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Classic Tracks: Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”

A staple of Neil Young's live sets since 1989, "Rockin' in the Free World" remains as relevant as ever, simultaneously doling out catharsis and regret in equal measure.

Pick an era, almost any era since the mid-’60s, and you can make a “Classic Tracks” argument for a Neil Young tune: Maybe “Mr. Soul” from Buffalo Springfield; “Down By the River” from his second solo album; “Helpless” by CSNY; “Heart of Gold” from Harvest; “Comes a Time”; “Hey Hey, My My”; “Like a Hurricane”; “Cortez the Killer”; “Harvest Moon”—stop me ’cause I can think of a lot more. This classic is relatively recent—it comes from his 1989 album, Freedom, but just to show you how prolific this guy is, he’s made more than 20 albums since then!

neil young rockin in the free world single coverIn the early and mid-’80s, Young was hopping all over the map stylistically: Trans ventured into electronic textures (including extensive early use of a Vocoder); Everybody’s Rockin’ was a stab at modern rockabilly; Old Ways was a wonderful (and criminally underrated) exploration of hard-core country stylings; and This Note’s for You introduced a big, brassy R&B/blues band called The Bluenotes.

A few years before that rollicking Bluenotes album, L.A. engineer Niko Bolas drifted into Young’s orbit. “I came in around 1984 or ’85 when Neil was working on Landing on Water,” he recalls today. “Danny Kortchmar was producing the record and wanted me to engineer it because I’d worked on Don Henley’s record with him. So Neil and I met and we became good friends, and after that record he called me and asked me to continue working on Life with David Briggs, and after that one I actually called Neil and said I wanted to do a Big Band record because I really like horns. So he called me back, and said, ‘Well, I want to do this thing called The Bluenotes, and I want you to produce it.’ It was one of those kismet things where I wanted to do horns and he had these songs that needed horns.”

That album and band marked quite a departure for Young, not just stylistically, but also in terms of personnel—this is a guy who thrived using certain “go-to” players on most of his albums, whether it was Crazy Horse or perennials like Tim Drummond and Ben Keith, yet this was largely a new cast of characters. “I got into The Bluenotes through Niko,” says drummer Chad Cromwell, who today lives in Nashville and works with the likes of Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert and many others. “At the time, Neil was trying to do this blues thing and he ran through his typical list of guys he always wanted to work with, but I guess they didn’t work out, and I think it was Niko, who I’d worked with on a project in 1986, who was able to convince him to try a couple of outside guys. At that point, [bassist] Rick Rosas and I were playing for Joe Walsh, and that led us into an invitation to come out and give it a go.

“The subsequent Bluenotes record and tours happened, and then we started a second Bluenotes record, but somehow that got put on hold because Neil suddenly drifted off into wanting to do a much heavier rock sort of thing again. Rick and I and Poncho [Frank Sampedro of Crazy Horse fame; he also toured with The Bluenotes] fell into this four-piece hard rock—almost punk rock—thing with Neil, and that was the band known as The Restless. The Freedom record was a culmination of the end of The Bluenotes sessions that sort of melded into the heavier rock stuff that became The Restless and finally, ultimately, became the Freedom record.” Indeed, Freedom is a typical Young hodge-podge with some tracks featuring members of The Bluenotes (like the epic “Crime in the City”), others based around The Restless (like the album-ending “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Cocaine Eyes”), and for good measure there’s a solo live acoustic version of “Rockin’ in the Free World” to kick off the disc.

The exact origins of “Rockin’ in the Free World” are a little hazy. In Jimmy McDonough’s definitive Young biography, Shakey, he says that Young and Poncho were watching TV footage of the bedlam surrounding the funeral of Iran’s ruler Ayatollah Khomeini, when Poncho casually said, “Whatever we do, we shouldn’t go near the Mideast. It’s probably better we just keep on rockin’ in the free world.” Young was immediately struck by the phrase and asked if he could write a song around it. (This is a good story but cannot be correct, as Khomeini didn’t die until many months after the song was written and premiered. Maybe it’s just the wrong mullah.) Though often thought of as a patriotic flag-waver (because of the chorus), the song is actually a bleak portrait of an American landscape that includes the homeless, drug addicts and selfish energy consumption.

According to Cromwell, “I know when we were working on the never-to-be Bluenotes’ second record, Neil had brought ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ to the studio and we would play it. He had the guitar lick and a couple of verses and would play those and we’d reconvene the next day and he’d have another verse. I have a really distinct memory of this giant notepad he always used at the time—a sketchpad on an easel—and he would write out these lyrics in really big print. He didn’t always do that, but he did on this project, and I remember seeing those verses coming in, and thinking, ‘Wow, this is a mighty song coming together here!’”

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The song was performed for the first time on February 21, 1989, in Seattle on a tour with The Restless, but it’s not exactly clear in which month the session for the song took place. Bolas believes he heard the song for the first time a few months later, after Young’s Far East/Australia tour with the Lost Dogs: The Restless plus multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith, who is on the track. We do know this, however: It was recorded in a barn at Young’s ranch in Northern California in a makeshift studio that was nicknamed “Plywood Digital” (but more formally called Redwood Digital).

“It was built in this big plywood room that was originally designed to store gear,” Bolas relates. “We walked in there one day when they had just finished putting up the walls, and just the sound of footsteps on the floor sounded great, and we thought, ‘Man, we’ve gotta record here before we fill it up!’ So we did. We brought in the Record Plant [remote recording] truck with a big API console and parked it outside and set up a studio inside.” Bolas engineered and co-produced the sessions with Young. Some earlier sessions for the Freedom album had taken place at the Hit Factory in New York City.

Bolas managed to construct a few crude baffles by putting carpets or blankets over 4×8-foot frames, “But the two things you learn with Neil right away are where to put mics so they’re as directional as you can get ’em—what leakage is good, what leakage is bad and, most importantly, where he can hear everything; then that’s the spot where you put the vocal mic and the band can hear him, and you’re done.” Cromwell recalls there being “a bit of baffling between the drums and the bass cabinet, and the drums and Neil’s guitar stuff, but in terms of him singing and trying to isolate the vocal mic, forget it!”

Young is famously spontaneous and will summon players to the studio at a moment’s notice to capture the feeling he’s suddenly possessed by for a given song. He likes to record the whole band at once and go for “keeper” vocals as the track is being laid down. “The thing with Neil,” Bolas explains, “is he’s got an amazing conduit to whatever you want to call it—the great spirit, the muse, the higher power—and when it’s flowing for him, he won’t let anything get in the way, and he’s very aware of things that impede that, whether they be distractions or technological breakdowns. My gig is to make sure you can always play it back. My rule with anybody who’s working with us, no matter where we are, is hit Record and then plug in the microphone, in that order, because if he sees a microphone and he’s feeling it, he’ll just let it flow and start singing or playing. I’ve got masters where you can actually hear guys setting up mic stands in the background and Neil has already started. So we don’t always have time to think endlessly about what mics we want to use; we just have to get in there with whatever’s around at the moment.”

Because of this rather relaxed methodology, Bolas is light on specific memories about microphones for the sessions. He thinks he might have used a Shure SM58 on Young’s lead vocal, and Cromwell says, “I remember seeing a lot of 57s, SM7s, 421s—bombproof kind of stuff because there was so little isolation you couldn’t expect to throw up a roomful of [Neumann] 47s and 87s and expect it to be manageable.”

Bolas recalls them running down the song a number of times, with Young always playing his solos live with the band. Young’s backup vocals, which punctuate key words so effectively, were obviously added later and Bolas says he also experimented with some other keyboard overdubs that were ultimately rejected. It was mixed by Bolas at the ranch “on a combination of two boards: This old, green DiMedio console that used to be the Beach Boys’ board from United Western, and we also had a Neve sidecar.”

By the time Freedom was released in October 1989, “Rockin’ in the Free World” was already a concert favorite and radio immediately jumped all over the track—it rocketed to Number 2 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and the album made it to Number 35 (good for later Young releases). The song has been a live staple for Young (both electric and acoustic) ever since, and it has also been performed by such diverse artists as Pearl Jam, David Byrne, Maroon 5, Simple Minds, Big Country and many, many others.