What’s a beach all about then? a holiday, somewhere to shrug aside the daily grind and have fun – not this one; somewhere the sand, the sky and the sea converge reminding you how insignificant you are – yeah, to a point; somewhere the road runs out, an edge that stops you running any further from your problems forcing you to think about them, to chronicle them if you have that creative bent – definitely. Neil Young On The Beach is all this astringent bleakness and more; ‘Beach with a silent ‘L”, my dad said to me – it took me about a year to get that one*.
Well 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.
I love Neil Young when he takes it to the edge and just kicks it on into overdrive from there, zero fucks given. This he does to great effect on ‘Revolution Blues’, a song I have become completely and utterly consumed by recently. Sounding heavier than a lot of thrash metal bands Neil mainlines the paranoia and mistrust swilling around the post Manson L.A landscape – guns, marginal folk and frosted nostrils all feed into the empty, murderous mood.
Well, it’s so good to be here, asleep on your lawn.
Remember your guard dog? Well, I’m afraid that he’s gone.
It was such a drag to hear him whining all night long
Just at this point Neil howls a little, this makes the album for me. Just that. Bottled dread.
It can beggar belief sometimes that On The Beach was the 1974 follow up studio album to Harvest^, old Neil found the flip side of fame and fortune pretty darn fast. Either that or he was a strong cynical son-of-a-bitch with a cast iron sense of self that brooked no deviation from his vision and could see the pot holes strewn in his way. Just slip ‘Ambulance Blues’ on for a near 9-minute mediation on a career in music, it drips with despair and extra harmonica but he pulls off a neat trick keeping it all somehow very listenable and light.
Rarely has an LP cover fitted the music as well as On The Beach too. From memory Young sorted the cover out himself in a huff because his record company weren’t up to it. The iconic half-buried fender was from his collection of automotive bits and bobs and the table and chairs somehow just fit the mood perfectly, as a bootless long-haired Young stares into the sea contemplating all sorts of deeply alienated shit. Something about the washed-out colours just hits right. My spiffy recent reissue even has the fabric pattern printed inside the sleeve – that’s why I buy records.
It all started so jauntily too with ‘Walk On’, which is such a great little tune, a totally throwaway meditation on outgrowing friends, respectability and reputation. There is just something great about how bouncy and inconsequential it all is compared to what follows later on, some excellent country rock playing from Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina too. ‘Some get stoned, some get strange / But sooner or later it all gets real’. Amen to that Neil.
There are days when I would pick ‘See The Sky About To Rain’ off with sniper fire for being a touch too saccharine, but it is undercut by Young’s voice and I really can’t get enough of his Wurlitzer piano playing either, so it gets to survive, this time. Plus it is a perfect foil for ‘Revolution Blues’ and adds so much to On The Beach just on that level. Old Neil is back to his querulous, spare best on the excellent ‘For The Turnstiles’, the banjo and dobro mofo combo is every bit as great as his vocal harmonies with Ben Keith – I’m still not totally sure what it’s about, I’ll plump for a cynical take on the manner in which people behave en masse**. A lot of days this is my favourite track on the album.
All this and the preceding eco lament of ‘Vampire Blues’ (featuring some great organ playing by the excellent Ben Keith) is just a breezy chuckle compared to the genius title track, a quietly spaced meditation on fame and fortune (the occasional shitness, thereof) that makes ‘Tonight’s The Night’ sound like ‘They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!’. I have to say I love songs by successful, wealthy artists I admire that tell you how unhappy your adulation and hard-earned is making them; it makes me happier about my ‘decision’ not to be wildly successful and wealthy myself – I clearly dodged a bullet there, clever me. The melody of ‘On The Beach’ just pierces me somehow, bypassing all my defences and striking unerringly at all the soft mushy emotional bits of myself that I keep hidden away from general view^^
There are whole worlds of experience to sink yourself into here, not many of them very positive but I agree with the review I once read of On The Beach that basically said something along the lines that it was an album crafted in and from despair and disgust but not of those things. There’s no sense of succumbing to the spiralling existential angst here, which I would chalk up to Mr Young’s legendary cussedness; no matter how strange or stoned it all was, he was ready for when it all got real.
That’s what makes a great album.
PS: Some pictures from a real life beach on Friday. Llanfairfechan, since you ask. No filters used on these two pix:
*to save you 365 days, here.
**but don’t take my word on that, you mindless sheep – it may be about boiled eggs for all I know.
^I’m simplifying his discography a bit here, Time Fades Away fans and ignoring the fact that Tonight’s The Night was recorded earlier, but released later than On The Beach too. What’s the point of facts if you don’t get to bend them like a guitar string occasionally?
^^here I was wallowing along in it a few minutes ago, sinking into mellow reflection and Mrs 1537 said ‘What is this old, whiney shit you’re playing?’ no soul, that one.