Repackaging Neil: The Selling and Reselling of Neil Diamond

A lot of this had been discussed before, on my record reviews, and my Bang Records research. Right now, I think the subject of Neil compilations is something that should be tackled as a primary subject for an essay. There's reasons why I think well of certain titles, but I'd disregard others with the similar content. The big factor is context. One has to look at how well a compilation fit a specific need in its time, and whether it was an improvement over what came before.

The explosion of Neil compilations started with Bang Records, in 1968. Bang owned only 25 songs total, so only the first compilation, Neil Diamond's Greatest Hits, made any sense for the times. Subsequently, Bang "manufactured" 2 additional LP titles, Shilo and Do It!, with alternate recordings of 2 songs being the centerpiece of the former, and 2 "new" songs (most likely culls) added to the latter (the remainder was simply a recycling of previously released material). Finally, in 1973, Bang brought us Double Gold, which was an attempt to compile the whole Bang era into one package... almost. For reasons unknown, Double Gold was missing 3 tracks from Neil's first album, The Feel of Neil, and it did not contain the b-side, "The TIme Is Now". The sound quality of the recordings varied, with several of the tracks sounding WORSE than they did on earlier albums, and the majority of the songs were put on the record in reversed stereo, as if  the engineers didn't bother to notice which cable was plugged into which jack. My frustration with Double Gold is the frustration of seeing a missed opportunity.  Had they paid more attention to quality, the Bang era could have been closed with a Bang.

Bang in the UK (a division of London/Decca Records, instead of Atlantic) came closer to the mark... their version of Double Gold came as 2 separate albums, Gold Diamond and Gold Diamond Vol. 2, with the lost 3 tracks of The Feel of Neil included.

Neil Diamond's tenure with Uni/MCA records lasted from 1968-1972. During that timeframe, Neil had complete artistic control of his albums, which barred MCA from doing quick buck rip-offs... that is, until he left. So, in 1973, the MCA compilation floodgates opened, starting with Rainbow. MCA's logic in doing this is puzzling. Rainbow contained 1 hit, and all of the songs were Neil's cover versions of songs written by others. The 2nd compilation, His 12 Greatest Hits, made more sense, until one bought it, cut open the shrinkwrap and popped the thing on a turntable. Two of Neil's biggest hits, "Sweet Caroline" and "Holly Holy" were live versions from Hot August Night, NOT the "hit" versions that were played on the radio. That was one of the first examples of "bait and switch" in the Neil compilation world, and, unfortunately, would not be the last. But at the time, at least the situation could be rectified inexpensively by buying 2 additional 45 RPM records, the singles of "Sweet Caroline" and "Holly Holy".

Two more LPs of previously-released material, And the Singer Sings His Song and Love Songs close the LP era. But at least smart shoppers had the option of passing on those, especially after checking the song selections and realizing that those titles were redundant, especially for those who had already bought Neil's six MCA studio albums already.

The CD era was just dawning in 1985, and MCA had to get Neil CDs out to the market quickly. So, after a hasty transfer of the main catalog to CD,  MCA had to re-do their prime newbie title, His 12 Greatest Hits for new CD buyers and new Neil fans. Surprisingly, they got that one right. By choosing a half-speed audiophile master as the source for their CD, they came up with a disc that sounded superior to all of the other Neil CD catalog titles, plus it finally contained studio versions of "Sweet Caroline" and "Holly Holy". Those were actually remixes/alternates, but they sounded close enough to the original hit versions that buyers didn't really mind. The title fit its audience to a tee... newbies who just wanted the Neil hits, the same way they heard them on the radio, and this was now available at a midline price.

MCA's 1992 Glory Road compilation was intelligently compiled and annotated, but suffered from one major shortcoming: the sound quality. By 1992, MCA should have known full well that they couldn't get away with using the old hiss-monster master tapes and charging a premium price for basically what amounted to an "oldies" collection of 20 year old material. Still, Glory Road's primary audience of "advanced newbies" could appreciate the way that the familiar hits and major album tracks were presented, and, for the first time, one could grasp the flow of Neil's musical evolution from album to album. Shortly afterwards, MCA re-released their tried-and-true cash cow, His 12 Greatest Hits again, with different cover art and the questionable restoration of the live versions of "Sweet Caroline" and "Holly Holy". Which really makes me doubt their sanity and business sense... who exactly was going to BUY IT? The same songs were already on Glory Road and the earlier version of 12GH was fine exactly the way it was.

The next two compilations, The Best of Neil Diamond (The Millennium Collection) and The Neil Diamond Collection were both basically subsets of Glory Road. The same ground had already been covered before, but the sound improved on the newer titles. I really think that the public would have been served better with a sonic overhaul for Glory Road, instead of releasing the latest redundant MCA twins.

Now our journey brings us to Columbia/Sony and what they'd done with Neil's recorded legacy. Their first "hits" title, His 12 Greatest Hits Vol. 2 made sense for its time. It closed the early (1973-1980) Columbia era well, and contained all of his big Columbia hits, plus the hits from The Jazz Singer. Subsequently, Neil had only one more Top 10 hit, "Heartlight", although some of his early 80's singles did chart, the reality is... they were quickly forgotten by the general public.

Next up, Columbia needed to present the old 60's Bang hits in a palatable way, since they'd acquired the rights for the songs from the now-defunct Bang Records. Instead of using the old Bang master tapes as-is, Columbia concocted the remix-heavy Classics: The Early Years. It's not truly bad.... most of the remixes retained much of the original spirit of the old Bang recordings, and as of this writing, it's still the only official release of stereo Bang tracks.

In 1992, Sony felt the need to jump on the "boxed set" bandwagon, so they came up with something that looked good, at least on paper... The Greatest Hits, 1966-1992. The main problem was that rival company MCA, still had the rights to the mid-period hits ("Cracklin' Rosie, "Song Sung Blue", et. al.) and weren't about to hand their favorite moneymaker gems over out of the goodness of their hearts. Sony couldn't just ignore that such songs existed, so they did "bait n' switch" and used live performances of the songs to substitute for what they couldn't get from MCA. They also had Neil do 2 re-recordings, which pale in comparison to the originals (I'm understating things a bit). The cardinal sin that Sony committed was NOT mentioning this in any visible place on the front or the back cover of the disc, so buyers found out the hard way, after their hard-earned money was already forked over. You can imagine the howl of disappointment when buyers played it and discovered the undocumented substitutions.

The Greatest Hits, 1966-1992 brings up the inherent contradiction of releasing multiple compilation titles... how many times can you exploit the newbie market? Neil's established fanbase would sometimes come to the defense of GH66-92, on the grounds that "it offers us something new that we can't get anywhere else". However, I think that it was a mistake to include such material in what should have been a major career retrospective. Stated very simply, the newbie market and the established fanbase market generally do NOT overlap, and the creation of such hybrid releases leaves both audiences unsatisfied. More on this later.

Sony gave the boxed set treatment of Neil another try with In My Lifetime. That remains the definitive set... the place for anyone to start if they wanted to know what Neil is all about. As befitting a true boxed set, a liberal amount of early rarities were included, and Sony had Neil's cooperation with writing the liner notes, and created an excellent book for the set. MCA became Sony's new tag-team partner in this enterprise, so In My Lifetime contains all of the proper "hit" versions of the songs.

Once In My Lifetime was done, it became clear that there couldn't be a quick follow-up to that. Neil had gained quite a reputation as a live performer over the years, so Sony's next endeavor was to create a triple live set, supposedly showcasing the "best of" Neil Diamond live. GH66-92 had shown Sony that it was possible to sell a hybrid release, so Neil Diamond Live In Concert was born. Being a hybrid, it consisted of 2/3 previously-released material, and 1/3 unreleased. That made it fairly easy to milk the fans for the high ticket price of $49.95, even though most of it was (you guessed it) duplicates of old stuff. The previously unreleased 22 tracks really should have been made available as a standalone title. To add insult to injury, it duplicates a goodly amount Live In America... as if there were NO BETTER versions of the songs hidden in the vaults? Were they implying that Live In America was the pinnacle of Neil's live albums?  I don't think so!

Fast-forward to 2001: 5 years after In My Lifetime had hit the shelves. Sony felt it was time to do another compilation, but how does one top In My Lifetime? Answer: they didn't try. The original song lineup of The Essential Album was almost a complete rehash of what was already done before- as if In My Lifetime was being condensed from 3 CDs down to two. Someone must have realized that if Essential was just IML-minus-all-the-rarities, they'd lose the market of hardcore Neil fans. So the track lineup was altered, delaying the disc's release by a month and putting in SIX live/unreleased tracks from the 2001 tour.

This brings Sony's cynical marketing schemes to new heights. At least on GH66-92, they had the excuse that they couldn't get the MCA tracks from MCA. In 2001, they knew that MCA could be a solid partner with a little persuasion ($$$). But they also knew that Essential had little to offer the established fanbase unless they added some "teaser" tracks. But what they couldn't see was that a hybrid Essential couldn't hit (or be a hit with) 2 non-overlapping markets.

Newbies: Newbies want "the hits", plain and simple.  Maybe they'd be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material on In My Lifetime, but it's relatively easy to skip tracks. If they bought Essential, they'd resent hearing live versions of old hits, because that's not “what's on the radio”. If they heard a substitute live "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show", but wanted the "hit" one, what are they supposed to do? Buy another CD so they can get the “hit” version? Doesn't this negate the purpose of Essential in the first place? I understand the newbie mentality: I have plenty of "Greatest Hits" collections by other artists. Billy Joel, Madonna, Gloria Estefan, Elton John, etc. And what I wanted on those discs (and got) were the hits.

The Established Fanbase: They'd already bought In My Lifetime, so it's obvious why Essential would be on their shopping lists...the six new live tracks. But what they're really thinking is that SIX tracks is simply not enough! Long time fans want a full-length 2001 concert, with all of the songs in their original in-concert sequence, not as disjointed bits and pieces interspersed with old studio stuff. Long time fans don't really need "the hits" rehashed again- they already HAVE the hits on at least one of the many previously released Neil discs. What they want is the ability to re-live the concert experience, over and over again, especially because Neil's 2001 tour is among the best of the post 70's tours. Sony's marketing decisions do succeed in filling the coffers with little effort and/or expense (being able to sell six tracks for $24.99 is quite a coup) but let's say that such decisions open them up to much-deserved criticism from both ends of the spectrum: newbies who wanted "hits" and didn't get them, and longtime fans who'd had to "bite the bullet" and pay for a huge number of duplications in order to get to the "core" 6 new live tracks.

The real solution would have been to go the Billy Joel route: Two different titles to fit the needs of 2 different markets. Sony's The Essential Billy Joel is a very good 2 disc abridgment of what used to be 3 separate volumes of Billy Joel's Greatest Hits. Any newbie would be delighted to receive it: all the hits, no filler, no substitutions.

For Billy Joel's regular fanbase, Sony released a live album, 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert. No complaints here, as people get exactly what they paid for: an all-new live recording of a milestone event.

My conclusion... In My Lifetime is my first choice as THE compilation title for Neil Diamond. There's just no other place  to get the full picture of Neil's career. 2nd choice: Glory Road- the best "zoom in" on the Uni/MCA period available. It could sound better technically, but you really can't beat they way that it presents Neil as a dynamic, vital, multi-faceted artist... beyond Neil the hit-machine.

Ix-Nay Time: Sony, for their use of hybrid releases to "force" people to buy the same songs over and over again, in our quest to get whatever's "new" (the new material is not available separately). At least with MCA, you know that you can skip ALL of their compilation discs if you wanted to. Everything you truly need is on the 8 MCA catalog title discs. But with Sony, they'd made it impossible to divorce their slim new pickings from the repeats.  So, we keep buying the damn things again and again, paying full/premium prices and getting what we DON'T need, in order to get the things we do need.

This article is Copyright 2001, K.F. Louie. May not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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