For some 35 years, Neil Diamond has been the people’s singer. From his early days as a Brill Building songwriter-for-hire, to his still-yearly presence in arenas all over the world, Diamond has shared his brand of catchy, hard to classify pop songs with the masses. It’s not unusual to see two or more generations of family attending his shows together. He is the consummate performer, giving it his all night after night. Many of his fans are unashamedly devoted to the man, and grew up with his songs as background music to their lives. For his younger fans, he’s a kind of guilty secret. It’s either so unhip it’s hip, or so hip it’s unhip to be into Diamond’s music. Whether the man himself was ever so hip is a question that is perhaps too hard to answer in hindsight. The newly released Play Me: The Complete Uni Studio Recordings . . . Plus!, though, hints at a decidedly unhip side to Diamond. More on that later.
Neil Diamond’s career as a songwriter took off with “I’m a Believer”, which the Monkees took to number one. It was 1967, and during this time he expanded his title to singer-songwriter, choosing to perform his songs himself. He signed to Uni Records, and all of his recordings with the company are represented here. This three-disc set collects every song from all six studio albums released by Uni, including thirteen Top 40 hits. But it also contains all those much lesser known songs that filled the gaps between the hits. Some are strong and interesting, like the lead off song “Two-Bit Manchild” or the personal, evocative “Brooklyn Roads”. Why a song like “Glory Road” (from Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show) was never a hit is a mystery. The music styles vary from flamenco influenced torch songs to straight-ahead pop to mock country to mock gospel. It becomes fairly clear to the listener why the songs that became hits did so, while much of the rest was left to obscurity. Many of the non-hits have a certain charm, but few of them could have cracked the charts. But there are a few curiosities even for a musical chameleon like Diamond, made curioser when placed in the context of the time period.
Four songs into this set is a track from his first album, Velvet Gloves and Spit called “The Pot Smoker’s Song”. With its chorus of “La la la / Pot, pot, gimme some pot / Forget what you are / You can be what you’re not / High, high, I wanna get high / You’ll never give it up if you give it a try”, sung to a sunny, almost (ironically enough) H.R. Pufnstuf-like melody. But the kicker is that this sing-along chorus is wrapped around spoken testimonials of “The kids of Phoenix House in New York . . . young ex-drug addicts who are still struggling to find their way back . . .” (according to the original track notes, contained in the CD’s booklet). This being 1968, and times being what they were, apparently Diamond got caught up in the ‘reefer madness’ of the era. Combined with a cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” (theme of the first ever X-rated film, Midnight Cowboy), it makes for and odd oxymoron by itself. But he also sings “Mississippi, don’t get annoyed / I’m not a hippie / Just a New York Boy” (on Touching Me, Touching You‘s “New York Boy”), doing his best to distance himself again from the counter-culture. And maybe that has served him well in the long run, leaving him the widely loved entertainer he is today. Then again, maybe it was the hits.
A glance at the tracklisting of the 70-odd songs on Play Me brings to mind the best of ’70s AM radio. From the early successes of “Shilo”, “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show”, “Mr. Bojangles”, and “Holy Holly”, to barn burners like “I Am . . . I Said”, “If You Go Away”, and “Song Sung Blue”, every early smash is here. There is even a selection of live songs (the Plus ! from the set’s title) that showcase hits he had during the same time period (“Red, Red Wine”, “Cherry, Cherry”, “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”, amongst others) for another record label, Bang. What may be his most well known song, “Sweet Caroline” is here as well, bringing all its popular culture relevance with it. From beer commercials to films (the song was used to almost perfect effect in the late Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls), the song is a testament to the singer-songwriter’s universal appeal.
Play Me: The Complete Uni Studio Recordings . . . Plus! has both its highs (“Cracklin’ Rosie”, “Kentucky Woman”) and its lows (the children’s song “I Am the Lion”, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”). Neil Diamond started out as a singles writer, and is what he will always be known for. For every inspired album track, there was a lesser, uneven one. For the casual fan, one of his many best-of albums will likely fill the bill, but for the fan more curious about the man’s early days will find this an extremely valuable document of that time. This is very comprehensive collection. Whether he was or is hip is finally irrelevant. Diamond never tried to be Elvis or John Lennon. He played the middle road as well as anyone ever had, and still lives to entertain. So far removed in time from his biggest hits, he could easily be dismissed as an oldies act still cashing in, but he has always transcended that as a performer, for the hip and non-hip alike. Everyone’s welcome.