Neil Young Discography Parts Twelve & Thirteen - On The Beach (1974), Tonight's The Night (1975)
So now the chronology gets a bit confusing. Following the disastrous Time Fades tour and a number of deaths within Neil's circle of friends and musicians (including of course one member of Crazy Horse), he wrote and recorded the Tonight's The Night LP, which his record company liked even less than the album's that had preceeded it. It was therefore shelved, and instead he released On The Beach, only slightly more commercial and again far bleaker than anything he had released previously.
Walk On is a pretty incongruous opener, feeling pretty much apart from the feeling of the rest of the album. In fact it would have made a good stand alone single preceeding the record given it's subject matter; Neil replying to his critics with a carefree attitude of righteous isolationism. It's probably the album's happiest moment, and really only does work at the start (anywhere else would be far too jarring). It's a pretty nice mid-tempo rocker that 'does its business in a nice amateur style and gets out of there without too much emotional effect. See the Sky About to Rain starts to set us off into the rest of the album well, quiet and keyboard based, it had been hanging around for quite a while by this point and it's a really lovely song. It sounds like it could have been included on Harvest, and indeed did hail from that era. The lyric is slightly unfinished sounding in places, but the mood is so nice that it's a real pleasure. The lap steel work sounds particularly good; slightly whiney and sharply produced, in the haunting fashion it always seems to best be played in. This one also notably features The Band's Rick Danko and Levon Helm. Revolution Blues is probably the first really good track, a great moody blues shuffle describing LA in the late 60s; Manson, drugs, cop-on-hippie violence, breakdowns, Black Panthers, The Weather Underground, Nixon, murders, you name it. A nice 'end of the hippie dream' track. At times it almost sounds like a talking-blues number, the lyrics almost improvised; they sound sharp and thrown out with some attitude rather than laboured over, which works pretty nicely. It also has the albums first guitar solo proper, which is a stormer.
For the Turnstiles is another short country number based around a snappy banjo number and a vocal track which even for Neil sounds hoarse and unstudied. Reminds me an awful lot of Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, or something like 'A Minor Place' from Will Oldham's I See A Darkness record, and in fact Oldham would be the perfect guy to cover this song. Which is great, and features more exemplary dobro work from Ben Keith. So over to side two, which for many Neil fans is probably one of the best sides of songs he's ever released. First up comes Vampire Blues, a song which I first heard when it was covered by Mercury Rev, and which is maybe one of the best authentic sounding blues songs Neil has written. The organ vamp is there from the start, bringing a great shimmering sun-going-down feeling to things. The imagery is fantastic, almost worthy of a Robert Johnson or a Ledbetter in its resonant evocation of the more horrific side of the blues. The production is basic, muddy at points, as it should be, and again apparently wilfully uncommercial in its lack of commercial appeal. There's a sort of weird guitar solo at the end that sounds like Neil can't get his guitar plugged in properly for the first minute, and then launches into unending jazzy twiddling as we go into the fadeout. Layla it ain't.
On the Beach is in the running for my favourite Neil song of all time, or maybe one of my favourite songs of all time. I can't think of a lyric that I personally relate to more. The word is desolate. Desolate, beautiful and longing and melancholic. A quiet melancholia pervades, the lyric trying to express a longing for human connection tempered by the fear of pain; 'I need a crowd of people but I can't face them day to day'. The guitar work is stunning, low rumbling bassy tones in the background, a shrill chord based sequence up front. This is also maybe the only song I really love to use bongos. How about that? 'Though my problems are meaningless, that don't make them go away' Now that's a lyric. It's seven minutes long by the way, and could really go on far longer if I was in the studio. The solos are skeletal, wonderful yearning expressions that really fly in the face of those who say Neil's solos all sound the same or somehow aren't as emotive in their composition as bores like Clapton etc. On The Beach is one of the only songs by a musician who's basically complaining about his lot in life that I actually feel some sympathy for. Maybe that's down to my fanboyism, or maybe it's down to Neil as a person; he's always seemed far more human in his songwriting and his lack of 'cool' than most others. The song again repeats the themes of Walk On; 'Think i'll get out of town...take a bus to the sticks...I'll follow the road though I don't know where it ends', and thus sets the scene for a hundred Will Oldhams and Handsome Familys, Dirty Three's and Nina Nastasia's. A beautiful work of art. I should also mention another anecdote that I doubt means much to anyone but me; how when i've been at this year's All Tomorrow's Parties festivals, it's been one of the songs that the organisers play through the instore PA's of some of the holiday camps stores and restaurants. Now I already love these festivals and some of my readers know it (and others have been right to take the piss, my love for music is pretty much ridiculously over the top); they're a chance for people who truly love music more than anything else to congregate and celebrate wonderful passionate musical expressions that seem to sometimes only come from the margins; to come together and to realise as a group how lucky we are and how much we should praise artists for giving us so much. It's also funny at times, as the boundaries between artist and audience are broken down and the band members usually stroll through the arena watching the other bands, usually unmolested by the audience. The music-money-making machine seems pretty absent, it's a place where the music seems a bit more pure, unadorned as it is by corporate advertisin. But then ironically, one of the things that also makes it individual is that this music from the margins has taken over a whole holiday camp, full of arcade machines and burger kings and theme pubs, and that's a great thing, because it both shows that a really large group of people have felt the same reactions to this music as you, and because it means that when you go for a piss in Pizza Hut, you get the beautifully incongruous pleasure of hearing Neil Young's On The Beach played through the bathroom PA speakers. But anyway, i'm rambling...
Motion Pictures is a slow piano/guitar number that again focuses on the retreat from life/music theme, as Neil intones that he'd 'like to start all over again'. It's slow, those bongos are there again, and it's nice in it's self-satisfied, ungrasping way. It's a pure expression that may not be one of his most anthemic or best songs, but to the listener who feels they have a relationship with the singer, it really sounds right, honest and fresh. So! Ambulance Blues finishes things off; and again it's looking back on the past in a part sad, part sarcastic fashion...'Back in the old folky days...they tore you down and ploughed you under'. The past is revealed as fake, a madeup dream that no longer stands, and life is reduced to its basic realities, as 'Burnouts stub their toes on garbage pails', 'You're all just pissing in the wind'. It's a really lovely song, honest, brave and unforgiving in it's self analysis. The voilin and mouth organ are nice additions too. And then it's over. Almost nine minutes long, but it never really feels it. For some reason it also sounds like a Daniel Johnston song, and there's no better compliment than that.
In conclusion despite its brevity and off the cuff nature, the haunting power of the songs and willingness to play outside the mainstream makes On The Beach a really special record, and a real surprise for those fans who had been unable to hear it for decades until it's reissue around 2005.
Neil Young - On The Beach
Neil Young - Revolution Blues
Tonight's The Night is one of Neil's most legendary LPs. When it was finally released, it was critically received as another intentional turn away from the mainstream, and in comparison to it's predecessor it sounded even more stark and confrontational. This is really lo-fi stuff; half drunk and stumbling down the road. It's one of those records that should only really be listened to in the early hours, when the listener is as drunk as the singers. It's a special album.
So we open of course with Tonight's the Night, which to be reaaaally honest i've never been a massive fan of. I mean I can tell it's a great song, and the performance is really enjoyable in its drunken lo-fi magic, but lyrically I can't quite connect. Which is silly, because it's about the death of a number of people related to Young, and so he should be making it work for me, the fool! Methinks it's more down to that bouncy bassline. Too happy for a song about death, clearly. It is a good scene-setter though, and I do really like that piano near the end. Speakin' Out is far better to my ears, a lovely Stones-a-like sarcastic drunken (i'll have to stop using that word in a minute, cos it's all drunk. All of it.) shuffle that sounds grrrreat. Nice guitar licks throughout and great understated dobro work. World on a String is more of the same, if a little more upbeat. Gotta love that dobro! It's a shame really that a few of the more bluesy numbers aren't a little more thoughout. Yes they're a lot of fun and sound great, but as songs they sometimes lack a little something. Borrowed Tune however is reaaaally great. As the title suggests it is indeed semi-stolen, but then so is every piece of art ever. SO EAT IT. It's maybe the albums most sombre moment, reminding me of the title track from Goldrush in it's one-man-in-a-room dark reflective mood.
Now Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown, that is a grrrreat upbeat song. I mean it stills sounds drunk, it stills sounds bluesy, but there's a hell of a lot more energy there this time. Great guitar noise mania excellence. More adventures of drug chasing, finding, taking from the mind of Neil, this one just sounds REALLY right. Mellow My Mind is another goodun, a nice jazzy piano based tune, super super out of tune, unprofessional and great for it. You wouldn't hear stuff this unprofessional on any record by his contemporaries...you can sort of see why John Lydon and some other punks liked him so much in his attempt to push the song out despite his occasional lack of ability/emotional breakdown (cos that's what this one sounds like to me!). Roll Another Number (For the Road) is an okay country dirge. Nothing more, nothing less. It's a joke really, not particularly funny but it fits into the records mood pretty well. Albuquerque is rather underrated, the melody being kind of hard to figure out. It's not an instant one but after a number of years listening to the record it sort of comes together as a favourite. A very nice harmonica solo pops up half way through before the solo, which is also a goodun and together these elements make it one of my faves on the album.
New Mama is beautifully understated, a very pretty piano ballad that I never seem to see mentioned in discussions of the record (maybe because it doesnt sound that sloppy and isn't about drugs??). It has a very very nice verse melody that really works in the acapella section near the end. Good stuff. Lookout Joe is a sort of melodic re-run of Walk On, so goodish but sort of musically uninteresting in a bored Stones way. It's one of the songs that could have done with a little more work composition wise.
Tired Eyes however is so weird and different that it totally works and becomes one of the most idiosyncratic things on the album. Opening with a weird piano vamp as Neil narrates the story of *surprise* a failed drugs sale, it then slowly goes into the sung chorus, which does indeed just sound so tired and worn out and sad. It's really different from just about anything else Neil had recorded up to this point...or if I think about it anything since. One of my highlights. And then we're back to Tonight's the Night, Pt. 2, or TNN: The Reprise if you like. This would be the first of a number of albums where Neil would reprise the intro song slightly differently at the end, and although it sometimes works well (see Rockin' In The Free World on Freedom), here it just reminds me of how I don't like the title track that much! Silly Neil.
In conclusion, the album deserves its reputation; it's incredibly idiosyncratic and influential, and for 1974/5 this was a pretty ballsy move. Part of me feels Neil could have put a few more well thought out songs on, but then maybe making it more perfect' would have actually made it less so.
Neil Young - Borrowed Tune
Neil Young - Tired Eyes