[Review] Neil Young: On the Beach (1974)

On this powerful followup to Harvest, Neil Young pulls off the road and examines the cost of stardom.

Kronomyth 6.0: Blue.

Neil Young’s followup to the brilliant Harvest was the raw, ragged Tonight’s the Night. That album was temporarily shelved, however, and audiences were served On the Beach instead. Some have viewed the three post-Harvest albums (which includes the live Time Fades Away) as both a trilogy of despair and denial as Young counted the costs of his own stardom. Ironically, Young’s apparent rejection of his rock-star status only fueled the mythology around the man. At various times, all three post-Harvest albums have been referred to as his best album.

On the Beach is not Neil Young’s best album. It is the best of the trilogy that came after Harvest, at times powerfully poignant (Ambulance Blues) and unrepentantly vicious (Vampire Blues, Revolution Blues). It may also be his most quotable album. “Some get strong, some get strange” (from Walk On), “I won’t deceive you, I just don’t believe you” (“Revolution Blues”), “I need a crowd of people but I can’t face them day to day” (from On the Beach) and “You’re all just pissin’ in the wind” (“Ambulance Blues”) are the kind of lines that stay with you for a lifetime.

Initially, Young had intended the songs on side two to start the album. The label decided it needed a brighter start (enter “Walk On”), but the 8-track and cassette versions reverted to Young’s original plan. Personally, I think “Walk On” sets the listener up for a pop album that never arrives, although I do like ending the album on “Ambulance Blues.” I suppose it’s only fitting that a world that can’t agree on Neil Young’s best album couldn’t agree on the track order for one of his best albums either.

Despite the dire subject matter of On the Beach, it’s one of his most tuneful records. Neil’s voice appears mellowed by maturity or melancholy or both, the arrangements are surprisingly musical (Ben Keith deserves much of the credit, especially on For the Turnstiles, which is essentially a duet) and the crankiness is kept to a minimum (save for an awesomely half-assed guitar solo on “Vampire Blues”).

Oddly, the album I keep coming back to when I hear this isn’t something by Neil Young, but Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. The last two songs, Motion Pictures and “Ambulance Blues,” capture the same world-weary spirit as “Wish You Were Here,” and maybe the people we’ve lost evoke the same mood. The idea of there being a universal experience in our pain isn’t so crazy. In fact, it’s at the very heart of what makes On the Beach such a powerful record. I don’t know what it’s like to lose close friends and gain the world at the same time, but I know how it feels when I listen to these songs. So, while it may not be his best album, it’s probably the closest we’ll ever come to being Neil Young.

Original elpee version

A1. Walk On (2:40)
A2. See the Sky About to Rain (5:03)
A3. Revolution Blues (4:02)
A4. For the Turnstiles (3:13)
A5. Vampire Blues (4:11)
B1. On the Beach (7:04)
B2. Motion Pictures (4:20)
B3. Ambulance Blues (8:57)

All selections written by Neil Young.

Original 8-track version
A1. On the Beach
A2. Ambulance Blues (beginning)
B1. Ambulance Blues (conclusion)
B2. Vampire Blues (conclusion)
C1. Walk On
C2. Revolution Blues
C3. For the Turnstiles
D1. See the Sky About to Rain
D2. Motion Pictures

Original cassette version
A1. On the Beach
A2. Motion Pictures
A3. Ambulance Blues
B1. Walk On
B2. See the Sky About to Rain
B3. Revolution Blues
B4. For the Turnstiles
B5. Vampire Blues

The Players

Neil Young (guitar, lead guitar, vocals, Wurlitzer piano, harp, banjo, harmonica, electric tambourine), Ben Keith (slide guitar, steel guitar, dobro, Wurlitzer piano, vocals, organ, hair drum, hand drum, bass), Ralph Molina (drums, hand drums, vocals) with David Crosby (rhythm guitar on A3), Rick Danko (bass on A3), Tim Drummond (bass, percussion on A2/A5/B1), Levon Helm (drums on A2/A3), Rusty Kershaw (slide guitar on B2, fiddle on B3), Graham Nash (Wurlitzer piano on B1), Billy Talbot (bass on A1), George Whitsell (guitar on A5). A1/A4 produced by Neil Young and David Briggs, A2/A3/A5 produced by Neil Young and Mark Harman, B1/B2/B3 produced by Neil Young and Al Schmitt.

The Pictures

Art direction and design by Gary Burden for R. Twerk & Company. Photography by Bob Seidemann. Lettering by Rick Griffin.

The Plastic

Released on elpee, cassette and 8-track on July 19, 1974 in the US (Reprise, R/L8R 2180), the UK (Reprise, K/K4 54014), Australia (Reprise, R-2180), Hong Kong (King Star, YL 001) and Japan (Reprise, P-8421R) with gatefold cover and innersleeve.

  1. Re-released on remastered high-definition compact disc in the US (Reprise, 48497-2).
  2. Re-released on 180g vinyl elpee in 2016 in Germany (Reprise).

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