20th Anniversary of Saturday Night Live Performance of "Rockin' In The Free World"
Twenty years ago today, on September 30, 1989, Neil Young served notice that he was back with a vengeance with his legendary performance of Rockin' In The Free World on Saturday Night Live. There are many, many defining moments in Neil Young's career. His appearance on SNL was another such occasion.
Considered to be one of the most intense live television studio performances ever, Young seemed possessed as he throttled his Les Paul guitar and shredded its strings before the audience. Wearing a Elvis Presley T-shirt, Young seemed to be bridging his 1970's classic "Hey, Hey, My, My" with the lyrics "The King [Elvis] is gone but not forgotten, this is the story of Johnny Rotten" with the end of the 1980's and the impending advent of the grunge-alternative music explosion.
Later, Young commented that he worked with a trainer before going onstage to work himself up to the encore intensity level when he normally performs the song after 2 hours on stage. Neil came on the set as if he had just performed the concert of his life and went from there. The song was selected as one of the best of Saturday Night Live musical performances of all time in broadcasts later in the 1990's for the 25th anniversary.
Critics were ecstatic about Young's return to form based on just the single broadcast and it marked a critical turning point in Neil's career. Jimmy McDonough writes in a Village Voice interview:
With the September 30 appearance on Saturday Night Live, Young arrested any signs of rust - at least for the moment. Backed by Charlie Drayton, Steve Jordan, and longtime sideman Frank 'Poncho' Sampedro - a new band Young's tentatively calling Young, CS&P - he was all over the stage, jumping on the drum stand, lunging out of camera range, whipping off earsplitting solos that sounded like falling power lines. It was the loudest thing I've ever heard on TV, the lyrics to 'Rockin' in the Free World' barely audible. This is easily his best band since Crazy Horse.
Just the look on his face was enough. He really seemed insane.YOUNG: 'Yeah, well I was. I don't like TV. Never have. It always sucks and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't just walk on and do 'Rockin' in the Free World,' or you'll look like a fuckin' idiot. To perform that song the way it's supposed to be performed you have to be at peak blood level, everything has to be up, the machine has to be stoked. To do that I had to ignore Saturday Night Live completely. I had to pretend I wasn't there.'
So Young developed 'a brand new technique for doing TV' - a half-hour before going on he worked out with his trainer, lifting weights and doing calisthenics to get himself wired.
NEIL YOUNG / ROCKIN' IN THE FREE WORLD
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Thanks Chris for anniversay reminder! Also, thanks Josh & Burnzy for links!
In the meantime, check out this review of the first concert performance of “Rockin’ In The Free World” in Seattle on February 21, 1989 by Chris Horn.