Neil Young is Here to Stay: ‘Live Rust’ at 40

In 1979, Uncle Neil continued to showcase the ragged glory of Crazy Horse with second live LP of the year

Neil Young + Crazy Horse Live Rust, Reprise 1979

As the 1970s wound toward a close, Neil Young placed himself in a curious position.

By that point he had been in the public eye as a musician for more than a decade; he first came to wide attention as a member of Buffalo Springfield, then as an on-again-off-again collaborator with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash (giving rise to the phrase “CSN & sometimes Y”). 

But he had launched a solo career in early 1969 as well. Recording under his own name, and sometimes billed with the band Crazy Horse, Young had released nine albums by 1978. So successful was his eclectic body of work that his label, Reprise, compiled a three-LP survey of his work. That kind of treatment of an artist was largely unprecedented, but Decade nonetheless went Platinum in the U.S., underscoring the popularity of the idiosyncratic artist.

Young’s 1978 album, Comes a Time, mostly reflected the folkier, singer-songwriter side of Young’s music; it was a major commercial and critical success, and featured “Lotta Love,” a song that – in a new recording featuring a more pop-leaning arrangement – would be a hit single for Nicolette Larson (Larson sang harmonies on Young’s version as well).


AUDIO: Neil Young “Lotta Love”

Against the backdrop of a string of successful albums, singles and the career-spanning Decade collection, a live album seemed to make good sense. But Young being Young, he would approach the concept from an unusual angle. Working on record for the fourth time with Crazy Horse, Young put together live recordings of nine new songs. A varied lot that would feature some of his best-ever work, Rust Never Sleeps displays the care and focus that – at least when he wanted to – Young could apply to his projects.

The original LP was divided into acoustic and electric sides. The album was in fact recorded live, but  most of the audience sounds were edited out. Rust Never Sleeps was released on June 22, 1979. In the U.S., it rose to the #8 position on Billboard‘s album chart, and earned near-unanimous rave reviews, with many critics counting it among Young’s best (a status it maintains to this day). 

But more than a bit bizarrely, Young would follow up the album less than five months later. And that follow-up was again a live album, this time with the audience sounds intact. Live Rust also featured four of the songs heard on Rust Never Sleeps in not-too-different versions. Live Rust followed the similar acoustic-to-electric progression of songs. The double live album is superb but confounding: it’s essential and redundant in equal parts.

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of Live Rust

Beyond the bookending “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” and versions of the best tracks from Rust Never Sleeps, the double-live album has a number of highlights that make it special. As great as their earlier studio counterparts are, Live Rust‘s live readings of “Lotta Love and “The Loner” (the latter originally on Young’s self-titled 1968 debut) are definitive.

And the same can be said for impassioned and majestic versions of “Cortez the Killer” and “Like a Hurricane.” Both are long songs – just under eight minutes – but their studio versions were long as well. Still, the energy that comes from live performance makes each of the songs more visceral, moer effectivein conveying the emotional content of both the words and the music.

Some of the between-song banter on Live Rust would have made little sense to listeners who hadn’t seen Young on tour. In the context of a film, perhaps Young’s asides to “road eyes” might have been comprehensible. 

Photo of Neil Young from Live Rust inside jacket

So if 1979 wasn’t already a confusing enough year for fans of Neil Young, a concert film was released around the same time. Titled the same as the “studio” LP (Rust Never Sleeps), it follows the set list of Live Rust, albeit with more songs (mostly from – you guessed it – Rust Never Sleeps). By that measure, it compounds the redundancy of of Young’s 1979 activities, but wait: while Live Rust is compiled from recordings of multiple tour dates, the Rust Never Sleeps film documents a single performance at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. 

Got all that?

If followers of Young’s work weren’t already flummoxed, his work in the decade to come would correct  that oversight. He dabbled – some would say perversely so – in a myriad of styles from rockabilly (Neil and the Shocking Pinks’ Everybody’s Rockin’), Vocoder-laden electronics (Trans), straight-ahead country (Old Ways), sterile, synthesizer-based music (Landing on Water) and rock with a big horn section (This Note’s for You). If he seemed intent on pissing people off, he succeeded: label head David Geffen sued Young, accusing him of deliberately turning in uncommercial projects.

Geffen lost. Young returned to Reprise by 1988. Twenty-plus albums later, he’s still at it, and still with Reprise. And he continues to confound, intrigue and entertain in equal measure.


AUDIO: Neil Young + Crazy Horse “Cortez The Killer” from Live Rust


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Bill Kopp

Bill Kopp is a music journalist, author, historian, collector, musician. His book Reinventing Pink Floyd was published in 2018. Follow him on Twitter @the_musoscribe

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