Music from Big Pink  by The Band 1968 Capitol Records


 Music from Big Pink  by The Band 1968 Capitol Records


Music from Big Pink by The Band
Music from Big Pink by The Band


  Music from Big Pink is the debut studio album by the Band. Released in 1968, it employs a distinctive blend of countryrockfolkclassicalR&B, and soul. The music was composed partly in “Big Pink”, a house shared by Rick DankoRichard Manuel and Garth Hudson in West SaugertiesNew York. The album itself was recorded in studios in New York and Los Angeles in 1968, and followed the band’s backing of Bob Dylan on his 1966 tour (as the Hawks) and time spent together in upstate New York recording material that was officially released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes, also with Dylan. The cover artwork is a painting by Dylan.
The Band began to create their distinctive sound during 1967, when they improvised and recorded with Bob Dylan a huge number of cover songs and original Dylan material in the basement of a pink house in West Saugerties, New York, located at 56 Parnassus Lane (formerly 2188 Stoll Road). The house was built by Ottmar Gramms, who bought the land in 1952. The house was newly built when Rick Danko found it as a rental. Danko moved in along with Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel in February 1967. The house became known locally as “Big Pink’ for its pink siding. The house was subsequently sold by Gramms in 1977, and since 1998, it has been a private residence.


No. Title Writer(s) Lead Vocal Length
1. “Tears of Rage” Bob Dylan,Richard Manuel Manuel 5:23
2. “To Kingdom Come” Robbie Robertson Manuel, Robertson 3:22
3. “In a Station” Manuel Manuel 3:34
4. “Caledonia Mission” Robertson Rick Danko 2:59
5. “The Weight” Robertson Levon Helm, Danko 4:34
6. We Can Talk Manuel Manuel, Helm, Danko 3:06
7. “Long Black Veil” Marijohn WilkinDanny Dill Danko 3:06
8. Chest Fever Robertson Manuel 5:18
9. Lonesome Suzie Manuel Manuel 4:04
10. This Wheel’s on Fire Dylan, Danko Danko 3:14
11. I Shall Be Released Dylan Manuel 3:19
Bonus Tracks listing from 2000 re-release
12. Yazoo Street Scandal Robertson Helm 4:01
13. “Tears of Rage” Dylan, Manuel Manuel (Alternate take) 5:32
14. Katie’s Been Gone Manuel, Robertson Manuel 2:46
15. “If I Lose” Charlie Poole Helm 2:29
16. Long Distance Operator Dylan Manuel 3:58
17. “Lonesome Suzie” Manuel Manuel (Alternate take) 3:00
18. Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast) Manuel Manuel 3:40
19. Key to the Highway Big Bill Broonzy Manuel 2:28
20. “Ferdinand the Imposter” Helm
Music from Big Pink by The Band
Music from Big Pink by The Band


Though widely bootlegged at the time, the recordings Dylan and the Band made were first officially released in 1975 on The Basement Tapes, and then released in their totality in 2014 on The Basement Tapes Complete. By the end of 1967 The Band felt it was time to step out of Dylan’s shadow and make their own statement.
The Band’s manager Albert Grossman (who was also Dylan ‘s manager) approached Capitol Records to secure a record deal for a group still informally described as “Dylan’s backing band”. Stanley Gortikov at Capitol signed The Band—initially under the name The Crackers. Armed with news of a recording deal for the group, they lured Levon Helm back from the oil rigs where he had been working, to Woodstock where he took up his crucial position in the Band, singing and playing drums. Helm’s return coincided with a ferment of activity in Big Pink as the embryonic Band not only recorded with Dylan but also began to write their own songs, led by guitarist Robbie Robertson.
After meeting with producer John Simon, the Band started to record their debut album in Manhattan at A&R Studios, on the 7th floor of 799 7th Avenue at 52nd Street in the early months of 1968. The Band recorded “Tears of Rage”, “Chest Fever”, “We Can Talk”, “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “The Weight” in two sessions. Robertson has said that when Simon asked them how they wanted it to sound, they replied, “Just like it did in the basement.”
Capitol were so pleased with the initial recording session, they suggested the group move to Los Angeles to finish recording their first album at Capitol Studios. They also cut some material at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard. The songs on Big Pink recorded in L.A. were “In A Station”, “To Kingdom Come”, “Lonesome Suzie”, “Long Black Veil” and “I Shall Be Released”.
Dylan offered to sing on the album, but ultimately realized it was important for the Band to make their own statement. Instead, Dylan signified his presence by contributing a cover painting. Barney Hoskyns has written that it is significant the painting depicts six musicians. The cover of Music From Big Pink was intended to establish the group as having a different outlook from the psychedelic culture of 1968. Photographer Elliott Landy flew to Toronto to photograph the assembled Danko, Manuel and Hudson families on the Danko chicken farm. A photo was inserted of Diamond and Nell Helm, who lived in Arkansas. The photo appeared on the cover with the caption “Next of Kin”.
Music from Big Pink by The Band
Music from Big Pink by The Band


Rolling Stone: The Band: Music From Big Pink
Every year since 1963 we have all singled out one album to sum up what happened that year. It was usually the Beatles with their double barrels of rubber souls, revolvers and peppers. Dylan has sometimes contended with his frontrunning electric albums. Six months are left is this proselytizing year of music; we can expect a new Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, perhaps even a mate for J W Harding; but I have chosen my album for 1968. Music from Big Pink is an event and should be treated as one.
Very quietly, for six years, a band has been brewing. They’d pop up once a while behind Ronnie Hawkins or on their own as the Hawks or affectionately called “the Crackers,” but it was sort of hip to know who they were outside of Toronto. They left Toronto three years ago to tour with Dylan. But when the concerts were over, and the boos had turned to standing ovations, what was to become of these nameless faces
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.
Music from Big Pink by The Band
Music from Big Pink by The Band
I hear the Beach Boys, the Coasters, Hank Williams, the Association, the Swan Silvertones as well as obviously Dylan and the Beatles. What a varied bunch of influences. I love all the music created by the above people and a montage of these forms (bigpink) boggles the mind. But it’salso something else. It’s that good old, intangible, can’t-put-your-finger-on-it “White Soul.” Not so much a white cat imitating a spade, but something else that reaches you on a non-Negro level like church music or country music or Jewish music or Dylan. The singing is so honest and unaffected, I can’t see how anyone could find it offensive (as in “white people can’t pull this kind of thing off”.)
This album was made along the lines of the motto: “Honesty is the best policy.” The best part of pop music today is honesty. The “She’s Leaving Home,” the “Without Her’s,” the “Dear Landlord’s” etc. When you hear a dishonest record you feel you’ve been insulted or turned off in comparison. It’s like the difference between “Dock of the Bay” and “This Guy’s In Love With You.” Both are excellent compositions and both were number one. But you believe Otis while you sort of question Herb Alpert. You can believe every line in this album and if you choose to, it can only elevate your listening pleasure immeasurably.
Robbie Robertson makes an auspicious debut here as a composer and lyricist represented by fourtunes. 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.”
Individually what makes up this album is Robby 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.
Music from Big Pink by The Band
The Band, Music From Big Pink album photograph, Bearsville, Woodstock NY, 1968. Photo © by ElliottLandy
Richard Manuel is affectionately called “Beak” or was at one time; a deft pianist with a strong feeling for country-gospel bigpink music. A strong contributing composer: “Tears of Rage,” “In A Station,” “We Can Talk,” and “Lonesome Suzie.”
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.
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.
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.
Music from Big Pink by The Band
Music from Big Pink by The Band


The Band, Bob Dylan and Music From Big Pink – the full story
Robbie Robertson and more tell the tale of The Band’s seminal debut
“People were like, ‘What kind of music is this? Where in the world did this come from?’” Almost 50 years ago, The Band released Music From Big Pink, an album that drew on the richest musical traditions of America – “From the Ozarks to the Mississippi Delta to the dustbowl,” Robbie Robertson tells Uncut. Five miles out of Woodstock, we reconstruct the story of a landmark album with the help of its surviving players… A tale of five young men (and an illustrious neighbour), dressed as sharecroppers, going back to the source – and changing the future of music in the process… Originally in Uncut’s August 2013 issue (Take 196). Words: Graeme Thomson
Music from Big Pink - Bob Dylan 1965
Music from Big Pink – Bob Dylan 1965


In the mountains to which they had lately retreated, the roar of the changing world they’d just escaped was much reduced. Elsewhere, psychedelic tumult prevailed. It was 1967, the age of Aquarius and all that. The year, that is, of Sgt Pepper, Are You Experienced, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Absolutely Free, Smiley Smile, Strange Days, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Safe As Milk, Surrealistic Pillow, Forever Changes, Disraeli Gears. The airwaves were full of acid rock. Music was getting louder, more complex, experimental. It was a time of hippy rebellion, free love, be-ins, freak-outs, LSD, peace marches, anti-war demonstrations, utopian politics and drum solos.
Up there in the Catskills, though, on the northeastern end of the Allegheny Plateau, many things were much as they always had been. The changes rocking America were barely noticed here, where the pull of the past was still keenly felt and where in that notable summer Bob Dylan’s former backing band, once known as The Hawks, four road-hardened Canadians and a kick-ass Arkansas farmboy, were working on a record that found virtuous inspiration in the music of an older America and would turn out to be one of the great game-changing albums of that or any era.
Music From Big Pink, The Band’s 1968 debut, has become such an ingrained and influential part of our musical landscape it’s difficult to imagine a time when it didn’t exist – or how shockingly against-the-grain it was when it first arrived. In Big Pink, a modest tract house in the mountains of upstate New York, those five men blended their hard years on the road, their rapidly changing lives, and their love of mountain music, gospel, spirituals, roadhouse blues, Stax soul and early rock’n’roll to create a magical new strain of American music.
Music from Big Pink by The Band
It rained by chance the day we had a shoot scheduled for the cover of The Band album. I loved the idea of having them in the rain because it’s a great visual and the light is soft when it’s raining. Although they dug the concept, they still weren’t too happy about getting wet, so whenever we could find a spot where they were under cover, we stopped. We just drove around the area at random, turning here and there, looking for places to shoot. Woodstock, NY, ’69


“It was pure, from the source,” Robbie Robertson tells Uncut. “These were things that grew right out of the ground in the places that we had played, from the Ozarks to the Mississippi Delta to the dustbowl. You’ve got to gather before you give, and we had gone out there and learned this stuff. We had been together for seven years, it wasn’t like we had just been given instruments for Christmas, and these pieces we’d gathered along the way we were incorporating unconsciously into what we were doing – and, well, it all added up to something that didn’t sound like anything.”
It wasn’t just the music that seemed utterly out of time. On the inside cover of the record they looked like a gang of turn-of-the-century train robbers: sombre suits, short hair, a palpable air of unbreachable unity. The beards weren’t groovy, but rather the unkempt face furniture of the mid-west sharecropper. Even their name – a mere afterthought which nonetheless spoke volumes – was a cultural anomaly, its plain understatement resonating in the age of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Frumious Bandersnatch. Everything about Music From Big Pink was radically antithetical to the prevailing mood of the times.
“When it came out people were like, ‘Where in the world did this come from? What kind of music is this?’” says Robertson. “People acted like we were from another planet. That shocked me, but it was a good thing, because it made me feel that we were doing something that had our own character to it. It taught us a lesson: you need to take your own vibe with you. That idea had a tremendous influence.” In the 45 years since its release, those lessons, and that influence, have simply grown ever more potent.
Music from Big Pink by The Band
Music from Big Pink by The Band


Regardless of the true seriousness of Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident at the end of July 1966, it was a matter of life and death for his backing group. After Dylan went into retreat, The Hawks were stranded. With the cancellation of 60 tour dates scheduled for the rest of the year, they were left kicking around New York, scratching for the odd session, a road band who had abruptly run out of road. “We were scrounging around and it was not very productive,” confirms Robertson. “The other guys were going back and forth to Canada and it built to a boil: we gotta do something.”
Dylan was squirreled away with his new wife and young family in Woodstock. Two hours north of New York, the town and its environs had long been a haven for writers, painters, actors and avant-garde musicians. Dylan was working there with Howard Alk on an edit of Eat The Document, the fractured documentary of his fractious ’66 tour. He invited Robertson, then later the rest of the band, to visit his rambling cedarwood house and take a look. Hawks drummer Levon Helm, having quit the Dylan tour in 1965, was off-radar, working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
“At the time Woodstock was a lovely, low-key little art colony,” explains Robertson. “Once we were up there, there was a real feeling of artistic freedom in the air. It had its own thing and everybody gravitated to it. We went on a mission to find a place where we could work and which could be our little clubhouse, and then Rick found Big Pink.”
Early in 1967 Hawks bassist Rick Danko came across a four-bedroom house at 2188 Stoll Road in the backwoods of West Saugerties, five miles from Woodstock and “out in the middle of nothing”, according to The Band’s mercurial organist, saxophonist and accordion player Garth Hudson. It was hidden down a narrow track, surrounded by maples, pines and meadow, with views onto Overlook Mountain. Painted an unlovely shade of salmon mousse, the locals had nicknamed it Big Pink. The rent was $125 a month and in the spring of 1967 Danko, Hudson and piano player Richard Manuel moved in, while Robertson and his future wife Dominique took a house on the estate of Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman just down the road.
Big Pink was functional. It was “furnished, but not in a very glamorous way,” says Robertson. “There were leather couches, a dining table, beds in the bedrooms, just like a regular family home. Your basic needs were there.” The primary attraction was a long basement room with bare breezeblock walls running the length of the house, where they could install a basic recording set-up: an Ampex 400 tape recorder, two mixers and some microphones.
“This was something I’d wanted to do for a long time,” states Robertson. “We got a reel set up, got a rug in there. This was very unusual back then, people did not have home recording facilities. We didn’t know what we were doing, so I asked a recording engineer we knew to take a look at it, and he said, ‘Well, this is the worst situation I have ever seen. You’ve got concrete walls, a cement floor, and a big steel furnace in the middle of it. This is all wrong. Whatever you do, don’t do anything recording here because it’s going to be awful.’ This was very discouraging but it was too late – we didn’t have any choice. We’d already rented the place.”
Soon after they settled, Dylan began dropping in from his house on nearby Camelot Road, arriving late morning and playing music until late afternoon. At first the loose basement sessions roamed over the songbooks of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker, as well as numerous traditional tunes, sea shanties, Irish ballads and nonsense verse. It was a reconnection to historic musical traditions that led, in turn, to a burst of original creativity. Scores of newly written pieces merged with ancient songs until it was hard to see the join.
Music from Big Pink by The Band
Music from Big Pink by The Band


“Bob would come every day and only leave to go home and have dinner with his family,” recalls Robertson. “He was out there five or six days a week and he was really loving what was happening. It was just a joyous, free feeling. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Bob Dylan in a more relaxed state of mind.”
The Hawks had always possessed a Zelig-like quality. Whether in the earliest days with Ronnie Hawkins, or as Levon & The Hawks, or backing Dylan through his vitriolic electric tours, each time they adapted their style to suit. The one constant was amplified rock’n’roll. “The last time I’d heard them play was when they were on the road with Bob in ’66,” says their tour manager at the time, Jon Taplin. “That was very brash, loud, lots of solos.”
It would be hard to recognise the group of musicians convening at Big Pink from that description. “Now we were in this basement, with all those hard surfaces, our usual style became a little irritating on the ears,” says Robertson. “So we ended up playing in a way that we had a balance amongst us. If anybody was playing too loud it was really obvious because you couldn’t hear the singer. That became a bit of a standard of us in a circle, playing to one another.” Hudson talks about each member “accompanying the words. When the singer was singing the guitar would play something that would complement it. That’s also how I saw my job: texture, the occasional solo, little fills. It’s simple. In the basement, we were all close together, it was an acoustic approach, and I think when you listen to Big Pink you hear that. Nobody tries to jump in and take over.”
In these quieter surroundings the voice became king, especially after Helm returned to the fold, having got wind of what was happening in the hills. The hair-raising combination of his hardscrabble holler, Manuel’s tortured falsetto and Danko’s emotive sob had “parallels in a lot of raw Appalachian and Delta music,” says Big Pink producer John Simon. “It sure ain’t city stuff.” It reflected what they were listening to: the Staple Singers, The Carter Family, Otis Redding, New Orleans jazz, gospel, Delta field recordings, all a million miles away from the trends of folk songwriters, underground rock and psychedelia.
Music from Big Pink by The Band
Music from Big Pink by The Band
“It was a combination of mountain music and spirituals, and we started to get an appreciation for harmonies that we would hear from Johnnie & Jack, or the Louvin Brothers,” admits Robertson. “Mountain music! And we were up in the mountains, so it all seemed like it fit together. There was something so pure about it. It was pure American – and so is rock’n’roll. It all came together, but when you’re in it, you don’t dissect it, you’re following your gut feelings.”
They were also reacting to changes in Dylan’s writing. The quicksilver edge of Blonde On Blonde had been replaced with a phantasmagorical mix of woody traditional textures and words centring on myth and fable, often apparently imparting some coded moral lesson. The bleed between the basement songs and Big Pink is a fine one. “Some of those songs got incorporated into what we were doing,” confirms Robertson. “Richard wrote ‘Tears Of Rage’ with Bob, Rick wrote ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ with Bob, I was off writing songs like ‘To Kingdom Come’, ‘Chest Fever’, ‘Caledonia Mission’, and it was all starting to come together.”
The five men were a “functioning democracy”, according to Big Pink producer John Simon, listing their attributes. Danko was “a very melodic bass player and a lot of fun to hang with”. Helm was “a born musician, who sang with the tradition of those generations-ago singers of sincerity and conviction in his subconscious”. Hudson was – and is – a “genius with a Cartesian mind” and Manuel was simply “The Singer”. Robertson, meanwhile, was the director figure, overseeing the entire picture, “paying special attention to how all the elements in the arrangement fit together, including his guitar parts”.
Although he would not fully emerge as The Band’s principal songwriter until their second album, the guitarist was already “the architect of their sound”, says Simon. On “Caldedonia Mission” and “Chest Fever”, principally sung by Danko and Manuel, respectively, he would sing their lines to them to let them know exactly what he wanted, and they would copy his phrasing. “It was casting on my part,” says Robertson. “Who could pull off these songs the best?” The sense of character and emotional authenticity was key. Robertson imbued his new songs, and others such as “The Weight” and “Yazoo Street Scandal”, with a tangible sense of place and personal history which came to define The Band’s music. “It was all stuff gathered subconsciously playing the Chitlin’ circuit,” he says. “Going from Canada down to the Mississippi Delta, it overwhelmed me and got under my skin. All the names of the places – there really was a Yazoo Street! I started putting them up in my attic, and years later I went in and pulled these things out.”
Music from Big Pink by The Band
Music from Big Pink by The Band
Big Pink and the surrounding atmosphere became integral to the richly textured character of the music. “You could go outside and scream to the top of your lungs and nobody would ever hear,” says Robertson. “Coming from New York City there was a tremendous freedom to that.”
All the hard, straight edges left their music as the pace of life settled into an agreeable routine. In the late morning they would get up, drink a little coffee, and start gathering in the basement to play music. In their downtime they would throw around a football, or take Danko’s giant poodle, Hamlet, up into the woods for a walk, or play checkers in the living room. Helm was the most competitive while Manuel, John Simon recalls, “used to play ‘backwards checkers.’ It was all about sacrifice. The first to lose all his pieces won. Richard was a champ at that.” There were two typewriters set up in the house. Dylan would write on one when he was around, often running downstairs as soon as he had finished a lyric to see if anyone had any suitable music to go with it: “Tears Of Rage” and “This Wheel’s On Fire” were both written this way. The other typewriter was there so “anybody who had a thought could just put it down before they forgot it,” says Robertson.
“The idea of domesticity was part of the vibe of Big Pink, rather than being an asshole rock musician with your shirt open,” says Taplin. “They were all very close, very funny together. Especially Richard and Levon, they had a really interesting humorous thing, mainly about women and booze.”
“It was a lifestyle,” admits Robertson. “The people, the house, the grounds, everything played a part. There was a kind of experienced innocence. Everyone went with that feeling.”
The bucolic ideal of life at the house has to contend with the reality of four young male musicians living together. There were no housemaids or live-in help. They fended for themselves. It was, says Taplin, “like a college dormitory more than anything else – there was always dirty dishes in the sink. I think Garth was probably more domestic than anybody else.” Hudson recalls the merest hint of a rota. “We each did things to do with the cooking, cleaning,” he says. “Richard cooked. Sure! He was quite good. I think I had something to do with the rest of the house – making sure the rugs were straight and all that.”
“In the kitchen someone was always making little snacks,” says Robertson, but it was no place for the gourmand, more somewhere “you would grab breakfast and coffee,” says Taplin. On warmer days they’d cook outside on the barbecue, with mixed results. Hudson recalls Manuel “pouring some lighter fluid in it. Well, the thing exploded and the flame shot out and burned his ankle. Oh, they were frightening times.”
Visitors would come and go. “You’d get up in the morning, and think, ‘Oh no, Allen Ginsberg just pulled in with Peter Orlovsky, and he’s bringing his harmonium’,” explains Robertson. “Or Charles Lloyd would come up and we’d jam with him.” The Bauls of Bengal were among the more exotic guests. A family of itinerant street troubadours that Grossman had met on a visit to India and had invited to stay in a converted barn in Bearsville, they recorded an album in the basement. Two Bauls, Luxman and Purna Das, are pictured with Dylan on the cover of John Wesley Harding [see panel]. Among the artists, oddballs and occasional superstar, “there were local people we knew who’d come to fix the screen doors, or remove the flying squirrels in the attic,” says Robertson. “There was all sorts of people coming and going, but you had to know where this place was. It was hard to find.” Hudson suggests that uninvited guests weren’t always welcome. “This one guy came up to the house but I frightened him,” he says darkly. “I won’t say how. Or with what.”
Nightlife was limited. Woodstock offered a couple of bars, as well as Café Espresso and Deanies, a restaurant which became the hub of their social activity. They generally made the best of it. “It was subdued in a lot of ways, but we were dealing with men in their early twenties,” states Robertson. “Not so much for me, or Bob, but the other guys would go into town and pick up chicks and come back and party all night long up there.”
“People would smoke pot and drink beer,” confirms Taplin. “Richard would drink hard liquor, but nobody was getting totally plastered. It was quite well behaved compared to what happened later. Rick Danko and Bobby Charles later wrote a song called ‘Small Town Talk’, which was about Woodstock – the point being, if you live in a small town and you act like an asshole, everyone is going to know, including the cops. The cops would go have dinner at the same restaurant The Band would eat at. So Richard had to behave himself, although eventually he was the first one to begin to drink too much.”
During October and November Dylan went off to Nashville to make John Wesley Harding and The Band honed their songs. Grossman had secured a record deal with Capitol, after a little initial confusion about what was on offer. “Albert said, ‘Do you want to do an album of Dylan instrumentals or something?’” recalls Robertson. “I said, ‘No! We’re going to do something else.’”
To produce, they called on John Simon. He had recently worked with Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel, but it was the record he’d made with Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is The Massage, that got him the gig. A gifted musician, Simon played a significant role in arranging the songs and, he says, “got so assimilated that’s it’s rare when any of us can point to any one element and say, ‘So-and-so came up with that.’”
“He was brilliant and imaginative,” explains Robertson. “Here’s a guy who can adapt to anything, because we’re making up new rules here. He comes to the basement and he says, ‘Oh my God, this is what I’m looking for! This is fantastic, this is real.’ He really gravitated towards it. We did as much as we could at Big Pink, but we didn’t have the microphones or the board that you needed. These were field recordings.”
In January they went into A&R’s four-track Studio A in New York. Honouring, as Hudson puts it, the “old carpenter’s ethos: measure twice, cut once,” they had rehearsed their songs to a fine point so they could record live in the studio, with few overdubs. The major concern was retaining the free spirit of Big Pink in a commercial studio seven flights up in the heart of the city. “Playing in the basement taught us that going into somebody else’s place, where they don’t go past six o’clock, there are union rules and everybody is watching the clock – that’s not the way to make music,” says Robertson. “We said we need to bring the situation so it fits us, rather than vice versa.”
At first it was a struggle. “They had the drums go over here, they spread us all out so there was no leakage,” remembers Robertson. “We were just doing what we were told because this huge room was famous for getting a fantastic sound. After a while we said, ‘We can’t do this. We’ve got to get in a circle like the basement, we’ve got to play to one another. We’re speaking a language. This doesn’t work.’ The engineer is like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ But he said, ‘All right, let’s give it a shot, but it’s not going to sound too good.’” They formed a tight circle and switched to Electro Voice RE15 mics “that don’t pick up much unless you’re right on them. We put them on everything, because they served our purpose.”
The first song recorded was “Tears Of Rage”, Big Pink’s audacious opener which seems to encapsulate everything daring and heretical about the album. The pace is not so much stately as funereal; Manuel’s extraordinary vocal lends fathoms of emotional depth to Dylan’s mournful, allusive lyric, with Danko’s harmony bolstering the effect on the chorus. The overdub of soprano sax and baritone horn adds an old-time sepia tone, and once you start focusing on Helm’s deadened tom-toms, tuned down and played with gentle finesse, it’s hard to drag your ears away from them. Hudson’s Lowrey organ, preferred over a more conventional Hammond, set the music even further apart from anything remotely contemporary.
“I was aware of sounds on records, and I didn’t hear much of anything we were doing,” says Hudson. “I think we were aware we were doing something new.”
“We listened back to it and it sounded fantastic,” says Robertson. “It was a whole revelation of recording for us and for a lot of people. What we were doing was exactly what we had been doing at Big Pink, but in a place where the sound was controlled. That was the only difference.”
They quickly cut five songs in New York, recording from early evening through the night. There were, says Simon, “no disagreements. It was joyous! There was only one painful moment. Because of some bad mic’ing, the snare drum on ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ got lost so Levon had to go in and overdub it. Afterwards, he said to me, ‘Don’t ask me to do that again.’”
The last song recorded was “The Weight”. Robertson had written it as a homecoming gift for Helm, who had returned to find all the lead vocals already assigned to Danko and Manuel. “I thought, Jeez, I want to write a song that Levon can sing better than anybody, ’cause I knew his abilities,” says Robertson. “He was my closest friend and I wanted to do something really special for him.” Even so, its magnetic, timeless quality only revealed itself in the studio. “It was on the back burner,” adds Robertson. “Like, if these other ones don’t work out I have something else we could go to. I didn’t realise what it was until we recorded it and listened back.”
Capitol were so pleased with the results of the sessions they offered The Band free use of their eight-track studio in Los Angeles to finish the album. They retrieved Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” from the basement, and also cut Manuel’s “Lonesome Suzie” and “In A Station”. Robertson recalls “it was a little trickier, technically,” in LA, although some of the struggle may have been self-inflicted. “We went into the studio and cut one song,” says Simon. “Then, basking in the sun, staying at the Chateau Marmont, we didn’t go in again for another month until Capitol said, ‘Hey, what’s up with you guys?’”
The engineer was a “Gary-Cooper type” called Rex Updegraft who smoked a pipe and told the band he thought their music ‘darn cute’. Back in Woodstock in the spring, Dylan’s reaction was more expansive, says Robertson. “He couldn’t believe that that’s what we do when we’re not doing what we do with him.”
Music From Big Pink performed only modestly when it was released in July 1968, reaching the Top 30 in the US, while “The Weight” got to No 21 in the UK. Capitol hyped the various angles of the Dylan connection, but it was a slow burn. There was some confusion with their name, which seemed hardly to be a name at all. On their record contract they had called themselves The Crackers, a throwaway joke that made it on to some early acetates.
The sense of mystery, even confusion, was intrinsic. Some of it was planned. The cover art was an oblique painting by Dylan, with a photo of Big Pink on the back [see panel]. The black and white band photo could have been taken anytime in the past century and was not captioned. Similarly, the brief notes provided no information about what each band member did. “No-one had any idea who was singing what and it didn’t matter at all,” says Joe Boyd, who was working at the time with a number of British folk bands, including Fairport Convention. “It was just ‘the band’.”
Happenstance also played its part. Having planned to tour the album, Danko broke his neck in a car accident – in his own words, “a little too drunk, a little too high” – and so their live debut was postponed. Instead, they hunkered down in Woodstock and the mystique grew. “People were like, ‘What are they doing up in those mountains?’” says Robertson. “Nobody quite knew what to make of it.”
Al Kooper, the keyboard player who had performed with members of The Hawks backing Dylan, wrote the first major review of the record for Rolling Stone. “It couldn’t have been more unexpected based on The Hawks’ previous discography,” he says. “No-one thought they were capable of making this kind of record.”
The most profound impact was felt by fellow musicians. Music From Big Pink was so extraordinarily, immediately potent it actually hastened the demise of other groups. Eric Clapton heard a pre-release tape and almost instantly decided to call time on Cream. An awestruck George Harrison became even more determined to leave The Beatles, but before he did, on songs like “Don’t Let Me Down”, the Fabs had a stab at being The Band.
“I just recently got a message from Donald Fagen,” Robertson laughs. “He was listening to Let It Be… Naked and he said, ‘Oh my God, were these guys ever influenced by The Band?’”
Them and everybody else. Even the flagbearers of West Coast psychedelic rock, the Grateful Dead, heard Big Pink and detoured into a more rootsy style, with lyricist Robert Hunter expanding on Robertson’s fascination with American mythology. Elton John’s obsession with The Band is all over his early LPs. Joe Boyd recalls that Big Pink hit the UK scene “like a ton of bricks. It was an unexpected, perfect bridge between the working-class roadhouse music of the South and the folkies studying American roots music like a thesis.”
What was so compelling? Richard Thompson told Uncut: “We loved the rootsiness. They seamlessly blended Americana styles – blues, country, rock, R’n’B, Appalachian – and regurgitated it all with their own unique sound. I think there was considerable cultural impact for us too. These guys had short hair and suits, totally against the fashions and styles of the day.” That “rootsiness” was significant. Moving the focus from the city to the country spoke also of a willingness to embrace the past. Numerous musicians, from a variety of genres, picked up on the notion of exploring their own sense of history and tradition. Says Boyd: “My belief is that Big Pink guided Fairport away from ‘American’ music as they had been doing and forced them to create something as ‘British’ as Big Pink was ‘American’.”
The unhurried pace, too, was new in rock. The slow roll of “The Weight” and dragging drama of “Tears Of Rage” and “Chest Fever” were formative in progressive rock, an unlikely inspiration for, among others, Pink Floyd.
“That one record changed everything for me,” Roger Waters told the Dallas Morning News in 2008. “After Sgt Pepper, it’s the most influential record in the history of rock’n’roll. It affected Pink Floyd deeply, deeply, deeply. Philosophically, other albums may have been more important, like Lennon’s first solo album. But sonically, the way the record’s constructed, I think Music From Big Pink is fundamental to everything that happened after it.”
It has gone on changing the musical weather ever since. Its fusion of down-home styles and lack of flash was intrinsic to the British pub-rock scene of the ’70s. REM – a democratic, instrument-swapping, triple-harmony threat – perhaps got closest to evolving The Band’s many-hued music. Countless others have tried. In particular, the group ethic, the harmonies, the vivid sense of history and place, the lack of virtuoso flash, the palpable emotion – for all the joy of its creation, this was often heartbroken music – were all catalysts for the Americana movement. “I recently heard a cut by Wilco on the radio,” says John Simon. “The Band influence was obvious.”
It’s hard to think of another record that has been more influential, yet which remains so essentially unique and indefinable. “Big Pink became its own category,” says Al Kooper. “People still say about other bands, ‘That sorta sounds like The Band,’ and I always reply, ‘Yeah, sorta!’ But no-one else has ever had the writing, arrangement or similar vocal prowess to really compete with it.”
According to Robertson, the key to its enduring success is simple. “It was just fun,” he says. “We had lots of laughs. When I think about it now, it’s really the way music-making should be.”
The History Of Rock – a brand new monthly magazine from the makers of Uncut – a brand new monthly magazine from the makers of Uncut – is now on sale in the UK.





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