The Band – Music from Big Pink
Now we’re talkin’! Fifty years ago today, the Band made their debut with Music from Big Pink, an album that continues to influence artists and earn new fans. In the heart of the psychedelic era, these five extremely versatile musicians were the rock antidote to the dayglow paisley scene. Four of the five members were Canadian, but they created a uniquely American sound which is generally referred to today as Americana. Nobody sounded or looked like them.
The group, originally known as the Hawks, had been hired away from Ronnie Hawkins by Bob Dylan, and they backed him on his combative 1966 UK tour. During Dylan’s subsequent post-tour exile at Woodstock, he summoned the Hawks and put them on retainer to record the songs which finally surfaced as the official release, The Basement Tapes, in 1975 (the recordings were heavily bootlegged until then). Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson moved into a pink house nearby in West Saugerties, with a basement where they and Dylan recorded dozens of somewhat bizarre Dylan originals and cover songs.
When they realized how interesting the material was with or without their boss, they convinced former band mate Levon Helm to leave the oil rigs he was working on and head to the northeast to rejoin them and record their own songs. Helm had left the group early in the ’66 Dylan shows when it became apparent that they would be playing before hostile audiences wherever they went due to Dylan “going electric.” He was replaced for the rest of the tour by Mickey Jones, who passed away this past February at 76.
At the behest of their (and Dylan’s) manager Albert Grossman, the band – at this juncture known as the Crackers – was signed by Capitol Records and they shifted to A&R Studios in New York City where they recorded five songs before moving the project to L.A. where they finished the album. By the time it was released, they had (thankfully) changed their name to simply the Band. Two songs, Tears of Rage and This Wheel’s on Fire, were co-written by Dylan, and Bob was solely credited on the final track, I Shall Be released. He also painted the picture used on the album cover. In his original 1968 Rolling Stone review of the album, Al Kooper referred to the record as a hybrid concoction of “White Soul.” He wrote:
I hear the Beach Boys, the Coasters, Hank Williams, the Association, the Swan Silvertones as well as obviously Dylan and the Beatles. What a varied bunch of influences. I love all the music created by the above people and a montage of these forms (bigpink) boggles the mind…This album was made along the lines of the motto: “Honesty is the best policy.”
The Band’s muse (along with Dylan’s at the time) seemingly came seeping through the dirt of the cotton fields of Arkansas, the coal mines of Appalachia, and the basement floor of that pink house from bygone days of the early/mid 20th century, or that “Old, Weird America,” to lift a favorite term of mine coined by author Greil Marcus in describing Dylan’s and the Band’s Basement Tapes recordings as the often otherworldly amalgamation of country, blues, and folk music from that period, much of which is featured in the Anthology of American Folk Music.
This record and this group inspired Eric Clapton to leave Cream and George Harrison to move toward the songwriting that was later featured on his All Things Must Pass album. Meeting the group also made Harrison long for the camaraderie he saw them enjoying which he no longer felt in the Beatles. “Timeless” is a somewhat overemployed word used to describe various recordings, but that’s what this album (and their follow-up a year later) is. As with many great bands, their energy and creativity was fairly short lived for many of the usual reasons, but what they gave us made a large and lasting impact. And with Music from Big Pink they were just starting to come into their own as recording artists.
- Tears of Rage
- To Kingdom Come
- In a Station
- Caledonia Mission
- The Weight
- We Can Talk
- Long Black Veil
- Chest Fever
- Lonesome Suzie
- This Wheel’s on Fire
- I Shall Be Released