With Neil Diamond topping the Billboard albums chart with Home Before Dark, the second of his albums to be produced by Rick Rubin, it seems a good a time as any to revisit the early years of his career as a budding New York songsmith in the Brill Building pop era of the '60s. We excerpt from a Melody Maker piece published 28 August 1976. -- Barney Hoskyns, RBP Editorial Director
"In a sense it was exciting for me because I didn't know anything and there was lots to learn," Diamond remembers. "It was a scuffling hand-to-mouth existence because doors are always closed to people who are new in any business. I spent about eight years knocking around from the time I was 17 until I was 25 and learned who to know and who to avoid. I did learn a lot about songwriting and I spent a lot of time with other songwriters, all sorts of people, from old-timers to old black rhythm 'n' blues writers."
What frustrated Diamond the most was having to work to formulae set down by publishers. "A publisher would tell me what ideas for the song he had and expect me to translate them for a singer with a particular style. He'd say something like...'This singer is coming up and he wants a positive song, mostly up with a little hook in the middle and in a certain key.' I never did very well at that; in fact I did abysmally at it for a while, just managing to survive. I didn't start to do well at it until the point where I got fired for the last time. I was fired five times from staff jobs and between them I worked at placing songs with other publishers. I just got paid a salary of 50 dollars a week regardless of whether I wrote a hit or a flop and it was very frustrating."
Eventually Diamond took his own initiative and opened his own business, purchasing a repossessed piano, leasing a one-room office and installing a pay phone so that he wouldn't be faced with telephone bills at the end of every month. He also started to write the songs that he wanted to write.
"I'd look down at what I'd written and realize that I liked it for once. And I really consider this to be the beginning of my career. All the rest was dues and dues. The strange thing is that I didn't really have the hots to be a performer myself. I just wanted to get my songs heard by the right people. I'd signed a contract with Columbia when I was 18 and they put out one single that nobody ever heard so they let me go and I just went back to songwriting."
Eventually Diamond signed a deal with Bert Berns' Bang label and become a performer again. "Performing seemed the most natural thing for me. My father was an amateur performer and I'd sung since I was a kid. It was very easy for me to get up and do it. I'd done some hops and some lip-synch when I recorded for Columbia so it came easily enough. When the first records came out I went out and played and played everything from bowling alleys to gigs on the top of a flat bed truck in parking lots. The way I worked was to use a pick-up band wherever I went. I'd meet them an hour before the show, rehearse a little and hope they all started playing when I did."
As a writer, Diamond believes in what he calls the "feel" of a song as much as the melody or lyrics. "When I compose a tune it's the feel that comes first. I just get a feel or groove and follow with some chords and the best key to use. From that comes the melody and the lyrics follow on next. Sometimes it takes me longer to come up with things than other times. It can range from one hour to many months...it took me four months of work to come up with 'I Am...I Said', yet it took me an hour to write 'Sweet Caroline'. It's totally unpredictable because a good song has a life of its own. It tells you when it's ready to come and you have to sit there and try and catch it when it comes out. I just sort of tinkle around on the guitar or the piano until I get a riff going and work from there.
"I like working on albums like Jonathan Livingston Seagull or Beautiful Noise because a concept gives you another dimension to work with. I plan to make a film of Beautiful Noise so, instead of just working on 10 or 12 individual songs, I have worked out the basis for a story. I think it's another step in the sophistication of the thing and it gives you a little more space, or breathing room, in which to work."
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- Neil Diamond