Album Analysis | Neil Young - On The Beach
Time has only ripened Neil Young's masterpiece and it continues to showcase his unquenchable creative drive.
“My first job is to follow the musical course, it's always to the detriment of everything, relationships, projects, they get derailed. There’s going to be a lot of collateral damage and you’re going to create a lot of things you wouldn't create if you didn’t do that. I’m brutal, I only do it for the music.”
- Neil Young
On the Beach is one of Neil Young’s greatest musical creations, born out of this philosophy that everything must make way for his art. In 1972, his critically acclaimed album Harvest reached number one in the charts, and Young’s stock had never been higher. His level of determination to escape the stultifying impact of the resulting fame manifested itself in perhaps the bleakest three-album run by any artist of his stature.
Pressurized to capitalize on Harvest’s success, Young embarked on a tour in 1973 that was riven with disharmony and shadowed by the death of Young’s trusted sideman and long term collaborator Danny Whitten. Struggling with a heroin habit, Whitten was dismissed by Young on the eve of the tour and died a day later. Young was devastated and refused to grant his audiences the agreeable country-rock tune show that Harvest promised, choosing to showcase many new and unknown songs. The evidence of this defiance was captured on the 1973 live album, Time Fades Away, which Young kept from being released on CD until 2017 such was his ambivalence towards the tour.
Young's grief was compounded by the death of his roadie Bruce Berry in June. The lingering distress at Whitten's demise and the friction of the tour - Young would comment that “I felt like a product, and I had this band of all-star musicians that couldn't even look at each other.”- was redirected by Young into the recording of Tonight’s the Night and a subsequent tour of that album. The recorded version was considered too sonically and thematically harsh to release, leaving audiences unfamiliar with the material at the live shows, and leading to a combative atmosphere. In 1974, he began recording On The Beach, which, despite its air of melancholy, was at least seen as fit for public consumption. These three albums would form what has become known as Young’s "Ditch Trilogy". In an intense 12-month period Young had purged much of his grief and shed the mantle of champion of the middle of the road.
The album still came as a shock to an audience eagerly awaiting a studio follow-up to Harvest. On The Beach is Young reflecting on the awfulness of life, but excavating beauty from that realization and paving a road to deliverance. Where TtN is an articulated yet feral howl at the injustice of it all, OtB is Young in a more expansive, creative state of mind, and heavily influenced by the presence of Rusty Kershaw.
Kershaw, a Cajun fiddle player and truculent soul, was introduced to Young by Ben Keith, the multi-instrumentalist who would be the only musician to play on all of the tracks on OtB. Kershaw in turn introduced an anarchic energy to the sessions that permeated everything to the point that Young’s roadie Willie B. Hinds would say the album is as much Rusty Kershaw’s as Young’s. Kershaw was Young’s kindred spirit, determined to eschew predictability.
It was a credo that Young adopted for the album, recruiting a revolving cast of musicians, often playing instruments they were unfamiliar with, and insisted on using takes that were far from polished.
Kershaw also introduced the players to a concoction of honey and sautéed marijuana called honey slides. It was consumed by the spoonful and in the words of Young’s manager Elliot Roberts was “much worse than heroin…within ten minutes you were catatonic.”
The album’s opener, 'Walk On', betrays none of this, as it was recorded at a separate session before Kershaw’s intervention. It carries a deceptively jaunty arrangement for a song of score-settling by Young, who had his critics squarely in his sights - “They do their thing, I do mine.”
He follows it with 'See the Sky About to Rain', a retread of a Harvest-era song that is introduced by, and further punctuated with, Young’s beautiful Wurlitzer playing and anchored by Levon Helm’s restrained drumming. It's a delicate song that Young embraces with a vocal caress. It also marks the point where the album takes a sharp detour to a darker place.
'Revolution Blues', a track that David Crosby appears on but would subsequently refuse to perform live, griping that “that stuff is not funny” is a goodbye to the corrupted Californian hippy culture. It is a cockeyed reflection on the broken and monstrous Charles Manson’s message to the world, that the twins of creativity and pain are inexorably linked. Young points out that they are divided by an uncomfortably fine line. (Young had met Manson, admired his songwriting, tried to introduce him to music executives and just thought musically that he was a bit “out there”.) He lays it all down with the infectious rhythm section of The Band's Rick Danko and Levon Helm, who were no strangers to making music fueled by conspicuous consumption of mood-altering substances.
Kershaw, meanwhile, proving he was more than just a supplier of oblivion, smashed up the studio to energize the band to sound like they were fermenting a revolution. He spent the recording crawling on the studio floor, a scene he describes in the eccentric liner notes that he was invited to write as: “I turned into a Python, than (sic) an alligator, I was crawling like one, making noises like one”, freaking out David Crosby even further.
The only other song recorded prior to Kershaw’s involvement, is 'For the Turnstiles’, a meditation on the fleeting nature of fame. Young plays banjo while Ben Keith accompanies him on dobro and vocals. It was recorded immediately after the sessions for TtN, and Young’s straining voice and the sparse arrangement suggests that death and the iniquity of commercial demands were still on Young’s mind.
'Vampire Blues', a diatribe aimed at the oil industry, has Ben Keith on the organ and Young neglecting to fill gaps that are seemingly left for a guitar solo with anything more engaged than a faint one-note picking or a languid guitar fill. Those honey slides may have been the culprit.
Young had originally intended for the three tracks on the second side to launch the album. Young’s long time producer David Briggs persuaded the singer to switch to the order that we hear. Young's preference would have denied the listener the gentle introduction of 'Walk On' 'and plunged them straight into the title track, 'On the Beach'.
Regardless of its place in the running order, the song is seven minutes of peak Neil Young. In it he reflects on the loneliness of fame, the scourge of meaningless press commitments, the humanity lurking behind a public persona, and the contradictions that infect the experience of being a performer. The paradox of his life is all expressed in the repeated couplet,
"I need a crowd of people
But I can't face them day to day"
The album cover art reinforces the juxtaposition of hope and despair that the song elucidates. Young is pictured on a cloudy day at Santa Monica beach. His boots are placed next to him, a newspaper headlined “Sen Buckley Calls on Nixon to Resign” is propped against the legs of a beach table. The tail fin of a '59 Cadillac is buried in the sand, a poignant image given Young’s intense passion for vintage cars. A can of Coors sits on the table, two chairs await occupants. All of this is behind Young, his view outwards towards the vastness of the ocean. The insignificance of man is apparent in the visual symbolism, in the song Young puts it into words,
"The world is turnin'
I hope it don't turn away"
'Motion Picture Blues (for Carrie)' finds Kershaw’s influence front and center. Ostensibly written for Young’s actress wife Carrie Snodgress (their marriage was in trouble), the song has a dreamy quality to it. Kershaw would relate the creation of it, “Neil started hummin’ something and I started playin’ along with the melody on the steel. Ben (Keith) started playin’ bass, it sounded so goddamn pretty. Neil picked up a pen and just wrote the words right then.” They went to the studio and recorded it while it was “still smeared all over us”. It exudes that immediacy and a slightly mawkish yet unconvincing plea for the comfort of home and family. Young sings, presumably directly to Snodgress,
"I'm deep inside myself, but I'll get out somehow
And I'll stand before you
And I'll bring a smile to your eyes"
They would divorce shortly after the album’s release.
On the final track, “Ambulance Blues”, Young sells us a ticket for a nine-minute meandering nostalgia tour beginning with the line “Back in the old folky days”. It channels T.S Eliot, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed to create a reverie as Young intones,
"And I still can hear him say:
You're all just pissing in the wind
You don't know it but you are
And there ain't nothing like a friend
Who can tell you you're just pissing in the wind."
It is the perfect way to end the album and the phase in Young’s life that it brought to a close. Briggs was right to place this as the valedictory track. Young told Laura Gross in 1988 that “you have to be ready to give everything you have, and you have to make sure you’ve really got a lot to give.” With On the Beach, Young delivered on both counts.