Sunday, March 06, 2011

Neil Diamond - The Bang Years 1966-1968

Neil Diamond's recordings for Bert Berns' Bang Records label have a tortured release history, so it is good to see the release of the 23 track 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.


Anonymous said...

These songs are some of the first I recall hearing. I nearly cried hearing that single electric note that kicks off "The Long Way Home". "Shot Down" and especially "Crooked Street are sorely missed. After telling people for years that they've had the wrong idea about Neil Diamond,I have the proof.

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi John,

I totally agree, although for a while there I think Neil Diamond might have had the wrong idea about Neil Diamond. But the music here is some of the best popular music of the mid to late 60s, IMO. It's great stuff that holds up remarkably well.

brambleman said...

Nice piece on new Hall of Famer Mr. Diamond. His Bang sides are what got him there (as far as I'm concerned) and they still sound awesome. I wish all the different mixes and versions would be compiled cohesevily. For instance the "Red Red Wine" single is real different with background vocals, etc. The "Bang Years" does include the cool B side "The Time is Now" which is the first time it has appeared on album or cd.

Mark N. said...

I'm looking forward to picking up this compilation, since I'm a big fan of Neil Diamond's sixties output, but I'm a little concerned about all the negative customer reviews on Amazon related to the remastering of these tracks. Lots of complaints that they're overly compressed and too loud. Since I know you've written extensively about the "loudness wars", what do you think about the sound of this compilation, Pete? (I'm assuming you've purchased it).

Mark N. said...

Oops, it would have helped if I'd read your update--you've answered my questions!

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi Mark. I really don't like how this compilation sounds at all. I think the loudness issue is only part of the equation. The bigger problem, IMO, is that it was EQ'd very bright (sounds like the 8-10 kHz region was boosted too much). Personally, I find it unlistenable without making some treble adjustment.

That said, I wouldn't necessarily discourage purchase because the music is great and much of it is not available elsewhere. I would recommend finding a used copy of the In My Lifetime boxset, which has 11 of these tracks in much better sound. Also, these things (obviously) don't necessarily bother others as much as they do me.

Shoot me an email and I'll tell you more...

Ed Wagemann said...

I agree about the loudness issue and brightness issue - its like people don't know how to master analog recordings now days. Really sad that they try to master these songs as though they were some Disney channel tripe... as for the songs themselves, a great collection, but because of the modern mastering here, I would never recommend this to anyone who has a really good ear for music.