Some albums become legendary because of the huge amounts they sold (The Joshua Tree, The Dark Side of the Moon), some because they made a distinct cultural impact, (Revolver, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars) and some just because they contained utterly brilliant music (Blood on the Tracks, Catch a Fire). On the Beach became legendary for an entirely different reason. While it chalked up modest sales when it was released, it wasn’t re-released for the best part of two decades, which left an intriguing hole in the discography of one of popular music’s most compelling characters. Those that had heard it claimed it was Neil Young’s lost classic and that made those that had never heard it even more eager to get their hand on a copy, so much so that it became a sort of badge of honour to have actually heard the album, never mind own it. On the Beach became legendary because so few people actually knew what it sounded like and over time it’s legend continued to grow.
That bubble was finally burst when an official remaster came out in 2003 and a generation of Neil Young fans that had wondered at the enigma that was On the Beach were able to get their grubby little mitts on a copy. Of course there was overreaction from the press that Young’s complete discography was finally available on CD (handily ignoring that Young himself continues to refuse to release Time Fades Away and Journey Through the Past even to this day), but at least it finally gave us the chance to assess if On the Beach was worth the hype that had built up in its absence.
From the off, while it’s a little more upbeat than the miserable Tonight’s the Night (recorded before, but released after On The Beach), On The Beach was still an album rooted in despair. What it did have in its favour was a higher tune count, with “Walk On” sounding positively jaunty, “See The Sky About To Rain” a song which sounded like it could have been a superior outtake from Harvest and “Ambulance Blues” being Young’s own “Desolation Row”. With three separate producers collaborating with Young, you would expect the album to sound disjointed, but in actual fact it sounds a strangely unified set of songs.
As a piece of Young’s ‘Ditch Trilogy’ along with Time Fades Away and the aforementioned Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach will always have a certain cache with his fans. Touching on subjects as diverse as Young’s crumbling relationship, the 70s oil crisis and the Manson murders, it was never going to a barrel of laughs, but hey, it’s part of the ‘Ditch Trilogy’, if you want lightness and frivolity go elsewhere and let the rest of us wallow in the despair of one of the greatest musicians in the history of rock and roll.
Is On the Beach the pinnacle of Young’s career that so many people that had never heard were convinced it was? No. After the Gold Rush and Rust Never Sleeps remain his unsurpassable high points, but that doesn’t mean that On the Beach isn’t one of his best albums and worth parting with your hard earned for.