The Band -- Or When The Booing Ended
by Caroline BoucherOriginally published in Disc and Music Echo in the UK, 29 May 1971
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Nobody seems to know much about the Band. That they're a living legend is a fact, a household name, true, but few people could enlighten you much further because the Band has made it purely on MUSIC.
Understandably then, the Band shy away from interviews, and when finally cornered in London's Inn on the Park they looked rather out of place, rather like ill at ease woodsmen.
"Well, I guess we don't go around and show up at the right places like a lot of groups," admitted softly-spoken pianist Richard Manuel. He twists his fingers nervously while the group's manager (also Dylan's), the immortal Albert Grossman, keeps a genial eye on the proceedings.
The Band made headlines in 1968 with their first solo album -- Music From Big Pink. Up until then they had just been referred to as "Bob Dylan's backing group." It was the music from Big Pink (the pink-roofed house where three of them lived in West Saugerties) that made the impact because it was so different, amidst the prevailing psychedelia of the time.
The Band -- Robbie Robertson (lead guitar); Richard Manuel (piano); Levon Helm (drums); Rick Danko (bass); and Garth Hudson (organ) -- are Canadian born, with the exception of Levon from Arkansas. They have been together now for 10 years, starting off together as the Hawks backing Ronnie Hawkins.
"That was like an apprenticeship, really," says Richard. "That was like boot camp. We were with him for three years."
Then they branched out on their own, doing the clubs -- soul-destroying, ungratifying work -- until they met up with Dylan and were asked to back him.
"We were just starting to work on our own material at the time," recalls Richard. "But I'm glad we did it. I hadn't heard much Dylan stuff before then. I'd heard other people's albums but prior to that we were very much into night club rock 'n' roll. When Bob recorded his first electric album -- Bringing It All Back Home -- most of the musicians on it were studio musicians; they weren't a group as far as traveling around was concerned. After we'd heard THAT album, it wasn't so much of a surprise he asked us.
"In America, it worked pretty well; we played over here in England with Bob in 1965/66, and we got booed just about everywhere we went. Bob came out and did his first half, and then we came out with all electric instruments and everyone called him a traitor, etc.
"Being with Dylan probably did help us; it would be silly to say it didn't, but I'd hate to say that we wouldn't have made it otherwise. It would have probably just taken us longer."
After that, they spent a long time in Woodstock getting tours and concerts out of their systems, and the evocative, highly distinctive Band sound as we know it today began to flourish unhampered on its own.
They take their existence in a very leisurely fashion, having done only three albums with a fourth -- possibly called Cahoots -- "because that's the general feel of it"âdue out this summer.
Although Band concerts are a sell-out, they haven't done a tour since November.
"We find it very hard to go on the road and record. You can't get into the frame of mind to record when you're having to think what time the train goes.
"We spend a lot of time writing and arranging which works better. We'd rather put out fewer things that we are satisfied with than pouring out a lot of hot discs we'd be sorry for later."
Writing the new album has been mainly done by Robbie Robertson, but Dylan wrote one number specially for them.
"Robbie and I write together or separately," said Richard. "Our music has come from a variety of influences really. I think it's just the most comfortable type of music for our collection of people. We're not trying to out-rock anybody, or to outdo them. We let it be as natural as we can.
"Why it was popular is because it was a kind of surprise that was widespread, I suppose. We didn't try and overplay everything; maybe it was just easier for people to hear. The time seemed to be right for softer music although there was a lot of psychedelic rock going round."
They record at the new studios in Woodstock because they rarely venture outside their peaceful environment if they can help it.
"I don't think we'd come off the same if we were living in the middle of New York. It's an awful strain; we've recorded in New York, and you can't come off the street and try to record. In the middle of the song the studio is shaking with the subway."
Last week, the Band went up to Abbey Road studios saying they wanted to try out some English studios for sound. It would be nice if they could record here so that England could claim just a small part in a fine band, of such gentle people.