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NEIL DIAMOND
The Bang Years: 1966-1968
Columbia / Legacy / Sony Music Entertainment
Format: CD / MP3
Release Date: March 8, 2011
By John Book June 9, 2011

It may be hard to believe, but Neil Diamond has been offering his level of swag and finesse for 45 years. At this point, he has become an example, if not a blatant stereotype, of the power of pop music. Radio never stops playing him, and his songs are used in everything from car commercials to sporting and political events. Yet, for younger generations who have grown up regarding his hits as the square, sentimental tunes that their parents (or grandparents) listen to, they may question why they should be curious about Diamond. Question no longer. The Bang Years: 1966-1968 is a fantastic 23-song compilation representing Diamond’s first forays into the pop charts.

Bang was a record label like any other, wanting to become a hit-making imprint by finding artists tailored to fulfill that goal. It makes sense, considering that Bang was founded by Bert Berns (B), Ahmet Ertegun (A), Nesuhi Ertegun (N), and Jerry (Gerald) Wexler (G) – some of the mid-to-late 20th century’s biggest record industry players. ┬áThe label was never promoted as an Atlantic subsidiary, but whereas Atlantic had the soul and jazz charts and ATCO covered pop, the ANG portion of Bang’s executives wanted more chart dominance. They achieved this when Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” (1967), The Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy” (1965), and The McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy” (1965) each became staples on mainstream radio. Then came Neil Diamond.

While Diamond’s stay on Bang lasted only a few years (1966-68) and ended in frustration on the singer’s part and a protracted legal battle, he quickly became its most popular star. That popularity came at a price, though. The songs on this collection show someone who was not only a singer able to excite and entice, but also a talented songwriter. While Bang felt they had found the perfect pop star in Diamond, the singer-songwriter, who had previously worked as a songwriter in the Brill Building creating hits for the likes of Elvis Presley, The Monkees, and Cliff Richard, didn’t want to merely be a teen sensation. Rather, in the span of these few years, he managed to come up with a catalog of songs that has largely defined his persona to this day. Some of the songs here include “Solitary Man,” “Kentucky Woman,” “The Long Way Home,” and “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” (Diamond’s obligatory contribution to the 1960s phenomenon of “I’m a man, but I want to romance little girls” songs).

If you’ve limited your perspective of Neil Diamond to what you hear on oldies radio today, there are two songs here that may surprise you, since outside of Diamondophiles they’re generally not associated with Diamond. The first is “I’m A Believer,” which of course became a massive hit for The Monkees, continues to get airplay today, and for contemporary youth, unfortunately, is forever linked to Smashmouth’s cover version in Shrek (2001). Here, we find the song from the man who put it together, and the passion and devotion in Diamond’s version is much more intense and heartfelt. Then there’s “Red Red Wine,” a song that did not do well for Diamond as a single, but managed to gain an audience through numerous cover versions, including a few by Jamaican soul/reggae performers during the late 1960s (Jimmy James, Tony Tribe). These rocksteady versions were popular in the British ska scene of the period and Tribe’s cover became a favorite of the members of UB40, who would release their own version in 1983. The song went on to become UB40’s biggest hit, and to most readers the song is identified with them today. Here, we get to hear Diamond’s original acoustic ballad, and the conviction and misery he felt over losing a woman he loved, forgetting her with a bottle of wine. Diamond would revive the song in the 1970s when a live version of it appeared on his massive selling live album Hot August Night (MCA, 1972). This song has managed to have a life of its own for six decades, but it’s only now, in 2011, that this compilation makes it possible for the composition to return home.

All of the songs are remastered and presented here in their original mono single mixes and edits, and the recordings sound fresh and vibrant. But what is also impressive about this set are the liner notes, penned by Diamond himself. There has been a bigger-than-life understanding of Diamond over the years, especially after Hot August Nights’ release and his role in the film The Jazz Singer (1980). The perception has helped him cultivate a career which continues to this day, but most of the people who know the hits don’t know the hustle and struggles he endured to reach that success. By leaving Bang, Diamond became a bit more aggressive in his songwriting, a hint of which can be heard in the song that closes this collection, “Shilo.” Once the singer departed from the label, he moved forward and became one of the biggest pop stars of the 20th century, a showman known for the kitsch and glamour of his performances. The liner notes describe a young man ready to explore, and to see a scan of one of his first royalty checks is hilarious, considering that he has gone on to sell over 1115 million record worldwide and no doubt continues to profit wildly from some of the most ubiquitous pop hits of the past 50 years.

The Bang Years: 1966-1968 is something that should be heard and purchased not only by those who may have enjoyed these tracks the first time, but for those who need to know what quality music and songwriting songs like.

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