Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Neil Young On The Beach (1974)


Amazingly, this album wasn’t released on cd until 2003 (whatever his reasons, be they dismay at the cd medium or whatever, Neil should do right by his fans and make all of his albums readily available), which is a damn shame considering that it’s undoubtedly one of his best albums.

Filled with quotable sound bites (the most famous being “you’re all just pissing in the wind”) and consistently memorable music, this studio creation, the second of Neil’s commercially disastrous yet critically acclaimed “Ditch Trilogy,” has a serious, stoned vibe that beautifully conveys Neil’s depressed state at the time. A diverse mix of rockers and ballads, several with a decidedly bluesy feel (it’s no coincidence that the word “blues” appears in the title of three songs), makes the music as fascinating as some of Neil’s finest lyrics, starting with “Walk On,” the album’s most musically upbeat song which features beautifully melodic riffs and lyrics that take a swipe at his critics while lamenting the loss of innocence that inevitably accompanies growing up (“sooner or later it all gets real”).

“See The Sky About To Rain” is one of Neil’s loveliest ballads, with keyboard (as opposed to the usual piano) being the primary instrument, while mournful pedal steel guitar and the song’s title itself perfectly encapsulate this album’s worn out mood. Neil gets spooky on “Revolution Blues,” an appropriately sinister and intense take on Charles Manson, who Neil had known personally (even suggesting that his record company sign Manson, an aspiring musical artist who Neil ultimately distanced himself from because he was “too intense”).

What’s really interesting about this song, aside from its bluesy, rocking guitar-based groove, is the way Neil presents both sides, the victim and the predator, which makes for an unforgettably unsettling experience. “For The Turnstiles” has a charming campfire sing along-type vibe to it (helped along by the banjo playing of Rusty Kershaw), but as is often the case on this album the lyrics are filled with gravity, as Neil questions his career and the age old dilemma of art versus commerce.

The album’s weakest song from a musical standpoint is probably “Vampire Blues,” an overly repetitive and forgettable piece which compares Neil’s beloved industry (snicker, snicker) with shark-like oil barons (choice lyric: “good times are coming but they sure are coming slow”). Much better are the three long songs that close this album and constitute possibly the single finest stretch on any Neil Young album. The 7-minute title track is loose and bluesy, with obviously autobiographical (“I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day”), image-filled lyrics that wonder about his place in the world (“the world is turning, I hope it don’t turn away”), while “Motion Pictures” (actually not that long at 4:16) is a sparse acoustic ballad addressing his second marriage (to Snodgress), which was on the rocks.

The nearly 9-minute “Ambulance Blues” is a true tour-de-force, with stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“it’s hard to know the meaning of this song”), at times alternately about Patti Hearst and Richard Nixon (“I never knew a man who could tell so many lies”), and laid-back musical accompaniment that’s led by Neil’s mournful harmonica and Kershaw’s fiddle. Really, I could listen to this wonderful song all day long, and it perfectly wraps up a decidedly imperfect yet deeply moving album.

Sometimes Neil comes across as whiny (“On The Beach”), other times arrogant (“Ambulance Blues”), but he’s always worth listening to, and this incredibly rich album – both lyrically and musically – reveals previously hidden depths upon repeat listens. It’s not one of Neil’s more rocking albums, and neither is it mellow and pretty a la Harvest, it’s just uniquely its own thing, and though some lament how “depressing” the album is, some upbeat moments do offer the possibility of hope.

After all, how bad can a world be that brings us such magical masterpieces as On The Beach, now finally available and at long last ready to takes its rightful place among rock n’ roll’s all-time classic albums.

April 30, 2013 - Posted by | Neil Young On The Beach |

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