Neil Young’s On the Beach (the title a well known expression for time off from work) came out in the era of the Ford Pinto and the Energy Crisis and it was something of an anomaly when so many hit tunes were about heading out on the highway or dancing under flashing gel lights. Young had his fair share of highway songs as well, fewer for dancing, but On the Beach had something in it that was cognisant of its time, especially the changing role of the automobile from its role as a freedom machine to that of a destroying polluter. Acid rain—not global warming—was top of the environmental list of horrors at that time and songwriters like Young explored those issues in their songs. Young may have been best at it.
Oil On the Beach
“Vampire Blues” likens our addiction to oil to that of a vampire to blood, playing with aspects of physical addiction and pushers (“I’ll sell ya’ twenty barrels worth”) as if oil were heroin. On the Beach was recorded immediately after Tonight’s the Night and it has lots of the former’s darkness and introspection. On The Beach always had, though, a sort of retiring look at its day—a relaxed and clear look at it, just as any real vacation should provide its taker.
A Look at The Sea Change
The cover shows Neil with the splendorous fins of 1960s’ Detroit’s optimism (in the form of a tan-Cadillac tailfin) sticking out of the sand as an art object beneath a patio umbrella and some matching chairs. Young has his back to the camera and is staring out at the ocean. In 2014 it now appears to be an art-photo statement, as it did to many back then. The newspaper “under the table” has a headline that reads “Senator Buckley Calls for Nixon to Resign.” On the Beach has to rate as one of the best album covers of all time, all those by the Beatles included.
There were a mere eight songs on the album and I can remember people saying it was a rip-off with the second side only three songs long, but that was probably because it was three difficult songs: “On the Beach,” “Motion Pictures,” and “Ambulance Blues.” Lyrics about “pissing in the wind” confused those who were looking for country rock. Nothing was easy about this album, particularly for fans who wanted “Out on the Weekend” or “Heart of Gold.” Some found it too long and some not long enough.
On the Beach was not the same punk-country-Canadian thing he did on Time Fades Away and Tonight’s the Night, but it is a great example of post-punk-country...Canadian etc. One thing is true, you cannot go back. “For the Turnstiles,” a folksy-plucker, expressing well the “can’t go back” mood of the rest of the album and the realization that Detroit may not be making Packards or Cadillacs in 2014 and beyond. On the Beach is about as prophetic as a rocker can get.
The song “On the Beach” shows us Neil Young at the height of his songwriting ability, the blues accompaniment of the whole album giving us a document from what some felt was the “Fall of America,” in some ways. It’s one of the most amazing albums in any era. Drive around Detroit with Anthony Bourdain and others who have looked at it and you have to lift your hat to Neil Young and where he was during his horrors in the 70s.