“On the Beach” by Neil Young (1974)
As far back as 1967, Neil Young expressed in song his ambiguity about fame. Stephen Stills’ “For What Its Worth” had put Buffalo Springfield on the charts, becoming an anthem for the era with its us-vs.-them rhetoric.
Young’s answer to his band’s success was “Mr. Soul,” a witty, self-deprecating look at “the thought that I caught that my head was the event of the season.” He frankly admitted to his quirkiness, even at age 21, with the key line: “She said, you’re strange, but don’t change, and I let her.”
He went on to display flashes of eccentricity with the advanced sound collage “Broken Arrow,” which joined “Mr. Soul” on the tremendous “Buffalo Springfield Again” album, and certainly with the bizarre imagery of “Last Trip to Tulsa” on Young’s solo debut. But he’d played it relatively straight during the first round of his collaboration with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and on his own next three albums, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” “After the Gold Rush” and “Harvest.”
By the time of the latter’s release in 1972, Young had become a bona fide rock star, a status that was cemented when both “Harvest” and the AM-friendly single “Heart of Gold” reached No. 1.
His immediate followup was the two-record soundtrack to a barely watchable film called “Journey Through the Past,” featuring Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performances, along with “Harvest”-era outtakes and some true oddities, including versions of Handel’s “Messiah,” performed by the Tony & Susan Alamo Christian Foundation Orchestra & Chorus, and the Beach Boys doing “Let’s Go Away for Awhile.”
“Journey Through the Past” has remained out of print since its initial release, disappointing fans who might want to hear the side-length version of “Words (Between the Lines of Age).”
As 1972 drew to a close, it was without guitarist Danny Whitten, his Crazy Horse compatriot (and the subject of “The Needle and the Damage Done”). Whitten had planned to join Young’s backing band, the Stray Gators, but was in no shape to play. On Nov. 18, 1972, he died of a heroin overdose.
With that cloud hanging over his head, and with an apparent disdain for hitting the top of the charts, Young went on tour with a repertoire that concentrated on newer, darker material. Fans weren’t positive about the switch in material, and Young, himself, experienced physical and emotional problems while on the road, culminating in a throat infection toward the end of the tour.
Despite the difficulties, Reprise Records, hoping to keep the Neil Young gravy train rolling, culled live recordings from the tour, added one from 1971 and released the package as “Time Fades Away.” Fans who expected a standard live album of hits instead found unfamiliar songs amid a sludgy mix, the result of Young insisting on an early digital system that didn’t prove reliable. (Producer David Briggs referred to it as the “Compufuck.”)
As Young later explained about “Time Fades Away” in the liner notes to his anthology “Decade” (1977):
No songs from this album are included here. It was recorded on my biggest tour ever, 65 shows in 90 days. Money hassles among everyone concerned ruined this tour and record for me but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while. I was becoming more interested in an audio verite approach than satisfying the public demands for a repetition of ‘Harvest.’
On the strength of “Harvest,” though, the live album peaked at No. 22 and ended up selling more than a million copies. Like “Journey Through the Past,” it never has been released on compact disc.
On Aug. 26, 1973, Young gathered musicians to record an album’s worth of songs he’d written about drugs and depression, influenced by the deaths of Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Reprise bigwigs gasped at the idea of releasing such material on the heels of “Times Fade Away,” and the project was shelved.
Three months later, Young tried again, recording at his Arrow Ranch in Woodside, Calif., with a small group of session men. According to “Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography” by Jimmy McDonough, the musicians consumed a homemade concoction dubbed “Honey Slides,” sautéd marijuana and honey. Perhaps that enlivened the proceedings, but the songs again were pretty much on the bleak side. Reprise had to go with a proper follow-up to “Harvest” after two full years, and on July 16, 1974, “On the Beach” hit the shelves.
Record buyers probably enjoyed the enigmatic cover art, which includes a ’59 Cadillac half-buried in the sand. But most weren’t quite prepared for the music.
“Walk On” starts the album with its most accessible composition, featuring a relatively upbeat tempo and a suitably harmonized chorus: “Ooh baby, that’s hard to change, I can’t tell them how to feel/Some get stoned, some get strange, but sooner or later it all gets real.”
That statement sets the tone for the rest of the way, as Young explores a variety of topics through somber lyrics with sparse accompaniment. The result is a revelatory statement that subtly draws the listener into the composer’s bleak frame of mind, evoking images of fear, dejection and hopelessness.
Of course, Neil had treaded those waters before. His “Ohio” stands as perhaps having the longest shelf life for a song written about a specific event, still receiving plenty of airplay going on 43 years after the National Guard killings at Kent State.
The drama inherent in the recording of “Ohio” is muted throughout “On the Beach,” as is evidenced by its second song, “See the Sky About to Rain.” Young’s Wurlitzer electric piano combines with Ben Keith’s steel guitar to form a dreary soundscape, over which Neil sings in his high-pitched study in melancholia: “See the sky about to rain, broken clouds and rain/Locomotive, pull the train, whistle blowing through my brain.”
The song wraps up with a line that’s become legendary in its anti-establishment stance, with Young even using part of it as the name for his publishing company: “I was down in Dixie Land, played a silver fiddle/Played it loud and then the Man broke it down the middle.”
That imagery seems positively glowing compared with what follows, perhaps the most unnerving song in Neil Young’s overwhelmingly vast catalog, and that’s saying a lot.
“Revolution Blues” tells the story of Charlie Manson’s “family” through their eyes, which is a chilling approach in as of itself. But Young also managed to convey the attitude that such grisly events aren’t a onetime occurrence, that they can happen at any time. Young is in his creepiest vocal form as he narrates as much as sings:
Well, we live in a trailer at the edge of town
You never see us ’cause we don’t come around.
We got 25 rifles just to keep the population down …
Well, I’m a barrel of laughs, with my carbine on
I keep ’em hoppin’ ’til my ammunition’s gone
But I’m still not happy, I feel like there’s something wrong
I got the revolution blues, I see bloody fountains
And 10 million dune buggies comin’ down the mountains
Well, 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
Wow. Try sleeping after you listen to that.
At first listen, “For the Turnstiles” seems to alleviate the tension, with its simple, banjo-and-dobro arrangement. But then Neil launches into another diatribe about the seamy side of life, about desperation: “Though your confidence may be shattered, it doesn’t matter.” That sense deepens as the song arrives at this stunning piece of imagery that provides the title: “All the bush-league batters are left to die on the diamond/In the stands, the home crowd scatters for the turnstiles.”
Perhaps it was Family Night for the Mansons at the ballgame?
“Vampire Blues,” written in response to the first Energy Crisis, has a subject matter that should have been relegated to its own time. But like “Ohio,” it persists, this time simply because nothing much has changed in the past 39 years:
I’m a vampire, babe, suckin’ blood from the earth
I’m a vampire, baby, suckin’ blood from the earth
Well, I’m a vampire, babe, sell you 20 barrels’ worth
I’m a black bat, babe, bangin’ on your window pane
I’m a black bat, baby, bangin’ on your window pane
Well, I’m a black bat, babe, I need my high octane
Structured as a 12-bar blues, the song crawls at a sinister pace, with the imagery strengthened by the tone of Neil’s guitar, which he seems to scratch more than play.
Listeners who made it through the first side of the LP may have left it sit on the turntable and gone on to happier pursuits. But the adventurous among them flipped it over and heard the title track.
“On the Beach” is a blues at an even slower tempo than “Vampire Blues,” mostly consisting of minor chords. Interestingly, the major motif that appears in the middle of each verse adds an eerie contrast, as if some kind of relief seems to be on the way but never comes.
Lyrically, Young sums up the song’s theme of everyman’ misery with this key verse: “Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.”
Actress Carrie Snodgress (1945-2004), best known for her Academy Award-nominated role in “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” was Young’s longtime girlfriend when he wrote “Motion Pictures (For Carrie).” On the surface, the largely acoustic piece would seemed to stray a bit from the overall theme of “On the Beach,” as Neil notes how he’s happy not to be on the Silver Screen. But once more, he goes further to reveal his insecurities: “Well, 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.”
The album’s longest track, “Ambulance Blues,” also its closing number, an encapsulation of the angst throughout “On the Beach.” For nearly nine minutes, Young chronicles a journey through devastation and deception, with this warning about so many people he had met in the entertainment business:
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?
Cause I know it ain’t me, and hope it isn’t you
Combine that with the climactic line – “And there ain’t nothin’ like a friend who can tell you, you’re just pissin’ in the wind” – and Neil Young has the last word on how having a No. 1 record ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“On the Beach” didn’t quite make No. 1. It peaked at No. 16 and always was among Young’s poorest-selling efforts.
Reprise ended up releasing “Tonight’s the Night” in 1975 to ecstatic critical reception, but the momentum established by “Harvest” was lost. But that’s quite OK with Neil Young fans who consider some of his lesser-known albums to be more rewarding than the top-sellers.