march 2011


The Real Neil

By David McGee

THE BANG YEARS 1966-1968
Neil Diamond

At the dawn of 1966, Neil Diamond was about as a big a failure as a singer-songwriter could be. After scuffling for years, cutting a couple of non-charting singles in 1962 as part of the duo of Neil and Jack, he had lucked into good fortune in 1965 when, on a visit to the fabled Brill Building, then in its pop heyday, he impressed Ellie Greenwich enough with his demos that she introduced him to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who in turn offered him a position as a staff songwriter, at $150 a week, to craft material for the artists on their new Red Bird label. Just like that—one minute he’s winning a convert in the young woman who, with her husband Jeff Barry and her first partner, Tony Powers, was writing teen rock ‘n’ roll classics for Phil Spector and others at an astonishing pace: “Be My Baby,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Hanky Panky,” “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry”—and getting Red Bird off to a fast start with “Chapel of Love” and “I Wanna Love Him So Bad”; the next he’s shaking hands with the songwriting team whose tunes helped launch Elvis Presley’s career and whose writing and production savvy helped establish the Atlantic Records legend. At the time Diamond signed up with Leiber and Stoller as a staff songwriter, he was, in his own words, “not only hitless, foodless, and penniless, but hopeless as well.”

He did himself no favors in the ensuing year with L&S, emerging from his lonely cubicle with, he says, “about five or six songs,” none close to being of hit caliber, while all around him Ellie Greenwich and others were crafting pop masterpieces. Naturally, with his contract up, he asked Leiber and Stoller for a raise. After he was laughed out of the office with pink slip in hand, he stopped in to see Greenwich and Barry, who already knew about his dismissal. Diamond, who’d had the nerve to ask Leiber and Stoller for a raise after an unproductive year on their payroll, had nothing to lose now, so he suggested to Greenwich that she and Barry produce him as a solo artist. To is astonishment, they agreed; and in short order, they not only had Lieber and Stoller’s permission to pursue the Diamond project, but also had a label deal with Atlantic’s Bang division, headed by former Atlantic staff producer Bert Berns.

Neil Diamond, ‘Solitary Man,’ 1966: ‘one explosive spiritual expression of creativity.’ (Bang Records, May 1966)

I recall talking to Ellie Greenwich over dinner one night in the mid-‘70s. She loved Neil Diamond, the man and the artist, but shared an opinion with some of his other early fans that his work in the ‘70s had taken a disappointing turn into sanctimony, that he seemed to be taking himself way too seriously, and the productions were getting bloated. Oh, he was having hits aplenty (she really liked 1972’s “Song Sung Blue”), but “Play Me,” “Longfellow Serenade,” “I Am…I Said” were not floating her boat. No matter what she thought of these records, she still believed in Neil Diamond, and that belief went right back to those early days helping him launch a legendary solo career on the Bang label.

“What I heard in Neil,” Greenwich told me, “was an artist who had a lot of the gifts Elvis had, plus he could write. He hadn’t done anything with Jerry and Mike, but we heard a spark in his songs. He was a rock ‘n’ roller through and through, and he could write in such a personal way it just grabbed you. I never doubted for a minute that he was going to be big. It was only a matter of time.”

For those who would like never to remember Neil Diamond for “Love On the Rocks” and other unfortunate missteps of his later career there is a single disc of powerful, persuasive proof of Ellie Greenwich’s acumen as a judge of talent, courtesy the folks at Columbia/Legacy: The Bang Years: 1966-1968. Apart from Neil’s cover of “Monday, Monday” (nowhere near as good as the Mamas & the Papas’ definitive take) and his run at Paul Simon’s “Red Rubber Ball” (a slight if catchy pop confection that is probably best left to the Cyrkle)—which are sequenced back to back on the disc—well, there’s no gentle way to put this: Neil kicks ass on the other 21 tracks, even on a sizzling “La Bamba,” which retains enough of the Ritchie Valens flavor to make it a fiery homage, and on the grinding treatment of “Hanky Panky,” which has a driving R&B feel Tommy James never approached.

Neil Diamond, ‘Cherry, Cherry,’ with Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry on background vocals (Bang Records, August 1966)

The heart of the disc is the certified Neil Diamond classics, the singles that marked him a major new player on the scene with across-the-board credibility: singer, songwriter, guitarist. Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, who produced this material, may have been firmly in the Phil Spector camp, but they knew how to cut raw, lean, pumping rock ‘n’ roll with minimum embroidery behind Diamond’s confident, expressive baritone and muscular guitar and let Neil bring it all home with his voice and his heart—think the subtle horns deployed so artfully to underscore the elevated tension in the choruses of “Solitary Man”; or the catchy electric piano riff, the wailing, shimmering blues harmonica, the eagerly shaken tambourine and the spunky background dialogue provided by the Crystals-like female chorus as Neil tears into his bald-faced admission of being overwhelmed by a woman in “You Got To Me”: smart touches all.

And yes, there is indeed an abundance of soulful expression in these songs. No throwaway pop ditties here; Neil was plumbing his own feelings at an uncommon depth, maybe an even uncomfortable one for him. “Solitary Man” finds him defiantly alone until he can assured of a woman's faithfulness; turgid and exquisitely melancholy, “Red, Red Wine” finds Neil crying out, torturing himself, for having to lean on the grape to get over the heartbreak of losing his gal—the solitary man lamenting his solitude and finding his only friend to be in the bottle. UB40 did a pretty good reggae-tinged cover of this in ’83—topped the chart with it, in fact—but only Neil’s version suggests the utter collapse of the singer’s spirit. Moments such as “Red, Red Wine” are so raw and emotionally direct that when the ebullient rocker “The Boat That I Row” comes on next, the frenetic, pulsating energy of Neil’s urgent delivery will knock you for a loop. Through these tracks—starting with the monumental “Solitary Man” to the searing class conflict at the heart of his intense pleadings in “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” to the elation of “Thank the Lord For the Night Time,” the dread subsuming him in “I’ve Got the Feeling (Oh No No),” and on—Neil paints a portrait of himself as a man deeply conflicted: on the one hand, zealously guarding his freedom from all commitment until he knows it’s right for him; on the other, deeply desiring a connection with someone else in the world, so he won’t be alone.

Neil Diamond, ‘The Boat That I Row’ (Bang Records, November 1966)

In his terrific liner notes to this collection, Neil recalls what came over him when Greenwich and Barry changed his lot in life: “I wrote songs, only this time not just ‘songs’ but real expressions of my feelings: ‘Solitary Man’ (introspection), ‘Cherry Cherry’ (exuberance under love’s magical spell), ‘Thank The Lord for the Night Time’ (freedom from care), ‘Red, Red Wine’ (reflection), ‘I’m a Believer’ (joyful hope). It was as though I’d turned on a spigot to my inner self. I felt like Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker first making the connection between the words and the world around her. I wrote and wrote and wrote. …My news songs contained something that none of my previous ones had…they contained me and my life at their core. I had finally found, on the crossroads of desperation and opportunity, the understanding of what I needed to do to write truly affecting songs—I had only to be open and honest, dammit, about my own life and experiences and to stop trying to make up silly songs about made up people, situations and relationships for singers whose lives and feelings I knew nothing about.”

Working with the best producers, engineers and musicians in New York—if not in the whole business—Diamond describes the session that produced his career launching hit, “Solitary Man,” as “one explosive spiritual expression of creativity.” He might well have been speaking of most of the other cuts on this disc—the obvious commitment of everyone involved in shooting for something greater than the sum of the parts is tantamount to a spiritual quest for definition on Diamond’s part, since he’s the engine’s spark plug. He notes how producers Barry and Greenwich, and the towering engineers working these sessions—Tom Dowd, Phil Ramone and Brooks Arthur—insisted his vocals not be double-tracked: “They wanted the real Neil,” he notes. I don’t want to suggest that Neil Diamond, newly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (why did it take so long???), has been less than the real Neil since leaving Bang. Consider only what’s on this amazing single CD and let us all agree that for this moment in time, Neil Diamond made rock ‘n’ roll of an exalted order, took it seriously as a means of communicating deeply personal revelations, not always flattering to himself, and left behind a body of work as real as it is lasting, as if one doesn’t go hand in hand with the other. Behold the real deal, the real Neil.

Neil Diamond’s The Bang Years 1966-1968 is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
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