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Music

When Neil Young was referenced in the cult classic movie 'Highlander'

Neil Young, the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, is a guitar hero and a master wordsmith. As a musician, he’s done it all. Be it in Buffalo Springfield, CSNY or as a solo artist, Neil Young’s impact on music and culture has been colossal. On the 1969 project Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young laid down the foundations for alt-rock, and without injections of his creativity, music today would be very different. It’s no coincidence that a host of now-iconic acts ranging from Sonic Youth to Radiohead and even Oasis have cited him as an influence. 

Young’s impact has been so significant that his influence goes far beyond the music. His early 1970s aesthetic was used as the inspiration for Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 flick Inherent Vice, and as a philanthropist, Young has used his status for righteous causes such as environmental and anti-war efforts. Furthermore, his iconic concert film, 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, provided the blueprint for all concert movies moving forward, including Talking Heads’ 1984 effort Stop Making Sense

Talking of Rust Never Sleeps, the album has had a huge influence on popular culture, and one song, in particular, endures more than any other, much to Young’s chagrin. This is, of course, ‘Hey Hey My My’, a number that bookends the album. Although it is one of Young’s bleakest, most depressing songs, ironically, it’s an effort that revitalised his career in the face of the flourishing punk movement and what the Canadian troubadour perceived as his own irrelevance.

It is the line, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”, that has stuck in the collective consciousness. Lifted from a song written by Jeff Blackburn, Young’s bandmate in The Ducks, it has since become synonymous with the rocker. The lyric became so divisive that even John Lennon had a lot to say about it. In a 1980 interview with Playboy, Lennon was asked about his thoughts, and the ex-Beatles man said: “I hate it. It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out. If he was talking about burning out like Sid Vicious, forget it”.

Lennon added: “I don’t appreciate the worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or dead John Wayne. It’s the same thing. Making Sid Vicious a hero, Jim Morrison — it’s garbage to me. I worship the people who survive — Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo. They’re saying John Wayne conquered cancer — he whipped it like a man. You know, I’m sorry that he died and all that – I’m sorry for his family – but he didn’t whip cancer. It whipped him.” 

“I don’t want Sean (Lennon) worshipping John Wayne or Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious,” Lennon added. “What do they teach you? Nothing. Death. Sid Vicious died for what? So that we might rock? I mean, it’s garbage, you know. If Neil Young admires that sentiment so much, why doesn’t he do it? Because he sure as hell faded away and came back many times, like all of us. No, thank you. I’ll take the living and the healthy”.

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However, not everybody shared the view of John Lennon. The line would take on a tragic life of its own and be etched into popular culture forever when Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain referenced the line in his suicide note in April 1994. It seems as if the song had already found a wider resonance with the generation who would go on to hail Young as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’. This generation is those born between 1965-1980 and includes both Sean Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Radiohead, Oasis and countless other significant artists.

For a line to reverberate to such a degree, there can be no surprise that it permeated popular culture, and it turns out that it made its way into culture years before Cobain passed away. Eight long years before Cobain imbued the line with a tragic, almost Shakespearean meaning, it popped up in the unlikeliest of places; the cult classic Highlander. Released in 1986, the film is unashamedly ’80s, fantastical and over the top, but also has one of the most iconic storylines of the decade. Notably, the soundtrack featured takes from rock legends Queen, and includes their hit ‘A Kind of Magic’.

However, whilst having a Queen soundtrack might have been pretty naff, the film redeemed itself by dropping in the Neil Young line as things hot up during the last part of the movie. When we find protagonist MacLeod in New York, his age-old nemesis The Kurgan, visits him in a Church to inform him that they are the last of their kind remaining. One of the tensest scenes in Highlander, it’s also one of its most legendary. 

The Kurgan is a scumbag, and after he boasts to Connor about his atrocities committed to Connor’s mentor Ramirez and his wife, he seals his grisly fate. The Church quickly clears due to his ghastly behaviour, and MacLeod also departs in disgust. This leaves The Kurgan to have a brief chat with a Father who, in turn, tells him that he’s disturbing the House of God. The Kurgan makes a quip about the undoing of God, before proclaiming: “I have something to say! It’s better to burn out than to fade away”. 

A strange but pertinent use of the line, The Kurgan’s appropriation has gone down in history, as somehow, it fits in perfectly with Highlander‘s themes of life and death.  

Watch the classic scene below.