Adult contemporary superstar and Hebrew Hunk Neil Diamond is a fascinating figure to me. His music is an uncomfortable blend of Brill Building pop, gospel, and confessional writing, like he can’t make up his mind whether he wants to be Elvis Presley or James Taylor. As an adolescent, I was improbably a Neil Diamond fan – probably at least partly due to my father’s influence. Once in a record store he steered me away from potentially evil music like “that Genesis outfit”, while Neil Diamond was one of the few pop artists in his collection. Recently I’ve revisited Diamond’s albums – it was an opportunity to examine a catalogue that’s high-selling but doesn’t receive much critical attention.
While I enjoyed the exercise of listening to seventeen of Neil Diamond’s studio albums, his catalogue has issues. His music is often coated in a thick layer of schmaltz, while in the period I listened to (from 1966’s debut The Feel of Neil Diamond to 1980’s The Jazz Singer) he released twice as many albums than he had good material for. This meant that Diamond’s good songs share album space with covers and weak material that should have been left in the archives.
Here are five of Neil Diamond’s most embarrassing songs:
Pot Smoker’s Song
from Velvet Gloves and Spit (1968)
Diamond left Bang records after two albums of rock and roll, wanting to record more ambitious and introspective music. But the artistic freedom was used to infamous effect on his third album, Velvet Gloves and Spit, on ‘Pot Smoker’s Song’, which uncomfortably juxtaposed a cheery rock and roll chorus with testimonies of former drug users. Diamond later became a marijuana user, including a famous 1976 drug bust where police raided his mansion and found an ounce of pot. Diamond later said that the song was “essentially misdirected” and that the real issue was heroin.
I Am The Lion
from Tap Root Manuscript (1970)
Tap Root Manuscript is one of Diamond’s better albums; the stellar first side features songs like ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, ‘Done Too Soon’, and ‘Cold Water Morning’. The second side is more experimental, Diamond years ahead of the game employing African rhythms on a western pop record. It all comes together on ‘Soolaimon’, but there are rough moments like the children’s choir on ‘Childsong’ and the odd ‘I Am The Lion’. It starts with an unnervingly deep vocal, joined by a children’s choir, then the Jewish Elvis intones Biblical wisdom over an African beat, intermittently bellowing “I am the lion.”
from Serenade (1974)
Many pop artists dabbled in reggae in the 1970s, with varying degrees of success. Paul Simon travelled to Jamaica to capture an authentic reggae sound, Diamond recorded with the Neil Diamond Band in an American studio. ‘Reggae Strut’ is a serviceable tune, but Diamond’s cod-reggae accent and stiff “Oh Yes!” kill it stone dead.
You Don’t Bring Me Flowers (with Barbra Streisand)
from You Don’t Bring Me Flowers (1978)
This song started as an innocuous ballad on Diamond’s 1977 album I’m Glad You’re Here With Me Tonight. But after Streisand recorded her own version, an enterprising radio DJ mixed the two songs together, leading the two singers to record an official duet, and creating an adult contemporary behemoth. Streisand and Diamond were both of Jewish heritage and grew up in Brooklyn; rough contemporaries from Diamond’s time in Queens College (on a fencing scholarship) included Paul Simon, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, and Neil Sedaka, all of Jewish heritage.
Dancing In The Street
from September Morn (1979)
Plenty of ageing rock acts dipped their toes into disco. Diamond was spectacularly unsuccessful with his disco remake of 1960s staple ‘Dancing in the Street’. It’s a hot mess of overbearing disco guitar and backing vocals that vacillate gears between gospel and atmospheric.
I haven’t been brave enough to listen to Diamond’s 1980s and 1990s albums, but I hope you enjoyed these standouts (for the wrong reasons) from his catalogue. How do you feel about Neil Diamond?