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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

20th Anniversary of Saturday Night Live Performance of "Rockin' In The Free World"

Saturday Night Live Neil Young Rockin

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.

Video of the performance was once widely available on YouTube however -- as the corporate grip continues to tighten on the Internet -- it is no longer available. Somehow though, the 2nd song performed that night "No More" is available on YouTube... for now.

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.

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At 9/29/2009 11:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Thrasher for remembering this amazing milestone.

I can remember it like it was yesterday. Watching it in Ann Arbor with other college kids before heading out to party. Many though Neil was an old geezer even back then and after the SNL gig things changed.

At 9/30/2009 02:05:00 AM, Blogger J Neo Marvin said...

20 years? That was a crucial turnaround for many of us. I can't be the only one who saw that and went, "whoa, I'd better start paying attention to Neil young again!"

At 9/30/2009 02:12:00 AM, Blogger Josh said...


At 9/30/2009 09:06:00 AM, Blogger Burnzy said...

Nice summary, but here's the video for those who haven't seen it. A quick Google Video search will get you anything:

At 9/30/2009 10:53:00 AM, Anonymous set list thief said...

Jeez, who are those guys? They're not bad.

Heh, I remember thinking after watching that performance that this was a Neil none of us had ever seen before. Playing with two Black guys, bumping into each other like it's some kind of mosh pit, and what's going on with Neil's hair?

Remember, grunge was just around the corner, Nirvana and Pearl Jam were about to take off, and Neiler was serving notice to the kids that he could still do it.

Oh yeah, and we owe it all to Elvis.

At 9/30/2009 01:16:00 PM, Blogger Sound Style Sun said...

That's Rockin'!

At 9/30/2009 02:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This ryhtmic section is fuckin awesome. I 'm a big big fan of Crazy Horse, but I always thought that RITFW needed some speed like this version.

At 9/30/2009 08:20:00 PM, Anonymous jobu said...

I started learning to play guitar the very next day...

At 10/01/2009 12:48:00 AM, Anonymous expecting2fly said...

Okay, let me get this straight. This video on TV with pretty much MP3 audio quality at the time got people back into Neil because....oh, I don't know....he played a great song with passion and we saw right through the media used!!! Omigosh.

I am so not worthy of Blu-Ray....

BTW, love Neil's '89 SNL appearance. Love Thrasher's Wheat as well.

Expecting To Fly

At 10/01/2009 02:00:00 AM, Anonymous dr dip said...

Dear fellow Wheaties,
Just want to take this opportunity to thank you for your entertainment and sharing your Neil knowledge with me over the last year that I have been coming to the "wheat".

I've really enjoyed the comments and debates on the different threads that are thrown up.

Like Liza, I lost my best friend last May, so I can really relate to her hurt.

You guys are the "family" that I've lost and I love the compassion you have for Neil, be it negative or positive and the comeraderie that is shared.

I will really miss this.

Thrash, I'm sorry that I rub you up the wrong way. This is my personality and no matter how much I try to "conform" to be your ideal Neil blogger I just can't seem to "anal"ise my comments.

If I have offended anyone with any thing that I have said over the last year, believe me it was never deliberate or intentional its just me I'm afraid and I apologise for that.

Well, its time to move on and go to a place where I can find peace with myself.

If we meet up, we'll put on Neil together and savour the moment.

I always enjoy Neil when I'm down.

Keep on rockin in the "t" world

Luv Dip

At 10/01/2009 07:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

isn't there a version where Neil kicks poncho...or is this the unedited version?

At 10/01/2009 09:21:00 AM, Anonymous SONY said...

Dr. Dip -

In the immortal words of my most recent song...

"I can be your friend -
til the end"


At 10/01/2009 09:36:00 AM, Blogger Matthew Lintzenich said...

Dip, your battles with Thrasher are half the fun here. What are we gonna do without a contrarian on board? Sometimes it really helps the mood; no matter how often you annoy Thrasher, I think your contributions fit quite nicely.

At 10/01/2009 12:26:00 PM, Blogger Thrasher said...


Sockpuppets are banned from commenting.



At 10/01/2009 03:15:00 PM, Anonymous SONY said...

Ya know, I hate punishing my kids when they don't behave too. But.......

At 10/02/2009 01:07:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

u are a sad silly man. you CENSOR!

what would your God (Neil) think?

At 1/08/2010 07:40:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always like it when he pulls the Bigsby and breaks all the strings at the end of the song.


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