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The Band - Big Sound from Big Pink

Profile: 1959-73

by Pete Fowler

From Radio One's Story of Pop, a 26-part "Encyclopedia" that was released as weekly magazines in the UK in 1973 ("25p, every Thursday"). The article on The Band appeared in part 16, that also had two articles on Dylan. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

Group photo, Radio One Story of Pop, 1973

"I can't believe that people are so gullible to accept what they accept in art and in music. Nowadays they're playing jock-strap and feedback, and they knock them out . . . I think it's up to the individual to get himself to the place where he doesn't have to be that taken it by anything. Now people are saying, let's hear the truth; we haven't heard it in a long long time."

(Robbie Robertson, Time interview, 1970)

1968 was an important year. It was the year of the May Events in Paris, the year of the Chicago Democratic Convention, the year, in Britain, of the massive October 27th Vietnam demonstration in the streets of London. It was the year of 'Beggars Banquet', the summer of 'Street Fighting Man' and the Doors' 'Waiting For The Sun' album . . . including their frightening 'Five To One'; the time of 'Electric Ladyland', 'Cheap Thrills', and the Cream's 'Wheels On Fire'.

It was the year in which the frenetic energies of 1967 raced away into uncharted and unknown territories: the year in which acid consolidated its arrival of the year before. The lines were being drawn: 'Your ballroom days are over' . . . 'We are the people your parents warned you against' . . . 'They've got the guns but we've got the numbers' . . . 'I think the time is right for violent revolution' . . . 'Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy'.

It was at this emotionally charged moment that the Band arrived. Their first album, 'Music From Big Pink', was released in the States in June 1968 - a month after the May Events and a couple of months before 'Street Fighting Man'. The Band themselves though, had been playing for a number of years. Four of them had been brought up in Canada, and they had played together as far back as 1959. They had acted as the backing group for Canadian rock & roll singer Ronnie Hawkins, and had been known as the Hawks. Robbie Robertson, the lead guitarist of the group, had distinguished himself on many of Ronnie's rock records, in particular with a high- powered solo on 'Who Do You Love?' (1963). Levon Helm, the only American in the group, had sung a few times with Ronnie, and some of his early efforts had found their way on to recordings - usually blues standards like Bobby Bland's 'Further On Up The Road' and Muddy Waters' '19 Years Old'.

On tracks like these, we have the Band in embryo - Helm's rough, brutally honest vocals accentuated by his raunchy drumming, Robertson's precise but exciting guitar sound, and Rick Danko's Motowny bass lines. Ronnie Hawkins has always known how to pick sidemen and the group sounded like a good one.

Good as they were, however, their sound was neither original nor truly creative. They were - as they would be the first to admit - their master's voice, and it wasn't until they broke with Ronnie and toured the southern states of the US; as Levon and the Hawks, that things began to happen. On tour they tightened up their sound considerably, and gained the confidence they could never have got as Ronnie's group - they even released a couple of singles, the most famous being 'Stones That I Throw', which was a landmark if only as a Robbie Robertson composition. Nevertheless, the records didn't sell and they still seemed to be getting nowhere fast. Levon Helm said "We just played joints, just swinging and grooving the best we could. But after while it got to be a drag. It was just reproduction. We'd do rhythm and blues like someone else because that's what the audience wanted to hear. But when you do that, you end up just being a house band. You either do that or you go home."

Band photos, Radio One Story of Pop, 1973

Quirk Of Fortune

By some amazing quirk of fortune however, their music received just the jolt it needed when they were spotted by Bob Dylan in the summer of 1965. Dylan, shortly after the release of his rock & roll debut album 'Bringing It All Back Home', was looking for a rock group to back him on live appearances. Quite how he knew of the Hawks is one of the great mysteries of rock - but his choice was a magnificent one. Dylan contacted the Hawks when they were playing in Atlanta City and, if we can believe them, they hadn't really heard much of his musical career. "We'd heard of him," admitted Robbie Robertson, "but we weren't into that kind of music, and I really didn't know who he was or that he was that famous." Nevertheless, a few months later, they were immersed in his kind of music and played behind him through the Fall of 1965 and until his motorbike smash in the summer of 1966.

Dylan provided the key to the Hawks' growth. Over the years they had become superb musicians technically, but on the ideas level their potential had been stultified by their situation: they had been expected to play traditional rock wherever they performed, and this continual repetition had put a stopper on any creative developments in their music. Dylan, though, would not tolerate this kind of stagnancy - his own career had been full of movement, full of a restless search for something quite indefinable. The effect on the Hawks was traumatic, with Robbie Robertson in particular being shaken out of his preconceptions by the continual state of musical flux that for Dylan was almost normal. "Dylan brought us into a whole new thing," Robbie said, "and I guess he got something from us."

Fruitful Years

The understanding that built up between Dylan and the Hawks was truly astonishing, as anyone who has heard them play together will attest to. It's one of the tragedies of rock that they made so few recordings together. Officially, we have only odd tracks from 'Blonde On Blonde' ('One Of Us Must Know', the live version of 'Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues', released as the 'B' side to the 'I Want You' single, and the occasional live recording released on the 'Self Portrait' album ('The Mighty Quinn', 'Like A Rolling Stone', 'She Belongs To Me' and 'Minstrel Boy'). The two most fruitful periods of their collaboration - the tours of 1965 and 1966, and the time of Dylan's recluse in 1967 - are simply ignored. We know that recordings were made due to the explosion of bootleg releases in 1969 and 1970, but - as of 1973 - it would appear that CBS have no plans to make the tracks legally available.

The Hawks stayed with Dylan throughout 1967, and it wasn't until the summer of 1968 that their first solo album was finally released. 'Music From Big Pink' was a massive, personal statement, and the influence of Dylan on their music is apparent in practically every line of every song. The album opened, appropriately enough, with a song jointly written by bassist Rick Danko and Bob Dylan -'Tears Of Rage', a number written during the Haight-Ashbury happenings of 1967:

'We carried you in our arms On Independence Day, And now you'd throw us all aside And put us on our way. . . '
The lyrics, presumably written by Dylan, were not just unusual in that summer of 1968 - they were a positive insult. The Hawks, now called the Band from Big Pink, launched straight into a head-on collision with the prevailing rock hegemony. While others were singing the praises of the imminent war of the generations, 'Big Pink' began with a picture from the other side of the conflict:
'Tears of rage, tears of grief, Why must l always be the thief?'
'Music From Big Pink' acted, together with Dylan's 'John Wesley Harding', as a brake on the psychedelic momentum of 1967 and 1968 - they were both conscious acts of disassociation. 'Big Pink' played down electronics - you could hardly hear the wah-wah at all - and Robbie sought out the group's problems by looking into the past, searching among the forgotten areas of pop music. 'Strap yourself to a tree with roots' Dylan had sung, and Robbie agreed: "Your roots," he has said, "really are everything that has ever impressed you." It was this approach from the group, this tendency to eclecticism, that marked out 'Big Pink' as something special. The vocals, as an example, covered every conceivable influence from the soul- tinged bluesy sound of Richard Manuel on 'Tears Of Rage' and 'Lonesome Susie', to the raucous country sounds of Levon Helm on 'The Weight', taking in Rick Danko's great straight-pop vocals on 'Caledonia Mission' and ' In A Station' on the way.

But even this sort of catalogue leaves half the story unsaid, for the most remarkable achievement of the vocal sound of 'Big Pink' is the incredible ease with which the group manages to fuse all of these different influences together. This cohesion is brilliantly demonstrated on 'We Can Talk About It Now', where all three of the band's singers appear to be singing lead. The result is not the confusion you might expect, but a beautifully natural sound, with the harmonies emerging quite effortlessly and spontaneously. It was an amazing vocal sound to be confronted with in 1968, and even the best of the 'progressivists' like Clapton and Hendrix seemed to pall beside it.

'Jock-strap And Feedback'

Instrumentally, Robbie Robertson's guitar playing was a complete rebuff to the 'jock-strap and feedback' sounds of the late '60s - its total lack of showmanship was quite out of place in the heyday of Cream and Jeff Beck. The piano/organ combination was not new, but its use by the Band was - Garth Hudson's organ was a Lowrey, and his sound added a cathedral quality to the Band's music, which merged in distinctively with Richard Manuel's rock piano. But, most important, was the Band's insistence on the song being the central hook-point of the music - everything else, including Robertson's complete mastery of his guitar, was secondary.

The Band's instrumental sound was illustrative, it created a mood in which the essence of the song could be adequately portrayed. It was an important lesson that they had picked up from Dylan. But if 'Big Pink' was a great album, it must be said that their follow-up, simply called 'The Band', was even greater. Dylan had dominated the first album, with even the group's own songs like 'The Weight' and 'Chest Fever' very much dependent on his inspiration. But the second album was Robertson's.

Robbie quite suddenly emerged as a writer of major stature, with his lyrics revealing enormous hidden depths of wit, compassion and astuteness. 'The Band' is a musical merry-go-round of the US, an exploration of its moods and quirks, its legacies and attitudes. Most of the songs are written from the standpoint of the poor working-class Southerner, and one of them, 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' has since become established as a Southern classic. On the album, this song acts as a superb vehicle for the voice of Levon Helm, for whom it had been written. Levon is the Southerner in the group, and the passions of the song and his treatment of it are the highlight of any concert given by the group.

'Dixie' might well remain the most famous of the album's songs, but none of the others fall short of this standard. Some are wryly funny and human ('Jawbone', 'Up On Cripple Creek'), some are devastatingly nostalgic and homely ('Rockin' Chair', 'When You Awake') and others are notable for their incisive intelligence ('King Harvest Has Surely Come', 'Look Out Cleveland'). And, right through the heart of the album, there is the stabbing economy of Robertson's guitar, the majestic, universal touch of Garth's organ, and the wistfulness of Richard Manuel's piano.

'Stage Fright', their third album, was patchy by comparison. The strength remains in certain songs, and odd moments of the record seize the imagination like their earlier work. 'All La Glory'a characteristically sweet lullaby - and 'The Rumour' come over as well as anything they had done before, but much of the material sounds rather rushed and annoyingly messy. The group's sound had lost none of its impact, but Robbie's songs seemed to have suffered. This feeling which remained just that on 'Stage Fright'was confirmed by the release of 'Cahoots' in 1971. On 'Cahoots', Robertson's material sounds almost contrived, with none of the natural, easy flow of the songs from 'The Band'. It sounds, in a phrase, as if he's trying too hard, and the weakness of the material is underlined by the arrangements Robertson decided upon: they are clever, they are tight, but they are a far cry from the primitive ease of 'We Can Talk About It Now' and 'Across The Great Divide'.

Moondog Magic

Quite why this happened is anybody's guess. It may well be that the demands of the recording industry had put too much of a strain on Robertson, and the release of the live album in 1972, 'Rock Of Ages' was, in the negative sense, an admission of this failing. There had by then been no new songs from Robbie since 'Cahoots' two years before.

And then, in autumn 1973 - along with news of their New Year tour of the States with Dylan - came the Band's next album, 'Moondog Matinee'. While not dispelling any doubts about their ability to come up with new material on a par with their second album, - the Band had here presented a musical tour de force featuring such rock & roll classics as 'Mystery Train', 'Aint Got No Home' and 'The Great Pretender' - as well as an hilariously funny version of the 'Third Man Theme'.

The Band's handling of material - any material - has seldom if ever been better, and if they can still come up with music like that, if they can still go out on the road with Dylan after eight years, then there's little doubting that the Band can ever be written off anyone's list of 'rock greats'.

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