The Essentials: On the Beach by Neil Young

In December 2022, the 50th anniversary edition of Neil Young’s Harvest is sure to take up the listening time of many fans—if not for the album itself, then the many bonuses that come with it. Harvest is his best-selling album, the one most casual fans likely call their favorite. Yet, while it contains many classic songs, most hardcore fans, myself included, rank it somewhere in the middle of his canon—it’s not his best or worst, just his most popular.

Most of us, I think (or at least hope), rank his 1974 On the Beach album above it. Although released prior to Tonight’s the Night, it was recorded after those woozy sessions and accompanying tour were complete, and—within the schema of his discography—followed the compilation mishmash that was (and is) the Journey Through the Past soundtrack and the audio vérité that was (and is) the live Time Fades Away. It was his first studio set since Harvest, in other words.

(Geoff Thompson’s 8/8/1974 review; click to make larger.)

Rolling Stone magazine lauded it upon its release (and has since ranked it the 311th greatest album of all time). Jack Garner of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, in his 8/16/74 review, called it “a strong, complete and exciting record.” Across the pond, in the Bracknell and Ascot Times, Geoff Thompson agreed, though he thought it had a listening curve: “On the Beach is an album that takes quite a bit of getting into, but once you are in, there’s no escaping.” A few decades later, in a capsule review that I posted to the original Old Grey Cat website in the late 1990s, I called it “a grim realization (or is that acceptance) of life, circa 1974.”

It reflects the moment when the fantasies of youth give way to self-doubt (if not self-recrimination). On the Neil Young Archives, Neil himself wrote, “Looking back on this album, somehow it makes me feel sad remembering that part of my life.” (It may be why he allowed the LP to go out of print in the early ‘80s and waited until 2003 for it to be issued on CD.)

(Montgomery Ward ad circa 11/1974)

For the history-befuddled among us: The early ‘70s saw much of the western world rocked by recession and inflation, both of which were fueled in large part by OPEC’s 1973 oil embargo. In the U.S., Watergate added to the malaise. The young men and women who thought they’d change the world half a decade earlier found themselves struggling to fill their gas tanks. Bitterness mixed with exasperation: What next could—and would—befall us?! Add to that this: Neil’s own life wasn’t unfolding the way he expected; becoming a rock star didn’t mean his troubles had gone away. Too, his relationship with Carrie Snodgress, the mother of his son Zeke, was faltering; and his career seemed to be in a holding pattern—thus his decision to rejoin old friends (and foes) David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash for a stadium tour that summer.

(Korvettes ad circa 9/1974)

His down mood was no doubt magnified by a new “delicacy” that entered his life during the recording of the album: honey slides, which paired cheap grass and honey in a concoction that was ingested. In addition to making him mellow, the honey relaxed his vocal cords; his once-high register slipped down a few octaves.

The original (red) Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979), I should mention, gave On the Beach two stars but no mention in John Swenson’s half page take on Neil’s oeuvre. For the 1983 (blue) edition, rock curmudgeon Dave Marsh elbowed Swenson to the side and rewrote (and expanded) the discography. The two stars remained, but a sentence description was added: “[T]his album’s apocalyptic prophecy is rendered all but unlistenable by Young’s grating, whining delivery.” (He gives Tonight’s the Night five stars and a paragraph of praise, however, so all’s forgiven.) 

In a similar vein, L.A. Times rock scribe Robert Hilburn wrote in his August 27, 1974, review “[T]he tone of the new album is drab, sullen, isolated.” Newsday’s Robert Christgau, too, found little to like: “Something in the obsessiveness of this music is easy to dislike and something in its thinness hard to enjoy.” (He spent the bulk of the review praising Time Fades Away so, as with Marsh, forgive him his misjudgment.)

(I share those sentiments simply because I enjoy digging into what I like to call “the first draft of history.” It takes time for critical consensus to congeal, after all.)

The album opens with “Walk On,” which was recorded in late 1973, after Tonight’s the Night had been rejected by Reprise, who no doubt wanted a Harvest Part 2 out by Christmas: “I hear some people been talkin’ me down/Bring up my name, pass it ‘round/They don’t mention the happy times/They do their thing, I do mine.” But his resolve to move forward remains, however: “Sooner or later, it all gets real/Walk on.” “See the Sky About to Rain” dates to 1970, but its somber mood fits the occasion to a T: “Some are bound for happiness/Some are bound to glory/Some are bound to live with less….” “Revolution Blues” spins the Charlie Manson saga into an ominous rocker. “For the Turnstiles” explores the toll paid by troubadours, explorers and professional athletes the world over. The side closes with “Vampire Blues,” which digs into the oil crisis and the false claims made by politicians of all stripes: “Good times are comin’/I hear it everywhere I go/Good times are comin’/I hear it everywhere I go/Good times are comin’/But they sure are comin’ slow.”

As good as Side 1 is, Side 2 is even better. “On the Beach” opens with a simple phrase, “The world is turning/I hope it don’t turn away.” (It sums up life, if you think about it; the world spins, but we hope that we remain tethered to it.) He admits, “Though my problems are meaningless/That don’t make them go away.” The same’s true for all of life’s challenges, really; they matter little to people on the outside looking in. “Motion Pictures,” meanwhile, finds him moving from the escape offered by TV to the escape offered by his life with Snodgress—or his perception of same. The album closer, “Ambulance Blues,” borrows its melody from Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death” while unspooling the peculiarities of his life (“I need a crowd of people/But I can’t face them day to day”). It shares some classic lines, such as “It’s easy to get buried in the past/When you try to make a good thing last” and “I never knew a man could tell so many lies/He had a different story for every set of eyes.”

The bulk of the album was recorded in late March-early April of 1974, though two songs (“Walk On” and “For the Turnstiles”) were laid down in late 1973. Among the numbers recorded in that span that didn’t make the final pressing: “Winterlong,” “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” “Borrowed Tune,” “Traces,” “Human Highway,” “Mellow My Mind,” “Tonight’s the Night” and “Greensleeves.” (A few of those were re-dos of Tonight’s the Night songs, a few wound up on the reconfigured Tonight’s the Night in 1975, and others surfaced elsewhere through the years.) 

Which is all to say: If you’ve never heard On the Beach, give it a listen. And if you have, play it again. It’s one of the all-time greats.

Here’s the track list:

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks OGC! Definitely essential Neil, for sure. Also, we enjoy your digs into “the first draft of history.” Agree, yes, it sometimes takes decades — if not more — for critical consensus to congeal. And somewhat ironically, you know what Neil had to say about critics and pissin’ in the wind …

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s