Monday, May 23, 2011
Neil Diamond – The Bang Years 1966-1968
With Neil’s recent introduction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I’d heard lots of people talking smack about whether or not Neil deserved to be in the same class as Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochrane. They'd rail on about Neil's schmaltzy later years and Barbara Streisand duets. "That ain't rock!" they'd say.
Let’s set the record straight, shall we?
First, I gotta reveal my bias here. I grew up listening to Neil Diamond. Along with Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, and the Hair Soundtrack, Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night was one of the essential albums in my parents’ record collection. I remember night after night, television off, my parents and I sitting in the den, just spinning albums. Losing ourselves in the music. Probably, my happiest memories of childhood. And it was on Hot August Night, during “Holly Holy” that I heard my mother say, amazement in her eyes, “just listen to his voice here. Amazing.” And it was. At that moment, Neil reached down into the most guttural reaches of his vocal chords and pulled out notes as if his life depended on it. That moment taught me to listen to music in an entirely new way and eventually led to the Ripple existing today. I’ll argue with anyone, till the next rapture comes, that Hot August Night remains one of the great live albums of all time, capturing an artist at the peak of his powers.
Sure, I haven’t listened to anything he’s done since the late 70’s, but none of that should diminish the value of his early work. And for anybody who wants to discover it, this compilation of the Bang Years is the place to start.
Starting off as a young and starving songwriter, Neil Diamond parlayed a string of gut-wrenching failures into a contract with Bang Records where he proceeded to release one classic song after another. And not just pop songs, but rockabilly rockers with enough adrenaline to make even the most diehard rock fan proud. It’s easy to talk about the hits. “Kentucky Woman,” rocks with a leisurely swagger, Neil’s acoustic setting the pace. It’s easy to see what Deep Purple found here. The verses are perfect, the inherent riff was just begging to be made thicker and harder. “I’m a Believer” remains one of the catchiest pop songs of the sixties, whether it’s Neil’s version or The Monkees. Both have their strengths, with Neil’s being so pure swingin’ sixties lounge it’s simply classic. With it’s big organ sond, Neil’s version definitely set the template for the Smashmouth remake, but I’ll take Neil’s anyday.
“Solitary Man,” may be a bit unknown to those who aren’t Diamond fans, but it’s always been one of my favorites of his. His first hit, Neil explores roads of melancholy amongst his strumming guitar. Horn blasts hide in the chorus without ever becoming obtrusive or taking away the pain in Neil’s words. “Cherry, Cherry” is a rocking, hand-clapping, knee-slapping classic that Rolling Stone has hailed as one of the “greatest 3-chord songs of all time.” I ain’t gonna argue it. With its “She got the way to move me” backing vocals, unrelenting guitar beat, and Neil’s fine vocals it perfectly encapsulates the swingin’ sixties. “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon,” is infinitely better here than the Pulp Fiction version, with it’s flamenco styled guitar and impassioned plea for love.
There’s other hits here you know, like “Red Red Wine” (which actually doesn’t hold up that well for me) but the biggest revelation are the Diamond rockers I hadn’t heard before. Best of these is “Thank the Lord for the Night Time.” Anybody who thinks Neil didn’t know how to rock needs to hear this rockabilly pulsating classic. Big guitar twang, Neil’s strumming fiercely, pulsing bass, and a faint gospel feeling to partying like hell at night. Put this up there with Eddie Cochrane. It fits.
“You Got Me,” rides a simply wailing harmonica, massively bottom-ended piano sound, and unrelenting beat to pop/gospel/rockabilly heaven. I dare you to listen to this baby and not snap your fingers in time.
At 23 songs, the collection is a bit dense, but it’s certainly complete. As expected, some songs don’t work as well as you’d like. Neil’s version of “La Bamba” probably shouldn't have been recorded. Just didn’t need a Jewish kid from Brooklyn singing a Spanish rocker. Not a big fan of his cover of Paul Simon’s “Red Rubber Ball” either. But other covers like “Monday Monday” work beautifully and anybody who thinks that Neil doesn’t have any soul really needs to hear his tear-the-roof-off-the-sucka version of “New Orleans.”
And then it’s fitting that this collection ends with “Shilo” a song that may not be familiar to anyone but Diamond fans. Somewhere lost in that incredible melody and Neil’s best vocal performance are the words about a young child lost in the loneliness of a painful childhood, (“dreaming each dream on your own)” seeking solace from the pain with his imaginary friend. It’s a song of remarkable emptiness and desolation. A song that spoke volumes to me, lost in my room, alone, hiding from the demons outside. I’d play “Shilo” over and over from the Hot August Night album, wishing that I had an imaginary friend like Shilo who could understand me and what I was going through. I can’t explain how much that song spoke to that frightened, lonely little boy.
And it still does.
Buy here: NEIL DIAMOND: THE BANG YEARS
Buy here mp3: The Bang Years