Revisit the moment Neil Young performed ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ for the first time ever
Neil Young song ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ is one of the great man’s finest moments and this raw version of the track played immediately after Young conceived the number whilst on tour in 1989 is a testament to his god-given gift of songwriting.
President George H.W. Bush had only been sworn into the Oval Office four weeks prior to Young writing this anthem, a track in which he doesn’t leave much to the imagination about his thoughts on the newly elected figure. Not a great deal of good came out of his spell as president but at least he was the man who lit a spark in Young to write ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’.
The song was born out of a conversation that Young had with his guitarist Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro as the two of them chewed the fat about the state of global politics and, more specifically, the disarray they perceived the world to be in. One day after this chat, Young had conducted arguably his finest song of the entire decade which shows that the smallest things can be the biggest muse.
“There was supposed to have been a cultural exchange between Russia and United States,” Sampedro recalled to Mojo in a 2018 interview. “Russia was getting Neil Young and Crazy Horse and we were getting the Russian ballet! All of a sudden, whoever was promoting the deal, a guy in Russia, took the money and split. We were all bummed, and I looked at him and said, ‘Man I guess we’re just gonna have to keep on rockin’ in the free world. He said, ‘Well, Poncho, that’s a good line. I’m gonna use that if you don’t mind.'”
“So we checked into the hotel in Portland,” the guitarist continued. “And we needed a song. We needed a rocker. We’d written some songs and they were good but we didn’t have a real rocker. I said, ‘Look, man, tonight, get in your room, think about all this stuff that’s going down – the Ayatollah, all the stuff in Afghanistan, all these wars breaking out, all the problems in America: ‘Keep on rockin’ in the free world’, you got that: put something together man, let’s have a song!’ And the next morning, we got on the bus to leave and he says, ‘OK, I did it!'”
The song was then unveiled the following day at Seattle’s Paramount Theater on February 21st, 1989. The version that Young aired to the North West crowd was beautiful despite still being born a matter of hours before and he didn’t alter the track following stumbling on this version, which is almost identical to the one which would make it to his Freedom album.
“We didn’t even rehearse it with the band,” Poncho claimed. “I was telling the chords to [bassist] Rick Rosas as we went along.” Thankfully, the concert was bootlegged and you can hear Young play the song to an audience (and his band) for the very first time. Go to 1:28:50 in the video below to enjoy ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ in all of its greatness.