30 Years Ago: Neil Young Roars Back With ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’
With "Rockin' in the Free World," Neil Young fashioned a signature song that was at once timeless and very much of its era. But it couldn't have been created in a more offhanded manner.
Young was on the road in February 1989 when he found out that a cultural-exchange tour of Russia wasn't going to work out. "They were getting us in exchange for the Russian Ballet – and it just fell through," longtime guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro later told Rolling Stone. "Neil was like, 'Damn, I really wanted to go.' I said, 'Me too. I guess we'll have to keep on rockin' in the free world.'"
Young loved the quip, and the more Sampedro thought about it, the more certain he became that it would provide fertile subject matter during a transitional period in history.
"He was like, 'Wow, that's a cool line,'" Sampedro told Yahoo! in 2013. "Then I said it again later and he said, 'That's a really good phrase. I wanna use it.'"
The seeds of a song were born. Young went to work, quickly returning with a late-period triumph.
"We were checking into our hotel and the manager was [talking about] that stuff going on with the Ayatollah [Khomeini] and all this turmoil in the world," Sampedro told Rolling Stone. "I said, 'There's a song there, man. Come on, get to it.' The next day he came up to me and told me to check out this lyric sheet. ... We just started signing it and he taught me the harmony part."
Watch Neil Young Perform 'Rockin' in the Free World'
Writing in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, Young dotted "Rockin' in the Free World" with references to contemporary moments. "It's part of the process: I just do what I do and keep my ears and eyes open," Young wrote in his 2013 memoir, Waging Heavy Peace. "Things are happening all the time. You put it out there and shit happens."
He linked a pair of phrases by just-inaugurated President George H.W. Bush ("thousand points of light" and "kinder, gentler nation") with homelessness and combat. He referenced Khomeini's then-recent proclamation that America was the "Great Satan" ("don't feel like Satan, but I am to them"), and a campaign slogan employed by presidential candidate Jesse Jackson ("got a man of the people, says keep hope alive").
He stirred in thoughts on the crack epidemic that was then rampaging through inner cities in America, environmental concerns, and the cost of war – then offset it all with a chorus that sounded soaringly patriotic.
Was "Rockin' in the Free World" meant as a celebration or an indictment? writer Dean Kuipers asked during a 1995 interview referenced in the Young biography Shakey: "Well, it's kinda both, you know. That's the picture I saw," Young answered. "People can sing it like an anthem and yet, if you listen to the words, it's like, 'What the fuck?' You know?"
They were still working out how the song would go musically when Young debuted it just days later, on Feb. 21, 1989, at the Paramount Theater in Seattle. "We didn't even rehearse it with the band," Sampedro told Yahoo! "I was telling the chords to [bassist] Rick Rosas as we went along."
Listen to the Acoustic Version of 'Rockin' in the Free World'
"Rockin' in the Free World" was released in two forms that October as part of Freedom, first as an album-opening acoustic take. Young is heard onstage at Long Island's Jones Beach, and it's clear fans were completely unfamiliar with his new song.
"I loved the crowd noise in it," Young told Spin in 1994. "To me, it sounded incongruous: 'What's going on here?' The sound of the background, the distraction — you can't fake that. ... Some of them are hearing it, and some of them aren’t. The idea is the tension: the tension of the crowd and me, the performance – everything at once."
The more famous version was a run-through with the full band, which closed out the album. (The acoustic-electric parallel was similar to the one used on 1978's Rust Never Sleeps, which opened with an acoustic version of "Hey Hey, My My" and ended with an electric take.) The song was issued as a single on Nov. 14, 1989, and "Rockin' in the Free World" rose to No. 2 on the Billboard rock chart.
Young was suddenly relevant again, after nearly a decade of wandering. He went on to a mount a dramatic creative and commercial comeback in the ensuing years.
Eventually, Sampedro also earned recognition for his key role, though "Rockin' in the Free World" was originally listed as a Neil Young composition on Freedom. "Poncho thought he should get credit for [the song] and told me years later he had always felt that way," Young wrote in Waging Heavy Peace. "Now, he gets credited and paid whenever that song is involved."