The song that Neil Young wrote about Johnny Rotten
(Credit: Shell Smith / Takahiro Kyono)

This is the song that Neil Young wrote about Johnny Rotten

Neil Young song ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)’ is an utterly beautiful piece of music, one that is not only up there with anything that the former CSNY man has ever made, but one of the greatest lessons in the art of songwriting to exist. The genius idea to start the album with the alternate acoustic version of the track, which formed the narrative for the faultless Rust Never Sleeps record and conclude with the rockier, grittier take of the same track titled was inspired—but was it all centred around the former Sex Pistols man Johnny Rotten?

The lyrics of the track have become a part of popular culture in the decades that have followed thanks to Stephen King’s heavy usage of “out of the blue and into the black” in his novel It. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain also quoted from the song in his devastatingly sad suicide note in 1994, a time when he wrote the damning line “better to burn out / than to fade away” in tragic significance. The song tells the tale of a fallen rockstar who is in defiance of the world changing around him, determined not to allow his love of rock ‘n’ roll isn’t going to waver. The timing of the song’s release, as well as the reference to Johnny Rotten, is something that was no coincidence.

‘My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)‘ was released by Young in 1979 and, for the first time in his solo career, he had been deemed irrelevant by the masses due to the birth of punk music which, in many aspects, ridiculed artists of the old school—a category Neil Young had unfairly found himself bundled into. He was no longer seen as being the magic man that created Harvest and, somewhat bizarrely, Young was now viewed as old news with Rust Never Sleeps arriving as his valiant response to the people who had written him off. With ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)’, the musician set the tone of the album perfectly.

In The Complete Guide to the Music of Neil Young, Young explains why the line “rust never sleeps” appealed to him so greatly. “It relates to my career; the longer I keep on going the more I have to fight this corrosion,” he said, before adding: “And now that’s gotten to be like the World Series for me. The competition’s there, whether I will corrode and eventually not be able to move anymore and just repeat myself until further notice or whether I will be able to expand and keep the corrosion down a little.”

The song was directly influenced by the punk rock zeitgeist of the late 1970s as the general public preferred to let their Neil Young records turn to rust on the shelf, favouring instead bands such as The Clash or The Sex Pistols. The material was also influenced by Young’s collaborations with Devo, a period in time that helped him out of this creative rut and what he viewed as his own growing irrelevance.

In the track, Young sings, “The king is gone but he’s not forgotten,” before backing vocals quietly chant “Johnny Rotten, Johnny Rotten” — which can be linked to the death of Elvis in 1977 and how Johnny Rotten was the new face of music in the months that followed. The next line sees Young ask, “Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?” which is deliberately open-ended and, of course, can be interpreted in numerous different ways. This is then followed up by Young delivering the infamous line of, “It’s better to burn out ’cause rust never sleeps,” before repeating that, “The king is gone but he’s not forgotten”.

My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)‘ is a masterclass that sees Young reflect on his own shortcomings in the years that preceded the release and, more directly, how the rising stock of artist had overcome his own status. Instead of being angry or jealous about his dip in respect, Young instead chooses to look at himself in the mirror, defiantly declaring his desire to continue. The song, in truth, is about himself rather than about Rotten but The Sex Pistols leader was the perfect representative of a changing of the guard that had, for a moment at least, left Young operating in the shadows.

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