Following the massive success of albums like After the Gold Rush and Harvest, Neil Young made a point of subverting expectations with 1974’s On the Beach. Despite having released two projects since 1972 – Journey Through the Past, a soundtrack album, and Time Fades Away, a live album – anticipation was high for a studio follow-up to Harvest, the album which gave Young his first number one hit. Many listeners were blindsided by the pessimistic gloom that seemed to permeate On the Beach, with Rolling Stone calling it “one of the most despairing albums of the decade.”
Characteristically, Neil Young wanted no part of any club that would have him as a member. The smooth, country-folk aesthetic of Harvest had been fair game for the songwriter, because he had approached it on his own terms. He even went as far as to bring in Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor to perform backing vocals on “Heart of Gold.”
It was when the tune hit number one on the charts that Neil Young began to feel uncomfortable. In his mind, success on such a scale established a public expectation for his material, an expectation which he had no intention of honoring. In the liner notes of his 1977 Decade compilation, Neil Young would write,
“‘Heart of Gold” put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.”
Fittingly, On the Beach would become one of three consecutive Young albums to be referred to collectively as the ditch trilogy. The other entries in this distinguished group, 1973’s Time Fades Away, and 1975’s Tonight’s the Night, were recorded in similar states of disillusionment.
In addition to professional discontentment, Neil Young had been devastated upon the passing of original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten as the result of a drug overdose. What’s more, his relationship with Carrie Snodgress – the mother of his first son, Zeke – was rapidly deteriorating. Multiple references to the latter would be made throughout On the Beach, notably on the track “Motion Pictures (For Carrie).”
Neil Young’s weary worldview during the album’s conception carries over to the mood of the overall project. The opening number “Walk On” is the only track in the collection containing anything remotely resembling pep. A sprightly, border-line bouncy rumination in A major, the track addresses Neil Young critics directly, albeit more in a declaration of “let’s agree to disagree” than of “this is war!” The tune is one that sounds as if it could have been lifted directly from Neil Young sophomore solo effort, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
The similarity is no coincidence, as “Walk On” features the same Crazy Horse rhythm section of Ralph Molina and Billy Talbott as does Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. At just 2:41, “Walk On” is the shortest track to make the cut for On the Beach, a pertinent indicator of Neil Young tolerance for anything even marginally cheerful at this time. As stated in the song’s refrain, “Sooner or later, it all gets real.”
Indeed, it’s primarily desolation and introspection from here. But that isn’t to say the record doesn’t pack a punch.Neil Young’s lead guitar work throughout the album may be the closest he’s ever come to recreating his own distinct singing voice through the six-string. Biting, emotional solo sections crop up left and right throughout the record, cutting through the mix and driving home the palpable disillusionment of their creator.
This powerful, emotional resonance is perhaps no more evident than on “Revolution Blues,” a thumping meditation on the Manson Family commune written after Young’s own encounter with Manson and his followers. Backed by an ace rhythm section that includes David Crosby on guitar, and The Band’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm on bass and drums, Neil Young finds the ideal backdrop upon which to express his own frustration and confusion with times. The choppy, yet groove-heavy drum track seems to echo this sentiment down to the very bones of the song.
Another number with significant ties to Crosby is the oldest on the album, “See the Sky About to Rain.” The track, a transplant from the Harvest era, had been performed live as far back as 1971. Prior to its release as part of On the Beach, the track featured on the 1973 Byrds reunion album. Slated as the closing track of Byrds, the band’s rendition is a 12 string-heavy reimagining as interpreted by the profoundly underestimated Gene Clark.
Helm makes a second album appearance behind the drum kit for Neil Young’s own recording of the tune, this time locking in with bassist Tim Drummond. Neil Young’s version sees the guitar-slinger putting down the axe to take a pass at the Wurlitzer electric piano for the plaintive ballad.
The instrument would make multiple appearances throughout the album, not the least significant of which was at the command of Graham Nash, who would utilize its mournful tones for the despondent title track. Nash’s appearance on the album leaves Stephen Stills as the sole member of CSNY not to make a contribution to its recording.
A meandering minor blues cut, “On the Beach” is much more the manifestation of a mood than a performance piece. The lyrics are stark and repetitive, yet precise in their summation of the project as a whole. In the song, Neil Young addresses his conflicted relationship with his own celebrity, and frustration with the audience upon which he would depend for the distribution of his art. These feelings are encapsulated in lines such as,
“I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day.”
The song also displays an awareness that these celebrity-specific issues may seem tenuous to those dealing with substantial, real-world problems – though that does little to alleviate his feelings of alienation. The tune drifts to a Cm7 as Neil Young croons,
“Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.”
On the Beach, as a whole, is heavily informed by coiling blues structures. “Vampire Blues” is likely the most pertinent example of this, with its plodding, 12-bar structure, and a Chuck Berry influenced intro lick that calls to mind “Johnny B. Goode” b-side cut, “Around and Around.”
Conceptually, the track is an attack on the fossil fuel industry, painting oil companies out as the titular vampires who, quite literally, suck the lifeblood from the earth. “Vampire Blues” can be seen as foreshadowing of later era’s of the songwriter’s career, during which he would become heavily involved in environmental and charitable causes.
Though he broached the subjects briefly on various projects – such as this one – throughout the 70s, Young’s outspoken environmentalism wouldn’t truly begin to take center-stage until the 2000s. Projects like 2003’s Greendale and 2015’s The Monsanto Years take a fiery and direct approach to the admonishment of corporations for their contributions to the continuing environmental crisis being faced on a worldwide scale. As for “Vampire Blues,” the subject matter is arguably more relevant today than it was nearly half a century ago.
Despite “See the Sky About to Rain” having its origins in the Harvest era, the closest musical relative to the album from On the Beach is likely “For the Turnstiles,” (though “Ambulance Blues” could also be included in that conversation. More on that shortly.)
Young’s implementation of the ganjo (a six-string banjo in standard guitar tuning) on the song recalls James Taylor’s use of the instrument for Harvest standout “Old Man.” The only other musician featured on the “For the Turnstiles” is Ben Keith, who plays dobro and sings backing vocals. Keith contributed heavily to On the Beach, featuring on each song by way of several instruments including steel guitar, organ, bass, slide guitar, electric piano, and hand drums.
The sparseness and rootsy feel of the instrumentation featured on “For the Turnstiles” manifest something of a country-folk vibe, similar to that heard throughout Harvest. This is where the song’s similarities to the album begin and end, however. Lyrically, the tune is dark and apocalyptic, weaving narratives through metaphors of pimps, sailors, and baseball players left to die on the diamond. The final bars of the song’s chorus serve as yet another eloquent encapsulation of the album’s systematically bleak essence,
“Though your confidence may be shattered, it doesn’t matter.”
Much of On the Beach sees the music doing the talking, with things being kept relatively sparse, lyrically speaking. But any pent up grievances that Young still has stowed away near the end of the record find liberation in its closing number, “Ambulance Blues.”
At just under 9 minutes, it’s the longest song on the record by a significant margin. Aside from Young’s own contributions (vocal, acoustic guitar, and harmonica,) along with Ben Keith’s bass, accompanying instrumentation is kept to a minimum. Hand drums from Ralph Molina and an expressive fiddle performance from Rusty Kershaw act as the only additional instrumentation throughout the track.
The song sees Young tuning down a full step, deciding upon a handful of chords, and spilling his guts on any and everything from critics, to Richard Nixon, to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and more. The third wall gets broken down not even two minutes in, when the meandering nature of the song is acknowledged within the song itself, as Young muses,
“It’s hard to say the meaning of this song.”
“Ambulance Blues” could be viewed as Young’s own take on Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” with its similar instrumental structure and boundless – yet somehow concurrently restrained – ambition. The song remains a highlight for many within Young’s discography, with biographer Johnny Rogan calling it,
“[the] summit of Young’s achievement as a singer songwriter… the most likely candidate as his greatest and most memorable composition.”
The song has been spoken of positively by the singer himself. When asked about On the Beach, Young is purported to have once said,
“Good album. One side of it particularly – the side with ‘Ambulance Blues,’ ‘Motion Pictures,’ and ‘On the Beach’ – it’s out there.”
The song was inspired, musically, by Scottish folk guitarist Bert Jansch, whom Young once compared to Jimi Hendrix in terms of his skill on acoustic guitar. Young is said to have taken inspiration for the musical structure of “Ambulance Blues” from Jansch’s “Needle of Death,” which Neil Young described as “such a beautiful and angry song.”
For all its soul bearing introspection, quiet rage, and flippant criticisms, On the Beach seems to end with a heavy sigh of reluctant acceptance. This, it seems, is a representation of the reality of the situation. If anything, Neil Young’s music has always been about facing down reality and grappling with the true nature of one’s circumstances.
In emotionally tumultuous situations, people naturally gravitate toward the notion of a climactic, satisfyingly defined conclusion. But generally speaking, there is no clear cut finality to most struggles and feelings of uncertainty. It is often the choice of the person wrestling with these feelings to begin the unpleasant process of distancing themselves from them, and consequently, from a version of themselves from which they are struggling to part.
There is no grand finale, no epic, feedback-laden declaration of victory – only the dull thump of an acoustic guitar and the low, uncertain wail of a harmonica fading into the distance. So often it is the case that closure comes not from killing the beast, but from learning to live with it. In many ways, this could be seen as the primary function of On the Beach. The album wasn’t simply a means of expressing an unpleasant situation, it was an artist coping and learning how to live beyond that situation. In spite of its reputation as a work of despondence and desolation, one could argue that – when the dust finally settles – the overall narrative arc of On the Beach is one of hope for the future.
Neil Young “On the Beach” Album Review article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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