Ask any Neil Young fan about his back catalogue and they'll always mutter darkly about albums never released on CD. There were, until now, at least seven major releases that have never seen the light of day. Suddenly Young appears to have (partly) relented and allowed a new generation to hear four of them (On The Beach, American Stars And Bars, Hawks And Doves, and Re-Actor). Yet only one of these albums has websites devoted to petitioning for its release. And only one has, over the years, come to rival Young's other searingly unguarded moment -Tonight's The Night - for the title of his greatest work. So after 30 years in the dark, does On The Beach live up to its reputation?
Whereas Tonight's... has the air of a drunken wake about it, OTB is more of a singular stoner's take on his life in relation to world events. It's a wake for a whole decade. As he says on the opener ''Walk On'': 'Sooner or later, it all gets real...' You have to remember that Young lived at the centre of many of the counterculture's greatest and worst moments. Not only had he been present at Woodstock (and refused to be filmed, due to his increasing suspicion that the revolution had been commercialized), but he'd known Charles Manson personally. He'd even suggested to Warners that they give him a recording contract! 1973 was a major crossroads in his life. His marriage to actress Carrie Snodgrass was on the skids; he'd still not come to terms with the loss of guitarist Danny Whitten; his label had balked at releasing his blitzed lament to lost friends (Tonight's...) and the huge success of CSN&Y had brought him no comfort. So it was, that Young, along with a disparate crew that included Levon Helm of the Band and the larger-than-life backwoodsman Rusty Kershaw (on fiddle and Dobro), proceeded to get wasted and tape what happened.
Nothing and no one is spared. Nixon (''Ambulance Blues''), global fuel conglomerates (''Vampire Blues''), Manson and the whole West Coast 'me' generation (''Revolution Blues''), the wife (''Motion Pictures''), but most of all himself. It's as if Young needed to lay it all out to really find out where he could go next. The title track pinpoints exactly the artist's need for validation, along with his need to remain apart from the pack (''I need a crowd of people, but I can't face them day to day''). It's as contradictory as Young's life itself has often seemed. But above all he realises his own place in the universe (''Though my troubles are meaningless - that don't make them go away''). Such a public catharsis scared both his audience and his label. It was the worst selling of his albums to date.
It was also entirely necessary in order for Young to retain his sense of integrity and move on. Within 12 months he'd reformed Crazy Horse and was headed for louder, rougher pastures. Thirty years on this remains an essential album if you ever want to get even the slightest glimpse of what makes Young an enigma and a genius. Raw, ragged, desultory: it's all of the above. It's also staggeringly moving and, yes, it's probably his best album. But don't take my word for it...Now can we have Time Fades Away please, Neil? --Chris Jones
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