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Many songs are laden with “hooks,” musical barbs that implant themselves indelibly in the cultural consciousness, like Eric Clapton’s searing guitar riff in “Layla.” But how many hooks are tied to a trademark?
I can think of one. Neil Young’s “Hey, Hey, My, My (“Into the Black”), Neil’s masterpiece from the late ‘70s, complete with crushing guitar chords, a raw and piercing solo on Neil’s feedback-laden “Old Black” Gibson Les Paul, and the defiant refrain “Rock and Roll will never die.” Summing it all up—so much so that it became the album’s title—is the song’s urgent justification for why “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”—”Rust Never Sleeps.”
Now, Neil Young’s lyrics, both before and after “Rust,” typically display a poet’s cryptic lyricism. Whether “searching for a heart of gold,” or “lying in a burned out basement with the full moon in [his] eyes,” Neil Young has always been a “dreamer of pictures.” So it may come as a surprise that “Rust Never Sleeps,” one of his most iconic metaphors, came not from his febrile imagination (legend has it that he wrote “Down By The River” and “Cowgirl In The Sand” in one flu-ish afternoon), but from the world of advertising.
That’s right, the iconoclastic Mr. Young— who’s chided fellow songsters for selling their artistic souls to the devilish Mad Men (listen to “This Note’s For You” to hear his disdain for peers who’ve rented their hits for TV ads)—this champion of creative purity, actually adopted one of his most iconic images from an unlikely corporate source—”Rust-Oleum,” the protective paints and coatings maker “whose long-time slogan was, you guessed it, “Rust Never Sleeps”— three words that succinctly and convincingly conveyed the inexorable fate of any piece of metal whose owner was careless or neglectful enough to leave nakedly unprotected.
As products go, Rust-Oleum has a backstory worthy of a Neil Young shanty (for a taste of Neil’s nautical bent, listen to “Captain Kennedy,” his mournful anti-war lament.) According to company lore, Rust-Oleum’s founder, sea captain Robert Fergusson, “looking for ways to keep his ship in shape, “noticed that an accidental splash of fish oil had stopped the relentless spread of corrosion on his rusty metal deck, he immediately recognized it for what it was: A valuable solution.” https://www.rustoleum.com/about-rust-oleum/our-history
Although they worked in different genres and achieved different results, both Cap’n Ferguson and Neil Young experienced epiphanies—sparks of inspiration—that yielded something enduring, be it the protective properties of Ferguson’s oleaginous paint, or the ragged glory of Young’s song, which remains a staple of his concert setlists.
Today, with the advent of social media, snap chat, and e-commerce, some experts fear that taglines and slogans have begun to fade away from the advertising landscape. While many slogans retain their cache—sometimes over decades (think “Good to the Last Drop” and “You’re in good hands with Allstate”)—some observers believe taglines have become less relevant when so many other brand-messaging options exist. http://deniseleeyohn.com/taglines-are-deadlong-live-taglines/.
Neil Young’s song, with its borrowed hook providing a furious crescendo that rails against atrophy and irrelevance, ensures that the one-time slogan “Rust Never Sleeps” will neither burn out nor fade away.
"I’m climbin’ this ladder, My heads in the clouds, I hope that it matters."
Borrowed Tune, Neil Young.
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