On the Beach was the in-studio follow-up to 1972's Harvest. Neil Young once wrote in liner notes for his Decade compilation that ''Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there." Neil headed for the ditch with the "Ditch Trilogy" - Time Fades Away, Tonight's the Night, and On the Beach. Neil became disillusioned with stardom, discovered that "success" wasn't all that it was cracked up to be, and a couple of friends [Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry] succumbed to drug overdoses. Those circumstances put Neil in a foul mood, the result of which was the "Ditch Trilogy."
Neil Young emerged from the ditch with On the Beach. Released in 1974, it reflected the times - Watergate, the Symbionese Liberation Army and their kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the energy crisis, the post-Woodstock hangover of hippies having to grow up and actually contribute something to society. Several of Neil's friends appear on On the Beach, to include David Crosby, Graham Nash, Ben Keith, Rusty Kershaw, Rick Danko and Levon Helm. The album sports one of the coolest album covers I've ever seen - a Cadillac buried in sand up to its tailfins, a newspaper with headlines calling for Nixon to resign, a yellow beach umbrella and two chairs, and a long-haired Neil gazing out at the ocean while standing near a potted palm tree.
On the Beach was made under the influence of "Honey Slides," courtesy of Rusty Kershaw. A honey slide is a concotion made from mixing up honey and real cheap marijuana. According to Neil's manager Elliot Roberts, "The high was debilitating. People passed out. This stuff was, like, way worse than heroin. Much heavier. Rusty Kershaw would pour it down your throat and within ten minutes you were catatonic."
Despite the honey slides [or maybe because of them, I don't know], On the Beach has lots of good Neil Young music. When it came out it was panned, but time has been more than kind to On the Beach. Critics have since praised it as a "masterpiece."
Walk On - Some get stoned, some get strange/Sooner or later it all gets real... a commentary on the 1960s perhaps?
See the Sky About to Rain - a leftover from the Harvest days. Yawn...
Revolution Blues - not so much a tribute to Charles Manson, but written from Manson's point of view. 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... It's not a blues - it's a full-tilt rocker with the Band's rhythm section [Rick Danko and Levon Helm] and Croz on rhythm guitar.
For the Turnstiles - Neil plays banjo. What does it all mean? Damned if I know...
Vampire Blues - Neil skewers the oil companies. Neil was green before being green became chic. This is as close to a blues as Neil Young gets.
On the Beach - Neil laments stardom. If you should always look on the bright side of life, then Neil meditates on the downward side of fame. I need a crowd of people but I can't face them today/Though my troubles are meaningless - that don't make them go away. This one has the feeling of waking up with a skull-crushing hangover. It sounds a bit bleary-eyed in its execution. Perhaps it was the honey slides. Graham Nash appears on Wurlitzer piano.
Motion Pictures - Neil laments his breakup with Carrie Snodgrass, the actress he fell in love with on Harvest's A Man Needs a Maid.
Ambulance Blues - Neil takes aim at his critics [so all you critics sit alone, you're no better than me from what you've shown with your stomach pumps and your hook-and-ladder dreams], Richard Nixon [I never knew a man could tell so many lies /He had a different story for every set of eyes /How can he remember who he's talkin' to/'Cause I know it ain't me and I hope it isn't you], and Crosby, Stills and Nash [you're all just pissing in the wind...]. It sounds a lot like Bert Jansch's Needle of Death - even Neil said so. It's not a blues either, but a 9-minute ballad. It's just Neil, one acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and Rusty Kershaw's fiddle. Good stuff this one.
On the Beach is not a cheery album, but not every album has to be. Play this one back-to-back with Harvest for maximum effect.