Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Out Of The Blue And Into The Black

For my history class we had to write an analysis of any song and discuss its message and significance. Writing was a breeze, it was narrowing it down to one song and one song only that was a pain in the ass!

I chose "My, My, Hey, Hey (Out Of The Blue)" and "Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)" by Neil Young. This decision was reached on two factors:
1.) I wanted to post it up here since you guys had literally NOTHING to say about these songs when I posted them up here a month or so ago.
2.) The class specifically asked for an American musician. While Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper, The Residents, Iggy Pop, The MC5, and Jimi Hendrix are all American musicians I love and admire, I picked Neil because he's Canadian. Consider it a minor act of defiance, one that will most likely go unnoticed.

"My, My, Hey, Hey (Out Of The Blue)"

If the embedded video doesn't work, simply follow this link.

"Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)"

If the embedded video doesn't work, simply follow this link.

The late 1970’s was a bleak time for rock and roll. The old generation was being blown off as “dinosaurs” by the punk movement. One established musician of the previous generation, Neil Young, had hit a rough patch artistically. It was on his 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps that he re-established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the rock world. His reemergence as a dignitary in rock and roll was heralded by the album’s opening and closing tracks, “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out Of The Blue)” and “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)”. In their mostly identical lyrics, Young addresses the idea of fame, the punk movement, and the death of Elvis Presley.
Neil Young released American Stars ‘N Bars in 1977, with only half of it having been recorded that year; the rest of it dated back several years. His next album, Comes A Time, was almost completely folk/country. Only two songs boasted his backing band Crazy Horse. He immediately followed this up with a tour where one half of the show was just Neil on stage doing acoustic numbers and the other half was Neil with Crazy Horse backing him. It was on this tour that he debuted “Out Of The Blue” and “Into The Black.”
Both versions of the song represent the two distinct sides of Neil Young: “Out Of The Blue” is a contemplative acoustic number in the same vein as his previous hits “The Needle And The Damage Done” and “Old Man,” both from his 1972 album Harvest. “Into The Black”, by contrast, is a hard-rocking number with noisy, minimalist guitar solos akin to “Cinnamon Girl” off Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) or “Southern Man” from 1970’s After The Gold Rush. My personal preference rests with the latter version, though it is worth comparing the two for their slight differences lyrically.
The acoustic rendition features a more meek vocal performance, with the opening line “My, my, hey, hey/Rock and roll is here to stay” sounding more like a dose of self-assurance. He immediately follows this up by singing a now immortal line: “It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away.” This attitude embodies rock music: live fast, die young, and leave a pretty corpse. Neil was no stranger to loss; Crazy Horse’s original guitarist Danny Whitten died of a heroin overdose in 1972 the same night Young fired him. When he reiterates the line later on in the song, the second line of the couplet is instead “Than to turn to rust.” This connotes the idea that it is better for an artist to simply cease working than to grow stale and meaningless.
The electric version is led in by a heavily distorted guitar, at times sounding almost atonal. Neil’s singing is more passionate, as well. The first verse reads: “Hey, hey, my, my/Rock and roll can never die,” a more profound declaration than in its sister rendition. The first and second verse is separated by a simple but strong guitar solo. “Out of the blue/And into the black/You pay for this/But they give you that,” Neil sings. This can be interpreted as his view on the recording industry, where artists are discovered out of the blue – as nobodies – before being catapulted into stardom. “Into the black” can suggest both profits for the record companies (where being “in the red” implies financial losses) and a more cynical idea of the “black” being a void, where artists go once they are considered past their prime.
For Young, several years had passed since Harvest, which was a tremendous success. Shaken by Whitten’s death and the subsequent overdose of one of his roadies, Young approached a darker lyrical style. His career may have seemed to be in a void of sorts. The next couplet, “And once you’re gone/You can’t come back/When you’re out of the blue/And into the black,” is suggestive of Young’s inability to maintain the success that he had obtained in 1972. Once he had drifted out of the mainstream, he was placed on the back-burner while other trends and names came and went. There is also the obvious connection with death associated with those lines as well. The guitar solo after this verse comes immediately. In playing higher notes to the point that they almost shriek, Neil’s solo sounds like wails of sorrow.
In the third verse of both versions, Neil sings that “The King [Elvis] is gone/But he’s not forgotten,” following it up in the acoustic version by singing “This is the story of Johnny Rotten.” As the leader of The Sex Pistols, a band who by the time Rust Never Sleeps was released had completely self-destructed, Johnny Rotten moved on to form his own group, Public Image Limited. In doing so, he dropped his given moniker and chose to go by his real name, John Lydon. Neil is suggesting that Johnny Rotten and all he represented (rebellion, anarchy) are no more, but his legacy is secured. On the electric version it is left open-ended; Young asks, “Is this the story of Johnny Rotten?” The third verse of the acoustic version ends with the line “It’s better to burn out/Than it is to rust,” though the electric version is again more celebratory: “It’s better to burn out/Cos rust never sleeps.” The line lending itself to the album’s title was actually taken from a can of Rustoleum, though in the song’s context it is a message: The Sex Pistols may have “burned out,” so to speak, but Neil is still around.
Musically, the song was a major influence on musicians, earning Neil Young the nickname “The Godfather of Grunge.” Kurt Cobain used the line “It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away” in his suicide note. The song revitalized Young’s career, proving him to be more than just a rusty old dinosaur out in the stomping grounds with other musicians of his generation. Culturally, the song helped to revive rock and roll in a time where disco, metal, and pop dominated the market. It is rare for a song to carry out its own message, but for a song declaring “Rock and roll can never die” to pass along the musical torch to a new generation is nothing less than a rare, perfect, and momentous example.

Let me know what you thought/think.


1 comment:

m@ said...

So I'll read this for real later and respond, but I wanted to say that maybe people didn't respond to the music last time because the links didn't work. I clicked on them several times and they never played. Maybe I'm just stupid, but that could be the reason none of us (all four of us who read this) wrote about the actual music.