shot down before he could set out in life. The song has surfaced in an acoustic demo version as well, that version reminiscent of other story songs like The Old Homestead or Down By The River. Rust Never Sleeps’ rendition adds to the drama of the narrative with a searing lead guitar that gives way to a delightfully sloppy rhythm guitar driven tempo.
Somewhat out of character with the rest of the album, Welfare Mothers is a brain-dead anthem that raises the desirable qualities of getting off with divorcees. Drenched in sing-along backing vocals, fist pumping beats and yelped vocals, it’s almost a pastiche of rock music. Crazy Horse being known as a band with little musical talent, but with much enthusiasm, passion and aggression in their approach, this particular song lacks any of the subtlety of the other tracks. Of course, it could be considered a harmless, light-hearted break in the proceedings, much as Ob-la-di Ob-la-da was on the White Album. Nevertheless, it remains an inessential, inconsequential song on the album (the only one along with perhaps Sail Away).
Sedan Delivery is a song utterly typifying Young’s sympathies for the burgeoning New Wave movement. Its breakneck, balls to the wall punky pace, broken only by a bridge that sounds like the amps are melting, is completely in tune with the sounds then assaulting the public. The out of breath, out of tune singing in the breakdowns (particularly “The lasers are in the lab/” and “I’m thinkin’ of no one in my mind/) are disconcertingly reminiscent of the 1978 radio programme Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy. Eddie, the ship computer of the Heart of Gold (another Young reference) discordantly sings in a metallic voice while the ship is under attack. This is probably a cosmic coincidence, rather than a conscious homage on either part. The 1976 edition of this song is not of the same muted, acoustic style as the Pocahontas and Powderfinger demos from that same year, but sounds more like a remnant of Zuma. It’s also a full band version, but at half time, and with a marvellously layered, menacingly crunching riff that would end up much quicker and weedier on the Rust Never Sleeps version. It’s perhaps a sacrifice well made, as it sets Sedan Delivery apart on the album as a bold, new direction for Young.
The album is rounded off by the all-out aural assault of Hey Hey, My My. It’s exactly the same performance as on Live Rust and in the motion picture but with a few guitars layered on for good measure. An upbeat, euphoric end to the album, it concludes that rock and roll will never die.
At a mere nine songs, this is Young’s diverse career condensed and reduced to its essence. The quality of each individual song, bar one or two less astounding works, complements the acoustic/electric arrangement and the polarising nature of the book-ending tracks. The acoustic songs are more stark and hard-hitting than entire albums before them, and the rockers rock harder than on Zuma. This polarisation would be nothing without lyrical and musical strength, and that is where Rust Never Sleeps shines. A powerful collection of songs, each one stronger than the last, a brief yet sweeping statement with a concept that raises it to the next level.
Rust Never Sleeps was one of Young’s most critically acclaimed albums, quite a feat for an artist into his thirties when most of his peers were well and truly past their sell-by-date. It proved his continuing relevance in changing times, his timeless qualities blending seamlessly into the new musical landscape of the late 1970s. Sadly, ending the 1970s on such a peak also signalled the onset of mediocrity. Not a single subsequent Young album would come close to the focus, dynamism and ambition displayed here. Some commercial and critical success would be found again in the late 1980s after a decade of intense personal and professional troubles and artistic left turns. Freedom (1989) is a spiritual successor to Rust Never Sleeps, albeit in a much less focussed form. Also book ended by different versions of the same song (Rockin’ in the Free World), and also pre-empting a new musical movement (grunge in this case), Freedom would clear the slate and go on to pave the way for the Ragged Glory (1990), which was as ragged as it was glorious.
The speculative lyrics of "My My, Hey Hey" would come back to haunt Young, and indeed a whole new generation of music lovers some fifteen years later. Kurt Cobain quoted “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” in his suicide note, justifying his chosen fate and sealing his immortality.
Young’s accomplishment with Rust Never Sleeps is similar to another major artist’s release the following year, in that both albums act as a retrospective of sorts. Just as David Bowie’s Scary Monsters distilled ten years’ worth of seminal albums into a statement that was both reflective and forward-looking, so does Rust Never Sleeps incorporate elements of Young’s entire 1970s output. Sadly, neither artist could follow it up with the same degree of daring and excitement. (Although ironically, during a musical midlife crisis, Bowie would briefly front Tin Machine, a Crazy Horse-like ham-fisted hard rock band.)
Rust Never Sleeps is a career highlight, a renaissance at the end of a decade that started at a commercial high with (CSNY’s) Déjà Vu, After The Gold Rush and Harvest. It stands together with On the Beach, Tonight’s The Night and Zuma as the best music to be released by Young. Sealing a remarkable decade with a remarkable album, Neil Young burns very brightly indeed.