Neil Diamond

TrackAlbum/Single
Cherry CherryBang Records B-528
African TrilogyTap Root Manuscript
Prologue / Crunchy Granola SuiteHot August Night
Beautiful NoiseBeautiful Noise
Dry Your EyesThe Last Waltz
Tennessee MoonTennessee Moon
A Mission Of LoveThree Chord Opera
Oh, Mary12 Songs
Another Day (That Time Forgot)Home Before Dark
Something BlueMelody Road

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Contributor: Peter Viney

I’ll start with my own Neil Diamond chronology. I knew his songs, but hadn’t thought about him much. OK, he’s the guy who wrote I’m A Believer for The Monkees. The name? I thought it was obviously fake like Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Georgie Fame. But no, that’s the name he was born with.

We were at a friend’s house, early 1973, and he had a new double LP, Hot August Night. We grimaced at the cover illustration, turned up our rock snob noses and suggested playing something else instead. “No, no … you have to hear it. It’s got a 36 piece string section.” This sounded an even worse proposition to me, having suffered through various “rock band and orchestra” excursions, and I suggested playing the John Cale album I’d brought instead. But our host insisted and wound up the volume. The Prologue started. I was imagining the audience at the Greek Theatre listening to this overblown, possibly pretentious stuff. I imagined the crowd at the Sheriff’s Convention as pictured by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. The epitome of American Middle-of-The Road. Elvis in a pale blue jump suit. My rock snob sneer intensified, but the orchestra was getting louder and more intense. The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck. It was actually exciting, then there was a loud sustained organ chord. Rhythm guitar, huge drums building, then the riff. You could hear the applause as he walked on stage, then that dominating signature acoustic rhythm guitar came instead and we were into Crunchy Granola Suite. Great guitar riff, but as Neil Diamond pop songs go, there are several better: I’m A Believer, A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You, Sweet Caroline, Cherry Cherry, Cracklin’ Rosie, Red Red Wine, Song Sung Blue are all catchier with better lyrics … but that moment, Prologue / Crunchy Granola Suite is a defining moment. It’s huge. It’s magnificent. We listened through both sides then started again. I bought a copy the next day.

It may be that the best versions of some of those early Neil Diamond singles are the ones on Hot August Night, and they’re the ones I’ve heard most. Neil must think that of Cherry Cherry at least, because it’s the live version that tends to appear on his very many hits compilations. But I’m going for the simpler sound of the shorter original 45, and Cherry Cherry represents those half dozen great early hits. Neil Diamond demoed it with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich on backing vocals, pushing handclaps forward instead of drums. They went into the studio and added drums and horns, then rejected them and issued the demo as it was. That’s the one I’m choosing. The version with additions appears on the In Our Lifetime 3 CD set. That brings in songs like I’m A Believer and The Boat That I Row which were hits for others. The arrangements are all there in Neil’s versions.

I need to be incredibly selective. There’s so much of it, and I’m going to rely on early reactions and cavalierly eschew Jonathan Livingston Seagull without re-listening. There are whole albums I haven’t heard. There are 33 studio albums, eight live albums, 38 compilation albums. Covers albums. Christmas albums. I was trying to expand beyond just chart entries, but there are nearly forty chart entries to choose from.

Tap Root Manuscipt is a 1970 album. It has been much trumpeted (on other Neil Diamond compilations) as the first album to use African music, predating Graceland by 15 years. In fact side one has Cracklin’ Rosie, Done Too Soon and his cover of He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother, so hardly African. Free Life does have a Caribbean rhythm and the lyric “Sing it like a black man” and “Talkin’ bout round, brown ladies.” Side two is The African Suite: A Folk Ballet. The first is a kid’s choir, then I Am The Lion (Hey hey baba la linga) is with kids and you’d make an African connection, but to either The Lion King or more likely to its pastiche in The Book of Mormon. That’s how African it is, but then right in the middle is Soolaimon It’s a stereophonic drum festival, and that’s the African bit, but strummed rhythm guitar and Hammond organ aren’t particularly African, but it’s so big. It has that Neil Diamond chutzpah. He’s willing to go for it. Missa is a fascinating composition, all unaccompanied voices. He must have been listening to the Missa Luba and it shows his compositional range on an African mass. African Trilogy is an orchestral piece, demonstrating he could have made a living doing Hollywood scores. It may be Africa inspired him to write it, but I find the base theme reminiscent of Bernstein’s America. To be honest my most played songs are Done Too Soon and Cracklin’ Rosie, then Soolaimon, but for sheer interest African Trilogy goes in.

Beautiful Noise was Neil Diamond’s tribute to Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building, so it is a concept album, produced by Robbie Robertson of The Band in 1975. They had met as neighbours on the beach in Malibu, and hit it off. Beautiful Noise is the best track, but the whole album shines, and it drips nostalgia for the early 60s.

What a beautiful noise, Comin’ up from the street
It’s got a beautiful sound, It’s got a beautiful beat
It’s a beautiful noise, Goin’ on everywhere
Like the clickety-clack, Of a train on a track
It’s got rhythm to spare

It’s got a lot of echo applied but it gives ambience. The album concept is subtle … no pastiches of styles but lots of nods, like the banjo and trad horn section on Stargazer. If You Know What I Mean is a further standout song. Then Don’t Think Feel starts off like Brill soul then breaks into a Caribbean lilt. It’s Dr John playing Hammond organ. On Surviving The Life, Garth Hudson plays organ. It’s easily my favourite Neil Diamond album.

Dry Your Eyes was composed with Robbie Robertson for Beautiful Noise (it closes the album) and was chosen ahead of the title track (presumably because it was co-written) for Neil Diamond’s appearance on The Last Waltz arguably the greatest filmed rock concert ever, in 1976. Fans of The Band and Dylan have pissed and moaned about Neil Diamond’s spot ever since. Legend has it that a fired-up Neil walked off stage and said “Follow that!” to Bob Dylan waiting in the wings to get the reply, “What do I have to do? Fall asleep?” Neil also got unjustly blamed in the finale. Watch carefully. Neil Young leans over and pats Joni Mitchell’s bottom. She glares round at the innocent Neil Diamond. One cause of the dislike was that Neil turned up with his drummer, Dennis St. John, his trademark accompanist through the 1970s. Levon Helm fans were incensed, but on the album, St. John had played the slow military dirge like part while Jim Keltner added accents. It was always a two drummer arrangement. I think that if you listen without prejudice, Neil proved yet again that he is a powerful and significant live singer. Robbie Robertson’s guitar accents are piercingly brilliant. The lyrics get in Neil’s professional songwriter point:

Dry your eyes and take your song out
It’s a newborn afternoon
And if you can’t recall the singer
You can still recall the tune.

Love At The Greek was Neil Diamond’s next double live album, also produced by Robbie Robertson. It got a critical thumbs down, and has the dubious distinction of being extremely common in secondhand stores and charity shops in mint or near mint condition. I suspect it was vastly over-pressed by a label assuming another Hot August Night success, but it was released in 1977 where big star highly arranged concerts were the most unfashionable thing of all.

America from The Jazz Singer is considered to be one of his greatest songs by many, but if I’m including the Hot August Night prologue, it’s rather more of the same.

I’m jumping twenty years of solid selling stuff, big duets and successful concerts, because I like “late Neil Diamond” as much as early Neil Diamond or more. I’m just a bit iffy about the middle period.

Up On The Roof is a further covers album (1993), visiting classic Brill Building songs, so a counterpart to Beautiful Noise. Produced by Peter Asher – I’m going to keep citing producers because Neil Diamond choose astutely. It’s a tribute to his peers: Goffin & King, Sedaka & Greenfield, Leiber & Stoller, Pomus and Shuman, Barry & Greenwich, Bacharach and David. Noticeable that he’s the only solo writer among that Brill list. The sound is very 90s, with that big fat drum sound. Combined with his powerful and rich voice it can swamp the pop confections. He and Dolly Parton duet on You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and both retain their signature voices, but you’d play The Righteous Brothers.

Tennessee Moon was the solidly satisfying Nashville album, in 1996. It recycled Kentucky Woman from way back, and the album was a repositioning for him. It’s not so much a change of style as adding great Nashville musicians to what was already there. It was produced by Bob Gaudio, as was The Jazz Singer. The title track is infectious, but so is A Matter Of Love with country fiddle. I suspect they though long and hard about the opening track and title song, so Tennessee Moon gets the vote.

Three Chord Opera came in 2001, produced by Peter Asher. You Are The Best Part of Me was the hit single. At The Movies is notable for another Neil orchestral prelude… he really has the knack. It stays to the theme, visiting Hollywood in the way he visited the Brill Building. Insidious organ part and synthetic bass. It’s followed by Midnight Dream, another standout track … it echoes Done Too Soon for me. Elijah’s Song brings Bruce Springsteen to mind, though only half the time. Then you get A Mission Of Love. it starts out as if it’s musical theatre for a minute … then takes off in a perfect T-Rex pastiche except it has lots of horns, so it harks back to the Bang Records hit era for Neil. He adds a middle section that sounds like standard Neil Diamond then goes back into that glorious riff. The incongruous pleasure of Neil Diamond channelling Marc Bolan makes it a must. It’s a satisfying album overall.

12 Songs was the acclaimed Rick Rubin produced album in 2006. It was a conscious effort to reproduce the early Bang and Uni singles style. He used Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, along with Larry Knechtel and Billy Preston. Neil Diamond played guitar himself in his inimitable heavily strummed style. Rubin wanted to focus on the voice and Neil’s guitar right up front and take everything else right back. At the time this was the publicity, ‘Neil plays guitar again’ but apparently he did on most albums, but just didn’t list it as a credit. The opener, Oh, Mary is tempting in a semi-spoken style, and Hell, Yeah continues the mood. Delirious Love appears in two versions, the second with Brian Wilson. I just prefer the base one with only Neil Diamond, and it sounds like a Beautiful Noise outtake. I particularly like Save Me A Saturday Night, which sits on a close approximation of Chip Taylor’s Angel Of The Morning riff, never a bad thing. The album debuted well, but was one of the first with Sony’s XPC copycode software (aka Spyware) which caused a furore and it had to be withdrawn and reissued. Oh, Mary opened the album, in the place with most impact. It was a wise choice, and goes in.

Home Before Dark is veering into the Rick Rubin style “last word” area mined by Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Glen Campbell. Except that Neil doesn’t sound as knackered as the others. Another Day (That Time Forgot) is the choice.

Melody Road is the 2014 album, produced by Don Was. In many ways he sounds younger than on Home Before Dark. This is a Toppermost quandary. Do I really like these songs better than Cracklin’ Rosie, Sweet Caroline, Done Too Soon, Solitary Man? No, not really, but you can hum all of those anyway and I wanted half to be recent. First Time and Something Blue were the main contenders, but to my surprise, the more I listened Seongah And Jimmy became an earworm. Neil Diamond can do something with semi-military rhythms, but in the end Something Blue is the choice, because it’s such classic Neil Diamond all the way through.

TEN NEIL DIAMOND COMPOSITIONS COVERED BY OTHERS

Neil Diamond started out as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter. Solo singing came later. So ten significant Neil Diamond covers.

I’m A Believer by The Monkees, Robert Wyatt, Smash Mouth
A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You by The Monkees
Solitary Man by Johnny Cash, Chris Isaak
Sweet Caroline by Elvis Presley, Bobby Womack
Red Red Wine by UB40
The Boat That I Row by Lulu (Toppermost #113)
Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon by Urge Overkill, Cliff Richard
Kentucky Woman by Deep Purple
And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind by Elvis Presley
Play Me by Jose Feliciano, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte

 

Neil Diamond Official Website

Neil Diamond archive information

I Am…I Said – A Neil Diamond Fan Website

Neil Diamond – BBC Concert 1971 – in full

Neil Diamond biography (iTunes)

Peter Viney writes on popular music and the arts at his website.

TopperPost #456

7 Comments

  1. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Jul 6, 2015

    Nice work, Peter. Well researched and I especially like your selections. I came late to Neil Diamond…in fact, later than you. I too had the ‘rock snob’ attitude and maintained it regarding Neil Diamond for many years. Then the recent material (last few albums) came out and I went back and asked myself what planet I had been on to have this negativity. The body of work is superb and his pop sensibility is its highlight. And his voice is unique. So thanks for the good work.

  2. Ian Ashleigh
    Jul 6, 2015

    Hats off to Peter. I loved the early singles and would have included Cracklin Rosie as a memory of sneaking a small transistor radio into school to listen to at lunchtimes – before I became a ‘rock snob’. Then came the Jazz Singer and not to see the film was considered as blasphemous as not attending Synagogue on Yom Kippur (depicted near the end of the the film). Neil Diamond has a great voice and Peter has highlighted the arrangements. Then I became a ‘rock snob’ and Neil Diamond couldn’t be a ‘guilty pleasure’, but I always enjoyed his songs when they came on the radio. There was a retrospective on BBC 4 recently which I enjoyed. Once again Toppermost will have me reaching for my wallet, inspired by the 10 above – and Sweet Caroline too.

  3. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Jul 6, 2015

    (I hope this is permitted.) Your video of the week is “Little Red Book” by Love (Arthur Lee and colleagues). I am a huge fan of Love and ‘loved’ Little Red Book and Seven and Seven is and many of the others. There is something primal about these songs and there is nothing like them. They require a ‘Toppermost’!
    (There is rumoured to be a Love toppermost a-comin’ … Ed.)

  4. David Lewis
    Jul 6, 2015

    Good Lord! One of the greatest exclamations in the history of song. Sterling job. Way too big yet you’ve done it. I agree with all of them and no ‘wot! No?’

  5. Glenn Smith
    Jul 7, 2015

    The story that best sums up Neil’s impact relate to Elvis. In his late sixties revival period the King goes off to Chips Moman’s American Sound Studios in Memphis and records his last great run of tunes, Suspicious Minds et.al. Reggie Young from the house band recounted how they were really intrigued to be working with Elvis but nowhere near as excited as they were working with Neil Diamond! In early seventies Australia it was mandatory to have a fondue set, some copperart on the walls and a copy of Hot August Night with Crunchy Granola Suite pumping out as the claret flowed from cardboard casks. My only quibble with Peter’s list is that I’m one of those who skips Dry Your Eyes when I watch Last Waltz (sorry) so my one amendment would be to replace that with Sweet Caroline. Sweet Caroline’s soft patter intro as the horns slowly come in and then “hands, touching hands”, brilliant. I’ve had the pleasure of being at Fenway Park in Boston when they belt it out, it’s the ultimate Neil Diamond moment.

    • Peter Viney
      Jul 7, 2015

      Now the Complete Last Waltz is available on CD we can see that Neil was short-changed in getting just one song. He should obviously have done Sweet Caroline too (just as Joni Mitchell should have done a hit rather than three new songs). I think getting one song only was a put-down given his status. Yes, Sweet Caroline is essential, but our host has corrected that omission with the video. Having spent years defending “Dry Your Eyes” from the many who dislike the segment on The Band website, I had to put it in.

      • David Lewis
        Jul 10, 2015

        I’m of the ‘keep Neil in the last waltz’ crowd. His is as rock and roll as any of the other performances. He represents Tin Pan Alley, which as we know, was an important part of the Band’s legacy. And yes, Levon said bring in Doc Pomus, but I bet Neil sold a couple of extra tickets. When Neil Diamond performs, he doesn’t dress down, but dresses in his usual stage gear – everyone else except Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell is in flannelette shirts and jeans or equivalent. The fact he does a song which I think fits, but isn’t a ‘rock song’ took courage. And clearly Levon didn’t want him there, which must have been intimidating. Yet he goes in with a great performance. This is as rock and roll as everyone else, in my view. Just as rock and roll as Neil Young. Or Joni Mitchell.

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