Walk On / See the Sky About to Rain / Revolution Blues / For the Turnstiles / Vampire Blues / On the Beach / Motion Pictures (for Carrie) / Ambulance Blues
by Sam Tennent
On the Beach is perhaps the most personal record Neil Young will ever make. It chronicles his emergence from a deep depression, caused in part by the critical reaction to his post-Harvest artistic output. It is also a statement of intent, which Young has stuck to throughout his career, that he will make and release whatever music he feels like, with no compromise to commercial considerations. This was a brave choice to make in 1974, when all of Neil's musical contemporaries were urging him to make a "real" album - that is, to hire a bunch of top notch session men and make Harvest II. Neil could have easily done this. Listening to the material he was writing around this time songs like "Traces" and "Separate Ways," Harvest II would have been no problem. Instead, Neil gave us a look into his REAL feelings and made some remarkable music. Young had written about the pressures of fame during his Buffalo Springfield days, with songs like "Out of My Mind" and "Mr Soul," however On the Beach sees an older and wiser Young coming to terms with the pressures, rather than allowing them to overcome him. Almost every song addresses these themes and gives Young's response. In "Walk On," Young addresses his critics with the line:
"They go their way, I'll go mine"
thus setting the agenda for the next twenty years of his musical career. In "Ambulance Blues" he is even more direct:
"All you critics sit alone / You're no better than me for what you've shown"
The title of the LP refers to Young's having "made it," but the songs reflect the double-edged nature of fame. Perhaps the most revealing line on the record is on the title track, where Young sings:
"Now I'm livin out here on the beach / But those seagulls are still out of reach"
Elsewhere, his feelings about fame are shown to be even more bitter. He says of the showbiz crowd (in "Motion Pictures"):
"All those people, they think they've got it made / But I wouldn't buy sell borrow or trade anything I have to be like one of them / I'd rather start all over again"
The lyrical content of On the Beach has been meticulously examined and analyzed over the years, whereas the musical content has received relatively little attention. This is an injustice, because this music is some of the best that Young has ever produced. In fact, if one examines the critiques of Young's music throughout his career, there has been relatively little analysis of the sound quality of the records, as critics tend to concentrate on the lyrics or musical styles employed. Hence in the eighties Young was accused of excessive genre hopping by critics who failed to recognize that he has rarely made two records that sound alike. For example, Neil's first six solo records sound vastly different from each other.
Side one begins with "Walk On," a bright, up-tempo number, which is propelled along by a shuffling beat from the Crazy Horse rhythm section, and reflects the progression suggested in the lyrics. Next, Young chose to include an old song, "See the Sky About to Rain." Some reviewers have suggested that it is an attempt at irony on Young's part to include a prime example of his "downer" songs here, after the sentiments expressed in "Walk On," but it's just a great song with a magical chord progression change at the last verse and superb drumming from Levon Helm. It is followed by "Revolution Blues," a song inspired by Young's meetings with Manson. One can almost hear the 10,000,000 dune buggies coming down the mountain as the song rolls along with the Band's Levon Helm and Rick Danko in the engine room, and David Crosby supplying manic rhythm guitar. The pace then quiets down with "For the Turnstiles," a song almost in the folk style, with Young singing falsetto accompanied by banjo and Ben Keith on dobro. What other major artist during the seventies would have chosen to sing a song that strained their vocal range as much as this? And yet this gives the song its power and makes for compulsive listening. The first side ends with "Vampire Blues," a jokey, standard twelve-bar blues with a terrific bubbling guitar solo, which perfectly evokes an image of bubbling oil being "sucked From the Earth." Here Young addresses one of the common ecological themes found throughout his body of work.
Side two is a whole different ball game. The mood is somber, almost narcotic. Young has commented that this record was made mostly under the influence of "honey slides" - a marijuana and honey concoction described by Young onstage at his Bottom Line show in May 1974. The title track is a beautiful, slow bluesy song, with a wonderfully understated guitar solo that should come as a great surprise to those who know Young only through his Ragged Glory period. This is followed by "Motion Pictures (for Carrie)," a song written on the road, in which Neil pines for the simplicity of the country life. A beautiful, meandering chord progression and laid-back harmonica give it a world-weary sound. The last track on the album, "Ambulance Blues," is among the best five that Young has ever written. As he later admitted, the melody in the verses is the same as that in Bert Janch's "Needle of Death," a song that Young has cited as an early influence. However, the musical implementation is stunning. With breathy harmonica and genuinely spooky fiddle playing from Rusty Kershaw, the track has a rootless, floating feel, leaving the lyrics as the focus of the listener's attention. On the Beach is special to me, as it was the first Neil Young album that I bought at the time of its release. I had gotten into Neil's music in early '74, and had acquired all of his earlier records by the time On the Beach came out. I still listen to it, twenty years later, more than either After the Goldrush or Harvest. I guess this is because the record is so musically interesting. It's full of spontaneous performances and first-take errors, which were left on because their feel is right. It doesn't have the life produced out of it like, dare I say, Harvest Moon or Landing on Water. For me, this was summed up in my favorite moment on the whole record, in which Neil catches his thumb pick on the bottom E-string during "Ambulance Blues." The note booms out over the line:
"Where men STUB their toes on garbage pails!"
It's just perfect.