The half decade prior to the release of the material on The Bang Years 1966-1968 could be considered Neil Diamond’s “hungry years,” literally and figuratively. According to the disc’s liner notes, penned by Diamond himself, those years were spent making demos, languishing in staff songwriting jobs with music publishers and doing any work that would keep him in the music business. Getting a “real job” was unthinkable, the end of the line, the hellish prospect he struggled to keep at bay. Subsisting on baloney hoagies and five-cent Cokes from Woolworth, he soldiered on until he met Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, and his luck changed.
The material on The Bang Years reflects the spark of creativity that flared when these two songwriting giants took a chance on Diamond. They got him his first record deal and agreed to produce him. Their encouragement inspired Diamond to write what he calls his “me” songs, ones that were open and honest and reflected his own life and experiences.
These songs were arguably some of most powerful Diamond would ever record. Remastered and released here in their original mono (the way they were “meant to be heard”), the songs sound fresh, alive and exuberant, most likely reflecting the relief Diamond felt at finally finding his way. The lovestruck protagonist of “Cherry, Cherry” crooning “I love the way that you do me” — How did he get away with that line in 1966? — and “Thank the Lord for the Night Time,” with its rollicking revival-meeting overtones, are shout outs to this new-found creative freedom. Even introspective songs like “Solitary Man” seem positively joyful.
Diamond’s success snowballed as other artists recorded his songs and frequently made them hits. Diamond’s version of “I’m a Believer,” one of the Monkees’ signature tunes, is here as is his melancholy rendition of “Red, Red Wine,” which became a hit for reggae group UB40 nearly 20 years later.
Along with these familiar Diamond chestnuts, a number of cover versions and deep album cuts are also included. Some, like “Monday, Monday” and “New Orleans,” are worth a listen. The throwaway “Hanky Panky” may be of some interest to completists. A number of the more unfamiliar tunes like “The Time Is Now” and “The Long Way Home,” however, are as good as the hits.
A mini-discography listing release dates and which song came from what album would have been a welcome inclusion for those discovering these gems for the first time. This quibble aside, Neil Diamond's The Bang Years 1966-1968 is a fine collection of music from one of the premier singer-songwriters of his day.