Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Music From Big Pink’ from a group of musicians, so good, they could only be known as The Band.
By the summer of 1968, bands across the West were scrambling to climb aboard the perfumed psychedelic bandwagon, even as it began to careen heedlessly downhill. It was the wake of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and acts like Donovan, The Zombies, Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead were beginning to take advantage of the masses finally catching up with the ideals of Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters.
Music was all kaleidoscopes, flowers, weed, acid, orgies and the sun shining to the sound of electronically disturbed strings and organs. If you’re in a rock ‘n’ roll band you can do one of two things; stay in the river as it turns into a waterfall and go over the edge with all the others, or swim to the riverbank and start walking back the way you came.
It was the latter path taken by The Band that led to ‘Music From Big Pink’, an album partly composed and completely recorded within the walls of a house in Woodstock, New York, before it too became associated with the hippies. The Band had been on the road for a good many years in an earlier incarnation backing up a little known travelling rockabilly singer by the name of Ronnie Hawkins, then later as Bob Dylan’s group when he took his controversial electric roadshow across the world. It was around this time that that “voice of a generation” also began to feel alienated by the direction rock ‘n’ roll had started to take and took a more conservative musical turn with the stripped back folk of ‘John Wesley Harding’.
Around this time the narratives of both Dylan’s and The Band’s careers become largely entangled. After coming off a world tour in 1966 and at the height of his popularity, Dylan suffered a serious motorcycle accident in Woodstock which took him out of the oppressive limelight. In 1967 he bunked in with The Band in a house owned by several members of the group which they dubbed Big Pink and began to write and record a number of songs which would eventually be released as the double album ‘The Basement Tapes’. It was these sessions that led to the composing of ‘Music From Big Pink’.
‘The Basement Tapes’ are a fascinating listen because they embody what you expect being in a band is all about; sitting around in a room and letting each member of the group perform their part as they please. That had been Dylan’s recording method right from the beginning when he started recording with a live band and this aesthetic influenced the sound of ‘Music From Big Pink’.
The difference between The Band and most other groups is that each member of The Band is absolutely essential to their sound. Robbie Robertson is often considered to be the leader of the band because of his importance in the songwriting process, but what is The Band without Garth Hudson’s madcap organ opening to Chest Fever or the matter-of-fact drumming of Levon Helm or the devastatingly vulnerable vocal performance of Richard Manuel on Tears of Rage, or Rick Danko’s signature bopping bass-lines? They may be a lot of things but they aren’t The Band.
The first thing ‘Music From Big Pink’ strikes you as is a master class in collaborative art. Outside the five core members of the group was Dylan’s inexorable influence. He not only wrote the album’s closing track I Shall Be Released and co-wrote Tears of Rage and This Wheel’s On Fire, but he even painted the album cover. Within the group itself the playing on each song comes across as a wall of sound in one sense, with Hudson’s organs howling wildly over the whole album and the piano and drums battling away together underneath it all, but at the same time there seems to be so much room to breathe. Depending on what you decide to focus on whenever you listen to the album it can feel like a different experience each time.
What really sets this album apart in both its contemporary setting and as a timeless recording are the structures of the songs. Behind the rock aesthetic of The Band is a pure form of Americana which comes through in the songwriting. Again the Dylan influence, these sprawling seven or eight minute songs that comprised of little more variation than verse-chorus-verse-chorus. The opening track Tears of Rage sticks to this format strictly, and yet the recording with its subversively downbeat tempo and introspective lyrics is arguably one of the most perfect songs of this era. Its subject matter is similar to that of She’s Leaving Home in that it deals with the phenomena of that time of kids running away from home to join in the counterculture.
But whereas The Beatles’ lament on the subject centred on the child’s motivation of there being no fun at home, Dylan and Richard Manuel’s version expresses complex feelings of loss and guilt but also a parent’s anger at being abandoned by the child. It opens with the line “We carried you in our arms/on Independence Day” which paints a perfect image of the nostalgia in the singer’s mind, the anti-war motivations of the child and the loss of a loving relationship when the lyrics continue “but now you throw us all aside/and put us all away/oh what dear daughter/’neath the sun/could treat a father so?”
It seems strange to think of anyone writing and performing a song like this in the US in 1968 and you’d be forgiven for assuming these were a bunch of old-timers nostalgic for Eisenhower’s America. But in fact the members of The Band at this time varied in age from twenty-five to twenty-eight, suggesting their motivations weren’t based on inter-generational alienation, but something more considered and reasonable. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the song features lyrics like “It was all so very painless/when you went out to receive/all that false instruction/which we never could believe”. They’re singing those words to their own generation, who they feel have been lied to by those who promise Utopia but end up destroying families in the process. It’s no wonder then that once the anti-war movement died out The Band still stood like a solid rock in the desert of music while so much else of what cropped up musically in that era feels so slight from this great vantage point (“and the children of Atlantis…”).
Where did this opposition come from? It would be easy to stick it on the fact that four of the five members of The Band were Canadians and that the fifth was a real traditional Southern homebird (during Dylan’s ’66 World Tour Helm absconded from the group and worked on an oil rig, tired of the booing). What’s more likely is the fact that The Band had spent the previous five to ten years together on the road, where they perfected the art of playing together, of spontaneity in music and of true collaboration.
The psychedelic era brought with it the idea of an overall “composer” for a song, who wrote the melody and the instrumentation, bringing in musicians who had to play exactly to his specifications, then tweaking them further on the mixing board. It’s the classical model of composition, which for The Band was exactly the opposite of what rock ‘n’ roll music was all about. This mode naturally robs a piece of music of its soul and when not in the hands of a composer of real emotional depth as well as technical and creative abilities (Brian Wilson, say) the soullessness becomes overpowering.
It’s the same issue facing any number of electronic music acts in the modern age, who end up sacrificing soul for musical textures. In contrast ‘Music From Big Pink’ was rock music’s version of the kind of playing that had been happening on porches and in living rooms across parts of America for generations, substituting in electric guitars and powerful organs where once there were banjos and dulcimers. The result is one of the most soulful records of the ’60s, up there with (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay which was topping the charts while this album was being recorded (and shares more than just a few chords with ‘Big Pink’s’ centrepiece track).
The side one closer The Weight best represents this soulfulness, declaring The Band as a group with a definite voice, utilising simple song structures, tight playing and “all in” instrumentation. With this track The Band reeled in their perfectly stacked lineup. Garth usually represented the wild classical influence that seemed mixed with an almost pathological desire to break out of those confines and improvise everything beyond recognition, whereas Levon Helm was the proprietor of the more grounded and earthy sounds of no nonsense Americana, infusing The Band’s music with its unique soul, and arguably dominating the follow-up album. On The Weight Garth plays the acoustic piano and improvises with a ragtime looseness while the lyrics deal with the encounters of a traveller into a surreal town, not miles away from the same ones Dylan traversed circa-Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.
Just like the opening track, The Weight is a testament to the perfection possible in a standard verse-chorus format. With lyrics that borrow heavily from Southern American songs such as Go Down Moses, but also borrowing from the surrealism that was abundant in psychedelia at the time, it becomes a declarative statement in defence of the traditional, which after its burst of revival in the late ’50s and early ’60s seemed to finally be heading into the background where it belonged. But at the same time this music was something completely new and unheard of.
Before this track you might have thought everything that could be done in this form has happened, and that this music built around expensive modern equipment and large groups of performers was the land in which new sounds would be discovered. If we’ve learned anything over the last few years though it’s that American folk music and its influence has its ebbs and flows, but it will never die, and will always be there beneath the surface, even as the fads declare themselves to be new and permanent. All it, like anything, ever needs is the right person to come along and remind everyone what is so great about it, why they should be excited about it. This track more than any other of the latter half of the ’60s achieved that.
There’s a school of thinking that says rock ‘n’ roll in its purest form is loud, youthful, cutting edge, extroverted, actively opposing the injustices of the world. That’s the punk aesthetic, which goes back as far as Jelly Roll Morton straight through the likes of Buddy Holly, The Monks, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and The Sex Pistols right up to the modern age with acts like Eagulls. But there is also a form of rock ‘n’ roll which features contemporary acts like Kurt Vile and Angel Olsen in which the point of rock music is to communicate something buried below feelings of anger or boredom. ‘Music From Big Pink’ is the precedent for albums like ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ and ‘Helplessness Blues’. It’s the sound of music that doesn’t demand that you pay attention, but when you hear it playing from a window as you pass by you can’t help but stop to listen.