The Band’s Pioneering ‘Music From Big Pink’ @50

by
Share This:

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, further distancing the record and its authors from guitar heroics and dancefloor energy.

Released on July 1, 1968, Big Pink offered quiet songs of experience bathed in a rustic glow, with no hints of the futurism and none of the kilowatt drama then prevalent elsewhere in rock. 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, adding mileage that imparted a maturity at odds with rock’s youthful entitlement. 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 could have been taken by Matthew Brady.

The Band, Music From Big Pink album photograph, Bearsville, Woodstock NY, 1968. L-R: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson (Photo: © Elliott Landy, LandyVision Inc.; used with permission)

Dylan loomed above the project, beginning with the whimsical surrealism of his cover painting. His collaboration with the Band’s members on the “Basement Tapes” was as yet only hinted at; most fans were yet to understand how that prolific woodshedding project was rebuilding an “old, weird America” from the raw materials of folk art. 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, signaled by the first single.

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. Quasi-biblical allusions and picaresque characters raised more questions than answers. The music itself was at once plainspoken and deliberate, proceeding with an unhurried gait. 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.

There were no grandstanding solos in this music, with Robertson reining in formidable chops to pare his playing to spare decoration rather than guitar heroics. Once eager to face off in cutting sessions with peers such as Roy Buchanan, on Big Pink Robertson rejected contemporary pedal effects to distill his playing into economical fills closer to R&B heroes like Curtis Mayfield and Pops Staples.

Hudson’s pitch-bending Lowery organ and Manuel’s piano provided the ensemble’s foundation throughout, with Hudson and producer John Simon adding horns that nodded as much to early jazz as ’60s soul music for their brio. 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 was their default setting (with the Staple Singers again a conscious reference point), 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.”

Related: The Band’s 2nd album, a rustic masterpiece

Overall, their ensemble interaction verged on telepathy, recorded with a documentary clarity during initial sessions at New York’s A&R Studios that were captured live to four-track tape and showcased an easy agility in swapping voices and instruments. The songs likewise reflected a democratic interdependence that would later give way to Robertson’s emergence as principal songwriter and a corresponding ambition.

Robertson crafted that evocative first single, but Big Pink gave nearly equal space to Manuel, proving him to be as evocative a songwriter as he was a singer. “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.

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 evident in a number of “Basement Tapes” compositions and destined to reappear across the bard’s catalog.

Related: Photographer Elliot Landy on The Band

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 as “The Genetic Method.” Here, it leads into a hard-charging, semi-delirious rave-up that breaks for a giddy middle-eight as all five members and producer Simon bleat away on various horns like a stoned Salvation Army band.

With its anachronistic glance toward a mythical past and idiosyncratic group sound, 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.

Related: An audience member revisits The Last Waltz

The Band would attain greater success with their self-titled sophomore set and on tours that clinched their exalted standing as live performers, but the unraveling of the trust and affection that had forged a brotherhood would finally bring the quintet’s run to a close in 1978 with the ambitious farewell concert and live theatrical release, the Last Waltz. By then, the Band’s influence was signified by the all-star lineup of guest artists (Clapton among them) that would share the stage and screen, but one of the film’s most affecting moments remains a post-concert performance filmed on a soundstage. Watching the Band perform “The Weight” in league with the Staple Singers, a point source for the song and influence on Robertson and his bandmates, the sense of tradition enduring and renewed is inescapable.

  • Sign up for the Best Classic Bands Newsletter




 

Sam Sutherland

Sam Sutherland

Sam Sutherland has worked both sides of the music biz street as music industry journalist at Billboard and Record World (as well as freelancing for Phonograph Record, Musician Magazine, High Fidelity and Rolling Stone), and in the label trenches with Elektra/Asylum, Windham Hill Productions and Discovery Records. In the ‘90s, he was beamed up to the digital rapture via software and early online projects for Microsoft and Amazon’s original music and video storefronts. He’s since produced entertainment content for Windows Media and, most recently, MSN Music.Nevertheless, he still prefers vinyl to digital.A New York ex-pat, Sutherland lives near Seattle.
Sam Sutherland
Share This:

2 Comments so far

Jump into a conversation
  1. Tony
    #1 Tony 22 May, 2018, 02:17

    Oops. On the black and white photo, Levon Helm is second from the left. Richard Manuel is to the far right.

    Reply this comment

Your data will be safe!Your e-mail address will not be published. Also other data will not be shared with third person.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.