For a large stretch of his career, Neil Diamond has been slagged as a purveyor of schmaltz, of easy-listening pap suitable for old ladies and practically no one else. Somewhere during the '90s, Diamond's critical reputation partly rehabilitated itself, possibly when people began referring to him as "the Jewish Elvis."
That comparison has never made sense to me—Elvis never wrote a single note, while Diamond's legacy is that of a songwriter, much more than that of a singer or performer (or movie star, for that matter). Having come up through the Brill Building School in the '60s, Diamond became an unlikely pop star in 1966 with "Solitary Man," his first record for Bang Records, which set off a magnificent two-year string of recordings that should rightly be the bulk of his legacy.
Should be. But with the sole exception of a 1983 collection of 12 remixed and re-recorded tracks from Diamond's 1966-67 Bang heyday, that period of his career has remained woefully out of print, with many of Diamond's best songs remaining unissued for nearly 40 years. The long overdue The Bang Years, due out tomorrow on Columbia/Legacy, goes a good way of correcting this oversight, collecting the 23 original mono mixes that Bang! released in 1966 and 1967.
Along with "Solitary Man," familiar songs like "Cherry, Cherry" and "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" are presented in their original mono mixes, while other tracks like "I'll Come Running" and "The Long Way Home" make their digital debut. "The Time Is Now" makes its first appearance anywhere since it originally appeared on the flipside of "Kentucky Woman," becoming among Diamond's rarest tracks. "Do It" is present in its first mix, not the slowed-down, re-edited track that appeared on subsequent reissues; same with "Shilo," which has undergone countless mixes with overdubs and different lyrics—here is the original version.
For these reasons, The Bang Years is a welcome reissue, despite it not being a fully comprehensive one. There are 23 songs here, yet Diamond recorded 25 for Bang. (Missing are "Crooked Street" and "Shot Down," which were first released on a 1971 Bang compilation, presumably without Diamond's consent. They're both perfectly good tracks in my opinion, and would have been more than welcome here.) And the strict adherence to the original mono mixes means that the stereo versions of these songs—often containing overdubs not present on the mono version—remain unheard; perhaps a double disc could have corrected this, but since so much of this stuff has never been on CD before, there's little sense in not being thankful for what's here. (For record nerds, this comprehensive overview of all the different takes and mixes is invaluable.)
The hits are exceptionally good. With the assistance of producers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, Diamond created a bubblegum sound with just a hint of the troubadour broodiness he'd exhibit in later years. Flecks of gospel, soul, and Latin music highlight the poppy, likeable songs: "The Boat That I Row" is in particular an underlooked gem, driven by single guitar strums and handclaps, while the joyous backing vocals of the bluesy "You Got to Me" keep it from falling into pastiche.
Just as good are the long-forgotten album tracks. The slow waltz "I'll Come Running" is among the most charming things Diamond ever recorded, a sweet love song bearing hints of his Everly Brothers obsession, recorded without drums but plenty of vocal harmonies. "The Long Way Home" is equally wonderful, a rocking road song with a thumping chorus, and "Someday Baby" has a creeping, near-gothic vibe of longing underneath its bluesy lead guitar and barroom piano. It's tempting to say, with the hindsight of history, that these songs contain the lost innocence of pop's golden era (which of course is crit-speak bullshit), but there's a love of musicality present in these recordings that is rare to find in any recordings, from any time.
The Bang Years is one of the few final plunderings of heretofore un-reissued troves from a major recording artist—that this stuff didn't come out during the CD reissue glut of the '90s is more than surprising. And while not every last thing has been reissued, and not everything here is exceptional (the cover of "Hanky Panky" is decidedly inessential), it's a vital collection of Diamond's best moments, a long-overdue reminder that his recording career began on absolutely the right foot. When people mention Neil Diamond's music, this stuff is what they should be talking about. Everything that came afterward pales in comparison.