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Younger Than Yesterday: On The Beach

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“I need a crowd of people,
But I can’t face them
Day to day,
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.
I need a crowd of people,
But I can’t face them
Day to day.”

—Neil Young (“On The Beach”)

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


“Driving my car, flame trees on fire
Sitting and singin’ the Higgs Boson blues,
I’m tired, I’m lookin’ for a spot to drop
All the clocks have stopped in Memphis now”

(‘Higgs Boson Blues’, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds)

Nick Cave sings “Can’t remember anything at all” on the opening verse of ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ that evokes a bleak and desolate landscape across the water’s edge of Geneva and beyond. The spiritual groove of atmospheric electric guitars and guiding drum beat shares the kindred spirit of Neil Young’s ‘On The Beach’ from 1974, released some forty years earlier. The album’s title-track shares the same bleak world view with that of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ sprawling blues, the penultimate track on the latest masterpiece, ‘Push The Sky Away’. As Nick Cave sings the refrain of “Can you feel my heartbeat?”, a vivid sense of helplessness is washed onto the black road that lies ahead. A similarly wayward feel is etched on the sonic canvas of ‘On The Beach’ where the lyric of “The world is turnin’, I hope it don’t turn away” hits you profoundly. Lost souls in search of a way out from the darkness of despair. The following quote from Neil Young discussing ‘On The Beach’ describes the overall sound of the record: “The record was slow and dreamy, kind of underwater without bubbles.” Cave’s ‘Push The Sky Away’ is also just that.

Like many timeless records, ‘On The Beach’ comes from a dark place. 1974 was the period in time of a disintegrating relationship – ‘Motion Pictures’ depicts Young’s affair with actress Carrie Snodgrass, and also not long after Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten’s untimely death from an overdose in ’72, which was the heavy subject matter of (what would be) the following LP ‘Tonight’s The Night’, released in ’75. This period of the mid 70’s was undoubtedly Young’s most prolific and prosperous artistic output, recalling the fertile mid-60’s period of Dylan’s string of life-affirming records. Recording of ‘On The Beach’ took place at Sunset Sound on Sunset, down in Hollywood alongside Ben Keith and Rusty Kershaw. Says Young about Sunset Sound:

“It is also where we made ‘Expecting To Fly’ with Jack Nitzsche and Bruce Botnick, the great engineer who did the Doors’ albums with Paul Rotchild. Stephen Stills and I did ‘Rock & Roll Woman’ and many other Buffalo Springfield tracks there. I recorded ‘I Believe In You’ and ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ with Crazy Horse there too. It is a great place with lots of history for many of us.”

Producer David Briggs – who produced much of Young’s best output from ‘Harvest’ and ‘After The Goldrush’ to ‘Zuma’ and ‘Tonight’s The Night’- co-produced album opener ‘Walk On’ but didn’t make the rest of the sessions. David Briggs: “I got so deathly sick the second day – sickest I’ve ever been, hundred and five temperature – and they just kept recording. Just threw me away because Neil was hot. Pissed me off so much that I didn’t have anything to do with him for a long time.” Ben Keith would make the rest of the ‘On The Beach’ journey. Keith recruited an awe-inspiring ensemble of musicians. The Band’s rhythm section, Rick Danko and Levon Helm, and last but not least, Rusty Kershaw, whom Keith had met when he first came to Nashville in ’56. Ben Keith played bass, drums, organ, piano and Rusty Kershaw played lap steel and fiddle.

My first introduction to Neil Young’s music came in the shape of ‘Decade’ – a compilation of his work from ’66 to ’76 – that spanned the songwriter’s involvement in Buffalo Springfield and his own solo work. The two songs from ‘Decade’ taken from ‘On The Beach’ – which was unknown to me then – are ‘Walk On’ and ‘For The Turnstiles, representing some of Young’s finest sonic creations. The charged country-tinged electric guitar licks on ‘Walk On’ is supreme that makes for a perfect opening song. ‘For The Turnstiles’ is a sparse banjo-based folk lament. The closing lyrics are deeply affecting: “All the bushleague batters / Are left to die on the diamond / In the stands the home crowd scatters / For the turnstiles.” ‘Revolution Blues’ is a song inspired by Charlie Manson as depicted in the lyrics, “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.” David Crosby plays rhythm guitar on the track. A darkness looms throughout.

The gorgeous folk song ‘Ambulance Blues’ closes ‘On The Beach’. The folk-based odyssey is the longest cut on the album, at nine minutes in length. The song shares the melody of ‘The Needle Of Death’ from the late great Bert Jansch. In the words of Young: “It’s a great take. I always feel bad I stole that melody from Bert Jansch. Fuck. You ever heard that song ‘The Needle Of Death’? I loved that melody. I didn’t realize ‘Ambulance Blues’ starts exactly the same. I know that it sounded like something he did, but when I went back and heard that record again I realized that I copped his thing…I felt really bad about that. Because here is a guy who I’ll never play guitar as good as this guy. Never. He’s like Jimi Hendrix or something on the acoustic guitar.” The fiddle-led melody of Rusty Kershaw is reminiscent of ‘Desire’ era Bob Dylan. A cinematic world is created by the warm blend of double-bass notes and plucked acoustic guitar chords.

“An ambulance can only go so fast
It’s easy to get buried in the past
When you try to make a good thing last”

(‘Ambulance Blues’)

‘On The Beach’ was the name of a movie, used for the album title. Says Young: “One of my favourite album covers is ‘On The Beach’.” The album cover comprises of the tail fin and fender from a 1959 Cadillac, complete with taillights, polyester yellow jacket and white pants. A palm tree is also present, which was taken around the world on the ‘Tonight’s The Night’ tour. All these pieces were then placed carefully in the sand at Santa Monica Beach. “We used the crazy pattern from the umbrella insides for the inside of the sleeve that held the vinyl recording.” Bob Seidemann was the photographer. Says Gary Burden: “It just happened. Everything fit, from buying the newspaper. That’s the thing – when you’re with Neil, magic things happen.”

With ‘On The Beach’ completed, Neil Young did exactly what he’d swore he’d never do again – a huge arena tour, this time with CSNY. In ’75, yet another timeless classic – and perhaps under the radar – ‘Zuma’ was released by Young and Crazy Horse. ‘On The Beach’ for me, stands as one of Young’s finest works. Like many classic albums, audiences were mixed – to put it mildly – at the time of its release. Two years earlier came one of his most commercially successful records, ‘Harvest’ and ‘On The Beach’ was Young at his most uncompromising, not caring what audiences would think. Much like 1975’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’, a depth of darkness prevails that represents a true work of art, exuding an ocean of raw emotion – sorrow, rage, pain, hurt – that makes ‘On The Beach’ as relevant and vital today, as it has ever been.

The title-track – ‘On The Beach’ – is one of my favourite songs that Young ever put to tape. Again, it’s the feel of desolation and sense of post-apocalyptic doom that drifts slowly amidst the raw take of mesmerizing blues. The clean electric guitar tones of Young shares the spirit of a slowed-down version of B.B King’s ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, where a deeply affecting blues opus penetrates the human space. The personnel includes Neil Young (guitar/vocals), Graham Nash (wurlitzer piano), Ben Keith (hand drum), Tim Drummond (bass), and Ralph Molina (drums). Some of the album’s most affecting lyrics are present here, as Young sings “although my problems are meaningless / That doesn’t make them go away” and “I need a crowd of people / But I can’t face them day to day” on the song’s verses. The image of loneliness and despair comes into focus as Young sings the refrain of “I went to the radio interview, but I ended up alone at the microphone.” The slow and dreamy soundscapes of ‘On The Beach’ remain as vital as ever.

“Get out of town,
Think I’ll get out of town,
Get out of town,
Think I’ll get out of town.
I head for the sticks
With my bus and friends,
I follow the road,
Though I don’t know
Where it ends.
Get out of town, get out of town,
Think I’ll get out of town.

‘Cause the world is turnin’,
I don’t want to
See it turn away.”

—Neil Young (“On The Beach”)


Artist: Neil Young
Title: On The Beach
Label: Reprise
Year: 1974

Tracks: Walk On; See The Sky About To Rain, Revolution Blues; For The Turnstiles; Vampire Blues; On The Beach; Motion Blues; Ambulance Blues.

Personnel: Neil Young: vocals, guitars, piano, wurlitzer piano, banjo, harmonica; Ben Keith: slide guitar, steel guitar, wurlitzer piano, dobro, organ, hair drum, hand drum, bass, vocals; Billy Talbot: bass; Ralph Molina: drums, vocals, hand drums; Tim Drummond: bass, percussion; Joe Yankee: harp, electric tambourine; David Crosby: rhythm guitar; Graham Nash: wurlitzer piano; Rick Danko: bass; Levon Helm: drums; George Whitsell: guitar; Rusty Kershaw: fiddle, slide guitar; Co-Producers: Neil Young, David Briggs, Mark Harman, Al Schmitt; All songs written by Neil Young; Dedicated to Elliot Roberts.


The quotations used in the above article are taken from “Waging Heavy Peace”, Neil Young’s autobiography (available now on Blue Rider Press), and Jimmy McDonough’s biography on Neil Young, “Shakey”, available now on Vintage. 

“Psychedelic Pill” by Neil Young & Crazy Horse is out now on Warner Bros, Neil Young & Crazy Horse continue their European tour in August, for all tour dates and all information on Neil Young, please visit:


Written by admin

August 6, 2013 at 10:35 am

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