The Bang Years: 1966-1968 CD on Sony Legacy, a long-promised, but much-delayed, collection. The set presents nearly all of Diamond's Bang recordings in their original, rockin' mono mixes (but omits two Bang era tracks, "Shot Down" and "Crooked Street," for reasons I am not entirely clear on).
I primarily know these songs through a 2 LP set released by Bang in 1973 called Double Gold. Double Gold, while containing some great music, is a fairly thorough butchering of Diamond's early hit records. It features a couple mono recordings, some of the inferior stereo mixes, some horrible sounding fake stereo remixes with annoying panning effects, and some mono recordings that have had (unnecessary) stereo overdubs added to them.
Confused? That's okay, someone named K.F. Louie has done an admirable job of sorting out the whole mess with a handy chart and track-by-track analysis. Many of the tracks were also re-released on Early Classics on the Frog King label and Classics: The Early Years on Columbia. These LPs featured remixed stereo recordings (also with added overdubs), and while they sound good in their own right, they're identifiably different from the classic "hit" versions of the songs. The In My Lifetime box set corrected some of these errors by presenting 11 Bang era tracks, plus an alternate take of "Cherry, Cherry" in their original mono mixes with no overdubs, and sounding very good indeed.
Despite its sonic flaws, Double Gold presents a very compelling portrait of the artist as a young man. "Cherry, Cherry," "Solitary Man," "The Boat That I Row," "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon," "I'm A Believer," "Red, Red Wine," "Kentucky Woman," and others are classic tracks, strongly rooted in the Brill Building tradition, but also seriously rock and roll as well. Even if you think (as I do) that Diamond went off-track later in his career, the greatness of this material is hard to deny, and Diamond more than earned his reputation as "The Jewish Elvis" with these recordings.
As much as I would like to say this new Sony/Legacy release finally rights all the historical wrongs done to Diamond's Bang recordings, I can't quite bring myself to say so. The music has been mastered too loud and too bright, as if the producer decided the material needed to sound more "contemporary." Despite these flaws, it still sounds much better than most of the material on Double Gold, but unfortunately not as good as the same material on In My Lifetime.
It looks like I'm going to need to track down mono versions of the Bang LPs, The Feel of Neil Diamond and Just For You, if I want to hear this material sounding its best. I guess there are worse things I could have to do.
Update: The more I listen to this, the less enamored I am with the sound quality. There is a very hard, edgy quality to it that I do not find appealing at all. It sounds to me like the upper midrange has been boosted a lot, creating a sound that is excessively bright. I picked up a few 45s and they sound much nicer. The CD is more dynamically compressed than the 45s, but not by a huge amount (typically around 2 to 3 dB louder on average). I guess it was too much to expect them to get this 100% right after such a long wait, especially given the checkered release history of this material.
Neil's liner notes are very thoughtful and frank. He talks at length about the critical role Ellie Greenwich (RIP) and Jeff Barry twice played in getting his career started, showing faith in his abilities when no one else did. He also gives them the credit they deserve for the critical role they played in the studio to help shape these songs into hit singles.