Neil Young - On The Beach
Neil Young’s often overlooked 1974 album On The Beach has been hailed by his critics as one of the singer-songwriter’s finest works, and yet it has never been re-released since it’s original vinyl debut. Some of the obsessive fans of Young’s have splashed out on expensive import versions, or bootleg recordings, but those who have waited for its first outing on compact disc have been rewarded with a pristine 20-bit remastering, and a mid-price RRP.
As an album, On The Beach certainly lives up to the claim of being one of Young’s finest albums. It stands as a biting, venomous attack on the nature of the myth of celebrity stardom, and all the apparent kudos it brings with it.
On The Beach isn’t so much an album for Young, but more a self-prescribed retreat from society itself. You only have to look at the album cover, in which Young stands watching the tide crawl in on his golden beach hideaway, to draw the comparisons between him and Robinson Crusoe - stranded from the society that created him in the first place.
You’d be forgiven for being fooled by the sprightly tone of opener Walk On, which is a mellow rocker tinged by sunny Ben Keith slide guitar. On The Beach isn’t sprightly; it’s reflective and sombre, as if played with the benefit of hindsight, and it’s ravaged by bitter fear.
Thematically, the album is plagued by signals of upheaval and change. Young acknowledges his now superstar status on songs such as Motion Pictures (itself a dig at the decline of his marriage to actress Carrie Snodgrass) and On The Beach, but he readily admits that he’s all too ill at ease with his fame, and that his “escape” to the beach lets him watch the wheels go by without being caught up in the commotion. He’s desperate in his refuge, and it’s the album’s title track that fully explores the nature of the idiosyncrasy of celebrity, with main chorus line “I Need A Crowd Of People, But I Can’t Face Them Day To Day”. As a song, On The Beach is a seven minute slow burning masterpiece that forever hints at musical redemption. It’s backed by past CSNY stalwart Graham Nash on Wurlitzer piano, who adds some much needed sweetener. Even David Crosby and The Band’s Levon Helm and Rick Danko turn up on a couple of the tracks, but you are never left feeling that this is anything but a Neil Young album.. Final cut Ambulance Blues is Young at his most enigmatic, in which he ambiguously suggests that the authenticity of his lyrics might have thrown his critical peers off the scent. Who’s to know, and besides, compulsion is often fuelled by enigma.
At just under forty minutes, and with only eight tracks, and no bonus features, it’s still hard to complain about On The Beach finally being released, considering it is easily one of the seminal solo accomplishments of the singer/songwriter movement of the early seventies. Granted, Young is all too often caught up in his Woodstock / Manson Family stoner romanticism, but as he himself rightly mentions – “Sooner or later, it all gets real”.