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On The Beach
Neil Young

Reprise R 2180
Released: July 1974
Chart Peak: #16
Weeks Charted: 18
Certified Gold: 9/23/74

Neil YoungSince his days with the Buffalo Springfield, the shifts in Neil Young's preoccupations have presented a barometer of a generation's attitudes toward itself, reflecting the dissolution of political idealism and, beyond that, the end of the romance of youth itself. Even in such early ballads as "Sugar Mountain" and "I Am a Child," Young gently warned against living with the illusion of perpetual youth, while his childlike vocals tantalized us with the possibility. The pain of facing adult reality at an age and in an era that encouraged prolonged adolescent fantasy compromised the underlying theme of Young's first three solo albums, a trilogy that culminated in After the Gold Rush, perhaps the quintessential tourn-of-the-decade album by a folk-rock soloist.

Whereas Bob Dylan's music formed the aesthetic spearhead of generational rage and moral fever in the mid-Sixties, Young's subsequently expressed, with equal credibility, the accompanying guilt, self-doubt and paranoia, especially in its obsession with time and age. Ironically, Young achieved superstar status with his most compromised album, Harvest, a sweetened rehash of ideas from After the Gold Rush. But Young resisted the temptation to venture further toward the MOR style that had cinched his audience; and his live album, Time Fades Away, released two years after Harvest, came as a rude about-face.

On The Beach is Neil Young's best album since After the Gold Rush. Though a studio album, its sound is raw and spare, as bracing as Dylan's Planet Waves. Mostly self-produced, On The Beach boasts fine instrumental support, notably by guitarist Ben Keith (who shares vocals with Young on two cuts), and Band members Rick Danko (bass) and Levon Helm (drums) on the album's most exciting track, "Revolution Blues."

The hard-edged sound of On The Beach is a contributing factor to its greatness, since the album poses aesthetic and political questions too serious to be treated prettily. Through various opposed personae, Young evokes primary social and psychic polarities that exemplify the deterioration of American culture. Though not named, the figures of Charles Manson and Patricia Hearst appear as emblems of apocalyptic social dislocation in the album's two masterpieces, "Revolution Blues" and "Ambulance Blues." In each song, by empathizing with the emotions of both predators and victims, Young has dared what no other major white rock artist (expect John Lennon) has -- to embrace, expose and perhaps help purge the collective paranoia and guilt of an insane society, acting it out without apology or explanation.

"Walk On," a succinct rejection of Sixties fantasies, revolves around a bitter observation about growing up: "Sooner or later it all gets real/Walk on." "See the Sky About To Rain" and "For The Turnstiles," tremulous, fatalistic ballads, encompass images of violence, corruption and disintegration, their meanings contained in their cryptic titles, each a slogan, a mantra, a scrawl of graffiti. The driving, terrifying vision of "Revolution Blues" is counterpointed by the equally horrifying "Vampire Blues."

Two ballads, "Motion Pictures" and "Ambulance Blues," feature Young singing almost an octave lower than normal and sounding for the first time in his career morally arrogant. "On The Beach," the seven-minute title cut, is the album's most quesitonable inclusion, a lethargic, whining meditation on the reasons not to remain psychically isolated in Los Angeles. It shows Young immersed in self-pity -- one of the taboos of rock that Young has long sought to redeem. Though Young's weariness of civilization also supplies the theme of "Motion Pictures," it is melodically fluent and the album's only direct message of love.

The nine-minute "Ambulance Blues," which closes the album, is the tour de force of Young's recording career. Doubling on acoustic guitar and harmonica and backed by Doug Kershaw's eloquent fiddling, Young summarizes his entire musical/political past, beginning with the idealism of "the old folkie days," then impressionistically evoking specific social traumas, among them Watergate and the Hearst saga. He addresses us with a populist truism which he repeats in a voice that quietly spits in our faces: "You're all just pissin' in the wind." The last verse cites Nixon as both sympton and cause of a predicament that is frightening beyond conclusion:
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 talkin' to
'Cause I know it ain't me and I hope it isn't you.

In its appeal to a post-revolutionary, post-psychedelic generation of young Americans, "Ambulance Blues" stands as an epic lamentation, as irrefutable a piece of song-poetry as Paul Simon's "American Tune" and Jackson Browne's "For Everyman." I could not imagine anyone but Young singing it.

On The Beach is one of the most desparing albums of the decade, a bitter testament from one who has come thorugh the fire and gone back into it.

- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 9/26/74.

Bonus Reviews!

Neil Young has invoked his own peculiar blues consciousness to produce a fine album. As a singer, he remains technically a mess, but I think it's obvious by now that he's one the originals. There was some talk about Young having a "new" voice, but what seems to be happening here, is merely the use of lower keys than normal, with a little cracking occurring on some of the unfamiliarly low notes. However new this is, it doesn't hurt the album. The only thing that does is its lack of variety, its failure to add a Neil Young Song of readily apparent stature ("See the Sky About to Rain" is, of course, a dandy, and the arrangement of it here is excellent, but this album can't claim to have introduced it). Young does not have the fast hands of a really good guitarist, but he does have an ear for the sound of the instrument and he knows how to play into the arrangement. His use of the electric piano in "See the Sky" is about as effective as any I've heard in a legally recorded album, coming just about when I was preparing to suggest that we chuck that particular instrument for good. "For the Turnstiles" is a fetching, ingenuous cut, with only Neil on the banjo and and Ben Keith on the dobro behind Neil's lead and Ben's harmony vocal.

The album is never far from the blues, but never really in them, either. There are several structural similarities among the songs, and the instrumentation is thinned down to blues (as opposed to rock) proportions -- but Young's intense, introverted attitude does not allow for the kind of escape there is in the blues. The man even plays a tense banjo ballad (and, by the way, gets rather a stylish sound out of that lately overexposed instrument, even if you can almost hear him counting between strums). For fans the album's a must; for everyone else -- how about a solid B-plus?

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 12/74.

Absolutely the best LP Young has come up with since his After the Goldrush. Mixing a variety of rockers and ballads, his distinctive vocals sound clearer and more controlled than they have in recent years, the instrumentals are more carefully arranged and there is not really a bad cut on the set. In addition, the artist seems to be totally back in the groove as a writer. The electric material is good, but the real highlights here are the acoustic tunes, featuring Young on guitar and harmonica with a backup bass heard from time to time. Using perfect phrasing and showcasing eight fine new songs, Neil Young is definitely back as one of the true superstars of the American music scene, with some of the material highly reminiscent in emotional impact of his earliest solo works. Best cuts: "See The Sky About To Rain," "For The Turnstiles," "On The Beach," "Ambulance Blues."

- Billboard, 8/74.

Something in his obsessive self-examination is easy to dislike and something in his whiny thinness hard to enjoy. But even "Ambulance Blues," an eight-minute throwaway, is studded with great lines, one of which is "It's hard to know the meaning of this song." And I can hum it for you if you'd like. A-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Part three of the doom trilogy was actually the second to be released, as Young began to dig himself out of the depression of the previous year, noting that "Sooner or later, it all gets real" but also fearing that he's "just pissing in the wind." * * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

1974's On the Beach is vintage Young: Made during a time when he and his then-girlfriend, actress Carrie Snodgrass, were Los Angeles pop royalty, it's a sublimely fucked-up Pacific meditation, a California rock investigation along the lines of the Eagles' Hotel California and Hole's Celebrity Skin. Songs such as the chic "Walk On," the magisterial title blues and the stark "(See the Sky) About to Rain" coalesce with the landmark consistency of 1972's Harvest. * * * * *

- Rolling Stone, 7/03.

Even by Neil Young's melancholic standards, On The Beach is one bleak trip. An odyssey of regret, disgust, and disappointment, the album marked the end of a love-in. The cover portrays him removed from the coke-addled decay of the West Coast: alone on a gray beach, his back to a pile of California refuse.

"Revolution Blues" takes this alienation to violent extremes. Over ragged minor chords, Young plays a longhaired avenger, gunning down the wealthy hippy residents of L.A.'s Laurel Canyon. The track's Charles Manson allusions shocked his 1974 touring partners Crosby, Stills, and Nash, who pleaded with Young to drop the song.

But wasted West Coast stars were only one of the targets in Young's sniper scope. The gentle "Ambulance Blues" hides an attack on blinkered critics, while "Vampire Blues" - an inspired exercise in John Lee Hooker minimalism -- takes a bite out of hangers-on. Even his troubled marriage to actress Carrie Snodgress is dissected in the mournful "Motion Pictures."

Though the lyrics are often bilious, the music is definitely relaxed. "Walk On" grooves past in a toxic fug, staggering at the time to No. 69 on the chart -- here Young continues his banter with Lynyrd Skynyrd, who had namechecked him in thier "Sweet Home Alabama."

Rolling Stone called it his best since After The Goldrush, but On The Beach has unfortunately gone almost unheard by modern audiences. Young himself came to dislike the album's emotional rawness and withheld its release on CD until 2003.

- Theunis Bates, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Fueled by disillusionment and honeyslides (an intense combination of fried weed and honey), Young created his bleakest, most personal album. With assistance from the Band's Rick Danko and Levon Helm, he indulges Mansonite murder fantasies ("Revolution Blues"), looks back on his idealistic "folkie days" like they were an eternity ago ("Ambulance Blues"), and delivers one of his most wrenching breakup songs in "Motion Pictures (For Carrie)."

- Angie Martoccio, Rolling Stone, 1/20.

Reeling from the losses that sparked Tonight's the Night, Neil Young shelved that LP for two years and made this one: a wild fireball of anger and sadness, with flashes of guarded optimism ("Walk On"). It peaks with "Ambulance Blues," perhaps the realest song he's ever written.

On the Beach was chosen as the 311th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

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