Around 1977 Neil Young formed a band called The Ducks that included Jeff Blackburn. The band played for a $3 cover charge in the hip Santa Cruz club environment. This song came out of this period and Jeff Blackburn received co-writing credits. (thanks, Doug - Pittsburgh, PA)
This deals with the fleeting nature of fame and how hard it is to stay relevant as an artist. "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay" is a '50s song by Danny and the Juniors. Young alludes to or mentions artists from the '50s (Danny and the Juniors), '60s (Elvis), and '70s (The Sex Pistols, specifically lead singer Johnny Rotten) to show that "rock and roll will never die." (thanks, Kent - Pittsfield, IL)
This was the first track on Rust Never Sleeps. Young released a concert documentary with that title the same day as the album.
An alternate version of this called "Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)," is the last song on the album and is the flip side of the single.
The first half of the album, including this, is acoustic. The second half, which includes "Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)," is electric and was recorded with Crazy Horse.
Kurt Cobain's suicide note contained a line from this song: "It's better to burn out than to fade away." That line has become one of the most famous song lyrics of all time. When Young was asked by Time magazine in 2005 about the line and Cobain's death, he said: "The fact that he left the lyrics to my song right there with him when he killed himself left a profound feeling on me, but I don't think he was saying I have to kill myself because I don't want to fade away. I don't think he was interpreting the song in a negative way. It's a song about artistic survival, and I think he had a problem with the fact that he thought he was selling out, and he didn't know how to stop it. He was forced to do tours when he didn't want to, forced into all kinds of stuff. I was trying to get a hold of him - because I had heard some of the things he was doing to himself - just to tell him it's OK not to tour, it's OK not to do these things, just take control of your life and make your music. Or, hey, don't make music. But as soon as you feel like you're out there pretending, you're f--cked. I think he knew that instinctively, but he was young and he didn't have a lot of self-control. And who knows what other personal things in his life were having a negative impression on him at the time?"
Def Leppard used the burn out/fade away line at the beginning of their song "Rock Of Ages."
This was included on Live Rust, a concert album recorded later that year. Young performed these concerts with giant amps and microphones on stage as props.
A line from this song, "Rust never sleeps," was used as the album title. Young got the line from Mark Mothersbaugh, who is a member of the band Devo.
Neil Young performed this as a duet with Devo and Booji Boy in his movie Human Highway. The full duet is about twelve minutes, and takes place during a hallucination scene in the movie. The movie itself is only good as a B-grade movie, but the live footage of Devo in costume and Neil Young together is worth the price on the video. (thanks, Jensen - Jackson, MO)
In the 1986 movie Highlander, the villain Kurgan quotes this song to people inside a church: "I have something to say! It's better burn out, than to fade away!" By this he means to glorify his ongoing perilous battle for immortality as opposed to living a normal humble life. This is quite an obvious metaphor for being a rock star. (thanks, Jussi - Pori)
The song explicitly deals with the struggles of being a rock musician. As quoted on the site Hyper Rust
, Neil Young said, "the essence of the rock'n'roll spirit to me, is that it's better to burn out really bright than to sort of decay off into infinity. Even though if you look at it in a mature way, you'll think, "well, yes ... you should decay off into infinity, and keep going along." Rock'n'roll doesn't look that far ahead. Rock'n'roll is right now. What's happening right this second"