[Today: Failure, failure everywhere...]
As long as greedy bastards suck oil from the veins of Mother Earth, as long as batters strike out with the game on the line, as long as sailors get seasick and people continue to fuck up by the billion, On The Beach will have its place in the world. Neil Young’s 1974 album is a state of the union address from near the end of the Nixon administration, and it’s populated by losers of every stripe, with nary a cheerful note or ray of sunshine to be found anywhere within its grooves. “As you go through life, you’ve got to see the valleys as well as the peaks,” Young has said. Not only are there no emotional peaks here, but many of the valleys explored on this album sit squarely in the shadow of death. The falling darkness that envelops On The Beach is surely one reason that it lapsed out of print for nearly 30 years.
‘See The Sky About To Rain’ and ‘For The Turnstiles’ are two of the bleakest songs in Young’s catalogue (which isn’t exactly Up With People). The former is a self-explanatory look to the clouds, while the latter sees a disinterested public turn its back on a variety of losers. In Young’s world, baseball players aren’t just left on base, they’re “left to die on the diamond.” The title track is a somber, slow-paced reflection on the isolating nature of fame, and is one of the few songs of its era that pegs the “Back To The Nature” movement as the last resort of a bunch of misfits. ‘Motion Pictures’ is a biting takedown of the rich and famous that sees Young brush off the in-crowd, singing “Well, all those people, they think they got it made/But I wouldn’t buy, sell, borrow or trade/Anything I have to be like one of them.” Meanwhile, ‘Walk On’ – which is as close as this album gets to upbeat – sees Neil marching away from a world where people are either high or weird.
The girders that hold this album together are its three “blues” songs – ‘Revolution Blues’, ‘Vampire Blues’ and ‘Ambulance Blues’. Young is one of the few musicians to admit to having been on good terms with Charles Manson, and ‘Revolution Blues’ steps inside shoes of a character very much like Manson – one who is armed with rifles and steel-eyed hatred, and aiming to hunt down the stars of Laurel Canyon. Elsewhere, ‘Vampire Blues’ equates the oil industry to a blood-thirsty creature whose appetite will never be sated. But the crown-jewel of this album is ‘Ambulance Blues’, a lovely, haunting, stream-of-conscious ride to the grave. Rusty Kershaw contributed the mournful fiddle that gives the song its six-foot depth, and wrote the LP liner notes. “I give you my word” he promised, “there is good music on this album.”
Listen: Ambulance Blues
Listen: Revolution Blues
Listen: Vampire Blues