Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Neil Young - On The Beach

Neil Young
On The Beach


Released 1974 on Reprise
Reviewed by Julian Cope, 06/06/2000ce


Sling this album on the turntable and you're seeing a famous nervous break down. Neil's most incoherent ramblings for sure, and full of distanced imagery. On the front, he's standing on a grey beach looking out to sea and half a submerged Cadillac lies almost buried beneath the sand. Even the sleevenotes by Rusty Kershaw, his occasional fiddle player and slide guitarist, seem to be there for their sheer incoherence. Warner Bros hated it so much it's still not available on CD and it was released in 1974. The songs are despairing after the Manson Family murders and Neil was at a career high when all this weighed him down. He seemed to enter an inchoate state on many of the songs, and yet, rambling toward his messiah, he conjures up reams of crazy surreal images. The songs show Neil dissatisfied and displaced, and even his greatest r'n'r is simplistic in the face of this abrasive, melancholy paranoia.

The album opens with the relatively up sound of the sentimental, backward-looking 'Walk On', before steering a down course into the melancholy of 'See the Sky About to Rain' which takes a line through pop-rock and mystery propelled by its Wurlitzer piano and mournful peddle-steel guitar. 'I was down in Dixieland, played a silver fiddle, played it loud and then the man broke it down the middle'. The stuttering minor key 'Revolution Blues' follows with the superb rhythm section of the Band's Rick Danko and Levon Helm bubbling and tumbling and pattering then pounding as Young tells the tale of Manson's dune-buggy outsiders coming to kill the Laurel Canyon rock elite. Then it's into the banjo and dobro-driven 'For the Turnstiles', in which Neil and Ben Keith, his omnipresent multi-instrumetalist, howl and whoop about how even 'though your confidence may be shattered, it doesn't matter.' 'Vampire Blues' is an anti-corporate rant about the oil companies 'suckin' blood out of the earth'. This simple 12-bar is slow and drawling, almost drooling, and Young makes use of one of his most underplayed guitar solos of all time. One note played slow and jagged and low on the wound strings staccato-driven and almost sleepwalking over the organ, bass and drum accompaniment. That's side one and that's the optimistic side.

Side two is the most low-key Young ever got. The three long tracks are inward-looking and openly self-pitying and Young is so strung out that even the most sensitive listener has to open his heart in order not to want to kick his ass and say 'Wake Up!' It was the seven minutes long title track which caused the Saturday Night Live crowd to parody Young with the classic 'Southern California Brings Me Down'. But once you stop laughing and accept the minor chords and so sorry lyrics and seagull guitar solos, then you have to just wonder how the sense of late sixties loss must have made the sensitive close to suicide. 'I went to the radio interview, I ended up alone at the microphone' he repeats again and again. 'Think I'll get out of town', he repeats even longer. 'Motion Pictures' follows at even slower speed and even less accompaniment, and the lyrics come so slow you can guess the next one for what seems like hours before it comes. Then it's into quiet harmonica and you wanna laugh, it's so sad. 'I'm deep inside beside myself but I'll get out somehow'.

'Ambulence Blues' is the closer. It's nine stark lonely minutes of acoustic-only daymare with the standard funny lyrics: 'Back in the old folky days'. The traditional chords should make it easier to take, but Young manages to throw in such lyrics as 'old mother goose is on the skids' and 'it's hard to see the meaning of this song, an ambulance can only go so fast, it's easy to get buried in the past'. Best of all, he sings 'You're all just pissing in the wind, you don't know it but you are', following it with splendid sucks and blows on the harmonica which double for a guitar tuner.

If Young had sunk into the abyss after this album, we'd have been bemoaning his loss as another Skip Spence. But, of course, he resurfaced and got even stronger. But how pertinent to see the lows of our biggest stars reach such truly abject lows. And, of course, it's more inspiring than the brain-death songs of Syd Barrett and Skip Spence because it was only a temporary rubbernecking. The patient recovered to full health and no-one actually died.


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