3 Jul 2018

The Sampler: Big Pink 50th Anniversary Special

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 3 July 2018

Nick Bollinger celebrates the 50th anniversary of Music From Big Pink - the debut album of The Band - by taking a close look at its influences and its effects.

The Band

The Band Photo: © Elliott Landy/ LandyVision, Inc.

Take a load off Fanny

aaaa – aaaa – aaaand –

you put the load – put the load right on me’

It’s half a century since ‘The Weight’, appeared as one of eleven tracks on an album called Music from Big Pink.

It’s since become a kind of roots musician’s anthem; the song neo-rustics like Wilco or Old Crow Medicine Show will reach for if pressed for an encore, or joined by guests – Gillian Welch, say, or Mavis Staples – and need something everyone can join in on. In fact it’s become such a standard that it’s hard to imagine quite how odd the song – and the album it comes from - seemed back in 1968.

It helps to think about what else was going on at the time.

The best selling single in the world in July 1968 was Herb Alpert, of Tijuana Brass fame, crooning the Burt Bacharach ballad ‘This Guy’s In Love With You’. It was sophisticated easy-listening, lovely in its way, but almost as far as you can get from the hillbilly harmonies of "Take a load off Fanny".

But the cool kids weren’t paying much attention to the singles chart in '68 anyway. Singles had just been eclipsed by ‘the album’. One year earlier, the Beatles had released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely hearts Club Band, their self-styled soundtrack to the Summer Of Love, and it had opened the door for a slew of long-form fantasmagorias, including Cream’s Disraeli Gears, The DoorsStrange Days and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis Bold As Love.

But Music From Big Pink didn’t sound like any of those records either. Where the fashion was for volume and maximalism, Big Pink was mostly quiet and full of space. Where those other records celebrated altered states with mindblowing sound effects, Big Pink seemed sombre and strangely solemn.

The beginning

In fact, it opened with what might have been a eulogy for that Summer Of Love.

‘Tears Of Rage’ remains the most unsettling opening track of any rock album I’ve ever heard. A father singing to his daughter, in a voice that literally trembles with emotion, of his incomprehension at being thrown aside, put on his way, while she runs out to receive the ‘false instruction’ of her peers.

In the days since Sgt. Pepper, Beatlemania had matured into full-blown youth rebellion, and the new music was expressing it, whether it was Jim Morrison demanding to know what has been done to the earth, or Hendrix waving his freak flag high.

The Band

The Band Photo: Elliot Landy

But this song is as decisive a rejection of the counterculture and its freak flags as you could find. And yet weirdly it came from right inside the counterculture’s walls. The singer is Richard Manuel – of whom more in a minute – and he wrote the song with Bob Dylan, a veritable countercultural icon. ‘Something’s happening but you don’t know what is, do you Mr Jones?’ Dylan had sung not long before, brutally identifying the division between generations. Yet here he was now, turning the tables, writing from the point of view of ‘them’; that older, rejected generation, and investing them with a humanity you could feel.

The song just gets sadder as it goes on, Manuel’s voice close to breaking now as he sings of loneliness and the brevity of life while the drums measure a slow procession and a horn section that sounds like the Salvation Army completing the dirge.

And that is just how the album starts.

But it wasn’t the only thing about this record that seemed strange on its arrival.

The delivery

For one thing, it was hard to tell whose record it even was. The front cover had no title or text at all: just a bright primitivist painting of what appeared to be a group of musicians, or maybe circus performers. Visible were a piano, a guitar, double bass, drums, what might have been a sitar, and an elephant. The label listed in alphabetical order the musicians’ names: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Jaime Robbie Robertson.

Music from Big Pink

Music from Big Pink Photo: supplied

The inscription ‘The Band’ appeared only on the album’s spine along with the name Music From Big Pink, as though Big Pink might actually be the name of the band.

The cover painting, as it turned out, was by Dylan, as were several of the songs. The Band – as they eventually became identified – had for the previous two and a bit years been Dylan’s backing group. Roughly the same age as Dylan and the same generation as The Beatles, they were all Canadians apart from Helm, their Arkansas drummer. They had spent the early part of the 60s on the rowdy North American bar circuit, mostly as backing band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who had christened them The Hawks.

Early recordings reveal that the Hawks were indeed a fiery backing band – the best, really. And had they never crossed paths with Bob Dylan they might have remained merely that. But they were curious and open-minded types, and though Dylan’s folk roots and beat poetics were foreign to them, they realised, almost as quickly as Dylan did, that by harnessing those elements to their electric rock’n’roll they could create something else again, which is what they did. And for a year or so they took it around the world, being booed at almost every stop by crowds of Mr Joneses who didn’t know what was happening. 

Eventually they left the road – literally, in the case of Dylan, who smashed himself up in a motorcycle accident – and, for a year or so they all holed up in and around the town of Woodstock, in upstate New York. (The festival that would make the small town famous was still a couple of years away.) There, in the basement of an ugly rented pink 50s-style house, they joined Dylan as he tried out new songs, and began to write songs of their own.

[pull quote] Big Pink is not merely revivalist. It takes mythology and surrealism, mystery and invention, and mixes them together to make a music that simply didn’t exist before, and the best of its disciples can claim those qualities too

Their own songs would inevitably show Dylan’s influence, particularly in the cryptic, surreal nature of Robbie Robertson’s lyrics, but also had a beauty and depth that was uniquely theirs. As Dylan studied old folk songs, they would make their own study of similarly arcane music styles; the harmonies of old-time bands like J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, or the rhythms and horns as of early New Orleans R&B. And it all seemed to come together in timeless sepia-toned tunes.

It was funky yet old-world-y, and certainly at odds to anything that was going on in the psychedelic dancehalls of London or San Francisco. And yet there were moments of something approaching psychedelia. The song ‘In A Station’ finds the singer waking to find that life itself has become dream-like, and the hallucinatory mood of Richard Manuel’s lyric is echoed in the unidentifiable keyboards played by Garth Hudson that seem to sprinkle sonic fairy-dust over the whole thing.

Garth Hudson and guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson are the two instrumental soloists. And while the emphasis is usually on the three singers – Manuel, Danko and Helm – the soloists get their turn to shine in ‘Chest Fever’, the track that comes closest to late-60s hard rock, though The Band’s hard rock is still nothing like anyone else’s.

Though conceived in the Big Pink, where they had been documenting their progress in homemade recordings that would later be bootlegged as The Basement Tapes, Big Pink the album was actually recorded in a couple of high-end studios: A&R in Manhattan and Gold Star in Santa Monica. Even so, the sound was nothing that had come out of those rooms before. The drums were deep and woody; the piano and organ combined like something not out of a psychedelic dungeon so much as a sanctified church; and the voices tumbled together, not the tight blend the Beatles and other bands aspired to, but more like a chorus of bedraggled minstrels who had been out in a hostile world and returned to tell of what they had seen. That sense is no more palpable than on ‘I Shall Be Released’, the Dylan song with which they closed the album.

The reception

On its release, Music From Big Pink was not an overnight hit. After all, as artists The Band were still largely unknown, and to compound their obscurity, it was hard to tell from the packaging whether The Band – which is a pretty anonymous name anyway – even was their name.

Of course the Dylan connection helped somewhat, as did the fact that the album found favour among some of rock’s most influential stars. Eric Clapton, then of Cream, was so struck by the economical nature of the music – the virtual opposite of Cream’s epic jams – that he almost immediately broke up his band, hoping he might be invited to join The Band. (He wasn’t.) The Beatles, too, were early fans, especially George Harrison, who left the White Album sessions early so he could head to Woodstock and hang out with his new heroes. The Band’s influence would be audible in the back-to-the-roots sound of The Beatles’ next recordings.

In the US, The Grateful Dead, those explorers of inner space, were suddenly reminded of their origins in bluegrass and folk music and broke away from acid rock to deliver the decidedly rustic Workingman’s Dead.

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Photo: Supplied

In Britain, new groups seemed to spring up everywhere with a distinctly Band-like sound: McGuiness Flint, Brinsley Schwartz, Heads Hands & Feet, and numerous others. A new singer who had recently risen in profile with his self-titled second album, was particularly smitten with The Band. Elton John’s third record, Tumbleweed Connection, would do everything it could to emulate The Band’s sepia sound.

In other cases The Band effect was more subtle, though no less profound. Fairport Convention were a group of folk-rockers from Muswell Hill who modelled themselves very much on a West Coast American model, somewhere between The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane. Hearing Big Pink persuaded them to change tack, though not – like those other groups – to immerse themselves even more fully in Americana.

On the contrary, hearing The Band made them realise that such a pursuit was futile; that no one could do Americana better than The Band. Instead it forced the question of themselves, what as English men and women is our own roots music? The answer was Liege and Lief, a milestone album that electrified old English folk songs, mixing them with originals drawing heavily on the folk tradition, creating a new paradigm in much the same way The Band did, without sounding anything like The Band (though their producer Joe Boyd noted in his book White Bicycles that the Fairports’ drummer Dave Mattacks did try hard to achieve the same snare drum sound as Levon Helm – the sound Boyd describes as like ‘an expensive cardboard box struck with a pair of velvet slippers.’)

The chain of influences didn’t end there. In East Los Angeles, in the early 70s, a high school band of first generation Hispanic-Americans had been getting pretty good at playing top forty songs and Cream-style blues-rock, when one of them stumbled on Liege and Lief. Hearing this English band playing old folk tunes inspired them to explore the songs of their Mexican heritage, and Los Lobos found their sound. Yet ironically, the group they would often resemble on record was The Band.

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Photo: Supplied

In the Catskill mountains, not very far from Big Pink itself, a bunch of indie-rockers were coming out of an extended period of psychedelic experimentation with something new in mind; something that echoed in spirit as much as sound, those songs that had been conceived amongst those same hills some thirty years earlier. Released in 1998, Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs even featured a couple of members of The Band, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, who were both still living in the area.

And so it goes on. In the early 90s Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, two students from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, sang together for the first time and realised their voices were a perfect match. The song was the one cover song from Big Pink, ‘The Long Black Veil’. Welch and Rawlings have become pillars of the so-called Americana scene, while The Band’s music runs like a river through their songs.

None of this music would have been made, or sounded anything like it does, were it not for Music From Big Pink. With that record, The Band invented Americana; not just by drawing on near-forgotten forms but by making the listener think about the history, the lives and the stories that gave birth to those forms in the first place. That’s something pop music, with its attention to a never-ending present, had rarely considered before. And yet Big Pink is not merely revivalist. It takes mythology and surrealism, mystery and invention, and mixes them together to make a music that simply didn’t exist before, and the best of its disciples can claim those qualities too.

But if Music From Big Pink marked the beginning of a movement, for The Band it was, in a way, the beginning of the end.

In most cases a debut album is just the start of a career; one that will develop over successive releases, and might take years or more to reach a peak. For The Band it was a bit different. By the time of Big Pink they had already existed for the best part of a decade, on the road with Ronnie Hawkins, round the world with Uncle Bob. They had done their woodshedding in Woodstock. Music From Big Pink was the summation of everything that had brought them to that point. And though they made a couple more great albums and several good ones before giving it all away eight years later, nothing they would do would ever surpass it.