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Why On the Beach is one of Neil Young's most underrated, enduring albums

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

“I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day,” sings Neil Young in “On the Beach,” a brilliantly lonely lyric from his album of the same name, released in 1974.  

As a followup to his magnum opus, Harvest, the downbeat and morose On the Beach was misunderstood by critics and fans upon release, but grew to enjoy a cult-like status amongst record collectors (it went out of print on vinyl in the early ‘80s, making it rare), loyal Young fans and musicians who appreciated its bravado and artistic integrity. Not released on CD until 2003 following an online petition signed by 5,000 fans, today On the Beach is considered a classic, and is quite possibly your favourite musician’s favourite Neil Young album.   

“On the Beach had a rebirth, a renaissance,” says Matt Berninger of the National, which has used the title track for its walk-on music while on tour. “It was one of those records that he disowned for a while and then when it was remastered it had a whole new life. There is just a funny romance about it, the whole tortured artist, hating your own thing, which is maybe why musicians like it. They understand you have something that you make and don’t have any perspective on, and how other people can embrace something you thought was bad, and vice versa.”

Dark, brooding and blood-soaked with imagery of greed, loneliness and violence in a post-hippy world — most notably in the blues trilogy of “Vampire Blues,” “Ambulance Blues” and “Revolution Blues,” the latter inspired by meeting Charles Manson — Rolling Stone called On the Beach “one of the most despairing albums of the decade.” Although, that seems to have been the intent for Young, who tired of the instant fame from Harvest, a popular folk album packed with hits like “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man.” 

"'Heart of Gold' put me in the middle of the road,” Young wrote in the liner notes to Decade, his compilation album. “Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch." The expression led to On the Beach being considered part of his Ditch Trilogy, which began with 1973’s Time Fades Away and culminated with the even darkerTonight’s the Night, released in 1975 but technically recorded beforeOn the Beach and rejected by the label for being too dark.

“On the Beach is f--king amazing,” says U.K. singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, who blew up in 2005 with the rocking "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" but released the melancholy and critically acclaimedInvisible Empire // Crescent Moon in June. “The fact that he recordedTonight’s the Night first but released it after, it’s like what, you just had this one hanging around? And there’s that amazing line, 'I need a crowd of people....' He’s saying he needs a crowd but he also needs to be alone. A brilliant album, such an addictive album.”

On the Beach was recorded at Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis Hotel in a haze of debauchery, the languorous blues on the album influenced heavily by “honey slides,” a concoction of pan-fried marijuana and honey cooked up by musician Rusty Kershaw’s wife “until a black gooey substance was left in the pan,” Young writes in his memoir,Waging Heavy Peace. “A couple spoonfuls of that and you would be laid-back into the middle of next week. The record was slow and dreamy, kind of underwater without bubbles.”  

Porn star Linda Lovelace, the Everly Brothers and a sea of Playboy bunnies were regular fixtures during a recording process described by bass player Tim Drummond as “Hollywood Babylon at its fullest,” with Kershaw infamously claiming to be possessed by a snake and slithering across the floor; engineer Al Schmitt walked out before completion.   

“I’m deep inside myself, but I’ll get out somehow,” Young sings on “Motion Pictures,” capturing the essence of that moment in his life perfectly, which was filled with fame but also depression. “You go down to the beach and watch the same thing, just imagine every wave is a different set of emotions coming in,” he told Melody Makerin 1985.

On the Beach's eventual acceptance and reappraisal (Pitchfork listed it number 65 on a list of the top albums of the '70s) also proved that Young didn’t have to make another Harvest; that as an artist, he was free to express himself however he wished. Almost 40 years later, it’s a message that still resonates with artists today. 

“It’s an absolute masterpiece,” says rapper Cadence Weapon, whose 2012 album, Hope in Dirt City, pushed genre boundaries and was shortlisted for the Polaris Prize. “It’s a really landmark album not just for Canada, but in general. I admire his ability to go from genre to genre and style to style, doing whatever he wants throughout his career and still be consistently interesting. That’s something I look up to and am inspired by.”

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG.