This legendary album, the centrepiece of the so-called “Doom Trilogy”, has waited nearly 30 years to be issued on CD, such has been its author’s reputed disenchantment with it. Over that time, On The Beach has become a sort of Holy Grail to Neil Young CD buyers, its continuing unavailability adding to a notoriety which began with the first round of reviews the album received in summer 1974. Early reaction to On The Beach was almost entirely negative and it was only after a certain amount of hindsight had set in that it was accorded any respect, let alone admiration. Now, at last, it’s with us again, and we have another chance to evaluate what many feel to be one of the outstanding achievements of Young’s career.
Made in spring 1974, On The Beach was chronologically the last of the Doom Trilogy, following 1973’s Time Fades Away and Tonight’s The Night, recorded in August 1973 but unreleased until June 1975. As such, the bleak, inward-looking, semi-exhausted On The Beach, while sounding like the eye of the storm, was actually the aftermath of a dark exorcism carried through in the previous two albums.
The context of this period of Young’s life was a desperate one. On the rebound from the Roman excesses of being on the road with CSNY, Young was disillusioned with the compromised idealism of the late-’60s counterculture and disgusted with the bloated complacency of the American music scene of the early ’70s. More sharply, he felt painful grief for the deaths by heroin of two close friends: Danny Whitten, guitarist with his backing band Crazy Horse, and Bruce Berry, guitar roadie for CSNY. In particular, Young was haunted by remorse and horror at the death of Whitten, who had OD’d after being sacked from sessions for Young’s second solo album. The Time Fades Away tour, from which the 1973 live album of the same name was drawn, chronicles Young’s dire mood in the aftermath of this personal disaster.
Everything that was oppressing Young in 1973 came together in the dark howl of Tonight’s The Night, a record described by Uncut editor Allan Jones as “the sound of calamity, a rock’n’roll Golgotha, a place of death and skulls”. So oppressive and deranged was the accompanying tour that many expected Young to expire as an artist by the end of it; indeed, there was a rumour, made semi-official by a wire-service news story from Paris at the end of the tour, that Young had died from a heroin overdose. He hadn’t, of course, and somewhere between then and the spring of the following year he managed to assemble On The Beach.
The album features a mixed roster of musicians, including appearances by David Crosby and Graham Nash from CSNY. The basic rhythm unit is that of Crazy Horse: Bill Talbot on bass and Ralph Molina on drums. Alternative rhythm players include The Band’s drummer Levon Helm and bassist Tim Drummond. Auxiliary guitar duties are divided between Ben Keith (slide, steel and dobro), Rusty Kershaw (slide and fiddle) and George Whitsell. Young himself plays guitar, banjo, piano and harmonica. While the primary mood of On The Beach is introspective and philosophical, it contains some savage sentiments, especially on “Revolution Blues”, which blackly commemorates the Manson gang as a means of exorcising Young’s own revulsion at the intemperance of the West Coast rock’n’roll lifestyle: “I see bloody fountains/And 10 million dune buggies comin’ down the mountains/I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars.”
Often couching its expression in blues form or variants thereof, On The Beach is a stark, slow examination of Young’s personal aesthetic in the wake of a period in which he had deliberately turned his back on the commercial success of After The Gold Rush and Harvest.
The album unfolds at a measured to plodding pace, the playing (which sounds mostly like first takes) skeletal and sometimes fumbling. Young’s approach to his material is audibly tired and close to throwaway-yet the listener is almost always gripped by the sensation that what’s being expressed is the threadbare truth.
On The Beach is bookended by two expressions of wistful nostalgia for “the old folkie days” in Toronto?”the good old days” when comrades in music stayed up all night long, singing for the sheer buzz of it, earning little in the way of money but gaining much in terms of soul satisfaction and learning all the time. The album’s finale, “Ambulance Blues” (musically a cousin of Bert Jansch’s heroin threnody, “Needle Of Death”), puts this nostalgia into perspective: “It’s easy to get buried in the past/When you try to make a good thing last.” A melancholy song, it’s also the final working-out of the dilemma central to On The Beach: how to regain and maintain authenticity when the pressure is on to present a false facade and when life itself is almost too awfully real to allow any space for creativity.
How, then, does On The Beach stand up after 29 years? The answer: like a classic. There’s only one slightly weak track (“Vampire Blues”). The rest remains as nakedly convincing and confessional as it did when it first appeared. It’s easy to see why Young has doubts about it. On the one hand, the album is altogether too close to home; on the other, its almost improvisational realisation is, at times, equally close to complete collapse. There’s a fragile vulnerability about songs like “See The Sky About To Rain”, “For The Turnstiles” and “Motion Pictures” that’s almost translucent. The approach, in other words, is perilously near to self-pity here, although that lapse is never actually allowed.
As a document of a despairing personal low, On The Beach would be a kind of masterpiece by any standard. Yet it’s the album’s inner strength, its refusal to die or evade the issue, its ultimate squaring up to a regenerated future which make it such a moving experience. Rock music rarely comes as close to closedown as it does here, but the ultimate truth is that On The Beach is a positive experience, a catharsis. It’s good to have it back at last.