In this section are reviews of the album. If you want your review here, send it in!
Below are two of the more
lenient reviews that On the Beach received on release.
I can dimly recall as a youngster hearing that Neil Young had 'lost it' and was 'over the hill', what the f**k did I care, I was into Pink Floyd and girls at the time, not necessarily in that order. It's fair to say though that most critics simply didn't have the sense to realise that Neil wasn't going to come out with another 'Harvest'. It was a hard enough time for Neil without being told by the so-called critics that your latest album sucks. They just didn't give Neil any slack. I bet there are one or two turning in their graves and a few more wishing they hadn't taken so much frickin' cocaine before writing their reviews. I've read a retraction or two over the years by music journos who would prefer not to be reminded of what they wrote about On the Beach. As for myself, On the Beach was one of the few albums I allowed myself to listen to when I got into punk rock in the sixth form 'round about 1976.
That's how good it is.
Two press reviews from 1974
( thanks to Michal for letting me lift them from her site;-)
Neil Young: The Sands
Of Time by Stephen Holden
Since his days with Buffalo Springfield, the shifts in Neil Young's preoccupations have presented a barometer of a generation's attitudes toward itself, reflecting the dissolution of political idealism and, beyond that, the end of the romance of youth itself. Even in such early ballads as "Sugar Mountain" and "I Am a Child," Young gently warned against living with the illusion of perpetual youth, while his childlike vocals tantalized us with the possibility. The pain of facing adult reality at an age and in an era that encouraged prolonged adolescent fantasy comprised the underlying theme of Young's first three solo albums, a trilogy that culminated in After the Gold Rush, perhaps the quintessential turn-of-the-decade album by a folk-rock soloist.
Whereas Bob Dylan's music formed the aesthetic spear-head of generational rage and moral fervor in the mid-Sixties, Young's subsequently expressed, with equal credibility, the accompanying guilt, self-doubt and paranoia, especially in its obsession with time and age. Ironically, Young achieved superstar status with his most compromised album, Harvest, a sweetened rehash of ideas from After the Gold Rush. But Young resisted the temptation to venture further toward the MOR style that had clinched his audience; and his live album, Time Fades Away, released two years after Harvest, came as a rude about-face.
On The Beach is Neil Young's best album since After the Gold Rush. Though a studio album, its sound is raw and spare, as bracing as Dylan's Planet Waves. Mostly self-produced, On The Beach boasts fine instrumental support, notably by guitarist Ben Keith (who shares vocals with Young on two cuts), Rusty Kershaw (fiddle and slide guitar on two cuts), and Band members Rick Danko (bass) and Levon Helm (drums) on the album's most exciting track, "Revolution Blues."
The hard-edged sound of On The Beach is a contributing factor to its greatness, since the album poses aesthetic and political questions too serious to be treated prettily. Through various opposed personae, Young evokes primary social and psychic polarities that exemplify the deterioration of American culture. Though not named, the figures of Charles Manson and Patricia Hearst appear as emblems of apocalyptic social dislocation in the album's two masterpieces, "Revolution Blues" and "Ambulance Blues." In each song, by empathizing with the emotions of both predators and victims, Young has dared what no other major white rock artist (except John Lennon) has - to embrace, expose and perhaps help purge the collective paranoia and guilt of an insane society, acting it out without apology or explanation.
"Walk On," a succinct rejection of Sixties fantasies, revolves around a bitter observation about growing up: "Sooner or later it all gets real / Walk on." "See the Sky About To Rain" and "For The Turnstiles," tremulous, fatalistic ballads, encompass images of violence, corruption and disintegration, their meanings contained in their cryptic titles, each a slogan, a mantra, a scrawl of graffiti. The driving, terrifying vision of "Revolution Blues" is counterpointed by the equally horrifying "Vampire Blues."
Two ballads, "Motion Pictures" and "Ambulance Blues," feature Young singing almost an octave lower than normal and sounding for the first time in his career morally arrogant. "On The Beach," the seven-minute title cut, is the album's most questionable inclusion, a lethargic, whining meditation on the reasons not to remain psychically isolated in Los Angeles. It shows Young immersed in self-pity - one of the taboos of rock that Young has long sought to redeem. Though Young's weariness of civilization also supplies the theme of "Motion Pictures," it is melodically fluent and the album's only direct message of love.
The nine-minute "Ambulance Blues," which closes the album, is the tour de force of Young's recording career. Doubling on acoustic guitar and harmonica and backed by Kershaw's eloquent fiddling, Young summarizes his entire musical/political past, beginning with the idealism of "the old folkie days," then impressionistically evoking specific social traumas, among them Watergate and the Hearst saga. He addresses us with a populist truism which he repeats in a voice that quietly spits in our faces: "You're all just pissin' in the wind." The last verse cites Nixon as both symptom and cause of a predicament that is frightening beyond comprehension:
I never knew a man could tell so many lies
He had a different story for every set of eyes
How can he remember who he's talkin' to
'Cause I know it ain't me And I hope it isn't you.
In it's appeal to a post-revolutionary, post-psychedelic generation of young Americans, "Ambulance Blues" stands as an epic lamentation, as irrefutable a piece of song-poetry as Paul Simon's "American Tune" and Jackson Browne's "For Everyman." I could not imagine anyone but Young singing it. On The Beach is one of the most despairing albums of the decade, a bitter testament from one who has come through the fire and gone back into it.
'You're All Just Pissing
In the Wind' by Ian MacDonald
Right now, Neil Young is in kind of an invidious position. On The Beach is his equivalent of Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album in terms of being a reaction to, and rejection of, his earlier work but, whereas Lennon's change was gradual (starting, really, from "Help!"), Young has made his artistic stock-in-trade the investigation of personal pain from the very beginning. Thus, that an album as bleak and miserable-sounding as On The Beach has been preceded by no less than six other albums almost all equally bleak and miserable-sounding can easily obscure the fact that the record represents a departure; Indeed, even if people were to credit Young with doing something vaguely new in On The Beach, a lot of them would be fairly justified in dismissing his "new" bleakness as a bleaker version of the one they... er, already knew and loved. And that's the catch, really. In our July 20 issue, Steve Clarke attacked On The Beach as too negative, too self-pitying - "whichever way you look at it, a depressing record. It's a downer in that depression is the mood which most of the LP evokes. "But it's also depressing because Neil Young isn't writing as well as he used to ... and he and the rest of the musicians on On The Beach aren't playing as well as in former days." Steve's a devotee of Neil Young. Probably knows the man's work in twice the careful detail that I do. I'm not a Young devotee. I could never totally accept his employment of self-pity as a creative focus. Sometimes, I felt it a shade dishonest or manufactured (e.g.: "Tell Me Why"); other times the whole thing got just a little too deliciously lush (e.g.: "When You Dance I Can Really Love"). In NME for August 3, reader Mike Gormley called Steve to task for criticizing the "mood" of the album at the expense of objective evaluation of the songs and performances it contained. "The mood of an album," wrote Mike, "From my admittedly subjective point of view, provides no foundation for criticism... the man is, after all, only putting words to sensations we all feel at one time or other." The criticism of a critical process which Steve may or may not have used is, I think, obviously fair. It's the second half of the statement I find curious. Yes, Young has earned a reasonable living out of making some successful artistic statements (for money) about "sensations we all feel at one time or other". But isn't that a shade dubious as an artist/\audience deal? "I'm miserable-but-I-can-make-it-sound-pretty-with-my-songs" pays "I-like-to-hum-along-to-your-songs-about-misery-cos-I-probably-quite-fancy-it-myself". Like Leonard Cohen. A sugared pill just the correct distance into commerciality to be still believable. And that could be the main reason why the majority of Neil Young fans won't get into On The Beach. The pill is no longer sugared - either by Sweet Melody or by garlands of poesies. Instead, we have three varieties of 12-bar blues, one real primitive back-country number, and lines like "You're all just pissing in the wind / You don't know it but you are." Young has, quite simply, welched on the deal. Which, in turn, suggests he's Woken Up. At the beginning, I slipped an assumption on you when you weren't looking - that On The Beach isn't, as previously interpreted, the fag-end of Neil Young's romance with rejection, but actually a quite positive piece of work in the Merciless Realism bracket of Lennon's primal period. How else you account for the reportedly totally revived Young now touring the States with CSN&Y, I don't know - but it's now up to me to provide the documentary evidence from the album itself. An album that - for me - seems clearly to be Neil Young's best so far. The first thing you've got to do when encountering On The Beach is to forget about "developments" and "consequences" and start thinking about cause and effect. Young suggest this only five minutes before the needle's due to come up off the second side, so it's as well to get the relevant verse in mind before giving the record the old once-over. It goes: "Now all you critics sit alone / You're no better than me for all you've shown / With your stomach-pumps and your hook-and-ladder dreams / We could together for some scenes." To imagine that one album (by anyone) is necessarily a development or a consequence of the one - or ones - that preceded it, is to be the victim of a "hook-and-ladder dream". Things just don't work like that. Life has its ups and downs, etc. And to wish Young to return to his previous "listenability", to bring back the melodies and the poesie, is to offer him - as the recipient of his creativity - nothing more than a "stomach-pump". Which is a little presumptuous. I agree with Mike Gormley that we've got to give Young the benefit of the doubt - "He knows what he's doing, he'd done beautiful stuff before," that sort of thing - but not for that reason. (Rather, because Young is still The Provider. Without him, we'd have nothing to fight about.) So what about "cause and effect"? Steve, in his original review, suggested that On The Beach was the result of Young's supposed disenchantment with studio recording. He'd done Time Fades Away "live" and Journey Through The Past was a rag-bag of "live" cuts and studio out-takes; On The Beach was his first serious studio effort since Harvest in 1972. The supposition is that Young was postponing the inevitable because he knew he couldn't cut it any more. More apparent evidence for this lies in his seeming dither over what the new album would consist of. The title alone changed four times, Young first selecting "Tonight's The Night" (a song he sang on his last tour and which didn't make it to the final selection), then rejecting it in favour of "Human Highway" and vacillating over the odd alternative, "Human High" (odd, that is, in terms of the final album's supposed negativity and depression). At length, he chose On The Beach, chucked out the material that didn't fit, and recorded what he'd selected over a remarkably short space of time, mostly "live" in the studio. The "postponement" guess is probably fairly accurate and it supports both cases, that is, if he had no faith in himself any more, he'd hold off - and, if he didn't quite know what he was about to say, he'd hold off just the same. It's still supposition, though. Young's done no interviews to support either interpretation, and probably won't - if I'm reading him right. On the other hand, if we've "supposed" so far, we might as well keep on supposing. Suppose Neil Young was getting towards his wits' end, what with all that's expected of him and fatigue and drugs and directionlessness-made-a-virtue and all. Suppose it was time to make a new album and he had the material ready, just like he had six times before, but somehow didn't believe in it any more - didn't believe himself, didn't believe his audience were picking out what he regarded as important in his songs. He's stymied and he's going down fast. Then something happens that Opens His Eyes. Someone says something to him, something happens - whatever. He suddenly realizes where he is and what he's doing. Perspective. Reality. He writes a new bunch of songs fast. Out comes On The Beach. Ok, that's "cause and effect" supposed for present purposes. The precise nature of the occurrence which changed Young's head will be looked at later, when we get to "Ambulance Blues". For now, let's keep that supposition in mind and begin looking at the album. First, the cover... It shows a beach, sparsely populated with a few folding chairs, a table, a big umbrella (all in patterned colour scheme); a half-buried object that could be a dune-buggie, a rocket, or a dodgem-car; one long, thin palm tree plant in a wooden bucket; and Young himself, hands in pockets, surveying the horizon with his discarded brown city boots beside him (in the ads for the album, he's turned round and is grinning - actually grinning - at the camera. This is supposed to be depressing...?). You pull out the inner sleeve - two scraps of paper lying in the sand, one for the track listings, one for violinist Rusty Kershaw's strange sleevenote - and you notice that the inside of the outer sleeve (have a squint, if you haven't realized before), is printed on the same patterned colour scheme as the beach furniture. The design - by R Twerk - is a kind of belated answer to that of George Harrison's Living In The Material World, in which the beatitudinous Beatle sat in the midst of the symbols of his wealth looking puzzled and spiritual. Young's version is a much more direct joke about the whole material paraphernalia of rock - a jibe at ornate, octagonal, gate-folding 3-D monstrosities in precisely the same way that Kershaw's sleevenote is a joke about sleevenotes, and the deliberate looseness of the playing and raw 30-Watt amp production is a snook cocked at bands prone to using sufficient stage-equipment for six 1963-vintage groups and dressing up their albums with enough quadraphonic over-dubbed, cross-faded, pan-potted warp-drive to launch a starship. Young's known to be a solitary, in no way enamoured of the superstar existence, and probably pretty bitter about The Business in general. But Neil Young As Satirist? That's surely an unforeseen "development"? "Walk On" walks the album on. Gently rocking, very "live" sound, but very clear, too. At once we get Perspective: "I remember the good old days, stayed up all night getting crazed / Then the money was not so good, but we still did the best we could." And, straight after, we get the Reality available from that vantage-point: "Oh baby that's hard to change / I can't tell them how to feel / Some get strong, some get strange / Sooner or later it all gets real / Walk on." Say the person he's talking to here is his current lady, Carrie ("Motion Pictures", on Side Two, is dedicated to her), and the "them" in question is Young's audience. Ze pieces begin to fit together, hein? Still, the nature of the perspective still seems blurred. When Young sings, "I hear some people have been talking me down / Bring up my name, pass it round / They don't mention the happy times / They do their thing and I do mine," it sounds a shade close to defensive sentimentality. But the music's too incisive for that. It comes on like a brief overture to what is to follow - describing, possibly, Young's state of mind at the time when he hadn't yet sussed what it all meant. The next song (and the third longest on the album, even though it sounds quite short) is "See The Sky About To Rain", dating back to 1971. Now, if my case for On The Beach depends on some kind of revulsion on Young's part towards his former work, how come he's got a number that old on his new album? Well, "See The Sky About To Rain" is a fairly neutral song. It's philosophical in tone and is, generally, about Fate, Inexorability Of. It introduces the notion of ever-present rain which is taken up again in the opening verses of the final track, "Ambulance Blues". It sets a "mood", OK? But it's the way it's handled that makes it more than an artificial transplant from the past. In 1971 (or '72 or '73, for that matter), Young would never have considered handling it so casually. He might have used a steel guitar, but surely not that warm electric piano - and definitely not the peculiar cymbal thinking approach of skins slapper Levon Helm. The last verse is even weirder: "I was down in Dixieland / Played a silver fiddle / Played it loud and then the man / Broke it down the middle." This bitterness about "the man" (and you can take it straight as Big Business or bend it towards the Drug Connection) is reiterated constantly through the record, from his showbiz/high society aspect in "For The Turnstiles" ("Singing songs for pimps with tailors / Who charge 10 dollars at the door") to industrial magnates in "Revolution Blues" and oil millionaires in "Vampire Blues". And listen closely to the longish fade. Doesn't Young's wordless vocal sound a little Las Vegas-y? And that harp! Pure corn! Seems like a send-up to me, bub. If it's ambivalence recalls that of Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait, the next track, "Revolution Blues", is positively riddled with Dylan. It's hard to say whether "Revolution Blues" is meant to be seen from Young's point of view or from that of a persona. Manifestly, he doesn't "live in a trailer at the edge of town", or possess "twenty-five rifles just to keep the population down". Manson's lot, maybe - or, more relevantly, the SLA. But not our Neil. On the other hand, he evidently identifies strongly with that outlaw-avenger attitude, even if he's laughing about it while he's pulling triggers in his head. The mode is prime '65 Dylan. Militant psychotic-surreal. (There's even a line that wobbles off into the basement a la Lou Reed.) And get into the visionary sick humour of this: "I got the Revolution Blues, I see bloody fountains / And 10 million dune-buggies comin' down the mountains / I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars / But I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars." "On The Road Again" sprinkled liberally with "Motor-psycho Nitemare". "For The Turnstiles" isn't another blues, but it might easily have been. Instead, it's a primitive back-country moan for banjo, dobro, and steady foot-stomp - skeletal in sound and concept, and unearthly in the harmonies of the title-phrase. A cousin of the kind of thing Ry Cooder was getting into on Boomer's Story. It's about how everybody gets nailed by The Business Of Fame sooner or later - and how it's a question of being able to realize in time to stop it becoming permanent in your case. First, it's "Singing songs for pimps". Then it's "All the great explorers are now in granite layed". Between the verses comes the pained chorus: "You can really learn a lot that way / IT CAN CHANGE YOU IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY / Though your confidence may be shattered / It doesn't matter." (The caps are mine.) The urgency of that last couplet is underlined in an extraordinary closing verse in which Young sees all the baseball batting stars "Left to die on their diamonds" (that is, batting bases) while "In the stands the home crowd scatters / For the turnstiles." "Vampire Blues" is a joke over chumming out albums about anything. It starts with a guitar-intro reminiscent of the Stones on a typical "album-filler" (e.g.: "Now I've Got A Witness") and proceeds into a mock-fumbling, mock nod-out 12-bar guying the mandatory macho blues with which all second-raters pad their albums out over there in the US of A. One side two, we get to the real meat: the tale of Young's personal experience in the last few years and the story upon which this whole interpretation hangs. First, the title track. It's the fourth blues or blues-influenced number in a row and it's getting plainer what's going on: "The world is turning, I hope it don't turn away (rpt) / All my pictures are falling from the wall where I placed them yesterday / The world is turning, I hope it don't turn away." It's important to bear in mind that this is a memory, not what's in young's mind now. It's a blues in four lines, the third breaking the traditional harmonic sequence into a gentler, more reflective side-street, but not disturbing that familiar overall structure: "I need a crowd of people, but I can't face them day to day (rpt) / Though my problems are meaningless, that don't make them go away / I need a crowd of people, but I can't face them day to day." In the succeeding verses, Young finds himself alone at a microphone after a radio interview and interjects the oddly stock-shot image of being "Out here on the beach" where "The seagulls are still out of reach"; finally, he resolves to get out of town, head for the sticks with his bus and his friends, and follow the road, although he doesn't know where it ends - the song closing with a repeat of the solitary line, "The world is turning, I hope it don't turn away," and a beautiful guitar solo over a slow fade. "Motion Pictures" forms a short break between the seven-minute "On The Beach" and the nine-minute closer, "Ambulance Blues". Dedicated to his girlfriend, Carrie Sondgress, star of Diary Of A Mad Housewife, it's a very personal song, almost a confession ("I hear the mountains are doing fine"). But it's centrally the work of a man who had a shrewd suspicion that The Business was doing him in, and only just found out how. Moving back and forth between two balancing lines throughout its length, it covers this ground with the impressive economy which characterizes the whole album: "All those headlines, they just bore me now / I'm deep inside myself, but I'll get out somehow / And I'll stand before you and I'll bring a smile... to your eyes." Which has, in turn, been arrived at via a verse that represents The Young Policy Statement For The Past: "Well, all those people, they think they've got it made / But I wouldn't buy, sell, borrow or trade / Anything I have to be like one of them / I'd rather start all over again." Note the echo of the last line of "Stage Fright" and the deadly seriousness of the proposition. All the loose strands are gathered and woven together in the final track, "Ambulance Blues" - a beautiful song, possibly Young's best ever. It's organized to self-regenerate: a verse formed from a repeated couplet that wanders round a little circle of six changes, then ... another verse that strains vainly upwards for three lines, sags back for one more, and finally relaxes resignedly into the original verse. There's no chorus, no middle eight. It just keeps going, round and round, slow-medium tempo, utterly composed. Young picks an aged acoustic and blows smeary harp. Ben Keith slaps a bass that keeps getting its shoes caught in the mud, Ralph Molina pats hand drums almost inaudibly, Joe Yankee chinks an "electric tambourine" (sounding, as Steve said, "like somebody dripping silver" into it), and Rusty Kershaw's violin sounds like the hillbilly cousin of The Incredible String Band's Robin Williamson's creaking gimbri. It's raining. Obsessively so. The lyrics open with a direct reference to the Perspective outlined at the beginning of the album: "Back in the old folkie days, the air was magic when we played / Old riverboat rocking in the rain, midnight was the time for rain..." Then the verse begins striving up in its secondary form - a memory about "Isabella", which Young develops. "You're only real with your make-up on", he sings, maybe using the same words he did then. And back into the verse again: Young walking up the towpath, looking the old place over. "Waitresses are crying in the rain..." And the second encounter with the "up" section - another direct reminiscence now, of "Mother Goose" who's "on the skids", though this time the memory has a sting: "She needs someone that she can scream at / And I'm such a heel for making her feel so bad." The verse again, and a crucial one: "I guess I'll call it sickness gone / It's hard to say the meaning of this song / An ambulance can only go so fast / It's easy to get buried in the past / When you try to make a good thing last." Which supports the case for the Traumatic Change Theory quite admirably. Now it's just a case of (a) What caused the change?, and (b) What does the change involve? There now ensues a few lines of wondering harp-puffing extended enough to point up the fact that the first half of the song is separate from the second. Then Young comes back in with: "Saw today in the entertainment section / There's room at the top for private detection / To mom and dad, this doesn't matter / But it's either that or pay off the kidnapper." The "up" section falls back once again on to the steady verse - this time the one about the critics - followed by more wheezing harp. The next "up" section signals the climax of the song. Young's in town, having played a gig ("Keeping jive alive"): "Out on the corner it's half-past five / But the subways are empty and so are the cafes / Except for the farmers' market / And I still can hear him say..." (Back to the verse for the final time - Young by himself picking with almost pedantic precision, and singing in a hushed, trenchant voice.) "...You're all just pissing in the wind / You don't know it, but you are / And there ain't nothing like a friend / Who can tell you you're just pissing in the wind." So there's the answer to the question - and, while we're mulling over what this character means, Young blows some more, now rather deflated harp. Only it isn't a breather. It's a Dramatic Pause. Using the "up" section for the final time. Young slams back with the rebuttal and clear statement of where he's at now: "I never knew a man could tell so many lies / He had a different story for every set of eyes / How can he remember who he's talking to? / Cos I know it ain't me and I hope it isn't you..." Another coupla lines and a final sigh on the harmonica. The mic-boom clinks as Young shifts away from it, still playing - and there's a second or two of sound in the studio after the last note's died. That certainly doesn't sound like the work of a depressed, negative man to me. It sounds extremely positive, actually - and note that "Ambulance Blues" is the only track thus listed which isn't any kind of blues at all. Who the man is who met Young in the market that morning we'll probably never find out, unless he mentions it in an interview. Personally, I think Young heard Dylan on tour recently, copped for what the new version of "It's Alright, Ma" was all about ("I've got nothing, ma, to live up to"), and decided he'd been jerking off too long. There's scattered evidence for A Dylan Experience in many of the tracks from On The Beach, but the more important thing is that, though Dylan and Young may have taken a parallel path recently, Young now sounds actively dangerous, whereas Dylan's just singing his own peculiar gospel. I doubt if Neil Young has the humour to become a Cosmic Buffoon. on the other hand, On The Beach is a fairly mighty statement in its own terms. Perhaps we shouldn't categorize him. That might turn out to be just one more "hook-and-ladder-dream".
On The Beach (The FUNHOUSE!
This review and many others appear on the fine Rust fans review pages on Hyperrust - Thanks to Sam for permission to use this review
1974 - Reprise 2180 Walk
On / See the Sky About to Rain / Revolution Blues / For the Turnstiles / Vampire
Blues / On the Beach / Motion Pictures (for Carrie) / Ambulance Blues
By Sam Tennent email@example.com
On the Beach is perhaps the most personal record Neil Young will ever make. It chronicles his emergence from a deep depression, caused in part by the critical reaction to his post-Harvest artistic output. It is also a statement of intent, which Young has stuck to throughout his career, that he will make and release whatever music he feels like, with no compromise to commercial considerations. This was a brave choice to make in 1974, when all of Neil's musical contemporaries were urging him to make a "real" album - that is, to hire a bunch of top notch session men and make Harvest II. Neil could have easily done this. Listening to the material he was writing around this time songs like "Traces" and "Separate Ways," Harvest II would have been no problem. Instead, Neil gave us a look into his REAL feelings and made some remarkable music. Young had written about the pressures of fame during his Buffalo Springfield days, with songs like "Out of My Mind" and "Mr Soul," however On the Beach sees an older and wiser Young coming to terms with the pressures, rather than allowing them to overcome him. Almost every song addresses these themes and gives Young's response. In "Walk On," Young addresses his critics with the line: "They go their way, I'll go mine" thus setting the agenda for the next twenty years of his musical career. In "Ambulance Blues" he is even more direct: "All you critics sit alone / You're no better than me for what you've shown" The title of the LP refers to Young's having "made it," but the songs reflect the double-edged nature of fame. Perhaps the most revealing line on the record is on the title track, where Young sings: "Now I'm livin out here on the beach / But those seagulls are still out of reach" Elsewhere, his feelings about fame are shown to be even more bitter. He says of the showbiz crowd (in "Motion Pictures"): "All those people, they think they've got it made / But I wouldn't buy sell borrow or trade anything I have to be like one of them / I'd rather start all over again" The lyrical content of On the Beach has been meticulously examined and analyzed over the years, whereas the musical content has received relatively little attention. This is an injustice, because this music is some of the best that Young has ever produced. In fact, if one examines the critiques of Young's music throughout his career, there has been relatively little analysis of the sound quality of the records, as critics tend to concentrate on the lyrics or musical styles employed. Hence in the eighties Young was accused of excessive genre hopping by critics who failed to recognize that he has rarely made two records that sound alike. For example, Neil's first six solo records sound vastly different from each other. Side one begins with "Walk On," a bright, up-tempo number, which is propelled along by a shuffling beat from the Crazy Horse rhythm section, and reflects the progression suggested in the lyrics. Next, Young chose to include an old song, "See the Sky About to Rain." Some reviewers have suggested that it is an attempt at irony on Young's part to include a prime example of his "downer" songs here, after the sentiments expressed in "Walk On," but it's just a great song with a magical chord progression change at the last verse and superb drumming from Levon Helm. It is followed by "Revolution Blues," a song inspired by Young's meetings with Manson. One can almost hear the 10,000,000 dune buggies coming down the mountain as the song rolls along with the Band's Levon Helm and Rick Danko in the engine room, and David Crosby supplying manic rhythm guitar. The pace then quiets down with "For the Turnstiles," a song almost in the folk style, with Young singing falsetto accompanied by banjo and Ben Keith on dobro. What other major artist during the seventies would have chosen to sing a song that strained their vocal range as much as this? And yet this gives the song its power and makes for compulsive listening. The first side ends with "Vampire Blues," a jokey, standard twelve-bar blues with a terrific bubbling guitar solo, which perfectly evokes an image of bubbling oil being "sucked From the Earth." Here Young addresses one of the common ecological themes found throughout his body of work. Side two is a whole different ball game. The mood is somber, almost narcotic. Young has commented that this record was made mostly under the influence of "honey slides" - a marijuana and honey concoction described by Young onstage at his Bottom Line show in May 1974. The title track is a beautiful, slow bluesy song, with a wonderfully understated guitar solo that should come as a great surprise to those who know Young only through his Ragged Glory period. This is followed by "Motion Pictures (for Carrie)," a song written on the road, in which Neil pines for the simplicity of the country life. A beautiful, meandering chord progression and laid-back harmonica give it a world-weary sound. The last track on the album, "Ambulance Blues," is among the best five that Young has ever written. As he later admitted, the melody in the verses is the same as that in Bert Janch's "Needle of Death," a song that Young has cited as an early influence. However, the musical implementation is stunning. With breathy harmonica and genuinely spooky fiddle playing from Rusty Kershaw, the track has a rootless, floating feel, leaving the lyrics as the focus of the listener's attention. On the Beach is special to me, as it was the first Neil Young album that I bought at the time of its release. I had gotten into Neil's music in early '74, and had acquired all of his earlier records by the time On the Beach came out. I still listen to it, twenty years later, more than either After the Goldrush or Harvest. I guess this is because the record is so musically interesting. It's full of spontaneous performances and first-take errors, which were left on because their feel is right. It doesn't have the life produced out of it like, dare I say, Harvest Moon or Landing on Water. For me, this was summed up in my favorite moment on the whole record, in which Neil catches his thumb pick on the bottom E-string during "Ambulance Blues." The note booms out over the line:
"Where men STUB their toes on garbage pails!"
It's just perfect.
Colin Young's original Release petition web site (re-hosted).
Neil Young's On The Beach