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‘Rust Never Sleeps’: Behind Neil Young’s Punk Reawakening
Wirestock, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘Rust Never Sleeps’: Behind Neil Young’s Punk Reawakening

Embracing punk on his own terms, Neil Young ended the 70s on a high with the coruscating Crazy Horse album ‘Rust Never Sleeps’.

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The Clash famously declared punk’s manifesto on an early song, 1977, which featured the kiss-off line “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones!” Yet, while a “Year Zero” mentality was one of the punk movement’s crucial tenets, a few of rock’s older guard also actively endorsed this desire to rip things up and start again. Among them was Neil Young, who cited Sex Pistols’ frontman, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), as an agent of change on 1979’s charged Rust Never Sleeps album.

The backstory: “People became aware that there was more to it than perfection”

“I never met Johnny Rotten, but I like what he did to people,” Young reflected in a 1988 interview with Spin magazine. “He pissed off a lot of people who I think needed waking up. Rock’n’roll people, who in the 70s were asleep and thinking they were just so fucking cool.”

Young furthered, “People became aware that there was more to it than perfection and overdubs, and fucking equipment and limousines back and forth to Studio B, and the other group down the hall and getting high in the bathroom with the other group that’s going in and singing on their record. That’s not intense enough for me.”

Bearing in mind that he’d breezed through the mid-to-late 70s with help from big-hitting, country- and roots-flavoured albums such as American Stars ’N Bars and Comes A Time, it might seem strange that Young would become such an enthusiastic advocate for punk rock. Yet, when he turned to making Rust Never Sleeps, in 1978, the iconoclastic singer-songwriter was keen to shake things up.

Further inspiring him was an art-rock band from Akron, Ohio, who also took punk’s manifesto on board. The group in question, Devo, had signed to Warner Bros on the recommendation of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and ended up being looked after by Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts.

Young first saw Devo perform at Los Angeles punk haunt The Starwood, and was immediately impressed by their surreal humour and the satirical content of their songs. He later ended up joining the band onstage at a San Franciscan punk club, The Mabuhay Gardens, in May 1978, when he was in town to perform a series of solo shows at the same city’s Boarding House venue.

What did Neil Young mean by ‘Rust Never Sleeps’?

Devo had a direct influence on Young’s next album, as it was their frontman, Mark Mothersbaugh, originally coined the term “rust never sleeps”. It was a slogan the group had used during their early graphic-arts phase, when they promoted an automobile rust-proofing company called Rust-Oleum. Mothersbaugh later said that Devo saw the phrase “rust never sleeps” as “referring to corruption of innocence, the de-evolution of the planet”, though Young interpreted it in an entirely different way.

“It caught my ear,” Young explained in a 1979 interview with KMET-FM DJ Mary Turner. “I thought, Wow, right off, they write better lyrics than I did. I can relate to ‘rust never sleeps’. It relates to my career. The longer I keep going, the longer I have to fight this corrosion.”

As his chaotic first live album, 1973’s Time Fades Away, had previously revealed, Young had no qualms about challenging his audience’s expectations. However, his embrace of punk’s carpe diem mentality produced rather more cohesive results on Rust Never Sleeps, which featured one side of (largely) solo acoustic songs and a second side of full-on rock cuts recorded with his on-off backing band, Crazy Horse.

The recording: “The punk zeitgeist had gotten into Neil’s brain”

Rust Never Sleeps’ acoustic first half was culled primarily from material recorded during Young’s ten solo performances (spread over five nights) at San Francisco’s Boarding House during May 1978. These shows yielded several compelling, stripped-back takes on the songs Thrasher, Ride My Llama and My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue), the latter of which Young would revisit in full electric guise on the album’s second side. However, the album’s first half also blurred the lines between live and studio performance, as Pocahontas and Sail Away were studio tracks dating from 1976 and 1977 which were later completed with subtle overdubs.

If those songs provided some continuity with Young’s recent past, they failed to prepare the listener for the scorched-earth intensity of Rust Never Sleeps’ second half. Recorded during Young’s highly theatrical US tour of late 1978, which spawned the spin-off concert film and attendant live album Live Rust, these four full-band songs captured Young and Crazy Horse blazing away with a ferocity that topped anything they’d recorded together to date.

In an interview with Neil Young biographer Jimmy McDonough, Rust Never Sleeps’ cover photographer, Joel Bernstein, recalled that the shows were “incredibly loud, unbelievably loud. Loud enough that when they did the LA show, the entire guest section left during the second electric song.”

In his Young biography, Shakey, McDonough noted that “the punk zeitgeist had gotten a couple of hooks into Young’s brain”, leading him to execute supercharged thrashes through the songs Sedan Delivery and Welfare Mothers at a “breakneck pace”. However, while Rust Never Sleeps’ second side may have been abrasive, it also featured two of the greatest – and most resonant – songs in Neil Young’s canon. The first had taken Young an age to complete, but it was more than worth the wait.

Dating to the late 60s, and first recorded in a solo acoustic guise, for the then unreleased Chrome Dreams album, Powderfinger was, in McDonough’s words, “nothing short of extraordinary”. “From the knockout opening line – ‘Look out, mama, there’s a white boat coming up the river’,” wrote McDonough, “Young paints a picture as rich as any John Ford western.” A stark tale in which the song’s protagonist is killed at the hands of a merciless crew, Powderfinger’s emotional impact came from what McDonough identified as Young’s ability to convey “the feeling of a soul leaving the dying body behind”.

Equally affecting – albeit in a bleaker, more nihilistic way – was Rust Never Sleeps’ closing track, Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black): the sludgy, churning full-band remake of the song which opened the record. Effectively Young’s treatise on the disposability and impermanence of rock music and stardom in general, the song famously featured the line “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”, which – to Young’s horror – Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain later quoted in his suicide note. Even without that tragic coda, Young’s lyrics remain as thought-provoking today as they did when Rust Never Sleeps was first released.

The legacy: “Neil Young was at the top of his game”

“Young understands all too well that rock is, as [critic] Richard Meltzer put it, about a ‘micro-moment’,” Jimmy McDonough later observed. “But he isn’t about to pretend otherwise. Young’s awareness of the limited shelf life of rock (and himself) borders on paranoia, and his maniacal refusal to give in to the inevitable is what make him so appealing. You know he’ll go down kicking and punching.”

It’s this edgy brinkmanship that makes Rust Never Sleeps such a compelling listen. In creating it, Young had gone out on a limb, but his single-mindedness paid dividends. Following its release, on 22 June 1979, critics heaped praise upon the album, with Rolling Stone’s Paul Nelson declaring, “Rust Never Sleeps tells me more about my life, my country and rock’n’roll than any music I’ve heard in years.” It also reaped sizeable rewards on the charts, going Top 10 – and racking up platinum sales figures – in the US, and also entering the Top 20 in the UK.

Indeed, as the 70s wound down, Rust Never Sleeps asserted Neil Young’s place at the forefront of the rock scene, with Rolling Stone voting it Album Of The Year while also crowning Neil Young their Artist Of The Year. Meanwhile, in the eyes of The Village Voice, Young was Artist of The Decade.

“It had been an incredible ten years,” biographer Jimmy McDonough confirmed. “He had released an amazing string of albums and recorded enough unreleased material for five more. Neil Young was at the top of the game.”

Buy Neil Young vinyl, box sets and more at the official Neil Young store.

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