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Neil Young- On the Beach (1974)

February 28, 2011

Everyone has their favorite artists.  I mean, I try to listen to a wide variety of music.  In my library, Weather Report is nestled between Wavves and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and REO Speedwagon shares shelf space with the Replacements.  Yet, I would be lying if I said there weren’t a few artists and bands that I place above all others.  Chief amongst these is Neil Young.

I love almost everything that I have heard out of the man, from his oft-praised run of records in early ‘70s (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, After the Gold Rush, Harvest) to his career renaissance in the late-‘80s and ‘90s (Freedom, Ragged Glory, Harvest Moon), and I still get excited when I hear Young is coming out with new material.

Of course, in obsessing over the man’s career, I’ve come across many of his lesser-known works and latched on to one of them as “my record”.  Everybody who has a favorite artist knows the record I’m talking about.  Here’s a simple test for figuring out if a record falls under this category.

Stranger- “Hey, you like [artist/band], right?

You- “Oh, yeah, [artist/band] is one of my favorites.  You coming around to [him/her/them]?”

Stranger- “Yeah, I heard one of [him/her/their] songs on the radio and it was kind of cool.”

You- “Yeah, well [his/her/their] popular stuff is good, but you really ought to check out [name of less commercially successful/publically remembered record].  Nobody ever talks about it, but it’s one of the best.  It might even be my favorite.”

Stranger- “Okay, I’ll give it a listen if I see it.”

You- “Seriously, check it out.  You won’t regret it.”

Stranger- “Alright, I’ll see what I can do.”

You- “I’ll call you tomorrow and we can talk about what you thought about it.”

Stragner- “Okay, uh, see you later, I guess.”

You- “Alright, bye, but seriously look it up.”


If you have ever spoken about a record in this manner, it probably falls into the same category as Neil Young’s 1974 classic On the Beach.

Everyone has a hero. This man is mine.

As I’ve said before, I try to keep artist’s lives and their works appreciated on different levels, so if you would rather listen to this record with no context –SPOILER ALERT- otherwise, it will behoove you to know that this record is considered the middle of Young’s “Ditch Trilogy.”  Following the commercial success, and middle of the road acceptance brought by “Heart of Gold” hitting #1, he said, in his own words, “This song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”

Danny Whitten, one of the best guitarists no one ever talks about

This urge, coupled with the increasingly negative effects that drugs were having on Young and those around him led to some dark vibes on Time Fades Away (1973), On the Beach (1974), and Tonight’s the Night (1975).  While Time would show the road-weariness of Young and his backing band, the Stray Gators, and Tonight would showcase Young strung out and saying farewell to a pair of drug casualties (Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry), On the Beach (released before, but recorded after Tonight) gives a glimpse of the aftermath of such heavy stuff.  A deep sorrow tempered with the sort of merrymaking that one would expect at an end of the world party.  Let’s break ‘er down.


The album opens with “Walk On.”  The main push here comes from the excellent back and forth between a punchy lead riff and a glassy slide guitar line.  With lyrics alternately bemoaning “people been talking me down” and imploring the listener to realize that “sooner of later it all gets real/ Walk on,” this is the perfect opener for the record.  The fire still smolders and could flare up again at any moment.  It’s the shortest song on the record, but is able to simultaneously draw you in and let you know that this is certainly not the same trip as After the Gold Rush.

Following that, we are introduced to “See the Sky About to Rain” by way of a keyboard pattern drifting in before Young’s yearning vocals, a country beat, and high plains slide guitar lick join in.  The keyboards jump up an octave during the bridge as Young puts his wail to full use singing about “the man” breaking his silver fiddle.  I have no idea what he’s talking about exactly, but it sure gets a point across.  Following this, everything comes dangerously close to collapsing as all of the melodic elements head in different directions.  The last minute inclusion of a wheezing harmonica keeps everything in check as the track fades.

The gamut of turmoil explored across On the Beach’s 40 minutes is most evident in the trilogy of “blues” songs spread across it.  The first of these is “Revolution Blues,” a queasy romp through the mind of a Manson-esque sociopath.  Over probably the best rhythm work on the record and a pair of piercing guitars, lyrical allusions escalate from apocalyptic visions and animal cruelty to deep-rooted paranoia and, most chillingly, seeing Laurel Canyon as “full of famous stars” whom the protagonist hates “worse then lepers, and I’ll kill ‘em in their cars.”

Track five, “Vampire Blues” closes Side One and is the closest that the record gets, musically, to the blues with the accompaniment of a circular guitar lead, AAB rhyme scheme, and the curious percussive effect of a comb being drawn through beard stubble in time.

“For the Turnstiles” is the only song in the Harvest vein of country-folk on the record.  The banjo work that serves as the main instrumentation on the track is definitely not of the Scruggs school, but it perfectly courts the Dobro sliding of Ben Keith and thumping bass drum that add a rather swampy feel to the track.  Between the atmospherics of these instruments and harmony that sounds like it’s coming from the back porch of a cabin or an early morning barroom, it’s a perfect breather between the electric vamping of the first two “blues” tunes.

“On the Beach” and “Motion Pictures (For Carrie)” make up the majority of Side Two.  To my ears at least, they serve as companions, both lyrically and musically.  The title track is a hypnotic number that walks the fine line between being an ode to and an indictment of fame.  Young alternately sings of hoping the world won’t turn away and stating that he “needs a crowd of people, but can’t face them day to day.”  The man is caught between seriously conflicting urges.  The mellow groove of the track gives it a lethargic feel, broken only by a slow-burning solo between the second and third verses.

These had to be just

awful to make, really

While “On the Beach” feels like a man trying to understand why he is driven to do what he does, “Motion Pictures” feels like an apology for leading the sort of life that would lead to the production of LPs like Time and Tonight.  Musically, it continues the hypnotic playing that drives the preceding track, but is driven by an acoustic guitar, and serves as a bridge into the next, and final, track.

The album closes with “Ambulance Blues”, a nine minute, haunting ode to friends gone by and a cautious question of how Young and his companions would fit into a world that seemed to be rapidly leaving them behind.  I have always considered it a spiritual relation to Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from nearly a decade earlier. A pair primarily acoustic send-offs to the past immersed in sometimes nonsensical, but certainly haunting, imagery chosen to close albums full of similar themes of sadness and hope for any sort of redemption.  It’s the sound of a man who is burnt out with politics, stardom, and the world in general.  It’s not the drug-fueled desperation that haunted Tonight, but a much more human sound of just being bone-weary, but being unable to put the past to rest.  The song is solid, being driven by Young’s acoustic guitar and harmonica and the haunting fiddle of Rusty Kershaw, but far and above, the draw is the lyrics.  In the same way that “Walk On” perfectly ushers the listener to what will come, this song serves as the only way to conclude it.

No themes of loneliness to be seen here




“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”




Unfortunately, this record appears forever doomed to be put in the “my record” category.  It’s too out there to please the people who dig the mostly mellow sounds of Harvest and Comes A Time (1978), but it’s not nearly rockin’ enough to grab the Crazy Horse crowd.  Yet, for all of the love and praise that I give those albums, this little oddball will always be “my Neil Young record” and I certainly hope that if it isn’t, that this becomes one of “your records” too.

Is this already “your record”?  Do you have a “record”? Go on and tell us all about it in the comments section and you may see it show up on here one of these days. Enjoy the sweet song below, and have a great day.



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