The BAND – ” Music From Big Pink ” Classic Albums Released 1st July 1968

Posted: July 1, 2018 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Very quietly, for six years, a band had been brewing. Recruited as the Hawks by Arkansas rockabilly veteran Ronnie Hawkins, the quintet had notched years as road warriors playing Canadian and U.S. clubs and casinos, further seasoned by combat duty on Bob Dylan’s tumultuous 1966 tour, Still in their 20s (save for keyboard polymath Garth Hudson), they looked and sounded decades older; the black and white portrait on the album jacket. It was sort of hip to know who they were outside of Toronto.

Few game-changing albums open as quietly as Music From Big Pink, the 1968 debut for The Band. A languid but brief motif of single Telecaster notes wheezing through a Leslie speaker staggers in on top of weary, muffled drum beats, anchored by gospel piano chords. And then Richard Manuel begins singing, his soulful, broken-hearted voice breaking as it climbs:

“We carried you in our arms on Independence Day
And now you’d throw us all aside, and put us all away
Oh what dear daughter ’neath the sun, would treat a father so
To wait upon him, hand and foot, and always tell him ‘no’?”

The antithesis of a conventional, radio-friendly earworm, “Tears of Rage,” written by Manuel and his erstwhile boss, Bob Dylan, was a lagging dirge of inventoried betrayal and lost innocence against brooding organ. A mournful duet of soprano and baritone saxophones punctuated later verses,

They came home to Woodstock with Dylan and put down firm roots for two-years. It was Dylan’s “out of touch” year and they began to spawn this music, this hybrid that took its seeds in the strange pink house. Whereas the Dylan “sound” on recording was filled with Bloom-fielding guitar, Kooper hunt and peck organ and tinkly country-gospelish piano, a fortunate blending of the right people in the right place etc., the Big Pink sound has matured throughout six years picking up favorites along the way and is only basically influenced by the former.

The Dylan tracks on Big Pink already carried the Band’s DNA from their gestation in the Saugerties, N.Y., house that conferred the album’s title, an acknowledgement that the very essence of the group’s ensemble style had been pared away and rebuilt from its foundations as a result of the collaboration.

On “The Weight,” Levon Helm, the group’s lone American, recounted a journey that seemed part pilgrimage, part parable, part shaggy dog story written by guitarist Robbie Robertson. The music itself was at once plainspoken and deliberate, Hearing three distinctive voices build the vocal harmonies on the choruses evoked a brotherhood that itself emerged as part of the album’s mystique and the Band’s identity.

Robbie Robertson makes an auspicious debut here as a composer and lyricist represented by four tunes. Two are stone knockouts: “The Weight” probably the most commercial item in the set with a most contagious chorus that addicts you into singing along… “take a load off Fanny, take a load for free, take a load off Fanny and… you put the load right on me…” “To Kingdom Come” starts out smashing you in the face with weird syncopations and cascading melody lines and then goes into that same groovy bring-it-on-home chorus that earmarks “Weight.”

Hudson’s pitch-bending Lowery organ and Manuel’s piano provided the ensemble’s foundation throughout, with Hudson and producer John Simon adding horns . Vocally, the arrangements highlighted Manuel’s lyrical growl, steeped in Ray Charles’ protean influence, Rick Danko’s buoyant yelp and Helm’s Arkansas drawl; gospel’s call-and-response interplay capped by wide intervals rather than the close harmonies of most bands. Robertson stepped up as a lead singer on just one of his compositions, “To Kingdom Come.”

Individually what makes up this album is Robbie Robertson whose past discography includes “Obviously Five Believers” on Blonde on Blonde, the “live” version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and the much ignored Dylan single, “Crawl Out Your Window.” Rick Danko, on bass and vocals, is one of the more outgoing people in the band, he can be depend upon to give you a lot of good matured shit whenever you see him; he of the new breed in bass players, the facile freaks like Harvey Brooks, Jim Fielder and Tim Bogert. He is only different from these three in his tasteful understating. Bassist Rick Danko also steps up with his own Dylan co-write on “This Wheel’s on Fire,” decorated with twinkling keyboard accents on a cheap Roxochord keyboard Hudson had hot-rodded with a telegraph key, while the set’s third Dylan contribution, “I Shall Be Released,” further extends the scriptural atmosphere.

Richard Manuel is affectionately called “Beak” or was at one time; a deft pianist with a strong feeling for country-gospel big pink music. A strong contributing composer: “Tears of Rage,” “In A Station,” “We Can Talk,” and “Lonesome Suzie.”  “We Can Talk” offers a hearty mid-tempo rocker framed between Manuel’s rollicking piano and Hudson’s organ arpeggios as the three singers traded overlapping lead vocal lines through lyrics that nodded to the era’s political turmoil with a playful allusion to the group’s Canadian majority. As impressive as that song remains, however, it’s as a balladeer that Manuel would be most compelling. “Lonesome Suzie” is a tender, sympathetic portrait of romantic rejection and abject loneliness that implies Manuel’s own inner pain, while “In a Station” is a hushed reverie that sonically and lyrically evokes a borderland between waking and dreaming.

Garth Hudson is one of the strangest people I ever met. If Harvey Brooks is the gentle grizzly bear of rock and roll then Garth is the gentle brown bear. He is the only person I know who can take a Hammond B3 organ apart and put it back together again or play like that if it’s called for. While backing Dylan on tour he received wide acclaim for his fourth dimensional work on “Ballad Of A Thin Man.”

Levon Helm is a solid rock for the band. He is an exciting drummer with many ideas to toss around. I worked with him in Dylan’s first band and he kept us together like an enormous iron metronome. Levon was the leader of the Hawks. If Big Pink consciously rode the throttle to focus on the quintet’s collective sound, they did flex their power on “Chest Fever,” a semi-nonsensical paean to a wild lover that builds upon Hudson’s formidable intro, itself a virtuosic goof on Bach’s Toccata in D minor that would metastasize over the years into a concert highlight.

John Simon, a brilliant producer-composer-musician, finally has this album as a testimonial to his talent. The reason the album sounds so good is Simon. He is a perfectionist and has had to suffer the critical rap in the past for what has not been his error, but now he’s vindicated.

Music From Big Pink set its hooks into fans gradually but deeply. Musicians, on the other hand, were stunned by the Band’s musicianship, songcraft and democratic spirit, inspiring artists from both sides of the pond to search such fellowship, with Eric Clapton and George Harrison just two of the more prominent acolytes. The rich roots music sensibility underpinning the album with folk, gospel, blues and country elements meanwhile planted vital seeds that buttressed the imminent rise of country-rock, as well as the subsequent emergence of Americana at the turn of the millennium.

These are fiery ingredients and results can be expected to be explosive. The chord changes are refreshing, the stories are told in a subtle yet taut way; country tales of real people you can relate to (the daughter in “Tears of Rage”) the singing sometimes loose as field-help but just right. The packaging, including Dylan’s non-Rembrandt cover art, is apropos and honest (there’s that word again). This album was recorded in approximately two weeks. There are people who will work their lives away in vain and not touch it.

Released: 1 July 1968

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