So, still reeling from the shock that I would be seeing him tonight, I swing by Virgin on the way home to pick up some revision material. There’s a new TV-advertised compilation doing the rounds, but I go for something called The Greatest Hits 1966-1992. It’s in the sale, and the track listing is almost identical.
At home, I stick the CDs on while doing the ironing. The unfamiliar early 1960s hits sound good, but I’m looking forward to his early 1970s material the most.
Uh-oh. What’s this? Halfway through the first of the two CDs, the collection mutates into a live album. There is a ropey version of Red Red Wine which sounds like a cover of the UB40 cover. Then, one by one, his biggest hits are systematically murdered. The gravely, growling voice is shot to bits, the performances are hokey, the ad-libs too frequent, and the constant crowd noises irritating. Halfway through the second CD, we revert to studio versions, but the damage is done. Just what have I let myself in for?
He emerges onto the stage on a slowly ascending platform, clad in a sequinned midnight blue jerkin and Simon Cowell trousers. The hair is definitely all his own – in the middle of the third row, we are close enough to check. At certain angles, he has started to bear an uncanny resemblance to Bob Monkhouse. Still, he’s looking pretty good for his age (61). There’s a seventeen piece band behind him – string section, brass section, the works – nearly all of whom have been with him since the 1970s. Now there’s loyalty for you. It’s the first clue.
We are surrounded by the diehards. There are a lot of respectable looking middle aged ladies, beaming from ear to ear, who already know the exact drill for a Diamond show. When to stand up, when to sit down, when to flex, when to point, when to sway sideways, when to sing along, when to add backing vocals, when to applaud a particular line in the middle of a song – even when to make synchronised rowing motions. Seasoned, polished professionals. The ladies in front of us have already seen Diamond five times on his current tour. We take our cue from them for the rest of the show, flexing and pointing with the best of them. Hey, when you’re in Diamond Country, you have to honour its customs…
However, the audience is far more mixed than I was expecting. There is a teenage boy on the front row who knows all the words. There are loads of people in their twenties and thirties. The gender mix is maybe 40% male to 60% female, and the men are throwing themselves into the show with just as much enthusiasm as the women. We’re not dealing with a Barry Manilow situation here.
Diamond performs for two and a half hours solid, remaining on stage throughout, with only the briefest of disappearances before the encore. He sits down only twice, and takes very occasional sips from a single glass of water. His face trickles with thin lines of sweat, which are never wiped. I don’t even think he is aware of them. He is totally and utterly concentrated on his performance at all times.
The voice is in remarkable shape. It never deteriorates into the “gravel gargling” that I was expecting, and which I heard on the CD. Close your eyes, and it could be 1978. Maybe he’s looking after himself better these days. He may not have the widest of expressive ranges, but technically he’s flawless, as are his band. The sound quality is absolutely perfect, banishing bad memories of a muffled Roxy Music at the same venue last year.
This isn’t my kind of music, and beyond a certain nostalgic value, these aren’t really my kind of songs. Despite this, Diamond delivers one of the most flabbergasting, truly awesome shows I have ever seen. You don’t survive this long in show business without learning a thing or two about stage technique, and Diamond is a masterful performer. His secret lies in the extraordinary way with which he connects with his audience. This isn’t showbiz flash on his part, and it isn’t a Pavlovian response on his audience’s part. The reciprocation between performer and spectator is tangible, and real, and astonishing. Diamond feeds off his audience reaction. It fuels his entire performance. He is not satisfied with anything less than total absorption and enjoyment, from every single individual present. He positively demands it – but not in a preening, narcissistic, “You must love me!” Madonna style. He seeks to earn it anew, night after night. The more the audience gives, the more he gives back. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it.
He works every inch of the stage, delivering – if necessary – whole songs to specific sections of the arena, until he gets the reaction he seeks. I can only resort to cliché: he has us eating out of the palm of his hand. There is a strange kind of mutual respect at work here. The gaily bopping Pats, Jeans and Margarets aren’t abasing themselves in idol worship. Instead, they seem oddly empowered. They are also having the absolute times of their lives, letting go without letting it all hang out. It is a delight to behold.
Diamond’s songs deal largely in stock sentiments, but the thing about stock sentiments is this: when properly expressed, they are universal. That is one of the true powers of popular music, and it should not be dismissed lightly. There is a fine line between populism and schlock. This line comes perilously close to being crossed during the perhaps inevitable September 11 tribute, with its dedication to the police officers, fire fighters and service personnel involved. I feel myself beginning to wince, as each group is applauded in turn. As the crowd applauds “those brave servicemen who risk their lives, every day”, the nice lady next to me notices my half hearted clapping and nudges me. “That’s us lot he’s talking about”, she says, smiling, and motions towards my hands. I don’t suppose she gets thanked very often by her heroes. She’s probably more used to the poorly concealed wincing. Anyway, we’re not applauding the institutions here – we’re applauding the individuals. The tribute song turns out to be He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. I get the message.
Sweet Caroline is pure end-of-the-pier pantomime. It has become a raucous audience participation piece, which goes like this. Audience parts in capitals.
Sweet Caroline (WOH WOH WOH!)
Good times never seemed so good (SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!)
I’ve been inclined (WOH WOH WOH!)
To believe they never would…
I fully expect either the Hermes House Band or DJ Otzi to pick up on this, and to release an annoying Europop Benidorm Anthem cover version any month now. Maybe they already have, and I just don’t move in the right circles.
However, it is Forever In Blue Jeans which is the one for me. Memories of the golden Summer of 79 come flooding back – of the boy I adored, who loved this song, meaning that I loved it too. We’re all on our feet, right to the back of the arena, giving it up for Neil.
He plays everything. You name it, it’s there – except for Song Sung Blue, the first song of his that I remember. Other than that, they’re all present and correct, and not buggered around with either. Even Red Red Wine and I’m A Believer, which were hits for other acts. The show seems never ending, and yet none of us (we compare notes later) can take our eyes off Neil at any point. I scarcely register the presence of most of the other band members. Compelling, charismatic, spellbinding. He could take us any place he wanted.
Towards the very end, he almost does just that. The platform at the front of the stage rises up like a pulpit, as Neil suddenly comes on like a crazed tub-thumping preacher man, delivering a bizarre sermon which starts off tongue-in-cheek, and ends up largely sincere. There is something about raising your hands if you truly believe in the Lord above. Hands are shooting up everywhere, without hesitation. Yikes. I am surrounded. It’s a little bit scary, and I have no trouble resisting this time. It’s the one time when the manipulation becomes overt, and the individuality of the crowd is submerged in hysteria. I don’t care for it much.
There was a cartoon in a recent Private Eye showing an ageing star sitting in an office, with a brash young man behind the desk. The young man is saying “Basically, you’ve got two choices. You can retire, or you can become ironic.” Neil Diamond has elected to do neither. 40 years in the business, and he’s still at the top of his game. I would love to know how many of today’s young pop pups will be able to do likewise.