Neil Young’s maudlin masterpiece still sounds great after all these years
This is one depressing album, I must say. Trust Neil to throw a curve ball at the music industry and the public in general. Whether On the Beach was a reference to the post-apocalyptic novel by Nevil Shute I have no idea, but it seems like a pretty appropriate title to me, in that by 1974, when this album was recorded and released, there was no shortage of people wondering where did it all go wrong, at what point did the entire hippie dream disintegrate into a miasma of disparate molecules only to be absorbed by the corporate machine? On the Beach is an album which captures the bitter disillusionment of a generation which believed it could change the world, before eventually realising that the Empire was too great and complicated to bring down anyway, like Boudica verses the Romans.
The Watergate scandal hangs heavy over this LP, like a spider’s web near one’s bedroom window. But it isn’t only Nixon who haunts Young’s disquiet agitation, the entire counter-culture also, which seemed to entertain itself with the (no matter how well intended) deluded fantasy that it could create Utopia on Earth, and thus transform good ol’ human nature in the process. Charles Manson put paid to that idea quick smart, and so the whole revaluation process started, sending ripples not only throughout the Laurel Canyon community but anyone else who happened to subscribe to the hippie ethos.
The album opens with the upbeat and lively “Walk On,” where Neil laments about the way some people put him down, and I quote: “I hear some people’ve been talking me down/Pick up my name, pass it round/They don’t mention the happy times/They do their thing, I do mine.” In other words, fuck off. I’m quite content with who I am and what I do thank you very much.
“See the Sky About to Rain” is a melancholy piece, and is what I would describe as a dysfunctional pop song, which is probably why I like it so much. Neil’s plaintive vocals hover over a fragile electric piano, that sounds like it’s about to fall apart, not unlike the song itself, as if Young is trying to hold it all together without having a nervous breakdown in the process.
The entire Manson episode no doubt freaked a lot of people out (The Beach Boys included), and on “Revolution Blues” Young reminds us of the extent to which it spooked the entire concept of America, a continent built upon violence and bloodshed. And yet it must have seemed unimaginable to a populace that was by and large civilised and decent that such an act could take place.
The woozy “For the Turnstiles” sees Young in a shaky form of expression, with banjo and steel guitar just to give the listener that 19th century gold rush feel. On “Vampire Blues” he vents his spleen at the oil companies in a way that today seems almost prophetic in an age of climate change: “I’m a Vampire, babe/Suckin’ blood from the earth… Sell You twenty barrels worth.” Although one cannot underestimate the effect the early ’70s oil crisis was having on America at the time.
Now we come to the title track, the exquisitely reflective “On the Beach,” where Neil and Co. are in complete dirge mode, crawling their way behind Young’s maudlin vocals, yet in a manner which is strangely appealing. And when he sings “Now I’m livin’ out here on the beach/But those seagulls are still out of reach,” the immediacy of Young’s sentiments are as powerful as they are palpable.
“Motion Pictures” is another song to cause the listener to reach for the Duloxetine, but if Neil wants to get all cathartic then that’s OK by me. “Ambulance Blues” is a bitter farewell and comment on a world where life goes by and yet so many seek and search to understand why we’re here. If Neil was looking for a heart of gold on Harvest, here he is merely hunting for an explanation as to his demons, in a stream of consciousness sort of way.
On the Beach is not just a political discourse; it is also a social critique on the era in which it was made, through the eyes of a world weary visionary whose estimation of the entire zeitgeist was summed up so crudely and succinctly in the line “You’re all just pissing in the wind,” from “Ambulance Blues.” And while such a cynical observation might have raised a smile amongst the ultra-conservative, hippie-hating establishment, really it was just Neil Young’s own “Won’t get fooled again” moment, reflecting not only on himself, but the system, and wider society in general.
On the Beach is now regarded as one of Neil Young’s finest, albeit bleakest of albums (depending on who you talk to). Young himself might have felt somewhat strung out at the time, but little did he know that he was at a creative peak, expressing what few people wanted to hear. Neil was never really a part of any movement, something which this album makes clear from the first song to the last. Young has always been an outsider, an eccentric individualist from the word go. He is also a preacher, and rock and roll evangelist who tells it like it is – where what you see is what you get; no lies, no bullshit. If only our politicians could be more like him.