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Music

Neil Young on why punk was "so good and healthy"

Neil Young, the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, is a guitar hero and a master wordsmith. To put it simply, he’s done it all. Neil Young’s impact on music and culture has been colossal. On the 1969 record Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young laid down the foundations for alt-rock, and without this masterpiece, music today would be very different. It’s a testament to his skill that a host of legends such as Sonic Youth, Radiohead and Nirvana worship him. 

Young’s impact has been so significant that his influence goes far beyond the music. His early 1970s aesthetic was even the inspiration for Doc Sportello in Paul Thomas Anderson’s flick Inherent Vice, and as a philanthropist, Young has used his status for righteous causes such as environmental and anti-war efforts. 

Showing just how far his influence goes, his concert film, 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, provided the foundation for all concert movies moving forward, including Talking Heads’ 1984 classic Stop Making Sense

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

The line, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”, has endured. Lifted from a song written by Jeff Blackburn, Young’s bandmate in The Ducks, it has since become more synonymous than any with the Canadian hero. The lyric was so polarising that even John Lennon weighed in on it. In a 1980 interview with Playboy, Lennon was asked about punk, and its nihilistic sentiment, to which 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”.

Given that many who were galvanised by punk, such as Nirvana, Radiohead, Sonic Youth and Oasis, cite Young as a critical influence, and the fact that he inspired legions of nihilistic teenagers with that one line, it will come as little surprise to find out that he had a lot to say on the punk movement. Famously, he even name-checked Johnny Rotten in the song. I think you can tell where this is going.

In an LA radio interview, he said: “When you look back at the old bands, they’re just not that funny. People want to have a good time. That’s why the punk thing is so good and healthy. People who make fun of the established rock scene, like Devo and The Ramones, are much more vital to my ears than what’s been happening in the last four or five years.”

In all honesty, Neil Young was a punk long before punk came around. He’s continued to stick it to man right until the very present with his current war with Spotify and Joe Rogan. Young’s affinity for punk begs the age-old question, are hippies punks? It would seem that way 

Listen to ‘Hey Hey My My’ below.