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The Band: Cahoots (1971)

A Retrospective

[Peter Viney]  by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1998, 1999
This article first appeared in The Band fanzine Jawbone, No. 6, spring/summer 1998.


Side one Side two
Life is A Carnival
(R. Danko / L. Helm / J. R. Robertson)
When I Paint My Masterpiece
(B. Dylan)
Last of the Blacksmiths
(J.R. Robertson)
Where do we go from here?
(J.R. Robertson)
4% Pantomime
(J.R. Robertson / Van Morrison)
Shoot Out In Chinatown
The Moon Struck One
Thinkin' Out Loud
Smoke Signal
The River Hymn
(All by J.R. Robertson)
Produced by The Band (Capitol)


Robbie Robertson guitar, vocals
Levon Helm vocals, drums, mandolin, guitar
Richard Manuel vocals, piano, drums
Rick Danko vocals, bass
Garth Hudson organ, accordion, saxophones

What the critics said

Cahoots was literal, where the other records were tantalizing, strained where they moved. There was a flatness in the music, good ideas forced through a banal, didactic mesh … (Greil Marcus, 'Mystery Train')

Instead of growing organically from some musical seed, the songs were constructed like miniature soapboxes; instead of being peopled by flesh-and-blood characters, they were dominated by phantasmic abstractions. The pastoralism was … finally veering towards sentimentality. More fundamentally the songs were just melodically undistinguished. (Barney Hoskyns, 'Across The Great Divide: The Band and America"

Cahoots was a catastrophe. Robertson completely outstripped himself here - with the exception of 'Life is A Carnival' and Dylan's 'When I Paint My Masterpiece' there simply isn't a good song on the record. * * (The Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1979 edition)

…With 'Cahoots' strain began showing, Allen Toussaint's horn arrangement on 'Life is A Carnival' and a guest appearance by Van Morrison on '4% Pantomime' were great highlights, but the record was uncertain, murky and unsatisfying - * * 1/2 (Rolling Stone Album Guide, 1992)

Wheh, these fellows can really play … Seem overtly worried about the passing of the world as they know it, though … not just blacksmiths, but eagles, rivers, trains, the works. B - (Christgau's Guide to Rock Albums of the 70s)

Melodramatic rather than emotional, the set offered few highlights, although Van Morrison's cameo on '4% Pantomime' suggested a bonhomie distinctly absent elsewhere. (The Guinness Encyclopaedia of Rock)

… Cahoots, their pretty awful fourth album. Life is A Carnival (is) the one good track (Andy Gill, Q12, September 1987)

Be fair! For an early sixties album this wouldn't have been too bad at all. Two all-time classics (Life Is A Carnival, When I Paint My Masterpiece). A memorable, loose collaboration with Van Morrison (4% Pantomime). A novelty number (Shoot Out In Chinatown). A stately, serious song that very nearly makes it (The River Hymn). That's five reasons for owning it. Oh, but four of them are on the To Kingdom Come anthology. And three are on the Across The Great Divide box set. But it's not an early sixties album resting on the glory of two decent tracks. It's 1971. The rest is sub-standard. But that was no problem before rock got serious.

The Band's first two albums were critically acclaimed, standard critics poll Top 100 albums. Stage Fright was generally thought to suffer from the dreaded third-album syndrome (Rolling Stone Album Guide demotes it to three stars), but the late John Bauldie reviewed the re-release on CD in Q, and put it right up where it deserved, as a five star album like the first two. Cahoots, the fourth album, was the critical fall from grace. Robertson had taken over the lion's share of work as Richard Manuel faded as a writer and gave up. The Band had ceased to be the unique combination of talents and had put the whole responsibility into Robbie's court. Someone this talented can't ever produce total crap, but he was stretched; straining for creative inspiration.

I was worried when I bought it on the day it was released. Danger signal. The lyrics were printed on the inside sleeve. Robertson had said in all the Stage Fright interviews that the joy of rock lyrics was puzzling out the words, mishearing them, guessing. I spent days listening to this one again and again, waiting, hoping for it to touch me like the first three albums had. But no, only a couple of tracks would stick in my head. I couldn't remember the tunes of half of it. I had to admit that my favourite band had produced an album that was 50% turkey. The stuff that's come out on The Band in the last few years implies that at least two, and possibly all of them were too stoned or strung out to work, having invested their new found wealth unwisely.

Robbie Robertson was concerned that they'd lost their classic sound, by recording in a new studio, saying that 'the sound nauseated me. It was too bright and cold.'

It's much easier to assign tracks to different lead vocalists, and the trademark swapping of lead lines between the three singers is rarely present.

We can add the misgivings of all the participants. Garth Hudson said 'it was harder for me to find something different for each song,' Robbie Robertson admitted to feeling uninspired and that a lot of the songs were half-finished ideas. Rick Danko said that Richard and Levon weren't interested, and that everybody was wrecked all the time. Richard Manuel said 'What was missing was what they used to call soul music.' Levon Helm sums it up:

It wasn't a good time for us to be working together, or even to be working. Richard stopped writing and for all intents retired. Garth didn't get much inspiration from the material Robbie was bringing in. I'd shot my wad on "Life Is A Carnival." (Levon Helm, This Wheel's On Fire)

The album track-by-track

Life is A Carnival (R.Danko / L. Helm / J. R. Robertson)

Horn arrangements - Alan Toussaint
This has featured on Band live shows right up to the present day. It's one of the six or seven songs they nearly always perform, especially when they can afford a horn section. It's also a rare Helm / Danko writing credit, though in his autobiography Levon Helm suggests that many of The Band's songs should have had shared credits. The rhythms were worked out by Helm and Danko, with lyrics by Robbie Robertson, though Helm credits Richard Manuel with the line Two bits a shot. Toussaint, Lee Dorsey's producer, was brought up to Woodstock to do the horns. At the time he'd never heard The Band, but it was the beginning of a collaboration which flourished on the Rock of Ages live set.

Lyrically this continues Robertson's love of the carnival. Supposedly he once worked in one. It was expressed in The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show on Stage Fright, and reached it's culmination in his role in the film Carnie. Levon Helm has the perfect hard-worn Carnie barker voice. Memorable lines:

You can walk on the water, drown in the sand.
You can fly off a mountain top … anybody can.
Run away … it's the restless age.
Look away … you can turn the page.

Hey, buddy, would you like to buy a watch real cheap?
Here on the street.
I got six on each arm
And two more round my feet!

When I Paint My Masterpiece (Bob Dylan)

The album started well. The best two tracks come first, and maybe that's because they already knew that the rest didn't achieve the same standard. The Band performed this on the 1992 Dylan Tribute show, with Garth Hudson and Richard Bell on twin accordions, though it's not been a live number otherwise. Richard Williams said in 1971 that it was good, but not great, and Dylan would probably do it better. Well, he was wrong. Dylan released it on Greatest Hits Vol II a few months later, and … it wasn't fantastic. Levon Helm sings it better (compare also Blind Willie McTell). The backing is dominated by Garth Hudson on accordion and Levon Helm on mandolin, as Helm says "to give it that European tourist flavour." Richard Manuel moved to drums.

Garth's sleazy accordion reeks of Italy, accompanied by heavily strummed acoustic guitar, then Danko's melodic bass. Levon's still the lead singer.

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you're seeing double
On a cold dark night on the Spanish stairs!

They stick in Rome, for a date with a pretty little girl from Greece, then they're dodging lions in the Coliseum, then they're pursued across hilltops by wild geese. (Rome was saved by the warning given by geese, but not wild ones). Then it's:

Sailing round the world in a dirty gondola
Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola

Next stop is Brussels, on a plane ride so bumpy that I almost cried … It's unusually transparent for a Dylan lyric and gets in its dig at the press:

Newspapermen eating candy
Had to be held down by big police

Last of the Blacksmiths (J.R. Robertson)

Which is where things start to go wrong.

Richard Manuel sings it. Piano and acoustic guitar dominate, but the drums sound more like Manuel than Helm, so it's probably Garth Hudson playing the piano line. There's a really weird saxophone solo - Richard Williams thought it sounded as if it was being played through liquid nicotine. All the elements are impressive. Impressive bit of guitar. Wonderful piece of sax. Nice piano tone. But somehow they don't go anywhere. Perhaps the weight of the lyrics (no pun intended) pull it all down.

Where do we go from here? (J.R. Robertson)

This is the one everyone takes the piss out of. It's just too earnest. Barney Hoskyns says ("Across The Great Divide - The Band and America"):

It's easily the worst offender in the didactic stakes … a desperately forced eco-lament.

Hoskyns tellingly quotes Robbie Robertson on his own composition:

It's a shit-headed version … we got like hammer-headed … I don't like what I did then under those circumstances. There's a very moving thing in there wanting to come out …and it ain't there in this version.

This has a non-melody like the preceding track (and most of Islands ). The voices all come in for the chorus, but they no longer blend or contrast. They're insignificant. Richard Manuel hits some high notes, but it's trying much too hard.

Have you heard about the buffalo on the plain?
How at one time they'd stampede a thousand strong?
And now that buffalo's in the zoo, standing in the rain,
Just one more victim of fate, like California state.
Sure do miss the silence when it's gone.

Hmm. Robbie returns to the theme in the 1990s on Music From The Native Americans. There's interest value in this earlier Great Plains theme, but in the 1990s the music and arrangement conjure up Native American sounds. Not here. And what is the connection between a buffalo as a victim of fate and California state (whose symbol is a bear)? Oh, yes. They rhyme.

Another example of the lyrics:

Where do we go from here? Oh woman my woman
La La La La La La La La La she said 'nowhere'

We have something in Europe called the Eurovision song contest which features songs with titles along the lines of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, Ding A Dong, Boom Bam Bam. It's a candidate, except that the melody isn't catchy enough.

4% Pantomime (J.R. Robertson / Van Morrison)

Richard Williams thought this was the best track. Van Morrison's first meeting with any of The Band was actually in LA in 1970, where he ran into his Woodstock neighbour, Robbie Robertson. The result was a developing friendship with The Band, particularly with pianist Richard Manuel. The two men were equally caught up in the soul and sound of Ray Charles, and hit it off immediately. Van was invited to play with The Band on their fourth album. This was more of a privilege than it might seem nowadays. The Band had declined Bob Dylan's offer to lend his name and backing vocals to Music From Big Pink, settling instead for a cover painting. Eric Clapton had disbanded Cream in sheer despondency after hearing that album. He even went up to Woodstock hoping he'd pluck up the courage to ask to join them, but his nerve failed. George Harrison had mooned around the outside of their camp fire, hoping he'd be asked to jam. The only outsider to feature musically on their early albums was producer John Simon. When Van played with The Band in 1971 his name wasn't worth extra sales to them in any way. He was there on merit.

The song has interesting lyrics and a pretty nondescript melody, which is par for the course on Cahoots. It's a vocal duet between Richard Manuel and Van Morrison. The title comes from the 4% difference in proof between Johnny Walker Red whisky and Johnny Walker Black. The session results from Van dropping in by chance while Robbie Robertson was writing the song. Van decided to help, and they recorded it in one take the same evening. Robbie's lyric was the first reference to Van as The Belfast Cowboy, though it seems Robbie had coined it before the session. Journalists owe Robbie a lot. He is always quotable.

Van and Richard were acting this whole thing out. For a second when I was watching, it became soundless and it became all visuals - people's hands and veins and people's necks. It was almost like this movement thing was going on, and the music was carrying itself. It's bizarre and wild. It was a lot of fun to do it. It was an archive kind of thing that we actually put on record. (Robbie Robertson)

Levon Helm was also impressed:

Richard Manuel played the drums with our neighbour Van Morrison on a raucous number cut in one take, 4% Pantomime. This happened when Van came to Bearsville (studio) and began discussing the merits of scotch whisky with Richard. They acted out some lyrics about management and a poker game and Richard sang, 'Oh, Belfast Cowboy, can you call a spade a spade?' It was an extremely liquid session, Van and Richard were into it, and there was horror among the civilians at the studio when the two dead-drunk musicians argued about who would drive the other one home. Richard drove, and I think he made it. Lord knows he wrecked a lot of cars that year. (Levon Helm, 'This Wheel's On Fire')

Shoot Out In Chinatown (J.R. Robertson)

It was knocked right back at the time of release for the "racist" mock-Chinese (Chinese takeaway) guitar bits and lyrics, and Greil Marcus had his say in Mystery Train:

The music no longer had any life of its own; it took its cues from the lyrics, and when the result wasn't flat, it was cute. When I Paint My Masterpiece was about an expatriate artist in Europe, so the tune featured a little Michael LeGrand accordion; the utterly pointless Shoot Out In Chinatown came complete with Fu Manchu guitar, a touch so tasteless it verged on racism.

Few of the critics liked Cahoots. But, as ever, Marcus makes a point, though obliquely. There is a "tourist" subplot to Cahoots, from the accordion to suggest the Europe of ruins and gondolas, through the plinkety-plonk pastiche Chinese sound on Shoot Out in Chinatown, to the sleazy Alan Toussaint horns on Life Is A Carnival or the self-conscious revival meeting in The River Hymn. As Levon has admitted, Robbie Robertson was fighting to hold the Band together through the recording. Only Robertson and Danko seem to have had much interest in the album. Robertson was trying desperately to re-use proven and trusted themes. Hence the tour of Americana historical locations, like the revivalist meeting and the carnival (again). San Francisco's Chinatown would seem to offer another suitable slice of American myth. It was where you rushed to spend your money after hitting it big up on Cripple Creek. Robertson, as usual, was using popular American mythology. Present day Chinatown IS a tourist attraction and a parody of itself (and presumably was in 1971 too), right down to the pagoda-style call boxes, which have been copied in London's tiny Chinatown district. It's also a present-day community, and that's where the fear of offence comes in. You cannot deny the effects that stereotyping can have on people. Marcus's point was not that they were creating a mock-Chinese sound, nothing wrong with that, but that the sound was like a Fu Manchu film. I don't have access to any Fu Manchu films to check, but it sounds like the kind of thing I remember. On the other hand, maybe it's just a mock Chinese sound.

Not every critic hated it. Richard Williams in Melody Maker was positive, previewing one month before the album's release in 1971:

He … makes musical and lyrical cross-references of outrageous cleverness. You might think Shoot Out In Chinatown - with its parodying of Chinese music - is about the great days of the ghetto, around the turn of this century. Not so - it's about right now, because San Francisco's Chinatown police force has just been broken up, signalling the end of an era. Robbie obviously reads more of Time Magazine than just the cover stories on his group.

The song was intended to be a parody, and its starting point in Robertson's mind was the headline about the disbanding of the Chinatown police a few months earlier. It therefore fits Cahoots themes of disappearing railroads and American eagles and buffalo and vanishing blacksmiths. The symbols were being concreted over, and Chinatown was one of them.

The second and third choruses stress this:

Shoot out in Chinatown,
They nailed up every door
They're gonna level it to the ground
And close it up for ever more

Then in the last chorus:

They're gonna turn the place upside down
Till you won't recognize it at all.

So far it seems to be a lament for a soon-to-be-lost district (how wrong he was, in fact). The bits that may have caused offence are right at the start:

Trouble on the waterfront,
Evil in the air
When the Chinatown patrol came down
To bring a little order there
They came in undercover
To the laundry's back room
And right there before their eyes
Was a Shanghai saloon

And continue through the middle.

For about five dollars or one thousand yen
you could gamble and ramble in a brothel
or take it to the opium den

It rushes through the clichιs. I like gamble and ramble. The lyrics also mention laundry back rooms, Shanghai, Confucius, Buddha, The Waterfront, Frisco in its heyday imported from Hong Kong, fire dragons. I don't think anyone is going to deny the existence of brothels, gambling dens and opium houses in 19th century Chinatown in San Francisco. I leafed through a couple of recent guide books, and they both mention these things prominently, as well as the existence of 7500 laundries and telephone operators able to speak five Chinese dialects (Robertson missed that one.) Modern tourist San Francisco reiterates the 'brothels and gambling' at every opportunity, as do the tourist stopovers in Alaska like Skagway, or the gold mining towns of Colorado.

The starting point was the break-up of the Chinatown Police (Patrol) and it's not really clear what their role is - they lined them up against the wall. Is it about police brutality? Or what? The last verse is an odd mix:

Confucius had once stated
All across the land
Below the surface crime and love
They go hand in hand

All across the land has absolutely no purpose except to provide a rhyme for hand in hand. Also the hallmark of a songwriter in trouble, trying to make it scan is there, the unnecessary pronoun:

Below the surface crime and love
go hand in hand

they is redundant . You never hear people say Crime and love they go hand in hand. It's a purely song lyric device, dating back to early English ballads. But everyone uses it :

No reason to get excited, the thief he kindly spoke …
(Bob Dylan, All Along The Watchtower)

The Moon Struck One (J.R. Robertson)

This appeared on the box set, for no apparent reason. Levon Helm says it was written in the hope of getting Gil Evans to add arrangements, but it didn't happen.

I've tried hard to get into this to no avail. There's something about a great triangle between the singer, Julie his sweetheart and little John Tyler his cohort. (His what?) If you're into that kind of thing go for David Crosby's Triad, in the Jefferson Airplane version of course (Crown of Creation). Musically this is one of the few Band tracks to show any Beatles influence (Abbey Road ). It's there in the harmonies on lines like as fast as we could run.

The lyrics include:

Julie came running through the pasture
She was screaming at the sky
She fell down to her knees
And the tears did fly

Little John was stung by a snake, over by the lake
And it looked like he was really really hurt
He was lying in the dirt,
Oh, we went as fast as we could run
But we lost little John as the moon struck one

If I want to hear this kind of tear-jerker, I'll stick to Elvis on Old Shep. At least Old Shep arouses tears, if you're pissed enough, rather than the odd snigger (and it looked like he was really really hurt). The first sign of drying-up as a lyricist is padding out lines with unnecessary auxiliary verbs (And the tears did fly instead of the natural And the tears flew). This is Robbie's lowest point. It's awful.

The interest is Garth's keyboard work. Richard Manuel sings.

Thinkin' Out Loud (J.R. Robertson)

Very fine piano indeed. This stands up much better than I remember. Hidden away in there is one of Richard Manuel's best instrumental showpieces. There's a temptation to credit Garth with all the tricky keyboard pieces, but their old mentor Ronnie Hawkins always said he hired Manuel for his rhythmic piano thumping. If it hadn't been sandwiched where it is, it might have been remembered better. There's a nice chunky, metallic bass guitar tone from Rick Danko, much less round than his normal tone. It's as good as (e.g.) Time To Kill.

The lyrics have memorable images for a change.

Transylvania train, circus never came
The heroes are all gone

I like:

Room service gone off duty
The bellman has retired
This hotel is a beauty
Even the house dick's been fired

which follows Stage Fright and 4% Pantomime in its reference to the experiences of a touring band.

Smoke Signal (J.R. Robertson)

This was one of the few tracks from the album that the Band did on live shows. It appeared sporadically up to the late 1974 tour. It's on the dull side, but Robbie Robertson had a particularly impressive guitar solo which kept it alive. Native American theme again, and the piano dominates as on the previous track, this one sounds much more like Garth, but I could be wrong. There's strange dragged-back drumming, which is sufficiently unconventional to be Richard. The guitar solo is jerky, intricate and well worth the price of admission.

The problem is that all the Native American references are second-hand reporting, unlike The Band album where the songs were "of" the era they portrayed, rather than "about" the era.

Went to the movie matinee
To see the bluecoats try to get away
From a smoke signal

You feel that on 'The Band' we'd have been there among the bluecoats (or Native Americans) rather than watching them on the silver screen.

Of course there's the obligatory reference to a troubled society:

You don't believe what you read in the papers
You can't believe the stranger at your door
You don't believe what you hear from your neighbour
Your neighbourhood ain't even there no more

which compares to other Robertson links between present and past (the gold rush in Cripple Creek and a present day trucker), but this one doesn't resonate!

You don't believe what they say on the radio
You don't believe what you see in the video

is linguistically interesting. I first saw a video recorder in about 1972 (a black and white Philips). I was using Sony open-reel video in around 1973. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a popular term in 1971 though. In dictionaries it is given in contrast to audio, and meaning the visual element of a television transmission. Presumably Robertson is using this sense, rather than the current (British) sense of VCR, but I reckon that at that time it was an unusual word. The Shorter Oxford does say that it was a general 'mid 20th century' American term for 'television as a broadcasting medium'.

And later it refers back to the album title (as you do): Young brothers join in cahoots

Volcano (J.R. Robertson)

Rick Danko says that he spent a lot of time experimenting in the studio (seemingly he was one of the only ones interested), in particular arranging, producing and multi-tracking himself on this song. Impressive horns, which are probably all by Garth Hudson. Rick Danko might have put in a lot of time on his vocals, but the result has a jarring, over-bright tone. There's no depth to the voice recording, almost as if it was put down on a cheap microphone losing the lower frequencies!

The thematic comparison of the young swain eloping with his true love brings to mind Caledonia Mission from Music From Big Pink, which is a mysterious song with layers of hidden guilt and obligation. Here the swain is directly asking soon as you are ready, hold that ladder steady, come tread softly through the night and don't leave me sitting here on top of your fence as he tries to elope.

It's just not the same.

The River Hymn (J.R. Robertson)

This sits in the same final position as I Shall Be Released on Music From Big Pink, King Harvest on The Band and The Rumor on Stage Fright. It makes every effort to emulate them stylistically. On my very first hearing I thought 'this song is really going to get beneath the skin' but it didn't. Elegiac piano starts it off, later accompanied by organ, which means that Richard's piano is more prominent on this album than any other. Libby Titus, Levon Helm's then partner, sings uncredited backup vocals.

Robbie was trying too hard to recreate a revivalist pioneer picnic, and didn't quite make it. It's self-conscious. There's another sign of songwriter's block. Resort to the Thesaurus (section: adjectives and verbs associated with rivers):

It's dark and wide and deep Towards the sea it creeps,
I'm so glad I brought along my mandolin
to play the River Hymn.

You can ride on it or drink it in
poison it or dam it
fish in it and wash in it
swim in it and you can die in it, run you river run

Add some more nouns from the Thesaurus: bend, banks, rapids, ripple, water well, river bed, stone Pretty soon the women would all join in introduces - a woman on the chorus. The line I'm so glad I brought along my mandolin introduces (surprise) - mandolin. Add some forced rhymes: table / fable ; echo / let go; instead / river bed

The last word on Cahoots goes to Richard Williams, previewing the album in Melody Maker in 1971:

It's very good, though not flawless … (it) suffers occasionally from the same faults which put 'Stage Fright' just under the 100% mark. But it's still better in every way than most bands will manage in a lifetime and what's more it's unique, because it comes from one of the two or three bands of our time which have been, and are, true originals.

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