A Melody Maker Band Breakdown
By Richard WilliamsAn article published in Melody Maker May 29, 1971. It contains one interview with Robbie Robertson and one with Rick Danko as well as a summary of their career so far. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute. Thanks to Serge Daniloff for sending us a copy of the original article.
Few rock and roll concerts can have been so eagerly awaited as those which The Band are due to play at London's Royal Albert Hall on June 2 and 3.
What makes them so special? Partly it's because they're so good that they're difficult to argue about; almost everyone accepts that what they play os music of the highest quality, without regard for category. Secondly, they were in at the beginning of what might be loosly termed the Rural Sound. Music from Big Pink , their first album, was a revealtion in 1968, and partly because they've restricted themselves to one album a year, they've kept theis freshness. Thirdly, their association with famous hasn't exactly hurt. In the early Sixties they were known as the Hawks, and backed Arkansas rocker Ronnie Hawkins. In '66 they met up with Bob Dylan, and toured Britain behind him the same year, also playing with him at the Isle of Wight Festival in '69.
The Band are composer guitarist/composer Jaime Robert Robertson, from Toronto; organist/multi-instrumantalist Garth Hudson, from London, Ontario; pianist/singer Richard Manuel, from Stratford, Ontario; bassist/violinist/singer Rick Danko, from Simcoe, Ontario; ant the only American, drummer/mandolinist/singer Levon Helm, from Marvell, Arkansas.
The Band's recording career began while they were backing Ronnie Hawkins and were known as The Hawks.
They recorded some typically rugged rock 'n' roll with him, and particularly worth hearing is the 1963 cut of "Who Do You Love," reissued on the Hawkins' album Arkansas Rock-Pile Roulette - sadly deleted). Robbie's guitar is astounding.
Their first effort under their own name was with Atlantic around 1965, whenthey cut several sides under the name of Levon and the Hawks. One of these, a Robertson song called "The Stones I Throw", was issued in Britain on a black-label Atlantic singel, but has long been unavailable.
They also appeared on a few early tracks by bluesman John Hammond, for Atlantic and and Vanguard label. Some of these have been issued on I Can Tell (Atlantic SD8152) and Mirrors (Vanguard, VSD 79245) - both imports.
Having met Dylan in '66, they toured Britain with him the same year, and several recordings from these concerts have been preserved and bootlegged, notably almost inaudible recordings of "Like a Rolling Stone," "Baby Let Me Folloew You Down," "One Too Many Morings," and "I Don't Believe You." But good-quality tapes of several others, like "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," do exist, and CBS even issued a cut of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" from the Liverpool concert, on the flip of Dylan's hit single "I Want You." This is now rare, to say the very least.
Around this time, they were also on some of Dylan's studio material, Robbie was listed on the personal credits of Blonde on Blonde, and it's almost certain that he and some of the others were on two singles: "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" (the second, "official" version) and "Positively Fourth Street."
Two years later, they cut the legendary Basement Tape with Bob, in the latter's Woodstock home, as a demo for 14 of his songs. The lazy intimate performances suit the songs perfectly, and it's a shame that Bob never saw it fit to clean up the tape and issue it legitimately. As it is, ot's probably the most widly bootlegged of all his material, most recently available on a shady album called Waters of Oblivion.
Three of the songs from the Basement Tape("Wheels on Fire", "Tears of Rage", and "I Shall Be Released") are on The Band's first official album Music From Big Pink (Capitol ST-2955). The title referred to their house in New York State's West Saugerties, where the album was cut. Its radically different overall sound the novel instrumentation, featuring piano and organ, played in a country-gospel fashion, had an immediate impact on the rest of rock, which began a slow witdrawal from the excesses of electronic decibelitis.
Their second album was titled simply The Band (Capitol E-ST 132), and was a masterpiece, shooting Robbie straight up into the forefront of contemporary composers. "King Harvest" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" reflect sure grasp of the feeling and scope of pan-American music, and the voices of Helm, Danko, and Manuel sounded as old as the hills. The instrumentation was more idiosyncratic than ever; accordion, mandolin, wheezing saxes and grunting tuba made telling appearances.
The same year, CBS recorded their set with Dylan at the Isle of Wight, and issued four cuts ("Mighty Quinn," "Rolling Stone," "Minstrel Boy," and "She Belongs to Me") on Bob's Self Portrait (CBS 66250). Bootleg tapes, however, reveal that they missed the best performance: a version of "I Pity the Poor Immigrant," to which Garth's windswept accordion adds a beautiful new dimension.
Their very own bootleg came next, appallingly recorded at an American concert, and all it proved was that Garth played an unspeakably brilliant organ intro to "Chest Fever," and that they did enjoyable versions of two venerable groovers: Marvin Gaye's "Baby Don't You Do It" and "Slippin' and Slidin'" (their usual encore).
Around this time, Levon also played on some tracks of John and Beverly Matryn's LP Stormbringer on Island.
Stage Fright (Capitol EA-SW 425) is their most recent epic and (true to the form of third albums) it got a cool reception which obscured the fact that it was as good as the others - but in a different way. Without overshaddowing Robbie's superb songs, the instrumental side came to the fore, as strings, keyboards and percussion meshed with an intuitive grace which made a mockery of virtuosity.
And that's about it - apart from appearances by Robbie and Levon on Jesse Winchester's superb debut album (Ampex A-10104), which is tragically available only as an import in this country. They'll be finishing of their fourth album in George Martin's AIR London studios over the Whit weekend, and it should be out inside a couple of months. It doesn't have a title yet.
Ah yes - and Ahemt Ertegun is thinking of reissuing "The Stones I Throw." Not before time, I'd say.
An interview with Robbie Robertson
MM: You're a Canadian. Why do your songs reflect so much of the feeling of the Southern states of America?
ROBBIE: When we first got rolling, we spent the first five years together playing almost totally in the South.
MM: That was with Ronnie Hawkins?
ROBBIE: With Ronnie, and without Ronnie. We started out with him. The only songs that we do in relation to the South at all are sung by Levon, and I write these songs for the people who sing them. Richard and Rick don't sing about the South - it works for Levon because he's from Arkansas. We're not doing something that we don't know nothing about; I'm trying to write songs that he could sing, that he can get off on the lyries of, and that's how it worked, like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," y'know. And ""The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show" - that's an actual story that Levon told me - he told me the story, and I wrote the song.
MM: Some of those tunes sound so old, like traditional songs. Are there any devices that you use - folk melodies or scales - to get that effect?
ROBBIE: No... the only thing that consciously I'm trying to do is to write songs that if you listen to them in a couple of years they're not going to go down. I mean a lot of people's records that I really liked a couple of years ago, I listen to them now and I can't understand how come I liked them so much. I'm really trying to get around the time element, so that it's got a better possibility of lasting... just timelessness is what I'm trying for, most of the time when it's possible.
MM: Is there anything that's influencing you at this moment?
ROBBIE: Right now? Yeah, but it just comes up here and there - little things you hear, and there are certain people ... we were just talking about Lee Dorsey; we're big fans of Lee Dorsey; does affect us, no doubt about it. I don't know - it's a lot easier to talk about people a few years ago, because we've gotten to the point now where we don't have much time to listen, like we used to, or you have to dig to deep to hear something that you really want to hear, so you just hear what everybody else hears - what comes up on radio. There's so many kinds of radio in the United States - so many places where you can hear music - that you just don't have to go as far. So you just take what you like...
MM: Are you very open to that kind of listening?
ROBBIE: Oh yeah, we like a lot of kinds of music; we like a lot of music that comes from here, too. It's a funny thing, because I remember a few years ago, when we were first really getting rolling and the music was coming from England, it sounded like at that time that they weren't really going to come over the hill, that they weren't really going to get it together, and the next thing there were all these terrific musicians - they just loved it so much that they put their heart into it and it was bound to work.
MM: What were you listening to when you were young, when you started as a professional musician?
ROBBIE: Well, pretty obvious people, although it was a little easier to get to hear unusual things than perhaps it was in England. There's quite a thing between Canada and Britain, actually - whenever I come over here I always flash on it, y'know, architecture... things that I remember from when I was a kid. It was people coming along like Jimmy Reed and Charlie Rich... just what everybody heard, but there was nothing that you ever heard before it that was like that, it was such a smashing thing so you couldn't help but... I could name a list of a lot of people, but it doesn't seem really important. There are a few people - Billy Lee Riley, I don't know if you ever heard of him, and a guy named Warren Smith and another guy named Sanford Clark, he did "The Fool." You know when we came over here the first time, with Bob, a bunch of people came by the hotel - a bunch of rough-looking characters - and I don't know what you call them but they were into pure rock'n'roll. They didn't like Bob's music at all - they liked Ronnie Hawkins' music, and they were giving me this whole story about giving up this Bob Dylan shit and getting back to the real meat of things. They were very sincere actually. What d'you call them, d'you have a name for them?
ROBBIE: Rockers? I told Ronnie Hawkins about them - I mean, they had people in the group named after his songs, even.
MM: Wild Little Willie?
ROBBIE: Yeah, that was one of the guys. Are they around?
MM: Sure. Getting back. though, do you still think of yourself as a Canadian rather than as an American?
ROBBIE: Oh, absolutely. That's the way it is.
MM: Do you think the music reflects that?
ROBBIE: Canadian? Well, there's no Canadian music. The only Canadian thing that we share in the music... we did a song called "Rag Mama Rag," and there's a combination of some kind of music from Canada where they use... we used a tuba and an accordion on that, and we were reflecting a little bit on that. We do it instrument-wise rather than song-wise. There is no music that you can say 'Oh, that's Canadian' - know what I mean? It's North American music - different countries, but you hear the exact same music, from blues to cowboy. So rather than talking about Calgary or Montreal, we talked about places that we'd played in.
MM: Clarence White of the Byrds talks about hearing Canadian jigs when he was a kid.
ROBBIE: Yes, but that's not a very significant part... it's a small piece in music. That, with other things, adds up to something. We couldn't break it down like that.
MM: When did you make the break from Canada to America?
ROBBIE: I was 16 years old at the time and it was when I joined Ronnie Hawkins and Levon. I went to Arkansas and we started playing the circuit down there.
MM: How did you get the job with Ronnle? Did he call you from Canada?
ROBBIE: Yeah, I knew him because he'd been up playing in Toronto. They were the best thing that'd come around - them and Carl Perkins - and my ambition was to impress them somehow. So I tried very hard and practised a lot and finally they asked me if I'd care to join them. That's about all there was to it. It was such a flash going down there from Canada. The big difference was that there's not a lot of black people in Canada like there is in the South. There were a lot of differences, and it was the first big flash that I'd had in my life, that's why all those things keep coming up, because I couldn't believe it.
MM: Was it pretty rough, playing in that area?
R0BBIE: Yeah... but I guess we've forgotten most of the real heavy things for some reason or another, and we don't talk about it much any more. We played joints...just joints.. and it was good, I mean one thing that really flashed me was that down there people listened to music differently. You weren't just playing for a bunch of young people... when you played, everybody would come, up to 50 years old, and they were able to appreciate the music just as much as anyone else, because they bad no sophisticated background. It was a unanimous thing. They'd been hearing that music all their lives, it was no surprise to them at all, but it was really new to me. I was used to people their age scowling on it... people were calling Elvis Presley the Devil in those days, but down there they didn't call him the Devil. He was just a good singer as far as they were concerned.
MM: When did you start writing?
ROBBIE: That's how I got with Ronnie Hawkins. I wrote two songs, he recorded them, and it was after that I joined him.
MM: Which songs were they?
ROBBIE: One was called "Hey-Ba-Ba-Lu" and the other was called "Someone Like You." I think. Little young kids songs... I guess I was 15 when I wrote them. I'd started a couple of years before that, getting warmed up to it and then I didn't write for a long time very much, just a little bit. We were busy; we'd be playing six or seven nights a week, hard long hours, so you just didn't think about literature at all, y'know? You were too busy trying to make up for the hard parts of it by having some fun.
MM: When did you start trying to write seriously?
ROBBIE: That was after we played over here with Bob.
MM:... in '66...
ROBBIE:... yeah, it was the first time ever since we'd been together, that I had any time to sit down and gather it up in my mind and think about it at all. And that's when I first probably ever really tried to do something.
MM: The first thing of yours that I ever heard was "The Stones I Throw.
ROBBIE: Yeah, that was before that, before we met Bob.
MM: But it was still the same basic sound.
ROBBIE: Did you ever hear a song we did called "Leave Me Alone "? Well, that was a good one. But those records were just some people trying to sign us up... we didn't know what was going on, we didn't have any control over it. They just whipped us into the studio and we had to cut a few songs in an afternoon. We just kind of feebled our way through the thing and got out of there. We didn't know that end of it at all, how you've got to be able to talk back a little bit, you've got to say a few things if you want to do what you want to do. We were just doing what someone was telling us to do, and those songs were just whipped up for the occasion. I was not serious about it. But the instrumentation was the same.
MM: Using piano and organ together was something different in those days.
ROBBIE: Oh yeah, when we first did that we'd never seen it.
MM: Where did you get the idea from? Or did you not have any idea?
ROBBIE: Yeah, we did have an idea, actually. We were into gospel music... not particularly spiritual gospel music, black gospel music, but white gospel music. It was easier to play. and it came more natural to us. We were trying to get a bigger sound going on - we had like piano, guitar, bass and drums for a long time, and we tried horns and all kinds of things but there were too many people. So we realised that the only instrument that could make that fullness, and take the place of horns or anything like that, was an organ. We met Garth at that time, who was a hundred times superior musician to any of us... I mean he was, to us, just a phenomenon. He could play rings around all of us put together, and he joined the group and his job was to play organ and horn and to teach us music... and the organ was incorporated and we thought "great ", we loved it and we never thought anything about it after that, it kind of fit natural and it's been that way ever since. It wasn't till later that some groups started popping up with the same instrumentation. And I know why they had that instrumentation - because it's full, it feels much more secure.
An interview with Rick Danko
MM: Why weren't you in the Woodstock Movie? You played at the festival.
RICK: I just didn't feel that their sound was too together, and I didn't believe that it would be the sort of film that I'd want to look at myself in 20 years from now because I'm sure all that comes back, at one time or another.
MM: What sort of a set did you play there?
RICK: To me it was terrible. It was not our PA system, we were using other people's facilities, which means that we didn't have any control over it, and if you can't control it then I don't consider the people are getting their money's worth.
MM: Is it possible to play to that many people and give value?
RICK: The Isle of Wight impressed me in 1969. The people were very orderly.. I thought it was like being in a giant high-school gymnasium. But no, it's hard... we limit our PA system like you do in a recording studio, which cleans it up for the people...it sounds more like a record. It makes it easier to listen to, but if you don't have your own system... we didn't bring ours with us this time. But I think Charlie Watkins is doing something. He came over and saw ours and was impressed, and said he'd do something equally... so it should be okay.
MM: When was the last time you played to an audience?
RICK: Last November.
MM: Why's that?
RICK: We played a lot public in night clubs and with Bob, and if you go out and play a whole lot it just sounds like you're playing a whole lot, y'know. And I don't believe that you can do that and make records too. We play very little and make one record a year, and that's... difficult! And this way, if we play as little as we can, we might play for a longer period of time. I'm sure that it's not going to get as hectic, and we can also enjoy it when we go out and play. If you overplay it's like anything else, you feel like you're going to work if you aren't careful.
MM: Do you spend a lot of time and trouble over recording?
RICK: This album took from February until last week. How long is that... three months? We wouldn't go in every day - we just the studio free all that time. We used the studio we've built in Bearsville - it's in the middle of the woods. It's within ten minutes drive of everyone's homes, and it's a lot easier. It's our first studio that we don't have to tear down after we're through. The last album we made at the Playhouse in Woodstock; we had the control room in the workshop, with a tent round it to keep the heat in... it was pretty chilly.
MM: Did it have a particularly good sound?
RICK: It was convenient, and we didn't have to use any union engineers (laughs). Then the record before that was made at Sammy Davis Junior's house in Hollywood. We didn't use an engineer at all on that - our maintenance man told us how to control the machinery and some tricks with echo and stuff.
MM: What's on the new album?
RICK: All new songs.
MM: Are they all Robbie's?
RICK: Uh-huh... he wrote all the lyrics. He writes songs for me and Richard and Levon, and he'll bring one over and if we like it, we say "sure." So we smooth it out and get it going and then just pull everybody together and do it... it's nice that way. He's always been a writer, ever since I've known him. There's not many writers that exist, in my mind...
MM: Not real writers...
RICK: Right! Glad to hear you say that. He's my favourite lyricist, without a doubt.
MM: What about playing bass in the band?
RICK: Well, that's the only time I play bass, when we're recording or performing... I play other instruments. I never think of the bass... I think of it more as a tuba than as a bass. I don't think I play bass lines - maybe I do, but it functions. I just try to play where there's no one else hitting it... there's always a thousand spaces, somehow, in our group. So it's not difficult... It's not planned out or nothing, and I'm sure it's much the same with everybody. That's likely why we've been together for as long as we have. lf we did talk about it, I'm sure we wouldn't be together.