Released in 1974, On the Beach is one of Neil Young’s more intriguing efforts. It’s also one of Young’s albums that could fairly be called “elusive”—it took an online petition to secure a CD release of On the Beach, which finally occurred in 2003. The LP went out of print in the early 1980s, making it an especially rare find for vinyl enthusiasts.
In the liner notes to Young’s compilation album Decade, the songwriter wrote, “‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.” From this turn of phrase sprang forth the notion of Young’s “Ditch Trilogy,” which includes On the Beach, 1973’s Time Fades Away and culminated with Tonight’s the Night.
Moody and unsparing, jammed with images of loneliness and apocalypse, On the Beach miraculously avoids succumbing to bleakness; instead Young manages to transcend and transmute the innate pessimism of his vision. Ironically, considering that the album incorporates visions of assassinating noted cinema personalities from Laurel Canyon in their cars, the recording sessions for On the Beach were “Hollywood Babylon at its fullest,” as bassist Tim Drummond observed. As Jimmy McDonough wrote in Shakey, a biography of Neil Young, “It was a nonstop sleazefest,” with porn star Linda Lovelace and various Playboy bunnies making regular appearances. The edgy languor of the album surely a product of the “honey slides” everyone involved consumed during recording. “Honey slides” were a combination of pan-fried marijuana and honey dreamt up by musician Rusty Kershaw’s wife “until a black gooey substance was left in the pan,” as Young wrote 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.”
Young, of course, is Canadian—perhaps the most famous Canadian musician of them all. Earlier this year a dance troupe in Winnipeg known as Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers decided to honor their countryman with a dance performance inspired by On the Beach. The project, called For the Turnstiles after the fourth track of the album, was the brainchild of Brent Lott, who enlisted John K. Samson, formerly of Propagandhi and the Weakerthans, to compose an original live score with the assistance of Christine Fellows, Ashley Au, and fellow Weakerthans member Jason Tait. The performances were held at Gas Station Arts Centre in Winnipeg from May 7 to 9, 2015.
In an interview with CBC, Samson discussed the evolution of the For the Turnstiles project and the special qualities of the album On the Beach:
The following photographs from the production are by Winnipeg photographer Leif Norman: