After the success of his previous album “Harvest” propelled him to the status of megastar, Neil Young took a massive change of direction on his next studio release “On the Beach”. The long-awaited follow up to “Harvest” was interestingly enough recorded after what would be his 1975 release “Tonight’s the Night”, but released before that album in 1974 and stylistically was a big departure from the commercially successful folk-rock sound he had perfected on both “After the Gold Rush” and “Harvest”. “On the Beach” is quite a dark, bleak sounding record both lyrically and musically, as Young lays bare for all to see his feelings about the 1960s counterculture, as well as the 1970s music industry on what is largely a bare-bones rock record amidst small splatterings of acoustic folk just to keep the purists happy.
Young is quite savage in places as he takes aim at various people (largely unnamed) from his life during the previous few years. Some of the people he has it in for on this album include the critics and music press who he mentions on “Motion Pictures” singing the line “all these headlines just bore me now”, big business in the music industry “For the Turnstiles” and the counterculture “Ambulance Blues” with the famous line “You’re all just pissing in the wind”. On the whole, “On the Beach” could have been Young’s way of saying to the fans and critics alike how he didn’t care what they thought of him, this after the preceding “Tonight’s the Night” tour got bad press and a lukewarm reaction, with Young being derided for playing mostly new material and hardly anything from “Harvest”. By this stage, it was fair to say Young had long given up caring what people thought of him or his music, a belief that comes through strongly on “On the Beach”.
Musically “On the Beach” is a very sparse and under-produced sounding album, something which in many ways lends itself well to the subject matter in the songs. There is not much going on here musically, which is a good thing in this case as the songs do not need much in the way of virtuosity or brilliant instrumental escapades. In fact, the music on the album in many ways is just a support act for what Young has to say in the lyrics. The backing instrumentation is minimal in terms of sound and musical exploration, working well as a subtle addition underneath the strong and vivid themes portrayed in the lyrics. The quality of the songs comes through in their subtle nature and I feel that if Young went all hell for leather with wailing guitar solos and extended jams like he has a tendency to do on occasion, the same intimacy and connection these songs portray to the listener would not nearly have the same effect.
Despite not being commercially successful at the time, “On the Beach” has become a favorite Neil Young album amongst fans and critics. For a couple of decades On the Beach even became a cult-like record in that it became a rare collector’s item after it had stopped being printed during the 1980s. The fanfare and longing for this record came to a head in 2000 when 5000 people signed an online petition to have the album released on CD, a request which Young eventually responded to in kind with the album finally getting it’s long overdue CD release in 2003. “On the Beach” is one of Neil Young’s best albums (all be it quite underrated it seems) and contains some of his best songs. Here he is drawing a line in the sand with his life and says goodbye to the 1960s generation he was very much part of, rejecting rock stardom and the counterculture in the process. “On the Beach” is a nice little collection of songs (eight in total) and is worth a listen if you are a Neil Young fan, or a curious rock fan looking for something new to listen to. I thoroughly recommend it.