This was inspired by the political changes going on at the time, and was highly critical of the George Bush presidential administration (the first one). Some of the lyrics mock Bush's campaign speeches: "We got 1,000 points of light, for the homeless man," "We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand."
This was released a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It became kind of an anthem for the event as freedom spread through Eastern Europe.
The song was written in February 1989, as Neil Young toured the Pacific Northwest. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeni had just issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie because of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses and Russia had recently withdrawn its forces from Afghanistan. Meanwhile Young and his guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, were musing on global events as they traveled to Portland.
"There was supposed to have been a cultural exchange between Russia and United States," Sampedro recalled to Mojo in a 2018 interview. "Russia was getting Neil Young and Crazy Horse and we were getting the Russian ballet! All of a sudden, whoever was promoting the deal, a guy in Russia, took the money and split. We were all bummed, and I looked at him and said, 'Man I guess we're just gonna have to keep on rockin in the free world. He said, 'Well, Poncho, that's a good line. I'm gonna use that, if you don't mind.'"
"So we checked into the hotel in Portland," the guitarist continued. "And we needed a song. We needed a rocker. We'd written some songs and they were good but we didn't have a real rocker. I said, 'Look man, tonight, get in your room, think about all this stuff that's going down - the Ayatollah, all the stuff in Afghanistan, all these wars breaking out, all the problems in America… "Keep On rockin in the free world," you got that: put something together man, let's have a song!' And the next morning, we got on the bus to leave and he says, 'OK, I did it!'"
Young used members of his former backing group The Bluenotes to record this.
Pearl Jam have performed this song from time to time with Young, who is their musical mentor. The first time they performed it together was at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards, where the "Jeremy" video won four awards. Young came on as a surprise guest after the band played a new song, "Animal." By the end of the performance, Vedder had tossed his mic stand into the audience, Mike McCready had smashed his guitar, and the crowd was in a tizzy.
Young and Pearl Jam proved a great fit, as both eschew convention when it comes to music and promotion, catering instead to their ardent fan bases. The MTV appearance was an anomaly - Pearl Jam didn't make another video for five years. In 1995, they collaborated on Young's 1995 album Mirror Ball.
Young performed this at the 7th annual Bridge School benefit in 1993 with all the artists involved joining Young on stage to close the show. Young put on the concert for the school, which serves children with special needs, every year until 2017.
Pearl Jam has used this as the closing song in many of their concerts. The band played several times at Young's Bridge School concerts, as did lead singer Eddie Vedder solo.
Suggestion credit: John - Lancaster, CA
Neil Young played with Pearl Jam on 1995's Merkinball, a 2-song EP that featured the songs "I Got ID" on one side and "The Long Road" on the other. Merkinball was a case of Young returning the favor to Pearl Jam. They had served as his "backing band" on his 1995 album Mirrorball. Contractual stipulations prevented Mirrorball from being credited to both artists and recognized as the collaborative effort it actually was (The name "Pearl Jam" was not legally allowed to appear on either the album's cover or within its liner notes). "I Got ID" and "Long Road" were actually recorded during the Mirrorball sessions.
Suggestion credit: Tony - Sunshine Coast, Qld, Australia
The song is on occasion used as a pro-America anthem, which ignores many of the ironic overtones of the lyrics. While the chorus does seem to celebrate the United States, it's juxtaposed with grim verses which paint a haunting portrait of life in modern America - the song is sometimes interpreted as a critique of the "keep on rocking in the free world" sentiment that US citizens use to ignore global problems that don't concern them.
Much like his seminal "My My, Hey Hey"/"Hey Hey, My My" counterparts, the widely known version of "Rockin' In The Free World" is a loud, electric reprise of a stripped-down acoustic version that opens the Freedom album.
Rolling Stone rated this #216 on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
Young is very particular about where his songs are used. He authorized this one for the 2004 Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, and also for the 2015 film The Big Short, which tells the story of the rapacious financial workers who caused the 2008 recession. It also appears in the video game Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock.
The track was used in Donald Trump's announcement that he will run as a Republican candidate for the 2016 presidency. Young, a longtime supporter of Bernie Sanders, said that the mogul was not authorized to use the song.
Trump's campaign responded by saying it did pay to use Neil Young's tune at the presidential announcement, but won't use Young's music at any future events. "Through a licensing agreement with ASCAP, Mr. Trump's campaign paid for and obtained the legal right to use Neil Young's recording of 'Rockin' In The Free World,'" the statement read. "Nevertheless, there are plenty of other songs to choose from. Despite Neil's differing political views, Mr. Trump likes him very much."
Trump later hit back, posting a photo of him and Young shaking hands, and explaining that Young asked him for financing on an audio deal and invited Trump to a concert. In a Tweet, Trump called Young a "total hypocrite," adding, "'Rockin' In The Free World' was just one of 10 songs used as background music. Didn't love it anyway."
Zach from Columbus, OhioRobert, what the f--k are you talking about with abortion. He's saying the woman already has a kid, she puts him away when she goes to take a hit. The kids already born, the lyrics are just saying that the kids been dealt a s--tty hand and his chances of success are going to be tough.
I don't understand how anyone can think this is some pro America anthem. Its a critique, the chorus is cynical. Keep on rockin in the free world while everyone around us is living in hell, and plenty of our own citizens live in s--t. Its like you're saying that drug addiction is just a moral failure and that genetic, social and economic factors play no role in the way a persons life ends up. Keep on rockin' in the world of ignorance.
Robert from Ashland KyGreat song. He covers many problems relating to the US. I love how speaks of abortion in an indirect way. Talking about another kid that will never go to school or ever be cool, because the druggy mother throws him away... He really nails it.
Valerie from Eureka, CaI love most of Neil Young's work. This song is an all time favorite. i dont see anything in it praising the USA...there seems to be a lot of sarcasm in it. What I see is it points out homelessness (a thousand points of light for th homeless man), drug addiction, ( and she puts the kid away cos she's gonna get a hit) and it mentions having toilet paper. the scenes in the video looks like daily scenes in big cities where everyone is too busy to notice anything around them. The signs that flash quickly as the video plays regarding styofoam and such...kind of points out the mess the country (maybe the world) is in. The title, to me, is also a sarcastic wording.
Ken from Philadelphia, PaSorry, Stef, you are WAY off when it comes to this song. I concur that Neil's political beliefs are, at best, unclear. He has written songs that are clearly conservative and others that are clearly liberal. However, this song is CLEARLY and OBVIOUSLY a liberal-minded song. The chorus is merely a call to arms and not an overt political statement on its own. It is the verses of the song that tell the story. In addition to pointing out the many social ills of the day that, in his opinion, the American government was not doing nearly enough about, he also directly mocks George H. W. Bush's (the American president when the song was written) politics and political statements. You can't get much more liberal than that.
Adam from Vancouver, BcI believe he wrote the song while he was on tour in late 1988 or early 1989. The first time he played it live, was in Vancouver. During one of the sets he grabbed his acoustic, a chair and a sat down with a little sheet music stand with the lyrics hand written infront of him. He mentioned that he had written a new song while driving on the tour bus. I believe, on the way from Seattle over the border to Vancouver. The song started off slow but after a few verses he stood up kicked over the lyric stand and started giviner. He hammered out the chorus 20 times. Who knew that this song would end up topping the charts and bringing in a whole new generation of Neil fans.
Chip from Stratford, CtNeil is the man !
Farrah from Elon, NcThis song totally rocks!!! The lyrics are so profound that they stick with you.
Fred from Cannington, OnI love this song and have often thought I'd love to hear it performed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I seems like the Boss's type of song.
Bertrand from Paris, FranceWell, it was inevitable that 1989 possess certain transitional characteristics to be so close to a new decade, and folk-rock legend Neil Young's transition from crooner to snarling pre-grunge powder keg took place with a fury toward the end of the '80s. This track, filled with anger at an increasingly conservative, backward-looking American culture, undoubtedly laid the foundation for the rock music genre that would change the entertainment world by 1991. Much of this had to do with Young's dark political outlook, but listen to Young's unruly lead guitar for a real harbinger of Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
Henry from London, EnglandStef, what do you mean free word= little government? Without law and order we would have no freedom. Young was just singing about the governt at that time which was catagorically s--t.
Chryssie from Canberra, AustraliaThe collaboration of U2 & Pearl Jam (UJam) for the Make Poverty History Concert in Melbourne, 2006, performed either this song or a redone version of this song.
Craig from Melbourne, AustraliaStef - You are a total idiot. You think Young's politics are undefined?
Did you hear his last album?
Wingnuts are always so stupid.
Stef from Nyc, NyI don't like that this song is constantly tagged by liberals. Regardless of Young's politics, (which are undefined - just listen to Hawks & Doves), the "free world" by nature means small/little government; a fundamentally conservative concept. Leftists are for big goverment.
Josh from TorontoDamn this song is awesome I remember listening to this song when I was like 6 in my dad's car, and trust me just listening to music in his car was some of the best times of my life, and this song brings back a great memory :D Rock on!
Bess from San Diego, CaThe first time I heard this song was at the end of "Fahrenheit 9/11." I loved it after hearing the first few seconds. I hadn't gotten into Neil Young at that time, but hearing that song helped me start listening to more of his stuff. Keep inspiring us to-be-rebels out here, Neil!
Justin from Lewiston, Alfirst song i learned to play on guitar, and still a good one. I wanted to say that back in the day my bro gave me a bunch of pj live tapes, had a couple diff. versions, you all know how veddar likes to take liberties with lyrics . . . two "alternatives" i really liked. One was "that's one more kid that will never fall in love, never get to go to school,NEVER GET TO BE YOU", and an other was "i don't feel like satan but i am to them, so I TRY TO FORGIVE 'EM ANYWAY I CAN", just liked those two better actually. . . word
Ekristheh from Halath, United StatesI have a recording of Pearl Jam doing this live in 1998. In the middle of it, Vedder puts on the breaks and delivers one of the best rants that I have ever heard: "You know, it's so good to know, when you read in the paper, it's so good to know that there's a lot of high-paid representatives that you and I and a bunch of other people voted into office. Gave 'em good jobs and nice offices, and nice leather chairs and a limo to drive around in, and vacations for their wives and kids. That's all well and good. I'd like to think that they have clear heads when they make decisions that affect each one of us, each and every one of us. And I'm so glad to read that right now, once again, they're talking about the problem of the burning of the flag. 'Cause you know, if there's one thing that pisses me off every day of my life, it's walking down the street and seeing all these flags burning everywhere I turn. This is biggest f--king problem I've ever seen, and I'm f--king sick of it! I can't go out to get a cup of coffee and a paper without seeing a f--king flag burning. I can't go to a stadium. There's a flag burning everywhere! A flag burning here, a flag burning there! It doesn't matter that the oceans are going to COMPLETE S--T, and you get sick every time you go surfing! There're flags burning! I don't care about the empire! Let it go to s--t! Let's save the flag!!! Let's save the flag!!!"
Derek from Sarnia, CanadaWell John your absolutely right...i retract my statement of living my life by "Keep On Rockin' In The Free World"...cause that seems to be the problem! I will keep on rockin' though.
John from Longmeadwo, MaMosteveryone misses the point of this song. It is Neil observing all the tragedy in this country such as people sleeping in their shoes, junkie homeless mothers, etc. While all this is going on and not much of anything is being done about it, we just keep on rockin in the free world, driving our big gas guzzeling cars as if everything is ok. Its a spoof and very few people understand what a bitting parody it is of our life in the so-called free world were so many unfortunates are anything but "free".
Derek from Sarnia, CanadaAaron: Maroon 5 is brutal and should have never covered this song and I have trouble believing it was any good...anyways i love Neil Young and this has always been one of my favorite songs...i love how neil is always stickin it to bush...i think if i were to live by one line in my life it would be "Keep On Rockin' In The Free World"
Spencer from Mcbride, CanadaGreat song, really fun to play in shows because everyone knows it.
MatÃºÅ¡ from Trnava, EuropeGreat Great Great Neil is the King
Ryan from Pittsburgh, Pai love Pearl Jams Verision, i saw them open for the stones last september and they closed with this song. this song is very addicting and fun to play on guitar.i think another meaning of this song is about homeless people dealing with their life
Maurice from Philly, PaAlex, Brussel, Belgium Ihate to break it to you but this song is about America, "The Free World". It has nothing to do with the French Revolution but I like that you were thinking outside the box
Ekristheh from Halath, United States"A man of the people saying keep hope alive" is Rev. Jesse Jackson, who ran for President in 1984 and 1988 with "keep hope alive" as his campaign slogan. In some early performances, Eddie Vedder seemed not to be too clear on the lyrics and delivered this line "A man of the people, people alive".
Ekristheh from Halath, United States"A kinder, gentler machine gun hand" is a paraphrase of the famous line "I want a kinder, gentler nation" from Bush I's nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1988. Bush included this line because he believed it would increase support from women and people in caring professions. "A thousand points of light" refers to Bush I's promise to cut government aid to the poor while encouraging churches, charities and businesses to pick up the slack.
Mampoop from Montreal, United StatesIn Barrie,Canada,for the Live 8 concert, Neil Young played this for the closing show accompagnied by all the performers. I saw it on TV and it was pretty incredible.
Stefanie Magura from Rock Hill, ScI think this song definitely applies to what's going on in today's society.
Aaron from Plover, WiMaroon 5 covered this song at Live 8. I'm not a fan of the band, but I think they did a pretty good job.
Leon from Waterbury, CtThat's one cool mother, Kenneth. Bless her soul :-). Neil Young rocks.
Kenneth from Augusta, GaMy ma passed away a couple of years ago. One time on our way to Boston I had a tape on a nd Rockin In The Free World came on. I looked over at my my mother(79 yrs old)and she way playing air guitar.
Paul from Toledo, OhSince when does neil not play his own guitar riffs? Mr. Paulus Tasmania
Paul from Toledo, OhNeil is actually on guitar in both the solos and the chord progressions.
Alex from Brussel, Belgiumthe colours in the street "red, white and blue" refer to the colours of the french flag en stand for libertÃ?, Ã?galitÃ?, fraternitÃ? (poorly translated: liberty, equality, brotherhood). Three values that formed the reason for the french revolution in 1789.
Ed from Chicago, IlClassic song about freedom and fighting back when it's taken away!
Chris from Philadelphia, PaThere is a line in the song "We got a kinder, gentler, Machine gun hand." This is an actual quote by George H. W. Bush. Neil, it is safe to say, was not a Bush fan, and I believe the same feelings that he had about Sr. he has for W. Neil's "Greendale" is part protest of conglomerate ownership of media and big business's hold on the United States.
Charlie from Thomaston, Dcyou know both CSN and neil made accustic and electric versions of there songs. in fact i have a song from a CSN concert and they say: where gonna do one more song and then take a 10 minute break and come back with some electric music" i also have to say that the one more song(if you can't be with the one you love be with the one your with) sucked!
Brian from Grand Forks, NdCritics in general loved Neil for the message in the song which was an attack on the Domestic Policies of George Bush Senior however Neil was attacked by the Critics in the Early 80's for some his songs off the little known album Hawks and Doves which supported Ronald Reagan. The lesson to be learned, I guess, in Rock and Roll it's better to criticize then Support.
Justin from Felts Mills, NyThis song is played during the closing credits of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11"
Paulus from Tasmania, Australiathe song appears twice on his 'Freedom' album (1989); the first (track #1), an acoustic version; and the last song on the album, an electric version. The latter version features Crazy Horse guitarist, Frank "Poncho" Sampedro on guitar, Chad Cromwell on drums, Rick Rosas on bass & one of Neil's most often used musicians, Ben Keith, on Keyboard.