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Pissing off the Taste Police with Neil Diamond

August 13th, 2007 15 comments

Forget the smoothie housewives’ favourite with the lamé jacket, blow-dry and black-dye coiffure, hairy chest, cowboy boots and glittering name prone to singing lame songs about forever living in blue jeans and nauseating duets with Barbra Streisand. The pre-crooner Neil Diamond should be ranked as a pop legend. Alas, the Lamé & Steisand cheesiness robbed this great songwriter of credibility and respect.

It’s an injustice. Divorce Lamé Neil from his earlier incarnation as the writer and performer of songs that should be regarded as classics, and revisit his back catalogue. You will find works of near-genius there. Then, if you will, listen to his 2005 album 12 Songs, produced by Rick Rubin, to discover that the man has lost nothing, even in his 60s.

The fact that Diamond ranks third in the all-time bestselling Billboard Charts list — after Elton John and Babs — should neither impress (I mean, look who’s second) nor repel. With Neil Diamond there is no need to analyse socio-musical effect. With Neil Diamond, there is only the music. And among the seaweed, there are many oysters, most bearing pearls.

How many people thought that the most popular song from the very good Pulp Fiction soundtrack was an Urge Overkill original? I bear no ill will towards the cover version of Neil Diamond’s superior 1967 original; in fact, I rather like it. But the success of “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” did not help rehabilitate Diamond reputation. It should have had people scurrying towards the far superior original.
Neil Diamond – Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon.mp3

Perhaps the best-known Neil Diamond songs is “Sweet Caroline” (1969). Even the branches of the Taste Police which despised the man would acknowledge that it is a cracking song, while possibly playing it for “ironic” effect. No need for irony, this is one of the great pop songs, with its memorable keyboard intro, the restrained verse, the soaring chorus, and especially the phrasing of the line that ends with the climactic “…touching me, touching you”, drenched with sexual desire.
Neil Diamond – Sweet Caroline.mp3

Imagine Leonard Cohen and Burt Bacharach — two of the finest songwriters in a decade chockful with genius songwriters — writing a song together: the result might be something as excellent like the autobiographical “Brooklyn Roads” (1968). And that places Neil Diamond right up there with the great songwriters of the 1960s.
Neil Diamond – Brooklyn Roads.mp3

Neil Diamond’s “I’m A Believer” is generally regarded as a Monkees song, and his country song “Red, Red Wine” (1967) is usually associated with reggae-karaoke combo UB40 (whose cover version was based on that by Tony Tribe released in 1969). It’s time to reclaim these songs for our man.
Neil Diamond – Red Red Wine (live).mp3

The great songwriter was keen to record cover versions himself. His 1971 album Stones, with its great title song, includes covers of songs by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Roger Miller, Jacques Brel and Randy Newman. A couple of years earlier, while still in his Tin Pan Alley phase, Diamond recorded the standard “Mr Bojangles”, doing a very good job of it, though not eclipsing Sammy Davis Jr’s definitive interpretation.
Neil Diamond – Mr Bojangles.mp3

At what point did Neil Diamond jump the shark? It was more case of gently climbing on top of the shark, and sliding down on the other side. In his pomp, Diamond released semi-schlock like “Song Sung Blue”, which set the scene for the lamé period. The pretentious, but actually not altogether bad, Jonathan Seagull Livingstone came out at around the same time as the outstanding live set Hot August Night, in which Diamond rocked and sang songs blue in equal measures (the air-wanking-lion cover itself was remarkable). The difficulty with Lamé Neil is that even during that period, he wrote some very good songs. There is nothing wrong with a song such as “America” from the awful 1980 film version of The Jazz Singer, other than its revolting arrangement (and its association with Michael Dukakis’ disastrous 1988 presidential campaign). Even “Beautiful Noise”, a lamé song drenched liberally in lamé oil, is at its base a pretty good song. It just needs to be re-recorded (without some clown going crazy on his newfangled synthethizer).
Neil Diamond – Beautiful Noise.mp3

By 2005, few people really expected to hear from Neil Diamond again (nostalgia appearances and his obituary aside). Then Rick Rubin did for ND what he had previously done for Johnny Cash: give a supposedly superannuated singer another shot at delivering a credible work of art. Unlike Cash, Diamond came up with a set of original tracks to make up the stunning 12 Songs, an album of immediate intimacy and depth in beauty. I hope that ND will leave it at that, concluding his long career with a set of restrained songs that don’t hit you in the face, as the Sweet Carolines, but creep under your skin and touch your soul.
Neil Diamond – Save Me A Saturday Night.mp3

Pissing off the Taste Police with America

August 6th, 2007 7 comments

While we wait for the final two installments of the Songbirds series, let’s piss off the Taste Gestapo by focussing on one of the most underappreciated groups of the ’70s: America (who have just released their first studio album in 20 years, incidentally).

Yeah, I know, “Horse With No Name” has no cool factor, and remains the butt of many jokes. Oddly, I can’t think of any other #1 hit about drugs that enjoys so little credibility as “Horse”. Probably because it isn’t a very good song. Alas, because it is America’s best-known song, the group’s entire folk-rock legacy is tarnished. And that is a great shame, for there is much in America’s catalogue that is, at least within its genre, admirable. And if America was good enough to be produced by George Martin, who are we to argue?

Granted, America didn’t set out to shift musical boundaries. Indeed, they were in a large measure derivative, owing much to the various groups that donated their frontmen to Crosby, Stills & Nash (and, for that matter, to Neil Young). America’s place in history certainly is not on the pedestals occupied by the great innovators. But music need not establish a revolutionary manifesto to be enjoyed. And the mellow, harmonising sounds of America are greatly enjoyable. They create warmth, and they create happiness for those partial to mellowing, harmonising sounds.

So, in this post, no “Horse With No Name”. The other big hit is there, the joyous anthem for commitment-shy men and desperate argument for the value of cohabitation, “Sister Golden Hair” (1975), with its George Harrison-sounding guitar intro, singalong chorus, the doo-wop-n-doo-wops, and the counted outro.
America – Sister Golden Hair.mp3

“I Need You” (1971) is the song responsible for this post. While we had a power cut tonight, this song was stuck in my head. I cued it on the iPodm (thank goodness for its 73GB — though not the advertised 80GB; the fuckers are lying to us), and one thing leading to another, I listened to more America songs than I had planned, all with a huge grin on my face, thinking how the Taste Gestapo would despise me for my act rebellion against the consensus. Truth is, “I Need You” is a beautifully crafted love song.
America – I Need You.mp3

“Lonely People” (1974) is in great part pure Crosby, Stills & Nash rip-offery, except for the brief piano interlude, from the harmonies to the lyrically content. Dave Crosby surely would have been proud to have written this little gem. And thanks to this song, I cannot help myself saying “hit it” before any harmonica solo I hear.
America – Lonely People.mp3

A new generation of music consumers were introduced to America in 2001 when Janet Jackson sampled the guitar riff from “Ventura Highway” (1972) on her hit single “Someone To Call My Lover”. It is a stand-out riff. America should be remembered for that, not for horses in deserts. And did Prince pick up the “Puple Rain” idea from “Ventura Highway”? And just after the line about “purple rain”, “Joe” is advised of the option to “change your name”. Just as Prince did in the ’90s. Care to develop a crackpot theory about America’s pivotal influence on Prince’s life? Anyway, what are “alligator lizards” doing “in the air”? My theory, it’s another drug reference. Come on, lets go crazy!
America – Ventura Highway.mp3

Sampling the “Ventura Highway” guitar riff (and re-recording it, to save on royalties!) was not Janet Jackson’s first bout of “inspiration” by America. Listen to “Daisy Jane” and tell me how Janet’s “Let’s Wait A While” is not patent plagiarism. The song’s title was a play on Nick Drake’s “Hazy Jane”. The chorus, unviolated by Jackson, is quite lovely, despite the hoary cliché of love and “the stars above us” (but then, anyone who’s ever been in love will recognise the cliché).
America – Daisy Jane.mp3

And, while I’m at it, here’s a great video somebody made of this blog’s theme song by Steely Dan.