Neil Young – On the Beach
Sooner or later it all gets real – from Neil’s track, Walk On
Today we revisit On the Beach, the final link in Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy, which put on full display not only Young’s state of mind in the early 1970’s, but also the zeitgeist of America. As discussed in my previous post, while On the Beach was the last of the three to be recorded, it was actually the second to be released, as well as the long-awaited studio followup to Harvest. Therefore, even though the songs weren’t quite as caustic as Tonight’s the Night and the production a little cleaner, it was still a shock to fans expecting a radio-friendly offering.
The album was recorded over two months, from February to April 1974. By the time it was released on July 16, Neil had moved on and was a month away from CSNY’s reunion mega-tour (perhaps worth a write-up itself). Unlike his previous studio efforts, Neil enlisted the help of numerous musicians instead of a core band, including Rick Danko and Levon Helm of the Band.
If Tonight’s the Night was an emotional purge, On the Beach was part resignation to the bleakness that was his world view at the time, and part leaving it behind. Hence the opening track, Walk On. Young also tackles some of the sensational stories of the era in a manner that, as pointed out in the original Rolling Stone review of the album, puts listeners in the shoes of both the predators and the victims. This is heard in Revolution Blues (Charles Manson, whom Young had known) and Ambulance Blues (Patty Hearst):
I saw today
In the entertainment section
There’s room at the top
For private detection.
To Mom and Dad
This just doesn’t matter,
But it’s either that
Or pay off the kidnapper – from Ambulance Blues
In Vampire Blues, Neil takes aim at the oil industry and perhaps our insatiable thirst for the black gold:
I’m a vampire, babe,
From the earth
I’m a vampire, baby,
From the earth.
Well, I’m a vampire, babe,
Twenty barrels worth
Also of interest to fans and critics is the album jacket with its gaudy 70’s lawn furniture and pale yellow motif – even on the inside – right down to the can of Coors resting on the table and the fin of a Cadillac half buried in the sand like a crashed rocket (from better days?). Under the table rests a newspaper with the headline: Senator Buckley Calls for Nixon to Resign. On the back of the jacket stands a solitary, rather pitiful looking palm tree in a pot.
Neil’s blazer makes him look like he just stepped out of the Monday Night Football broadcast booth with Howard Cosell and the gang. Well, maybe not, but you get the picture. Neil’s art director was Gary Burden, who passed away less than a month ago at the age of 84. Burden also worked with Joni Mitchell, the Doors, and My Morning Jacket, and collaborated with famous rock photographer Henry Diltz.
I first listened to On the Beach when I managed to find a new-but-cut-out LP in the early 90’s when it was out of print, and it’s been in my regular rotation since. I went without it for a couple of years when I foolishly lost track of my small LP collection, but replaced it on CD when it was re-released in 2003.
I’d like to wrap up Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy with a bit of unsolicited social commentary: While I don’t consider myself to be in a personal rut despite my enthusiasm for these emotionally charged albums, with regard to On the Beach, it feels very apropos of the current atmosphere in the US in my perception. Coincidentally, a certain president is speaking at the convention of a certain organization of gun enthusiasts in my town on this very day. I don’t know where we’re headed, and this album captures that mood perfectly for me.
So you be good to me
And I’ll be good to you,
And in this land of conditions
I’m not above suspicion
I won’t attack you,
But I won’t back you – from Revolution Blues
- Walk On
- See the Sky About to Rain
- Revolution Blues
- For the Turnstiles
- Vampire Blues
- On the Beach
- Motion Pictures
- Ambulance Blues
In addition to the online citations I’ve included at the bottom of each edition of this series, I’d also recommend Jimmy McDonough’s solid biography of Neil Young, Shakey, which was published in 2002.
I’ll have a postscript to this little series next time ’round.
4 thoughts on “Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy, Pt. 4”
It is hard to keep up with Neil’s album releases and re-releases and the releases of old stuff that were never released. A full time job!
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Good stuff! Which of the three ditch trilogy albums you like the most?
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It’s hard to say. On the Beach would’ve been my response most days, but with the new Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live release I now have an even deeper appreciation for Tonight’s the Night. If I ever get an official copy of Time Fades Away (the one I have now I burned off youtube, and the quality actually isn’t horrible) or if he releases Part II or whatever he’s calling it, I could swing that direction. But, for one answer, I’ll say On the Beach. Be sure to check out the live shows I just posted in the final edition of the series; they make it hard to choose just one. I appreciate the feedback!
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Thanks, will do!