Neil Young: On The Beach
Aug 21, 1999
It is twenty-five years, almost to the day, since Neil Young’s On The Beach (Reprise) was released. Where is the gold-disc, deluxe-edition, anniversary reissue for me to review? It is one of the best albums ever made, yet it is not available, save for the crackly vinyl copies with their hash-stained sleeves that occasionally exchange hands in second-hand shops. It has never been issued on CD.
There are reasons why Young might not want to be reminded of On The Beach. To use the parlance of the period, it’s a bummer, man. Young, a Canadian living in the US, was observing a nation disintegrate. Watergate was unravelling, Nixon was lying to the nation on prime time, while forces were mounting for a war to control world oil supplies. Meanwhile the counter-culture with which he had always identified had turned sour, unleashing such malignant bi-products as Charles Manson and the Symbionese Liberation Army. On a personal level, Young’s marriage had recently failed and he had lost two of his closest colleagues - Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry – to heroin overdoses. (Berry was a much-loved roadie; Whitten was the guitarist in Young’s band Crazy Horse and author of the sublime “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”.)
Less than two years earlier, Young had hit the peak of mainstream popularity with Harvest. The disc’s number one singles (“Heart Of Gold”, “Old Man”) and woody, harmony-rich arrangements placed him alongside James Taylor and Carol King at the centre of the mellow mafia. Young’s reaction to success had been perverse; he went on the road with a pick-up band, playing not his hits but a bunch of noisy new songs and pained piano ballads which he recorded live and released to general bafflement as Time Fades Away. He went on to record a further album of even more dubious intonation and obvious intoxication called Tonight’s The Night. The record company balked, so he offered On The Beach instead.
“Walk On”, the opening track, is the closest the album comes to meeting conventional expectations of a rockin’ good time. Its riffs are faintly reminiscent of those hairy confederates Lynard Skynyrd. The message is don’t look back, push on regardless. The song is addressed not only to the Skynyrd (who had chided him in their hit “Sweet Home Alabama” for the anti-southern sentiments of “Alabama”, a song from Harvest) but to the whole personal and social wasteland he sees around him. The song never really rises above a torpid tempo, still it’s the album’s liveliest moment.
“See The Sky About To Rain”, with languid Wurlitzer keyboard and sleepy steel guitar, is a portent of the heavy weather that follows in the form of “Revolution Blues”, perhaps the scariest song ever sung. Young adopts the voice of a character clearly based on Charles Manson, while Levon Helm and Rick Danko (on loan from Bob Dylan and the Band), turn in the most jittery performance of their lives; a runaway train of a rhythm that sounds as though it is trying to outrace the horrors predicted in the song. Most disturbing of all is the tangible glee with which Young sings lines like: “I got the revolution blues/I see bloody fountains/and ten million dune buggies coming down the mountain/ 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…” Gangsta rap is rarely so vivid.
“For The Turnstiles” places Young’s post-60s blues in the musical context of the pre-rock era. Young plays banjo, and he and Ben Keith harmonise like hillbillies strung out on white lightning. “Vampire Blues” is Young’s wry comment on the oil shock (“I’m a vampire babe/sucking blood from the earth”) including what, in context, is the funniest verse of the album: “Good times are coming/I hear it everywhere I go/Good times are coming/but they’re sure coming slow.”
The second side’s trilogy – “On The Beach”, “Motion Pictures” and “Ambulance Blues” - competes with Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Session and Mogwai’s Come On Die Young to be the slowest rock music ever made. Accompaniment is minimal: hand drums, a little guitar and the fragile counterpoint of Cajun fiddler Rusty Kershaw. Dense, abstract and self-referential, these songs nevertheless resolve on a note of self-deprecating humour when Young sings warmly, in the final verses of “Ambulance Blues”, of a friend who tells him “you’re just pissin’ in the wind”.
There is a school of thought, to which I’m a sometime subscriber, that rock ‘n’ roll ought to be fun, entertaining, disposable. Too many dud albums have been made by egotists who believed the opposite. But occasionally a truly great artist will use the medium to tell us how bad he or she is feeling. On those occasions we get a Plastic Ono Band, What’s Going On, Good Morning Spider or On The Beach. And that makes us all feel better.