They might seem poles apart, but Neil Young and Johnny Rotten have far more in common than you’d think. While their sonic sensibilities are on opposite sides of the rock ‘n’ roll spectrum, with the Sex Pistols’ high-octane brand of punk casting sneering looks at Young’s folk balladry from across the great divide, both Rotten and Young have always regarded music with the same kind of reverence; treating it as an essential aspect of societal development and political upset.
When Rotten burst onto the scene with Sex Pistols, he made his raison d’etre perfectly clear: he was here to destroy. By the mid-1970s, the hippie idealism of the countercultural age had been reduced to its most superficial aspects – the optimism that had once motivated young people to take to the street and seek change replaced by contentment and entitlement.
All around him, Rotten saw apathy and placidity. Nowhere were these traits more noticeable than in the world of music, where the leading figures of the rock ‘n’ roll age had grown fat on their own bloated egos. Like Rotten, Young never had much time for the posturing of his contemporaries, so when the likes of Sex Pistols came stumbling through the metaphorical door, outing members of rock establishment for the sluggish oafs they were, he found himself quietly applauding their efforts.
After the punk age dissolved, crushed by its own destructive sensibilities, Young looked back on the essential role Johnny Rotten had played in revitalising the world of rock ‘n’ roll: “I never met Johnny Rotten, but I like what he did to people,” he began. “He pissed off a lot of people who I think needed waking up. Rock ‘n’ roll people, who in the Seventies were asleep and thinking they were just so fucking cool and they knew what had to happen. They were telling me why don’t you make a real record.”
For Young, the brilliance of Rotten was that he bought music back to the bare essentials, trimming away the glamour and excess that had come to define the rock scene to leave a lean cut of pure musical expression. In this sense, Rotten helped to bring music back to the “four chords and the truth” mentality that Young and other folk musicians of the early ’60s had lived and breathed.
“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,” Young recalled with no small hint of disgust. “That’s not intense enough for me”.