When I finally decided to start collecting vinyl, On the Beach was one of my first purchases and I couldn’t wait to listen to it. Since then it’s been on my turntable the longest of all the others I’ve bought. While Neil Young is known most for his hits on Harvest (1972) and other albums, this is my favorite of his. The only other one that comes close to toppling that is Tonight’s the Night (1975), the third in a trilogy of bleak and opaque albums, with On the Beach being the second. These albums are all critically acclaimed but criminally obscure in the mainstream music world.
Walk On is the response to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama as well as some of his other critics, and an oddly upbeat mood despite the rest of the album. It also introduces the listener to Neil Young’s laid-back composition on this album. It’s got a very Garage-Rock feel to it, andWalk On in particular feels so loose that it almost falls apart. He dances on the edge of completely falling apart into abstract Jazz Rock, with even his singing coming in and out like he’s not always facing the mic. See the Sky About to Rain captures the mood of that experience perfectly, featuring a metaphor I love that is used often in his lyrics: “whistle blowing through my brain”. The keyboards are fantastic here but the slide guitar is the star and it creates such a great lonely cry that the best Country music utilizes, but this is still decidedly Rock music. The surprise harmonica at the end is just perfect.
Revolution Blues is when the dark nature of this album is revealed, and cements it in the “Ditch Trilogy”. It’s a haunting piece about Charles Manson, told from his point of view. His contradictory, paranoid, and violent thoughts are expressed eloquently through Neil Young. They met a few times prior to the murders and he was a fan of Manson’s musical talents. The guitar solos on this song have so much emotion packed into them it’s hard to imagine, as with a lot of Neil Young’s music. Vampire Blues is the most political song on this album, it’s a take down of the oil industry and their promises that “good times are comin”
A loud, blue, and distant guitar begins the title track, On the Beach. Keyboards and bass mach that tone perfectly, with drums and a bongo combining to create a perfectly lonely mood. It’s a slow dirge where Neil Young wrestles with his fame and celebrity. The longing for a crowd to hear his deepest thoughts but also wanting solitude. These lyrics are some of my favorite:
“I went to the radio interview
but ended up alone
at the microphone
Now I’m livin’ out here on the beach
But those seagulls are still out of reach”
Motion Pictures is a dedication to his girlfriend at the time, but it’s still very much about Neil’s personal demons. It’s another song about alienation, self identity, and escapism. The harmonica that was seen on See the Sky About to Rain comes back again on this to great effect. I feel like he relates the escapism of films with the daydreaming of relationships, with the lonely guitar tones sounding like there is a distance between two people. He wants to break free of this funk he’s in and be with her, especially with the closing lines:
“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”
Closing the album is the brilliant Ambulance Blues. Neil Young looks further in himself and especially in his past, recounting his early music career. He changes topics often and it feels very diary-like: spontaneous and erratic. Out of nowhere comes the heartbreaking line: “an ambulance can only go so fast”. This is when his friends and band-mates started dying, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young lineup was volatile. He even states in the lyrics that it’s hard to know what this song is even about. I think it’s a brilliant collection of scattered thoughts and emotions. The haunting last verse always stays with me:
“I never knew a man could tell so many lies
He had a different story for every set of eyes
How can he remember who he’s talking to?
Because I know it ain’t me and I hope it isn’t you”
There are a number of sites that suggest this is about Nixon but I’ve always felt it closer to Satan, although his music is almost never religious. It just feels like he’s talking about something purely evil, perhaps it’s about addiction as well, as that took a number of his friends’ lives. This song is like some of the best art, as it’s open to interpretation, and what you feel it means is what is important. On the Beach deeply moves me on every listen and has since I first listened to it, bringing me to tears a number of times. This album is another that I feel is required listening for everyone.