Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Top 102 Albums. No 45. On the Beach

Top 102 Albums. No 45.
On the Beach. Neil Young
"It's easy to get buried
in the past
When you try to make
the good thing last."
I remember looking at this album regularly in the window of a second hand record shop for £50, at a time when that was a lot of money. Too much for me to stretch to buying it although I came close. For years this album was out of print due to a foible of Mr Young, which was why it was so damned expensive. When I finally got it on cd I was primed to enjoy it but it exceeded all my expectations. There are quite  few albums by Neil Young that could sit comfortably in this list although I was late enough to warm to his charms. It wasn't really until the mid to late eighties that I really got him. I spend more time trying to catch up on what I missed than keeping up with what I'm missing. Why wouldn't you, when there are back catalogues like this? Am I buried in the past? Neil wouldn't approve.

"Well, we live in a trailer
at the edge of town
You never see us
'cause we don't come around.
We got twenty five rifles
just to keep
the population down."
The album opens with two fairly standard Young songs that probably didn't frighten off the myriad fans picked up by Harvest. The first Walk On, is my least favourite song on the album. The second See the Sky About To Rain gives a warning that something is impending. And it is. The third song will shake up anyone looking for easy listening. Revolution Blues is one of the most extraordinary tracks ever recorded. Yes. An abrasive guitar provides backing to words which evoke apocalypse and the Manson murders and where Young sings in the disgusted voice of a man who would bring the pillars of the temple crashing down upon the temple of celebrity. This is not gentle folk rock. This is as punk as Iggy. We are reminded that the album is named after a post apocalyptic book. We go outside to check that the dog is still alive.
"I got the revolution blues,
I see bloody fountains,
And ten million dune buggies
comin' down the mountains.
Well, 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."
The next track, Turnstile Blues is not as confrontational but it is drenched in melancholy. It's time for us all to go home, the shows over, the American Dream is finished, "All the bushleague batters /  Are left to die on the diamond" and the crowd are heading for the turnstiles.
"All the great explorers
Are now in granite laid,
Under white sheets
for the great unveiling
At the big parade."
Then there is Vampire Blues, where Neil does allow that there may be good times coming, but "they sure are coming slow." There is a potent awareness of the ecological impact of humanity, particularly our addiction to oil. The sound is the blues, not a heritage sound you understand but a blues that fits its time and still fits ours.
"I'm a vampire, baby,
suckin' blood
from the earth.
Well, I'm a vampire, babe,
sell you
twenty barrels worth."
The title track follows this and cements the idea that fame sat uneasy on Young's shoulders at the time. He is clearly in conflict with his profession. Images of isolation and fleeing from the city dominate.
"I need a crowd of people,
but I can't face them
day to day.
Though my problems
are meaningless,
that don't make them
go away."
Despite the despair that this album is often charged with it is also a manifesto for Young's dogged commitment to remaking himself over and over again, his belief that there is something to find inside that's worth it all. This is from Motion Pictures, a song which once again casts a baleful eye on popular culture and celebrity. If he's not going to shoot them dead he's still going to shoot them down.
"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.
I'd rather
start all over again.
Well, all those headlines,
they just bore me now
I'm deep inside myself,
but I'll get out somehow,
And I'll stand before you,
and I'll bring
a smile to your eyes."
The final song starts with some lines which seem to place Harvest in some far distant era: "Back in the old folky days / The air was magic when we played." Once again we are in a world where the old truths are played out (Mother Goose she's on the skids) and it feels like the best we can do is to realise that it's all fake and that
"You're all just pissin'
in the wind
You don't know it but you are.
And there ain't nothin'
like a friend
Who can tell you
you're just pissin'
in the wind."
This is an album that should be in all serious collections. Watch out for the dune buggies.


  1. I love this album; I even like Walk On. Reading Waging Heavy Peace, you would never think the amiable old hippy therein could come up with an album like this.


    1. Will the real Neil Young please stand up, please stand up?

  2. He's a man for all times is Neil. I too remember this as forbidden fruit; must revisit soon; thanks for the reminder.

  3. Check out his soundtrack to "Dead Man" if you ever get the chance. What that man can do to a guitar? Had a good sneer at the nostalgia junkies who were "disappointed" with his recent set in the RDS

    1. I think he revels in disappointing, or at least confounding, people's expectations. I have the Dead Man soundtrack somewhere. Must dig it out. (By the way I think you are operating under an incognito, Mr Chilton?)