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The History of The Band

[Prev: The Debut Album] [Next: "Stage Fright" and "Cahoots"] [History Index]

The Masterpiece

by Rob Bowman

From the article "Life Is A Carnival", Goldmine magazine, July 26, 1991, Vol.17, No.15, Issue 287.
© Rob Bowman and Goldmine magazine. Reprinted with permission.

The second LP, simply called The Band, was begun the following spring. This time, everyone went to California to record right from the beginning. They rented a large house from Sammy Davis Jr., nestled in the Hollywood Hills, turning the pool house into a recording studio, nailing baffles all along the outside wall and in the process creating a shining example of visual ugliness on the outside that sounded great on the inside. Everything but "Up On Cripple Creek", "Jemima Surrender" and "Whispering Pines" was recorded here. The latter three were cut back in New York at the Hit Factory.

Big Pink had been a fine, even superiour debut. The Band was their masterpiece. Robertson, now the dominant songwriter (he had only written four songs on first LP), had grown by leaps and bounds. Likewise, Danko, Manuel, Helm, Robertson and Hudson, as good as they had been to this point, had reached a whole other level of ensemble playing. The sum was much greater than the parts, and the parts were as good as any that existed.

A lot of thought went into this record. Robertson and John Simon had spent a week in Hawaii planning the sessions. Everyone living together in the Sammy Davis house with wives and the odd additional family member created a kind of clubhouse atmosphere (reminiscent of Big Pink) where the creative flow of ideas was constantly facilitated by the proximity of the equipment and each other.

A typical working day was divided into three parts. The second part was taken up working out the right instruments and the right sounds for each instrument. Simon emphasized that, "We took great care with every instrument to make it sound different for every song and appropriate for every song." The touches ranged from large-scale changes such as retuning the drums to the most arcane minutiae. (The moaning tom-tom that Ringo Starr had made famous was very popular. This was achieved by tightening the two lugs directly across from each other on the toms and leaving the other lugs very slack.)

As mentioned previously, Curtis Mayfield's work with the Impressions had been a large influence. Mayfield painted exquisite visual sound pictures with a wide array of sonic touches. The Band's palette was at least as wide, as every member, but Robertson, can and did double on more than one instrument. The Band album abounds with examples.

The third part of the day was spent rehearsing, while the song was actually recorded the first part of the following day. A few songs, like "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)", took a little longer to get all the parts quite tight enough.

"Up On Cripple Creek" was their first and only Top 30 single, peaking at #25 in late 1969. It is one of several songs on the album that has an "old timey" feel brought about by surprising effects. The dominant sound is that of a Jew's harp, achieved by Hudson with a wah-wah pedal on his clavinet. The astute listener will also note a heavy emphasis on the bottom end; Danko's bass and Helm's bass drum are very strong and resonant in the mix.

Robertson took over most of the engineering for this record. He explains: "When you write the songs, you picture the songs, you hear the songs. I has something in mind, this woody-sounding thing. At that time, everything was kind of going in that high end direction and we wanted this kind of woody, thuddy sound on this record. It just seemed to suit the nature of the music more."

"With The Band album, that's when I really knew who we were. This is when I said, `This is what we sound like, this is what we do.' You can go on and make other records and do this and do that. You can change your clothes, you can change your hat. It doesn't matter. That is who it is!"

Similarly to "Up On Cripple Creek", "Rag Mama Rag" is basically a fun, uptempo stomp, sung by Helm, about a rather curious mind-twisting woman. When Robertson brought the song to the rest of the group, the arrangement was totally up in the air. Danko played fiddle (doubled an octave higher), Hudson contributes the heavily syncopated funky piano line, Helm plays mandolin, Manuel flails at the drums and John Simon (who by this point was nearly a sixth member of the Band) came up with the rag-like bass part on tuba, of all things. The most amazing thing is that he had never played a tuba before!

The song is one of many delights on The Band. The highlight comes on the bridge after the piano solo, where everyone kicks into overdrive. Helm's vocals is doubled by Manuel, someone adds harp and they all nearly enter the stratosphere before the last chorus brings everyone back to reality.

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is one of Robertson's best writing efforts. Dealing with the end of the Civil War from the South's point of view, the song gives voice to several thousand anonymous people's stories. Helm, being the southerner in the group, was able to impart a wholly believable conviction to the vocal. The song is also one of the best examples of his "hiccup" bass drum pattern. On the second verse, a harmonica seems to enter the picture. This is Hudson up to mischief again. He overdubbed a Hohner melodica on top of an accordion sound generated by his Lowrey organ (he used a Lowrey almost exclusively, as opposed to the more common Hammons B-3). Hudson also contributes a little trumpet towards the end.

The Band LP included a plethora of classics, including the two songs that brought the second side to a close, "Unfaithful Servant" and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)". Danko sings the former, Manuel the latter. "Unfaithful Servant" had an unusual chord progression as Robertson had discovered a new guitar tuning.

Both songs were recorded replete with, for the Band, what are were rare mini-guitar solos, acoustic on the former, electric on the latter. Both are marked by economy and understatement.

"This was the new way of dealing with the guitar", said Robertson. "This was very subtle playing, leaving out a lot of stuff and just waiting till the last second and then playing the thing in just the nick of time. It was an approach to playing where it's so delicate. It's the opposite of the `in your face' guitar playing that I used to do. This was the kind of thing that was slippery. It was like you have to hold your breath while playing these kind of solos. You can't breathe or you'll throw yourself off. I felt emotionally completely different about the instrument."

The end of "King Harvest" may be Robertson's finest moment as a guitarist. It is living proof that less is indeed often more. The song is also one of his most evocative, describing the plight of one caught between the past and the present, the country and the city, nature and humanity. The attention to detail is, as always, impressive: the chorus is quieter than the verse, exactly the opposite of nearly every other song ever written.

John Simon is playing the electric piano through the same black box that Robertson had used on "Tears of Rage".

"When I would write a song," said Robertson, "everybody would interpret it. `King Harvest' is the best example of that. This was exactly what I had in my head, even down to the [drum thing.] I just knew what it had to be. This is the song. There's no other way to play this song. There's no other way to cover this song. What would they do?"

The album was originally going to be called Harvest. "It was like we had planted our seed," explained Robertson, "and this was the fruit that we were finally getting from all the work we had done in all those years." The name was changed to The Band in response to the confusion over what this ensemble was named.

The Band LP was very successful, peaking at #9 on Billboard's LP charts, and they had started gigging regularly for the first time since 1966, playing both Woodstock and the Isle of Wight festivals (the latter with Dylan). The press was treating them as gods. Rolling Stone has probably never before or since lavished such contigous unqualified praise. Greil Marcus was to devote a large portion of his Mystery Train book to the group. His essay, to some degree, has legendary status all its own. What did the Band think of it? "I have no idea what he's talking about," said Robertson, "No idea. I think that it's very cleverly written but I have no idea what he is talking about. It's kind of beautiful but he's telling me what I mean - that's dangerous work."

The group found that people started treating them differently. As Robertson put it, there were "people dusting off you when you're not dirty."

All of the above took its toll on the group's five members. One of the unfortunate results was that Richard Manuel had virtually ceased writing. Why, to this day, remains a mystery.
"I did everything," said Robertson, "I wrote with him, I begged him, I pleaded with him, I offered to become partners with him in song-writing. I hounded [all the guys] to death about writing. To me it was just hard work. If it doesn't come, well, you just got to work harder, you got to make it come. Richard would say, `Well, I am trying.' And I'm sure he was. Who knows what that is, why somebody does it and somebody doesn't."

"I just assumed it would continue. When we were going to do our second album there was nothing coming. [So when] I'd be working on something I'd pull him into it and make him work on the song with me just to get him in the mood or give him a taste for this, thinking then he'll go on to follow it up. But, he didn't. There is no answer. My theory is some people have one song in them, some people have five, some people have a hundred."

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