Friday, October 7, 2011

Bang! Neil Diamond shoots a bull's-eye

I've been a fan of the early Neil Diamond for a long time. Note that I say "early." After he went to Columbia in the early '70s and began cranking out soft-rockin' smoothies for the Jonathan Livingston Seagull self-help crowd - not a fan so much! But his early work for Bang Records was pretty awesome.

A little history: Bang was a New York label whose name was actually an anagram of the first names of its owners, who were Bert Berns, a talented producer for Atlantic Records, Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, his brother Nesuhi Ertegun, and Atlantic's top gun producer Jerry (Gerald) Wexler. They'd had a lot of early hits with The Strangeloves, The McCoys (with a young Rick Derringer) and had re-invented Johnny Cymbal (remember "Mr. Bass Man"?) as Derek and had a hit with a song called "Cinnamon". Van Morrison's first U.S. solo release after disbanding Them was on Bang, and it was a killer - "Brown-Eyed Girl".

Diamond was just a songwriter at the time, and not a particularly good one, but he was friends with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, two of the hottest songwriters of the '60s, and they convinced the Bang boys to record Neil. It seems that when Neil wrote songs for other people, they were just mediocre, but when he wrote songs for himself - they were spectacular. "Cherry, Cherry" was a huge radio hit, and his career took off from there.

Diamond cut a total of 23 tracks for Bang from 1966 - 1968, when he departed for MCA's new Uni. label. Of those 23 cuts, about half were original songs, and they were amazing: "Solitary Man", "Cherry, Cherry", "Kentucky Woman", "Shilo", "Thank The Lord For The Night Time"... great stuff.

"Neil Diamond: The Bang Years" is the first-ever collection on CD of Neil's Bang masters in their original mono versions, cut for 45-RPM release and unsullied by overdubs and other strings-n-things that got added to some of the stereo album versions. It's a really great collection with a lengthy booklet written by Neil telling his own story of what it was like to be a hitless songwriter living on a shoestring in 1960s New York, and I was pleased as punch to find it at my local Fry's. A truly great collection of music, and one I will be playing in the Studebaker quite a lot while I drive around :)

For further research:
The Bang Records Story
Neil performing "Cherry, Cherry" on "Where The Action Is", 1966
   (the lip-synching is awful, but it's cool to see Neil doing his stand-up on location)
Promo video for "The Bang Years" collection

Monday, October 3, 2011

Con Funk Shun: or, I'm somewhat ConFunked

So you know I'm a huge fan of Soul music, Funk, Jazz-Funk fusion, etc. And back in the day, Con Funk Shun was one of those groups that got the nod from a lot of folks, but never really got any radio play aside from "Ffun", their one and only hit to cross over Top 40. And "Ffun" was a great song - all backbeat and horns, and with an undeniable hook that drove deep into the ol' cortex.

Con Funk Shun was signed to Mercury in the '70s, at the height of that label's pre-Polydor R&B greatness. A lot of great R&B acts were signed to Mercury's black music division in the '70s, with artists like the Bar-Kays, Bohannon and the Ohio Players pumping out the groove on a non-stop basis. So why was I so unfamiliar with Con Funk Shun? I snagged a copy of "The Best Of Con Funk Shun", part of UMG's "Funk Essentials" series, to do a little more research.

What I figured out after listening is that Con Funk Shun never really crossed over like groups like the Gap Band, P-Funk or Lakeside did was because - how to put this nicely? - their music was generally B-list. Let's be clear: for a group with the word Funk in their name, this best-of is surprisingly heavy on soul ballads. They're very nice soul ballads, something I would expect from, say, late-period Commordores (after Walter Orange had given up trying to get Lionel to be funky) or James Taylor-era Kool & The Gang, but let me repeat... not funky.

Or maybe the problem is that the anthologizers at UMG didn't do their homework. A little research turned up some monstrously funky tracks that the compilers inexplicably left off, like 1979's "Chase Me" and "Touch," from their 1980 Lp of the same name. Seems the guys at Universal forsook the Funk in favor of the silk, and that's too bad.

However, "Ffun" is undeniable, and  "Got To Be Enough" is the followup dancefloor Top 40 hit that should have been. And "(Let Me Put) Love On Your Mind" could have been a really awesome New Soul track, the kind radio embraced from LeVert or Atlantic Starr. But no one was paying attention.

Conclusion: if you want some great laid-back California soul, you'll like this disc. But if you got to get your groove on, there's just not enough fried stuff here.

Links for more research: