Rust Never Sleeps Review

Throughout his long and sometimes wayward career, Neil Young has often experimented. This was particularly so in the 1980s, when he baffled his fans and infuriated record-company executives (who eventually sued him) for producing an album of rockabilly songs, or a synthesiser album, or a down-home country album, or whatever he put his mind to next. As with Bob Dylan, he seems to be an artist who hates being pinned down and predictable. But he has frequently gone back to two sources of inspiration: largely solo acoustic country-folk and guitar-driven rock played with his band Crazy Horse.

Now and again he would combine these two aspects of his music on the same record. It’s less easy to do these days when albums come on single-sided CDs, but in the 1970s they were two-sided vinyl (or cassette) and many bands planned their albums to make a feature of the two sides. Rust Never Sleeps has an acoustic side and an electric side, and uses the strategy of bookending the album with two versions of the same song. (He would do likewise ten years later with his album Freedom, which began and ended with different versions of “Rockin’ in the Free World”.)

By 1978, punk had arrived and made older rockers nervous, wondering if they were obsolete. Rust Never Sleeps was Young’s reply, making him one of the few to embrace the new movement. He would do a similar thing when grunge arrived in the early 1990s, making him a hero to many younger musicians. (He would even go so far as to collaborate with Pearl Jam on the album Mirror Ball.) Crazy Horse were and are technically not the most virtuoso of bands, but they and Young fit together like a glove – they’re an illustration of the old argument about flair versus feeling. These four men – Young (guitar, keyboards and lead vocals), Frank “Poncho” Sampedro (guitar and keyboards), Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums) – are clearly enjoying themselves immensely. They have feeling, a lot of it. The result was named by Rolling Stone magazine in 1987 as “one of the greatest live performances of the last twenty years”.

The film of Rust Never Sleeps was shot at the Cow Palace, San Francisco, on 22 October 1978. If you’re wondering why the roadies (or “roadeyes” as they are called here) are dressed like Jawas, consider how recent Star Wars was when this was shot “Bernard Shakey” was Young’s occasional film-directing alias, which he had first used on Journey Through the Past in 1974. That film, never released in the UK (allegedly due to censorship problems involving hard drug use), is by all accounts an incoherent look at Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on tour in the southern USA in the early 1970s, though its soundtrack album is recommended if you can find it. Rust Never Sleeps benefits from being much more straightforward: this is the concert and nothing but, and Shakey the director with the help of six camaramen do their best to capture the event and they do so very well.

As a concert film, Rust Never Sleeps isn’t quite up there with The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense, mostly because as a director Young isn’t in the Demme or Scorsese class. Visually, it’s never been great – but then, slickness isn’t a word often found in the Young vocabulary – but as a record of a key concert of a leading folk/rock musician of the last few decades, it’s still essential.

Introduction: Star Spangled Banner/A Day in the Life (underscore)
Sugar Mountain
I am a Child
Comes a Time
After the Gold Rush
My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)
When You Dance I Can Really Love
The Loner
Welfare Mothers
The Needle and the Damage Done
Lotta Love
Sedan Delivery
Cortez the Killer
Cinnamon Girl
Like a Hurricane
Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
End credits: School Days (underscore)
Tonight’s the Night

This DVD, being a documentary, is exempt from BBFC classification. If you look at the board’s website, you’ll find Rust Never Sleeps passed for a U certificate (rather leniently, considering a few drugs references) in 1981 with a running time of 108:03. This DVD runs 116:30. So do we have an extended version? We do and we don’t. The end credits finish at that point, but then we have an encore – “Tonight’s the Night”, Young’s song about the drug-related deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. As this plays continuously with the rest of the film, and is part of the same DVD title number, I’ve counted it as part of the main feature rather than as an extra.

On to the DVD transfer itself, and things aren’t too good here. Visually the film has never been regarded highly: I have heard it was shot on videotape, though the IMDB says it was originated on 35mm film. However, this transfer has a couple of strikes against it. It’s a NTSC-to-PAL transfer and is also non-anamorphic, in a ratio of 1.66:1. (I suspect that 1.85:1 is the intended ratio, so owners of widescreen TV sets should zoom the picture accordingly.) The results are murky, with frequent blur on movement.

Fortunately things are much better on the sound front, as the recoding is well up to scratch. Rust Never Sleeps was an early Dolby Stereo release, and that mix is presumably the source of the 2.0 (analogue Dolby Surround) mix available on the DVD. However, also on the disc are two 5.1 mixes, in Dolby Digital and DTS. There’s little to choose from between them, as both are good, with the DTS having a very slight edge fir clarity. Both are suitably loud enough to deafen yourself and your neighbours should you so wish. The 2.0 track is pretty weedy in comparison. There are twenty chapter stops and the DVD is encoded for all regions.

Extras are fairly minor. There’s a full-frame trailer (2:23), lyrics for each song (which could have been better provided as subtitles), the stage and lighting script (also reproduced in a booklet). Finally there’s one jokey but minor item: a set of four “roadeye slides”.

This is an essential item for Neil Young fans, and a tribute to a man who has defied fashion and age and creeping obsolescence in a fascinating and consistently inconsistent career. This review is posted on the day he turns sixty. Happy birthday, Neil – long may you run.

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