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.
It began with a Lincoln Continental and a bottle of Mateus Rose. It ended in a drug-addled implosion that signified LA noire’s final trippy comedown, writhing on its belly like a hallucinogenic serpent, baying for blood.
What transpired in between these two fabled bookends is the story of Neil Young’s seasick salute to the demise of the Sixties, in all its glory/glorious failings. ‘On The Beach’ would be released to an apprehensive and critical audience, led by a Rolling Stone headshake that labelled the record “one of the most despairing albums of the decade.” Thirty years later its demented deterioration of sound would come to define Young’s knife-edged spirit in the face of critical acclaim, spurring over five thousand fans to sign an online petition in 2000 calling for the release of the album on CD. In 2003, their prayers were answered…
Released before the demonic cackle of ‘Tonight’s The Night’, ‘On The Beach’ was deemed a bleak follow-up to the critically acclaimed smooth sounds of bestseller ‘Harvest’. In all respects, this was Neil Young’s statement of intent: an unforgiving one-fingered salute, brought to life by opening track ‘Walk On’, a vitriolic mix of world-weary cynicism and focused drive that would spur Young to keep moving, whatever the cost. “I hear some people been talkin’ me down / Bring up my name / Pass it round,” he gnarls. “Walk on,” he concludes. It’s an anthem that still continues to define the lone wolf’s career…
‘On The Beach’ came to being at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, suffocating beneath Hollywood’s bleak underbelly at the close of 1973. Porn star Linda Lovelace was a regular visitor to Young’s congregated players, as were the Everly Brothers, who would often prop themselves up amidst a sprinkling of Playboy bunnies. As bassist Tim Drummond succinctly put it, the hell-raising sessions embodied “Hollywood Babylon at its fullest”.
In 1973 the sleazefest was fully in session, fuelled by ‘honey slides’, a homemade concoction of sautéed marijuana and honey, labelled by Young’s own manager Elliot Roberts as “much worse than heroin…within ten minutes you were catatonic.”
As guitarist Rusty Kershaw’s wife Julie cooked up the debilitating psychedelic goop, wolfed down by Young and co in-between regular trips to Dr. Feelgood for B12 “popcorn” shots, Neil Young turned his attentions to flesh-eating feelings of antagony and disintegration. No stone was left unturned: what with his marriage to actress Carrie Snodgress on the rocks, vampire sucking oil tycoons/Richard Nixon/CSNY weighing on his mind and baying critics on his back, the singer was hardly starved of inspiration. Defined by his own distinctive take on the blues, ‘Revolution Blues’, ‘Vampire Blues’ and ‘Ambulance Blues’ act as soulful psalms amidst the chaos.
Whereas ‘Vampire Blues’ launches a millionaire rock star’s attack on the blood-sucking exploits of the oil industry, the concluding knell of closer ‘Ambulance Blues’, inspired by Bert Jansch’s ‘Needle Of Death’, addresses fractioned feelings of antagonism towards critics, Richard Nixon, and even fellow collaborators CSNY (lamenting lyric “You’re all just pissing in the wind” is a direct quote from manager Elliot Roberts regarding the inactivity of the quartet).
Crucially, ‘Revolution Blues’, inspired by Charles Manson, who Young met in his Topanga Canyon days, best sums up the record’s juxtaposition of fiction and reality, as musician-and-ringmaster Rusty Kershaw bewitched the track’s recording, instigating chemically in-balanced anarchy during recording: Kershaw bizarrely claimed to be possessed by animal spirits and slithered like a snake on the floor, even managing to spook chief hellraiser David Crosby and Graham Nash, who contributed to tracks ‘On The Beach’ and said ‘Revolution Blues’.
The circus-act wasn’t lost on Neil Young, who adopts a demented Manson persona during the song as he manically rants the couplet, “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.”
As the sessions became increasingly frenetic, the shambolic goings-on proved too far-out for engineer Al Schmitt who walked out on the session before its completion, amidst exasperated exclaims of “what the fuck is goin’ on?” Good question: what the fuck was going on?
Simple: Neil Young was making his escape. The iconic album cover speaks the only truth you ever need know: trailer trash patio furniture is strewn under the grey breezy sky as a 1959 Cadillac fender rises out of the sandy rubble. The day’s paper is discarded on the anaemic sand, reading ‘SENATOR BUCKLEY CALLS FOR NIXON TO RESIGN’.
Someway in the not-too-distant horizon, a windswept Neil Young stands with his back against the world, staring out to sea in a yellow and white polyester suit. Subversive when you bear in mind the album’s defining mantra: “The world is turnin’ / I hope it don’t turn away.” With that, Young’s pre-emptive strike against the world is complete… Half a heartbeat before the world dares contemplate turning its back away from him…
Neil Young’s “On the Beach” was the second entry in his famed “Ditch Trilogy”, a series of three records released in the wake of his chart-topping and critically-acclaimed “Harvest”. Named “one of the most despairing albums of the decade” by Rolling Stone upon its release in 1974, it contrasts with much of his previous work due to its crude and bleak production. Regardless, it is known to contain some of his best work and represents an important stage of his extensive solo career.
Side one opens with “Walk On”, written as a response to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, which itself was a response to Young’s “Southern Man”, which they interpreted as a negative stereotype of the South and its people. It’s a very full sounding rocker, greatly contrasting with the mellow mood that dominates the majority of the album, particularly side two. It’s certainly one of the more optimistic tracks, illustrating Young’s desire to leave his minor feud with Lynyrd Skynyrd in the past and move on.
“See the Sky About to Rain” is the only Harvest-era track on the album, showcasing Young’s Wurlitzer electric piano. Lyrically, it’s not the most complex, but acts very well in its respective context.
This is followed by “Revolution Blues”, the first track of the so-called “blues trilogy”. It’s a taut, tense rocker inspired by cult leader Charles Manson. It is said that when Young played it for former bandmate David Crosby (who actually played rhythm guitar on the track), he told Young not to sing about Manson, suggesting that the topic was too serious. He released the track anyway, and it certainly stands out as one of the most aggressive songs on the record, and possibly even his entire career.
Next is “For the Turnstiles”, a country-inspired track, featuring some nice banjo from Young which is complimented with stellar Dobro work from Ben Keith. Reminds me of some of the material on 1977s “American Stars ‘n Bars”, probably due to its country-sounding tone.
Then we have the concluding track on side one, “Vampire Blues”, which seems to be an attack on the oil industry at the time. Really the only part of the “blues trilogy” that sounds particularly bluesy, it consumes what’s left of the energy on the album, paving way for the moody and mellow second half.
Side two opens with the lethargic title track, illustrating the downside of fame. Emphasizing Young’s self-isolation and difficulty in dealing with the public, it easily ranks among some of his most auto-biographical work. Despairing lines such as “I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day” are truly representative of his morose state of mind after achieving fame and set the tone for the remainder of the album. Also notable in regards to the track is the inclusion of Graham Nash on Wurlitzer electric piano.
This exercise in lethargy is followed by the album’s only ballad, “Moving Pictures”, written for actress Carrie Snodgrass, who was Young’s love interest at the time. Featuring sparse instrumentation, Young sings of his own personal struggles as well as his relationship with Snodgrass. Rusty Kershaw also contributes some excellent slide guitar work, which compliments Young’s acoustic playing quite nicely.
The album closes with Young’s tour-de-force, “Ambulance Blues”. A very nostalgic piece of writing, Young recounts his early career, referencing the Riverboat, a popular venue for folk artists such as Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Simon & Garfunkel. It also describes Young’s thoughts on his critics as well as the controversial actions of Richard Nixon, even going to reflect on the current state of CSNY at the time. Clocking in at roughly nine minutes, it says quite a bit about Young’s past and his current state.
“On the Beach” is one of Neil Young’s most important records not only for being the studio follow-up to “Harvest”, but for serving as a reflection of what he was feeling at the time. It ventures into topics he had yet to explore, particularly the downside of fame and self-isolation. Musically, it contains many remarkably beautiful melodies and solid guitar-work. Be aware that although it may be a very demanding listen, it is a rich experience for those who match it with a seriousness of their own. Don’t pass it up.
Sling this album on the turntable and you’re seeing a famous nervous break down. Neil’s most incoherent ramblings for sure, and full of distanced imagery. On the front, he’s standing on a grey beach looking out to sea and half a submerged Cadillac lies almost buried beneath the sand. Even the sleevenotes by Rusty Kershaw, his occasional fiddle player and slide guitarist, seem to be there for their sheer incoherence. Warner Bros hated it so much it’s still not available on CD and it was released in 1974. The songs are despairing after the Manson Family murders and Neil was at a career high when all this weighed him down. He seemed to enter an inchoate state on many of the songs, and yet, rambling toward his messiah, he conjures up reams of crazy surreal images. The songs show Neil dissatisfied and displaced, and even his greatest r’n’r is simplistic in the face of this abrasive, melancholy paranoia.
The album opens with the relatively up sound of the sentimental, backward-looking ‘Walk On’, before steering a down course into the melancholy of ‘See the Sky About to Rain’ which takes a line through pop-rock and mystery propelled by its Wurlitzer piano and mournful peddle-steel guitar. ‘I was down in Dixieland, played a silver fiddle, played it loud and then the man broke it down the middle’. The stuttering minor key ‘Revolution Blues’ follows with the superb rhythm section of the Band’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm bubbling and tumbling and pattering then pounding as Young tells the tale of Manson’s dune-buggy outsiders coming to kill the Laurel Canyon rock elite. Then it’s into the banjo and dobro-driven ‘For the Turnstiles’, in which Neil and Ben Keith, his omnipresent multi-instrumetalist, howl and whoop about how even ‘though your confidence may be shattered, it doesn’t matter.’ ‘Vampire Blues’ is an anti-corporate rant about the oil companies ‘suckin’ blood out of the earth’. This simple 12-bar is slow and drawling, almost drooling, and Young makes use of one of his most underplayed guitar solos of all time. One note played slow and jagged and low on the wound strings staccato-driven and almost sleepwalking over the organ, bass and drum accompaniment. That’s side one and that’s the optimistic side.
Side two is the most low-key Young ever got. The three long tracks are inward-looking and openly self-pitying and Young is so strung out that even the most sensitive listener has to open his heart in order not to want to kick his ass and say ‘Wake Up!’ It was the seven minutes long title track which caused the Saturday Night Live crowd to parody Young with the classic ‘Southern California Brings Me Down’. But once you stop laughing and accept the minor chords and so sorry lyrics and seagull guitar solos, then you have to just wonder how the sense of late sixties loss must have made the sensitive close to suicide. ‘I went to the radio interview, I ended up alone at the microphone’ he repeats again and again. ‘Think I’ll get out of town’, he repeats even longer. ‘Motion Pictures’ follows at even slower speed and even less accompaniment, and the lyrics come so slow you can guess the next one for what seems like hours before it comes. Then it’s into quiet harmonica and you wanna laugh, it’s so sad. ‘I’m deep inside beside myself but I’ll get out somehow’.
‘Ambulence Blues’ is the closer. It’s nine stark lonely minutes of acoustic-only daymare with the standard funny lyrics: ‘Back in the old folky days’. The traditional chords should make it easier to take, but Young manages to throw in such lyrics as ‘old mother goose is on the skids’ and ‘it’s hard to see the meaning of this song, an ambulance can only go so fast, it’s easy to get buried in the past’. Best of all, he sings ‘You’re all just pissing in the wind, you don’t know it but you are’, following it with splendid sucks and blows on the harmonica which double for a guitar tuner.
If Young had sunk into the abyss after this album, we’d have been bemoaning his loss as another Skip Spence. But, of course, he resurfaced and got even stronger. But how pertinent to see the lows of our biggest stars reach such truly abject lows. And, of course, it’s more inspiring than the brain-death songs of Syd Barrett and Skip Spence because it was only a temporary rubbernecking. The patient recovered to full health and no-one actually died.
Ask any Neil Young fan about his back catalogue and they’ll always mutter darkly about albums never released on CD. There were, until now, at least seven major releases that have never seen the light of day. Suddenly Young appears to have (partly) relented and allowed a new generation to hear four of them (On The Beach, American Stars And Bars, Hawks And Doves, and Re-Actor). Yet only one of these albums has websites devoted to petitioning for its release. And only one has, over the years, come to rival Young’s other searingly unguarded moment -Tonight’s The Night – for the title of his greatest work. So after 30 years in the dark, does On The Beach live up to its reputation?
Whereas Tonight’s… has the air of a drunken wake about it, OTB is more of a singular stoner’s take on his life in relation to world events. It’s a wake for a whole decade. As he says on the opener ”Walk On”: ‘Sooner or later, it all gets real…’ You have to remember that Young lived at the centre of many of the counterculture’s greatest and worst moments. Not only had he been present at Woodstock (and refused to be filmed, due to his increasing suspicion that the revolution had been commercialized), but he’d known Charles Manson personally. He’d even suggested to Warners that they give him a recording contract! 1973 was a major crossroads in his life. His marriage to actress Carrie Snodgrass was on the skids; he’d still not come to terms with the loss of guitarist Danny Whitten; his label had balked at releasing his blitzed lament to lost friends (Tonight’s…) and the huge success of CSN&Y had brought him no comfort. So it was, that Young, along with a disparate crew that included Levon Helm of the Band and the larger-than-life backwoodsman Rusty Kershaw (on fiddle and Dobro), proceeded to get wasted and tape what happened.
Nothing and no one is spared. Nixon (”Ambulance Blues”), global fuel conglomerates (”Vampire Blues”), Manson and the whole West Coast ‘me’ generation (”Revolution Blues”), the wife (”Motion Pictures”), but most of all himself. It’s as if Young needed to lay it all out to really find out where he could go next. The title track pinpoints exactly the artist’s need for validation, along with his need to remain apart from the pack (”I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day”). It’s as contradictory as Young’s life itself has often seemed. But above all he realises his own place in the universe (”Though my troubles are meaningless – that don’t make them go away”). Such a public catharsis scared both his audience and his label. It was the worst selling of his albums to date.
It was also entirely necessary in order for Young to retain his sense of integrity and move on. Within 12 months he’d reformed Crazy Horse and was headed for louder, rougher pastures.
Thirty years on this remains an essential album if you ever want to get even the slightest glimpse of what makes Young an enigma and a genius. Raw, ragged, desultory: it’s all of the above. It’s also staggeringly moving and, yes, it’s probably his best album. But don’t take my word for it…Now can we have Time Fades Away please, Neil?
There are few musical artists who need the old canonization speech less than Neil Young. With his reputation preserved amongst us youngsters as the Godfather of Grunge (apparently based on little more than a predilection towards flannel), he’s already known by all as the hip great-uncle amidst the Woodstock era’s senile grandparents. Still, attention must be paid to the most impressive feat of Young’s career: an all-but-perfect streak of very good-to-excellent albums that spanned an incredible, and unparalleled, eleven years. To put it another way, from 1969-1979, Neil Young was rock’s Joe Dimaggio.
Which makes it especially cruel that, for years afterward, Neil’s eccentric skepticism about the auditory worth of the compact disc format kept many of those albums out-of-print. So it’s somewhat ironic that now, in the dying days of the digital disc, Reprise Records has finally convinced their stubborn client to allow for patching up most of these holes, rescuing four albums from obscurity and bootleggers. Fancy remastering, fancy packaging: who cares? I can finally retire four crackly vinyls to wall-decoration duty.
The most criminal omission by a long shot was On the Beach, the 1974 disc that represented Young’s last ramp-up before his masterpiece, Tonight’s the Night. Recorded with help from The Band’s crack rhythm section and colorful multi-instrumentalist hick Rusty Kershaw, On the Beach is one of the few from Young’s catalog that doesn’t land easily on either his country or hard-rock piles. Three song titles with the word “blues” give you an idea of the mood, but hardly prepare you for the bleak anger of “Revolution Blues” or “For the Turnstiles”, post-apocalyptic visions as eerie as any of 28 Days Later’s scenic pans. The real engine of the album’s brilliance, though, is the trio of slow, long, lonely hotel room folk songs that closes out the album, peaking with Neil’s “Desolation Row”, “Ambulance Blues.” To hear them is to know that Jason Molina goes to bed each night caressing a copy of this record.
The stark tone of On the Beach was only carried over to one track from 1977’s American Stars ‘n’ Bars, the creepily lo-fi “Will to Love”. What fills the remainder of the album is a sort of buffet-style Neil Young, offering up choice leftovers from various failed projects of the era. The peak, of course, is “Like a Hurricane”, perhaps one of the finest examples of Neil’s willfully untechnical guit-hartic playing style, a chord progression that induces string-popping frenzy in his live shows to this day. But also making appearances are Skynyrd Neil, slashing country-rock lines through “Bite the Bullet” and Farm Aid favorite “Homegrown”, and Sensitive Poet Neil, revisiting Harvest seasoning with “Hey Babe” and “Star of Bethlehem”.
Unfortunately, reclaiming that Harvest mood is what chokes the majority of Hawks & Doves, notable for being the dashed-off post-Rust Never Sleeps album that breaks his streak of excellence, and not much more. Other than faux-traditionals “The Old Homestead” and “Captain Kennedy”, this 1980 release captures an uncharacteristically tentative Neil, clearly unsure of whether to develop quirky singalongs like “Lost in Space” or plastic soul like “Staying Power” (an early harbinger of his recent unbecoming Motown romanticism). Young can’t even seem to stay on task thematically here, sequencing the patronizing “Union Man” before “Comin’ Apart at Every Nail”‘s fanfare for the working man. Consider that the title track is brimful of pro-American nationalism from the Canadian-born songwriter, and you’ve got a good idea of just how confusing an effort Hawks & Doves can be.
But confusion was to be the name of the game for Young in the 1980s, a period celebrated for his principled resistance to record company pigeon-holing, but very, very rarely actually listened to. The fourth reissue in this batch, Re-ac-tor, doesn’t quite fall into the gimmick trap that so much of his second full decade’s work did, but the effort is still held back by an unhealthy fascination with using guitars as sound effect generators: machine guns in “Shots”, backfiring cars in “Motor City”, train engines in “Southern Pacific”. Quality of songwriting and fierce playing by Crazy Horse manage to redeem the album, however: “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze” and “Shots” rank as two of his most underrated barnstormers.
To own all four reissues, then, is to witness a couple snapshots of the man mid-streak, and a couple from the immediate aftermath, as he began to slouch towards genre experimentation and respectably above-mediocre twilight. However, all but the most devout Neilologists should forgo the latter two; it’d leave enough money to track down a bootleg copy of Time Fades Away, now the only neglected step-child of Young’s peak period (and despite what you may have heard from Neil himself, one of his best). Although we’d love to see that record in print, too, us superior folk would no longer have anything to lord over the peons. Sorry, Col. Molina, your secret recipe is out.