They called it the end of the ’60s dream. Following the politically tempestuous year that preceded it, where assassinations and increasingly hostile reactions to the escalating war in Vietnam further embittered a despairing generation whose promises of love, peace, freedom, and equality from the previous summer now seemed tragically futile, 1969 was the death knell of the buoyant optimism that had fired young Americans in that most eventful of decades.
That August’s horrific Manson murders and the eruption of violence that ended with the killing of an 18-year-old fan at The Rolling Stones’ free concert at Altamont in December were harrowing signifiers that the halcyon hippie period was over. Sure, Woodstock may have offered a brief glimpse of utopian ideals (despite the chaos that encumbered the disastrously disorganised festival), but as the dawn of the ’70s approached, there was a fierce distrust in authority that permeated the nation and reinforced the lack of patriotism that was evident in those who felt their country had let them down.
But, on September 22nd 1969, an album was released that was so infused with the history, culture, and rural pride of America that it was almost named in its honour. It offered an insight into the true beauty that lay at the heart of the country’s rich heritage - especially that of the South - and its warm, nostalgic charm was a tonic to the disillusionment and fragmentation that threatened its future.
The Band’s eponymous second album was a succinct and passionate portrait of a country worth saving. How ironic, then, that four-fifths of its creators were Canadian.
This is the story, as told exclusively to Clash by those who were there, of a record so unique, so influential, and so astutely American that it singularly birthed its own new domestic musical genre.
Located only 90 minutes north of New York City, the fertile landscapes of Ulster County may as well have been another continent away from the oblivious attentions of the music industry in Manhattan and beyond. For where usually the big cities were the hive of activity for any recording artist, it was here, in the secluded surroundings of the great Catskill Park, that one decidedly secretive group were doing their best to create music on their own terms.
The musicians - guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, keyboardist Garth Hudson, and pianist Richard Manuel - had retreated upstate in the spring of 1967, following the lead of Bob Dylan, whom they had backed on his combative world tour of 1966 and dealt with the savage, stinging criticism of those who decried Dylan’s ‘electric’ transformation, and who had moved to the town of Woodstock some years prior.
Known at the time as The Hawks, their arrival in Ulster County coincided with Dylan’s tentative return to music following a serious motorcycle accident and a recuperative break away from the prying eyes of the world’s press. The Hawks’ leader and drummer, Levon Helm, disenchanted by the experience of the Dylan tour, had quit during its run, but eventually rejoined his bandmates when he heard about the new work they were involved in upstate.
Together with Bob, they had frequently coalesced in the basement of Rick, Richard and Garth’s pink house in West Saugerties to embark on a series of informal recordings designed to rehabilitate Dylan, provide him with some songs to license out to other interested parties during his continued absence, and just enjoy the convivial atmosphere of friends playing without any outside pressures.
These recordings became known as ‘The Basement Tapes’, and are a curious link in Dylan’s chain of work - bridging, as they do, the mercurial energy of ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and the pious proto-country of ‘John Wesley Harding’ - but their higher purpose was to recalibrate the entire concept of The Hawks. They may have started as the hard-rockin’ backing group for rockabilly titan Ronnie Hawkins - who, along with the Arkansas-born Helm, had hand-picked the others from the cream of the Canadian barroom circuit - but now, four years after splitting from their creator, they emerged from that basement a unit enhanced by the nuances of homemade subtleties.
By the time they were reunited with Levon, the group was ready to make their first album. ‘Music From Big Pink’ arrived - out of the blue, it seemed, to the rest of the world - on July 1st 1968. It was unassuming by nature - having scrapped the Hawks name and unable to agree on a new one, the record’s front cover didn’t even credit them, let alone feature a picture of them (its artwork was painted by Bob Dylan, as above) - but the impact with which it hit was forceful, sending shockwaves through the musical community, and creating ripples of influence whose consequences could be felt for years to come.
Recorded in an intimate studio setting with producer John Simon that recreated the set-up of the house that bore its name, it was a self-effacing yet bold debut that forsook the overblown trends of the time in favour of a more honest and rootsy approach that fused strains of rock, R&B, country, gospel, soul, and blues into one beautiful, indefinable sound. Spearheaded by lead single ‘The Weight’, which showcased the group’s remarkable vocal harmonies courtesy of Rick, Richard and Levon, it was a document not entirely of its time but absolutely and unmistakably modern.
“It’s like one of those memories you’ll never forget as a musician,” Ringo Starr tells Clash of his first encounter with ‘Big Pink’. “I’m in New York - nothing to do with anyone else - and oh, George [Harrison] is in New York. Oh, Eric Clapton’s in New York. Oh, Jimi Hendrix is upstairs! Anyway, the point of this was Eric brought an acetate of ‘Big Pink’ and we heard The Band. Eric played it, and George and I heard it and said, ‘Oh, how great.’”
Eric Clapton hailed its authenticity and split up Cream because of it. George Harrison was infatuated by its musicianship and (temporarily) left The Beatles because of it. The Rolling Stones rejected the garish psychedelia that had smothered ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ to renew themselves with ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’.
Even Britain’s loudest exports, The Who, were affected by what they heard. “In some ways they were a bit of a shock,” Pete Townshend declared to Clash. “They landed fully formed. Then, ‘Music From Big Pink’ was released, and it felt like a completely new sound. I first heard it at [The Monkees’] Peter Tork’s house in LA. Keith Moon and John Entwistle were chasing nude girls in and out of the swimming pool. I sat with Mama Cass and listened to ‘Chest Fever’ on Peter’s massive sound system and realised I was listening to something ground-breaking.”
“You just recognised their genius,” Roger Daltrey said of the group to Clash in 2018. “‘Music From Big Pink’ was one of the best albums ever made.”
“‘Music From Big Pink’ hit me like a freight train. It was life changing,” remembers Bernie Taupin, who’d sow the influence he’d reap from The Band in the songs he wrote for Elton John. “The minute I heard Levon’s rolling toms and Richard Manuel’s haunted voice on ‘Tears Of Rage’, contemporary music felt a seismic shift. It’s still the single greatest album of the modern rock era.”
The album and its architects were a phenomenon.
And then: nothing.
It was all Rick Danko’s fault. The affable bassist had been navigating his girlfriend’s classic Bristol up the rugged back roads of Woodstock when his car suddenly spun out of control. “I ran into a cloud on top of a mountain, and my windshield didn’t wipe,” went the dubious story he told an interviewer in 1999.
The resulting wreck broke his neck and back “in about nine places,” and required him to be laid up for months in traction while he healed. This meant, of course, that the hottest group in the world was unable to take their music to the people, despite the growing demand for them to tour. Their silence would only heighten the enigmatic presence they unintentionally commanded.
“We had this debut that, like you said, it comes out and it causes these ripples and effect, and we are a no show,” Robbie Robertson tells Clash now. “Everybody’s like, ‘Uh, what’s the deal here?’ And it turned into this very mystical thing of like, ‘What are they doing up there in those mountains? Who are these people? What’s going on?’ And so, with all of these things, it was something that was unexpected in that we had no control over it.”
Robertson, the group’s de facto spokesman, had informed their manager, Albert Grossman, that rather than admit to the press the severity of Rick’s accident, he would not talk to them at all. Thus, in the months while the group rallied around the recuperating Danko, they embarked on no promotion for the record whatsoever, live or otherwise.
The advantage of all this time to themselves, wherein usually a band would be whisked off on a global trek to hawk their wares, was twofold: the first was that it ramped up the offers that were coming in from promoters eager to lure the group on stage.
“If they had begun touring right after ‘Music From Big Pink’,” explains Jonathan Taplin, who’d ironically begun working as their road manager around this time, “they probably wouldn’t have been as mysterious and famous as they were, in the sense that they had kind of been out of sight.”
The second advantage was that it allowed the group a further gestation period to hone their sound that had been developed through the creation of their debut, and focus their attentions on how to best follow it up while still firmly in that zone. “This was our prime now,” noted Levon Helm in his autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire. “We were in our era. Instead of touring, our creative energies went into making this record.”
Although ‘Music From Big Pink’ was a continuation of the basement’s communal jam sessions where compositions appeared to be a collaborative affair, the album featuring contributions from Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, it was Robbie that emerged as the group’s principle songwriter, and it was his shoulders that burdened the heaviest load of expectations.
“Look, within the music community, ‘Music From Big Pink’ was a big deal,” Jonathan Taplin says. “People like Eric Clapton and George Harrison were saying that this was the most important album of the year, and so, in that sense, there was a lot of expectation. And also, Robbie had written that song ‘The Weight’ for ‘Big Pink’, which was a canonical piece of music, so he had to go beyond that on the second album.”
“Robbie had the challenge of coming up with new material since he’d cherry-picked the best songs for ‘Big Pink’,” John Simon affirms. “He and [his wife] Dominique had just had a baby, which was a lot of unfamiliar pressure in itself, and so I was aware of the pressure he might have felt.”
“It was kind of my job in this group to kind of direct, to have the ideas, to lay out a path that made sense,” Robbie concedes. “So, when I told the guys, ‘Okay, I don’t want to make this record in a recording studio. I want it to be a better extension of the basement, because I see what happens with us in our own world, in our own privacy. We can turn off the world, and we can go somewhere deeper into a more musical place, and we can pull rabbits out of the hat, and if we have to do that on somebody else’s clock and in somebody else’s atmosphere, it’s not gonna be as much our own.’ So everybody says, ‘Oh. Oh, okay.’”
With a recording strategy in mind, Robbie also had to contemplate what kind of songs were to be brought to the plate. He already had two up for contention that were written in the immediate aftermath of ‘Music From Big Pink’. ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’ was a desperate story of a destitute Depression-era farmer, which seemed ideal for Richard Manuel’s perfectly harrowing voice, while ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, a poignant hymn to Confederacy pride during the American Civil War, was tailor made for Levon Helm’s evocative Southern drawl. It was these vocal intentions that laid the blueprint for what Robertson would build.
“I knew everybody’s talent and I knew the instrument of what we had,” he says, “and it was almost like a theatre group in that everybody was so good at things. ‘You could play this part, and then he could play that part, and then you could be this character, and then you could come in here and do that…’ All of those were swirling around for me, and when we got down to it, I found that this idea was paying off, and there was a discovery at hand here. And it wasn’t ‘Big Pink Part 2’; it was yet another feel, another sound, another vision.”
Flying his new family out to Hawaii for an invigorating winter break, Robbie used the opportunity to sequester himself away for an intensive songwriting session while there to flesh out the ideas that consumed him. He invited producer John Simon and his girlfriend over, too, with an objective to begin formal discussions on material.
“He kept his new ideas pretty much to himself,” Simon remembers today. “He usually didn’t play new material for anyone until he felt it was finished anyway.” The only collaboration undertaken between the pair, Simon attests, was the chorus Robbie added to a song that John was writing called ‘Davy’s On The Road Again’, which would later be recorded by Manfred Mann.
The change of location was a curious one. Hawaii’s tropical climate was somewhat at odds with the rural landscapes that were being conjured by Robbie’s imagination. ‘King Harvest’ had a distinctly autumnal setting, inspired by the bronzed hues of Woodstock that season, and its influence was spreading through the pastoral vignettes that were now coming thick and fast. The rustic lifestyles of the working man who labored the land would come to fully permeate his vivid and articulate lyrics.
To further counteract the impact that his local surroundings had made on him, Robbie decided that the most effective way of isolating the group in creative seclusion would be to leave their wintry hometown, and the distractions that came with it. “In the North East at that time, there were some big snow storms,” Robbie recalls, “and in Woodstock we were having trouble just to get together because we were getting snowed in a lot. I just got a little fed up with it, and I was also just yearning for this clubhouse atmosphere where we were all together. Like I keep saying, we were in our own world, and in doing that, I could have everybody’s full attention all the time. That’s what I was seeking.”
“They didn’t want to do it in a regular recording studio in New York City,” Jonathan Taplin elaborates. “The pressures of a recording studio where you’re literally on the clock were not something that they wanted to deal with, so that meant that they were going to record in a kind of homemade way. It was winter in Woodstock and nobody wanted to be in Woodstock in winter, so Los Angeles seemed like the natural place to go.”
Tasked with presenting appropriate options to fit Robbie’s brief, it was an assistant to Albert Grossman that had found the house at 8850 Evanview Drive. Situated in the prestigious hills above Sunset Strip, the house belonged to Sammy Davis Jr. and offered the musicians exactly what they were looking for.
“It was an excellent choice in so many respects,” John Simon notes. “First of all it had a great recording room: the pool house. And it was big enough for us all and our families, so it kept us close and congenial. And, beside the studio, there was an extra room with an upright piano for rehearsals. And there was a large living room to accommodate the friends and other guests who kept dropping by.”
Arriving in January 1969, the members of the group and John Simon were quick to claim a bedroom each - Robbie’s family were in one adjoining apartment, while Levon opted for a room within the pool house, which began to be converted into a studio designed to their exacting spec.
“When I told the record company this is what I wanted to do, they thought I was completely insane,” Robbie laughs. “They were like, ‘Why do you want to bother? From the house here, you can just drive down the street and you can record in Capitol Records’ famous recording studios. Why bother with this?’ I said, ‘It’s just something that I need to do.’ They said, ‘Well, okay…’ It was kind of like, ‘You’ll be sorry!’”
Jonathan Taplin and college friend Lindsay Holland were charged with transporting the group’s hardware all the way from Woodstock to LA. “We had a rented van and we drove it across the country in the middle of the winter, which was a little crazy,” he says. “It was standard equipment, except for Garth’s organ - he played a very specific kind of organ called a Lowrey, and he wouldn’t tolerate a rented Hammond B3, which was something that you could rent in Los Angeles, so we had to cart this huge organ out to the West Coast. That took up most of the space in the van.”
In this private and domesticated environment, the development of Robbie’s songs to something more synergetic began in earnest. It took a month for Capitol Records to completely install the recording equipment, which would see a technical upgrade from the set-up at Woodstock. “The quarter-track Ampex we used in Big Pink was a good quality home use machine,” says Garth Hudson, who had been responsible for manning the recorder in the basement. “The equipment for the pool house, though, was excellent studio quality and allowed for over-dubbing.”
During the weeks spent waiting for the studio to be installed, the musicians sought to establish a specific unified tone that would define this next chapter of theirs.
“The sound was just an ‘honest’ sound: no gimmicks,” Simon explains. “We wanted the record to sound like what the music sounded like in the room… There was a debt and allegiance to musical ‘roots’. So we bought an upright piano rather than a grand, and a set of wooden drums.”
“John Simon and I worked for hours just getting those old wooden drums of mine deadened down until they had a good thump to them,” Helm later wrote in his autobiography. “We’d tape up the bottom of that old snare drum with the wooden rim, and it just sounded better than average to me. We’d adjust the lug nuts to get that weeping tom-tom effect where that note would bend down, and you’d hear it go eeeeuuuu.”
As each individual element was adjusted to perfection, the room’s aural evolution itself was enough to further reveal to Robbie a vein of inspiration that pulsed through the cultivation of his songs and suggested a thematic concept to the album as a whole in the process. “In the sound and the texture of this music, and the colour of it,” he says, “I realised in the writing that I also had to engineer a lot of the record, because when you write the song you know more about it than anybody else, and I was in a discovery process and I had a vague idea of texture in a sonic thing that I wanted to discover. And as this started to reveal itself, it really felt like this has got its complete own character, and I’m feeling really comfortable with that.”
“This album was of particular interest to me because they recorded it themselves,” Pete Townshend explains. “I was a home recordist, with my own studio in my house, and dreamed of recording my own band that way. It would not really be possible for The Who until we built the special studio in Battersea for ‘Quadrophenia’ in 1973. The studio sounds on ‘The Band’ are very basic, practical and earthy. The drums sound is dead; it sounds as though each drum has pads. But to this day I still use this album on CD as one of three I use to set up my studio speakers when I work in outside studios. It is a sonically flat record, technically speaking. There are no tricks, no fancy echoes or effects.”
Once the studio was complete, it was time to begin recording. To make up for lost time, at the request of Richard Manuel, John Simon had acquired a supply of “fat-girl diet pills” to increase the musicians’ work rate. An instrumental cog in this particular wheel, John Simon’s method was to be present in the same room as his charges, not separated by the soundproofed window that traditionally keeps producer and artists apart.
“He had done a great job on ‘Big Pink’,” Taplin says of Simon, “and he’s not a pushy guy - he’s very relaxed - and so his style was perfect for the moment… Everyone was right there in the room together.”
“It’s more fun and more ‘real’ to be in the room in which the music is being made,” the producer confesses. “And also, in the case of that album, I needed to give the guys cues - particularly to Levon. My station was usually right in front of him so I could point to different drums and cymbals as we approached different parts of the arrangement.”
“Everybody got up and by 10 o’clock in the morning everybody was drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and starting to get into the day’s work,” Taplin says of the studio’s daily schedule.
“The process was the same,” Simon demonstrates, “first the song, then who was going to sing it, then the arrangement, then rehearsing it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over, then start recording it until we got a take that all six of us loved. I’m an arranger so, apart from as a producer trying to ‘smooth over the creases’ to elicit the best performance of a song, I always paid attention to the arrangement, whether it was the rhythmic patterns, the choice of instruments or the embellishments on top.”
“John’s changes and suggestions were introduced with respect,” commends Garth. “He showed us how a professional arranger coach should be.”
Elliott Landy, the photographer who had shot The Band at home in Woodstock for ‘Music From Big Pink’, was invited to the house to document proceedings, and found similar levels of constructive energy there as back home. “The vibe seemed the same,” he remembers. “They acted just the same towards each other - they were super friendly and respectful to each other, harmonious; they really worked together as a group. They worked together really beautifully.”
Democracy was at the core of this group. It was the lifeblood that energized the music they made together, and the dynamic that bequeathed their collective name. Renowned around Woodstock as Dylan’s trusted accomplices, they began to be referred to as ‘the band’, a name that not only stuck, but seemed to deftly epitomize their communal methods. In the studio, various instruments would be picked up, passed around, and each member might be entrusted to fill another’s shoes as roles were swapped around. These sessions would witness, for example, Levon Helm strumming his mandolin while Richard Manuel filled the vacant drum stool, or Rick Danko figuring out violin parts as John Simon got to grips with a tuba. Along with their voices, which would instinctively weave into the most beautiful harmonies, The Band’s virtuosic instrumental talents were individually drawn upon like essential ingredients to yield one particularly appetizing cocktail.
“That’s why this group was called The Band,” Robbie urges, “because it was such a brotherhood. Everybody held up their end and played an extremely important part in it. I’ve said this before, and I don’t mean to pick on anybody in particular, but this was not a group with a singer and a guitar player and some other guys, you know what I mean? This was a group that everybody held this thing up together. And it turned out with the combination of these pieces that you put them together and it was a force. I so respected that, and I so appreciated this instrument that we had. And so that’s the way it worked: when we would sit down to do something, everybody’s part was very equal in what the sound was gonna be, what the feel was gonna be, how it was going to be presented, and you depend on that. It’s like actors in a movie and everybody is at the top of their game, and these characters really live up to what your dream is, and that is what was so special about this group.”
Nine of the album’s 12 songs were put to tape in Los Angeles. Despite all the distractions that the City of Angels had to offer for the visiting dignitaries, The Band, while not altogether saintly, remained firmly devoted to their duties. “Most people didn’t even know they were in LA, that’s how quiet it was,” Taplin claims. “Everybody was there to work, and that was what was taken seriously.”
“The studio was sacrosanct while we were working,” Simon maintains. “No visitors went in there unless for a purpose.”
Soon to be earmarked as the album’s opening track, ‘Across The Great Divide’ became the suitably boisterous introduction to the evidently more confident successor to ‘Music From Big Pink’. Just as on that debut, it’s Richard Manuel’s voice we hear first, and who sets the tone for the journey about to be undertaken.
The half-time piano triplets that usher the song in create an immediate air of expectancy - their subtle build-up coaxes you in, keenly aware that a change of pace is inevitably going to spring into action. Similarly, just as Richard starts plaintively, beseeching his dear Molly to “understand your man the best you can” after she’s drawn a pistol at her quarreling partner, as the chorus kicks in with that sprightly double-time piano, he becomes irresistibly buoyant, inviting all to “grab your hat, and take that ride”.
“You can really hear the glory and plain goodness of Richard’s personality if you listen carefully,” declared Levon, who’d join him in the choruses to echo the wide-eyed optimism they exuded.
Clocking in at just under three minutes, and with references to a “Harvest moon”, a “one-horse town” and an alluring “riverside”, ‘Across The Great Divide’ is a perfectly succinct Southern gothic treasure, full of dark humour and threats of violence.
Underscoring the song’s exuberant spirit is a playful horn line - the first appearance on the album of The Band’s unconventional yet distinctive brass section: Garth Hudson, and a cajoled John Simon. “I had played the baritone horn in high school but Garth suggested I play a peckhorn for ‘Across The Great Divide’, which had a smaller mouthpiece and required different fingering,” offers Simon. “I’d never even seen one before.”
“To me, it came as the height of our collaboration,” Levon Helm said of ‘Rag Mama Rag’, “we were all at our fullest.”
Exemplifying The Band’s aforementioned division of musicality, ‘Rag Mama Rag’ was a song truly borne from their chemistry and experimentation in the studio. What the song first sounded like when Robbie composed it we can only guess, but once in the hands of The Band as a resourceful collective, it ended up sounding like nothing that had ever come before.
It started with Robertson imagining himself living in a “timeless zone when ragtime and rag music was the most wicked shit around,” and penning a tribute to the jumping jazz style. The direction it would take was dictated by the choice of instrumentation, and the musicians who’d be playing them.
“Rick Danko was one of these people that he could pick up any instrument - a trombone, a violin, a banjo - and within minutes he would play this,” Robbie says. “Rick didn’t play violin; he picked it up and played violin.”
Danko’s basic grasp of the violin imbues the song’s beginning with a gleeful spontaneity - one imagines a country gathering where it’s his impromptu riffing that ignites the impending hoedown. Sure enough, the accompaniment quickly arrives. Levon is on the mic, his voice most naturally suited to this barnstormer, but is also playing mandolin, so it’s Richard Manuel that’s playing drums - his unique, untrained style providing a steady yet giddily impulsive rhythm.
“And to pull off the rag thing that I’m talking about, the official authentic rag thing,” Robbie continues, “it would take Garth Hudson playing piano on that - who played piano and organ and keyboards different to anybody in the world. And when I would say to him ‘ragtime’, he went to a place that was reinventing ragtime piano playing.”
“That was not an overdub,” Garth humbly notes of his invigorated piano line, which draws from ragtime’s ragged rhythms to create something so nimbly unrestrained that it tinkles on regardelss as the track around it fades out at the end.
The ad-hoc fashion of the arrangement left the song without a bass part, so John Simon was drafted in to supply the low-end, complying with The Band’s request for it to be played on the tuba. “A harder instrument I had never played before,” Simon groans, “which was another helluva challenge.”
Pete Townshend’s interpretation of the song is a unique and perhaps graphic one: “My wife had to explain it is about a man who wants to have sex with his partner even though she is on her period - Levon sings: “I’m pulling out your gag,”” The Who’s songwriter notes. “As that female condition had never bothered me at all I wondered why it needed its own song... That kind of lyric might only be permitted in hip-hop these days.”
Questions of menstruation aside, ‘Rag Mama Rag’ rollicks and rolls like a New Orleans Salvation Army band, while Levon’s ribald delivery is the sound of a party you never want to end.
Though it dated back to before The Band’s Californian departure, the roots of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ stretch back even further. It was a song eight months in the making, as Robbie wrestled with an intriguing chord progression on the piano and thread of inspiration that demanded enough time and attention before being woven into the narrative that he felt it deserved.
Patiently waiting for the story to reveal itself, Robbie eventually struck upon the notion of writing about the American Civil War through the eyes of a proud Southerner. He’d remembered something Levon’s father had once told him, that “the South will rise again,” and as the concept formed, he had only one voice in mind that could deliver it with such conviction and intense authenticity. “Because Levon was like my brother, I so much wanted to write a song that he could sing better than anybody in the world,” he says. “I respected him and loved him that much that I wanted to do this. This was an inner need of mine.”
As dedicated to creating a character that Levon could fully inhabit as Robbie was, the drummer was also deeply absorbed in ensuring that the song’s details be right, and the dignity of the South be preserved. “Robbie and I worked on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ up in Woodstock,” Levon wrote. “I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era for the lyrics and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect.”
In this remarkably powerful song, Levon profoundly becomes Virgil Caine, a Confederate ex-soldier musing on the sour defeat and surrender of the South to the Union. This fictional character is embedded within real people (Generals Lee and Stoneman) and events (the fall of Richmond) of history to forge a truly haunting and realistic account of the agony and bruised pride that still rankled all these years later below the Mason-Dixie Line.
Robbie’s close connection with and ability to illustrate the essence of American heritage has long fostered comparisons to the country’s greatest authors - William Faulkner repeatedly so - and though his songs seem to exist in a bygone age, the impact and effect they have on the present cannot be underestimated - a skill that still confounds fellow songwriter Bernie Taupin. “The songs on those first two albums in particular are roots-based and historical in nature,” he points out, “but at the same time they’re just so mysterious, almost mythological at times, like nothing that had ever been done before. I guess that’s the beauty of them: the fact that you just can’t pin them down, or put your finger on what makes them so timeless.”
Coming at a time when America was at the height of its conflict with Vietnam, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ seemed to somehow resonate despite the fierce anti-war sentiment of the era.
“It just hit me like a rock,” recalls Jonathan Taplin, who had returned to LA after a month back at college and was treated to a playback of the freshly cut track. “It was so perfect. I, quite honestly, had grown up as a northern liberal - I’d been part of the civil rights movement - and the very thought that you could look at that post-civil war era from another side was kind of shocking to me. And yet, it was almost perfect. I told somebody once that there was a very important book in my life in college by James Agee and Walker Evans called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It was a story about Southern white sharecroppers in the ’30s, complete with some extraordinary iconic pictures by Walker Evans, and I said to Robbie later that I thought ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ had as much power as that book to kind of give you the sense of despair that the poor white sharecropper had in that post-civil war era. Notions of pride and other things are pretty tricky to put forth in music, so that song really got me.”
It’s the innocence and plausibility of Rick Danko’s endearing voice that’s at the heart of ‘When You Awake’, a cautionary tale that passes on advice the narrator has gleamed from others - namely “Ole”, who warns him of the “mean old world”, and his grandfather, whose guidance forms the chorus: “When you believe, you will relieve the only soul / That you were born with to grow old / And never know”.
Musically, however, ‘When You Awake’ was an amalgamation of two separate sketches composed by Robbie and Richard. “This was something that came out of the basement,” Robbie explains. “He would have an idea and start something, and then I would have an idea, and it was just a songwriting collaboration, which is as traditional as songwriting itself. I really enjoyed doing this with Richard. We had great pleasure in mixing up ideas.”
Combining their individual passages, Robbie married them with an original melody and wrote the lyrics to suit it. This was a system that was repeated elsewhere on ‘The Band’, and also with Levon, but Robbie’s perseverance with his bandmates as songwriting collaborators was often fruitless.
“Sometimes I would get together with just Garth or Levon to see if we could stir something up songwise,” Robbie wrote in his 2016 autobiography, Testimony. “Levon would groove along on drums or mandolin, but he was much more comfortable accompanying. Making up a tune made him restless and uneasy, so I didn’t want to push it. With Garth, every time we sat down it was like a musical journey into the cosmos, a lesson in improvisation. Beautiful stuff came out of it, but no defined structures, nothing I could repeat or build upon”
“Now as then,” defends Garth, as he considers Robbie’s implications regarding his contributions to songwriting, “I provided and placed a thesaurus of melodies for the writer to capture.”
To make matters worse, Robbie and the others also had to contend with Richard’s escalating dependence on alcohol, which was likely a major factor in his deepening inability to fully complete his own compositions. Though in his book Robbie claims that the booze “completely disabled his performing abilities” which caused him to “constantly mess up the lyrics” in the same chapter that chronicles the making of this album, John Simon refutes that it was ever so disruptive.
Richard’s compositional input did, however, dramatically decrease as his problem intensified. “It got much worse after the album was done,” Jonathan Taplin admits. “Really, Richard’s drinking got worse the more we were on the road, honestly… By the third album, Richard and Rick were not really contributing to the songwriting at all. That’s the irony: obviously Robbie has been blamed by Levon’s partisans as hogging all the song writing publishing revenue, but the other members of The Band just didn’t work like he did. He got up every morning and wrote songs, and they slept in.”
“It came out looking like we were rebelling against the rebellion and perhaps that’s true,” Robbie said of ‘Music From Big Pink’ to Clash in 2007, “but I don’t remember anybody saying, ‘Let’s rebel against the rebellion’.” He was referring to the group’s apparent opposition to many of the hippie ideals that prevailed at the time. The Band dismissed psychedelia, dressed in traditional fare that was more 1868 than 1968, and spurned all contemporary trends in favour of discovering their own identity in relative solitude.
Printed on that debut album’s inner sleeve was a portrait of The Band and their extended families. That image, entitled ‘Next Of Kin’ and shot by Elliott Landy at Rick Danko’s brother’s farm in Ontario, stood as the antithesis to the generation gap that divided American youths from their parents, and who warned never to trust anyone over 30.
Now, a year later, here was The Band presenting a song of weary reminiscing from a 73-year-old homesick seafarer. To Robbie, the elderly were not to be undervalued, for they were the living remnants of the past. “I’m knocked out by older people,” he told Time Magazine in 1970. “Just look at their eyes. Hear them talk. They’re not joking. They’ve seen things you’ll never see.”
In ‘Rockin’ Chair’, we’re treated to the delightful recollections of this ageing sailor who’s “spent my whole life at sea” and yearns to be back home again “down in old Virginny” with his best friend, “Ragtime Willie”. A reference to the ghostly “Flying Dutchman” is ominous, suggesting the narrator knows that his days at sea are numbered: “We’ve used up all our time,” Richard sings, so perfect in his exhausted dejection, “This hill’s too steep to climb / And the days that remain ain’t worth a dime”.
Underlining the song’s removal from the present is its antiquated score. With Levon on mandolin, Garth on accordion (“It suited the words,” he says of that instrument’s affecting capacity), Robbie on acoustic guitar, and Rick keeping stately time on bass, it has a folky, Appalachian feel to it. The sympathetic harmonies, meanwhile, are suitably ethereal; when Richard changes to falsetto in the chorus, anchored by Levon and Rick, the results are spine-tingling. “Robbie Robertson was blessed,” Bernie Taupin insists, “to have three of the greatest singers in one band.”
Urgent and foreboding, ‘Look Out Cleveland’ is the album’s most aggressive moment. Fronted by Rick, who alerts Cleveland of an imminent storm, and then Houston of the impending “thunder on the hill”, the musical accompaniment matches that sense of portentousness: Robbie’s spiky guitar, Richard’s relentless piano, Levon’s dogged drums, and Garth’s swirling Lowrey imbue the choruses with a dark, prophetic authority.
Much like the one mentioned in The Rolling Stones’ apocalyptic classic ‘Gimme Shelter’, the storm here should not necessarily be taken so literally as to simply imply just a meteorological disturbance. Barney Hoskyns, author of definitive Band biog Across The Great Divide, believes the song is a measure of the political climate in which it was made. “When we were doing this album,” Robbie said in the book, “there were all these riots and outbursts around the country, and it was kind of like living on the fault-line of revolution.”
‘Jawbone’ is a song so thrilling and daringly defiant as the unrepentant yet loveable rogue that Richard Manuel embodies within it. Propelled by complex rhythm changes that shadow the lead character’s skulking movements - the verses stalk in an unsettling 6/4 time signature - the music is as crafty as our protagonist, whom we find “boostin’ and going out on the lam”, and was another co-write of Robbie and Richard’s.
“Richard wasn’t happy until he made me change rhythm patterns at least twice,” Levon once told an interviewer. “I could always depend on a good workout when Richard was helping to write the songs. He might want to go from a shuffle to a march, and vice versa. It was stuff that kept you on your toes all the time. That sort of thing was easy for Richard, so he didn’t give a damn.”
The thing that makes ‘The Unfaithful Servant’ so enchanting and exquisite is that it encapsulates every conceptual element that Robbie and The Band envisioned for this album, as well as uniquely exemplifying the group’s responsive and considerate musicianship.
It was written by Robbie specifically with Rick Danko’s voice in mind. He knew that Rick’s timbre could best convey the right amount of bittersweet melancholy required to completely characterise the house boy banished from his country home on account of his servant friend’s infidelities with the lady of manor.
We’re resolutely in the South. One imagines the song’s dramatic expulsion set around the kind of glorious antebellum mansions on the hill that are so prevalent in Southern literature. It’s here that the consequences of an illicit affair are played out, with Danko caught up in the middle, yet agonizingly unaware of the details. “What did you do to the lady,” he implores, “that she’s going to have to send you away?”
As he strains for the high notes and falls despairingly on the low notes, Rick’s eloquent and emotive delivery is - like Levon’s stirring portrayal of Virgil Caine - an incredibly poignant and heartbreaking listening experience. “Goodbye to that country home / So long to a lady I have known,” he cries, before resigning himself to his fate: “Farewell to my other side / I’d best just take it in stride”.
In keeping with the song’s despondent theme, its backing is wonderfully somber and respectful in its sparseness. For the most part there’s just a mournful piano, a humble bass, a graceful acoustic guitar, and the merest hint of a percussive drum beat. Garth and John’s weeping horns return, adding the most expressive sense of sorrow to this masterful lament.
Despite each individual member’s virtuosic talents, which would allow any of them to launch into an egotistical hogging of the spotlight whenever the mood took them, ‘The Band’ is an astounding model of restraint, where playing for the song is paramount to extract every ounce of emotion from its core. As a result, there are very few solos on the album. But, in the case of ‘The Unfaithful Servant’, Robbie was so moved by Rick’s performance that it provoked him to match its intensity. “Man, what a vocal,” he declared in Testimony. “It made me want to play some guitar.”
“He sat down and overdubbed a beauty [of a guitar solo] that started with tremolos worthy of a Neapolitan mandolin serenade and employed bends and harmonics, all in service to the delicate mood of the song,” wrote John Simon in his own enjoyable book, Truth, Lies & Hearsay. “It was a pleasure just to sit and hear him work out the solo until he got one he liked.”
Listen closely and you can hear Robbie’s snatches of breath as he plays with such devastating beauty. The airy spaces between the notes are rife with suspense, the other musicians playing so affectionately behind them, and then the horns come in to complete the picture, compounding a wholly grievous finale.
“‘The Unfaithful Servant’, believe it or not, was one of the few songs I’ve ever recorded in my life where it was done in the very first take,” Danko said in the The Band’s episode of the Classic Albums documentary series. “We recorded it, and then I did it 30 more times, 40 more times, and John Simon, I think, came in and said, ‘Listen to this, Rick,’ and I said, ‘You’re right.’ That was the first take.”
Along with ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, the other song written in the interim between ‘Music From Big Pink’ and Los Angeles that had first steered the direction of The Band’s second album was ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’. It was the most literal translation of the copper-toned vistas of Woodstock in the fall that had first stimulated Robbie and the group’s fascination with the cyclical nature of the land. “Every window,” Garth said of their domain, “had a view of a mountain.”
“Some of the lyrics came out of a discussion we had one night about the times we’d seen and all had in common,” Levon remembered. “It was an expression of feeling that came from five people. The group wanted to do one song that took in everything we could muster about life at that moment in time.”
Celebrated music critic Greil Marcus called ‘King Harvest’ a “vast American story”, and how right he is. Only John Steinbeck had previously managed to so vividly articulate through graphic language the misfortunes of those most affected by the Great Depression of the early-’30s - his novel, Grapes Of Wrath, and John Ford’s ensuing movie, are clear forebears of this traumatic tale of desperation.
Levon sets the scene in the introductory passage, leading us through “corn in the fields”, and inviting us to “listen to the rice while the wind blows ’cross the water,” his shimmering cymbals as cool as the breeze. We’re further South, it seems; somewhere in the farm lands of the Delta.
Then here comes Richard Manuel as the put-upon farmer, who’s put faith in his union to revive his flagging crops. “She’s so good to me,” he optimistically proclaims of his supposed protectors. “And I’m bound to come out on top,” he adds with hope.
“At the beginning,” Robbie wrote in the sleeve notes for The Band’s ‘Anthology Volume 1’, “when the unions came in, they were a saving grace, a way of fighting the big money people, and they affected everybody from the people that worked in the big cities all the way around to the farm people. It’s ironic now, because now so much of it is like gangsters, assassinations, power, greed, insanity. I just thought it was incredible how it started and how it ended up.”
But things don’t go so well for the farmer. Come fall, the wet season that he depends upon to nourish the soil, and the rain is not forthcoming. A year previously, his barn had burned down, and his horse went mad. There’s a disturbing mixture of worry and pride in Richard’s wonderfully tormented voice as he relates all these woes while firmly confident that his saviours will swoop in and save the day. However, something - perhaps the anxious rhythms of the song, the plunging coupling of the bass and drums, or Garth’s portent organ - tells us he’s in for a disappointment.
That lingering angst is effectively rendered in the last minute of the song, as Robbie finally unleashes the kind of fiery fretwork that he’d once been renowned for, but was largely absent across ‘The Band’. “It’s no secret that Levon didn’t like the cliché of a guitarist stepping forward in front of an ensemble and into the spotlight to solo,” states John Simon. “But, when there were solos, they seemed to be inevitable necessities in terms of the arrangement.” Indeed, each stinging note of Robbie’s solo was in direct correlation to the farmer’s anguish, driven, as he was, by an intuitive compulsion.
By early-April, sessions in Los Angeles had to be wrapped up as the group was scheduled to play three nights in San Francisco - their first real live performances in four years, and their debut as The Band. The Bay Area promoter Bill Graham had been intent on securing The Band after the reception given to ‘Music From Big Pink’, and had maintained his interest as demand - and their fees - only increased the longer they holed up in Woodstock.
Albert Grossman settled on a deal for $20,000 for these first shows in his Winterland Ballroom venue in San Francisco, followed later with more dates at his Fillmore East club in New York - totaling an audience of approximately 25,000 over five days. ‘That’s an astonishing ability to debut your music to that many people for the very first time you ever play in public as a band,” Jonathan Taplin says, “and is a tribute to the very fact that maybe staying off the road was the best thing they ever did.”
But as he checked into his room at San Francisco’s Seal Rock Inn, Robbie began to develop a fever. Taking immediately to his bed, he remained there for the next few days as rehearsals for the shows continued without him. It was more than just a virus though: the pressure and expectations of these important dates, on top of taking the reins of their new album and his responsibilities as a new father, was taking its toll. “I was just exhausted,” Robbie told Clash in 2007. “I mean I had spent every bit of energy I possibly had, and I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in what seemed like months. When we stopped recording, my guard, I just let everything down and just took that big sigh of relief, but I was pretty burned out and exhausted. And then we had to go and play this job. When we got there I was just run down and I just felt weak and I had like a bit of stomach flu or something, I just felt very sick.”
“I’m not positive it was this thing, but I’d been playing on the road since I was 16-years-old,” he laughed. “I was like, ‘All of a sudden stage fright is gonna show up one day?’ Maybe. I don’t know. I’ve never really denied it, but it’s also hard for me to find the proof that that was a good excuse. More than anything I was just sick as a dog.”
On opening night, as the support band played, Robbie was still under the covers. In a last ditch attempt at a remedy, a local hypnotist was hired on the recommendation of a doctor friend of John Simon’s who’d examined Robbie, in the belief that any psychosomatic symptoms might be eradicated from his subconscious. Put in a trance, Robbie was encouraged to feel stronger, to feel his constitution toughening as he played, and once awake, admitted that he felt an improvement.
The Band walked on to the Winterland stage that night just a few hours later than scheduled. Robbie admits now that his playing was compromised, that the group thought their performance was under par, but each subsequent night got better (“It was the first time in four years we hadn’t been booed when we played,” Levon pointed out), and the next chapter of the group as a functioning touring unit was officially underway.
Recording was not complete, however, and The Band was duty bound to deliver an album’s worth of tracks to Capitol. After their gigs in New York, with their Californian rental expired, that spring they booked themselves into Hit Factory studios on West 54th Street to turn their attentions to three songs that would round off the project.
“Working in a studio a few blocks north of Times Square was certainly a different vibe than we had at Sammy’s house,” insisted John Simon in his book, and the unrelenting energy of the city that never sleeps can be identified in two of those three numbers.
‘Up On Cripple Creek’ had been attempted while in LA, but it seemed the casual conditions of that backdrop were not the best birthplace for this song, which saw Levon assuming the role of a lusty traveller in the mountains who reminisces of his time spent with “Bessie”, his lady friend down in “Lake Charles, Louisiana”.
“It took a long time for that song to come around,” Levon recalled. “It’s an example of the way we raised some songs: slowly, bit by bit, putting things together gradually. We cut ‘Cripple Creek’ two or three times in California but nobody really liked it. Finally, late one night in New York, we got a hold of it, cut it once, then turned around and doubled a couple of chorus parts with harmonies.”
Perhaps the saving grace of this final attempt was the inimitable sound of Garth Hudson’s clavinet, which he’d wired through a wahwah pedal to produce a guttural funk effect that remarkably paralleled the strutting rhythm section being laid down by Rick and Levon (“That was intense,” the keyboard wizard remembers, “because it required a left-hand-only technique.”), as well as the latter’s bawdy flashbacks and boisterous yodelling.
The incredible alliance of Helm’s good-ol’ Southern charm and the song’s robust swing yielded an utterly infectious and undeniably fun song that would endure as a live favourite for years to come.
Equally racy in its subject matter was ‘Jemima Surrender’. A musical co-write between Robbie and Levon, it’s in the chugging of Helm’s spiky guitar that the urban energy of New York is readily discernible, and is the album’s most conventional rock ‘n’ roll moment.
“That was another of those songs about wanting the love of a lady of color,” explained Levon, whose opening gambit to the object of his affection was the salacious promise: “I’m gonna give it to you”. His ribald drawl was the perfect choice to get Robbie’s lyrics across as playfully suggestive rather than predatory, and there’s affection in his offer to serenade her with his guitar, and then a diamond ring in the last line.
“Sometimes I couldn’t be sure if a lyrical idea really worked until I hear it sung just right,” Robbie would write in Testimony, crediting Levon (and Richard, who provided harmonies) with enlivening a song that otherwise wouldn’t have been half as mischievous.
“Recording a pastoral song like ‘Whispering Pines’ in that Times Square environment was a stretch,” John Simon says, and yet, despite the incongruousness of their surroundings, the last track put to tape in sessions for The Band’s second album would end up the most gorgeously desolate one on it.
Richard Manuel had written “probably 80%” of the music, accedes Robbie, who not only helped him complete the composition but filled in his melody with a profound study of abject loneliness that could only have been inspired - consciously or otherwise - by the innate sadness that Manuel could so easily emote.
“The hurt in his voice,” Robbie expounds in the Classic Albums programme, “there’s a certain element of pain in there, that you didn’t know if he was trying to reach the note or he was just a guy with a heart that had been hurt.”
A wistful piano informs the introspective nature of the song from the very start. Richard had composed the song on an old, out-of-tune piano, and had detuned the Hit Factory’s piano to achieve that same sound, bestowing the song with its own ingrained sense of unease. From the second his bruised falsetto chimes in - “If you find me in a gloom,” he implores - that feeling is heightened.
The pines whisper and the tide continues to rise as the singer’s situation remains the same: lost and lonely, yearning for salvation. “Let the waves rush in / Let the seagulls cry,” he pleads, “For if I live again / These hopes will never die”. He dreams of the person that can save him, that can fill his “empty house”; they’re currently out of reach, but he knows that even just seeing them would put his poor heart to rest. “With you in sight,” he appeals, “the lost are found.”
Echoing Richard’s fragility, the song’s instrumentation benefits from the lightest touches - brushes on cymbals, a gentle acoustic guitar, pretty organ motifs - and then, when Levon joins in on the last chorus, is voice is achingly ghostly yet lovingly comforting.
With the others’ contributions complete, Garth Hudson spent the final nights of the Hit Factory tenure holed up there, adding his own inimitable touches to fill out the glorious textures of each of the album’s tracks. It was his layered augmentations, overdubs of myriad keyboard melodies - the result of much “trial and error,” notes John Simon - that earned him the nickname ‘Honey Boy’ from his bandmates, who credit him for ultimately sweetening the original rough-hewn masters. “And what difference did these additions to make to recordings?” Simon posits. “You can hear that.”
“There’s never been anything like [Garth] in rock ‘n’ roll before or since,” Robbie extolled to Clash in 2007. “Just his whole approach to music and his background and what he brought to the table, the certain sophistication musically above and beyond the rest of us… He was one of the first musicians to really be painting soundscapes, which back then there wasn’t a lot of people doing that. Musicians know there is no other Garth out there.”
“Although I loved the work of all The Band’s members,” Pete Townshend imparts, “it was and still is Garth Hudson’s work I found to be inspiring. When I heard ‘Big Pink’ I was already using Lowrey organs rather than Hammonds, but listening to what Garth did made me realise I should get inside the organ and create additional outputs, and pedal effects. I thus found the central effect used for ‘Baba O’Riley’. A very solid, plain, Lowrey organ voice setting is also central to the synthesizer-chopped sound in ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. A Hammond produces a very recognisable sound that is hard to vary. There are hundreds of brilliant practitioners on Hammond in gospel, jazz, blues and rock, including The Who’s own John “Rabbit” Bundrick. But the Lowrey range was always more eccentric, and suits experimentation far better. Somehow Garth’s presence is what gives the entire album a feeling of an album by The Band.”
Summer was approaching. The recording of the album complete, it now needed a front cover. Elliott Landy again received a call to shoot The Band, only this time they were back in Woodstock.
The pictures that Elliott had taken in California (later published in his superb book, The Band Photographs, 1968-1969) were fly-on-the-wall snapshots of natural moments occurring in the house and studio. They offer an unaffected insight into the group at work (and rest) there - Elliott’s lens bearing witness to history, rather than trying to be a part of it. The resulting images - some of which are reproduced in this feature - are so effective in drawing the viewer in for the same reason that the listener is seduced by The Band. “Their music was very real,” he says. “It was not traditional kind of music - it was music that came from themselves, and that’s how my photographs are: I never pose anyone to look like anything else that existed before.”
Members of The Band, who ordinarily disliked having their pictures taken, tolerated Landy because his was not an intrusive presence. “Each one was so individualistic, so iconoclastic - totally of themselves - that they didn’t want people telling them what to do,” he adds. “When you’re so plugged in as an artist, as all of them were, you’re also motivated by your inner essence most of the time, and when you have somebody bossing you around and telling you ‘do this’ and ‘do that’ it’s kinda interfering with your thought flow. I allowed them to stay in the permanent meditation space that they normally inhabited. I didn’t interfere with them.”
Contrary to those fantastic informal shots, the album - and its ensuing publicity campaign - required more structured set-ups, and so Landy had The Band pose in various locations around their home turf. In conceiving one option for the album cover picture, one considerably wet day the photographer suggested leading his subjects outside. “We all liked that idea,” he maintains. “I said, ‘I think it would look good to shoot in the rain,’ and they said, ‘That’s cool, let’s do that.’”
Encapsulated in that now iconic black and white portrait is the very nature of the backdrop upon which it was shot, and which so completely permeates every note and word that’s contained within the album it graces. “They wanted to look like the music they made,” says Bernie Taupin, “like they’d stepped out of a tintype, a bunch of Appalachian carneys.” It’s not quite of its time - they’re not the ancient pioneers they were presented as on their debut, but in their modest, conventional wares and lack of pretence, it’s as far from ‘Sgt. Pepper’ as is possible to get.
Their coats are buttoned up to the top, their brows lowered, a trace of ennui in their eyes; there’s a weariness there, yet it’s offset by the indomitable spirit that only a real gang can exude. “It made us look tough,” Garth upholds. The muddy puddles behind them denote the recurring nature of agrarian life - the elements that cultivate the land upon which these stories unfold.
A name for the album had to be decided upon. Two working titles had long been floated: “The title we had for the record was ‘Harvest’, because we were reaping this music from seeds that have been planted many years before we’d even been born,” Levon announced in his book. “But we could have called it ‘America’ as well, because this music was right out of the air. We were saying, ‘Listen! You can’t ignore this.’”
However, a title was chosen that was less a conceptual depiction, and more a definitive statement. Unnamed on their debut, the group was now unequivocally assured of their identity. They were The Band, and since this album was the most candid, most realistic, most righteous, and most thoroughly impassioned representation of who they were as a single entity, it was duly named in their honour.
‘The Band’ was scheduled for release that September. In the meantime, thoughts turned to the group’s imminent return to the stage, as three major festival bookings - and their ensuing fiascos - loomed in the distance.
First, a trip to the homeland, as the Toronto Pop Festival beckoned. For those who’d come to see The Band that remembered them as The Hawks or were aware of their reputation as a sizzling live prospect from when they once tore up the Canadian bar circuit, they would soon have their hopes crushed. A poor sound system meant that The Band could barely be heard, while they themselves struggled without monitors to find their place in each song. It was a prescient start to the month ahead.
The swampy chaos that awaited The Band when they descended upon Woodstock Festival had rightly disturbed them. Despite living just 40 miles away from Bethel, where the event was held (yet still bequeathed with the name of the now fashionable small town in which it was originally proposed to be sited), they felt like fish out of water - the straightest foils to the sea of weather-beaten revelers, acid casualties, and spaced-out so-called organisers that greeted them.
In turn, their usual congenial performance (beginning at 10pm on the night of Sunday 17th August) was suppressed by the sheer magnitude of the occasion. “It seemed as though the kids were looking at us kind of funny,” Robbie told Barney Hoskyns. “We were playing the way we played in our living room, and that might have given the impression that we weren’t up for it. But it could have been that we just couldn’t get that same intimate feeling with a few hundred thousand people. As a musical experience for The Band, we were like orphans in the storm.”
Thirteen days later, The Band were on the Isle Of Wight in England. Having spent the previous night in the company of John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, they were now taking to the stage of the festival there - first for a set of their own material, and then to back their great benefactor, Bob Dylan, on his first UK show in three years.
Like Woodstock, it was similarly disorderly backstage, where tensions mounted as technical faults delayed Dylan’s set. He would eventually play for only an hour, leaving all in attendance disappointed by his comeback gig. Levon subsequently told reporters that the feeling had been mutual, that the audience had felt tired, muted, and unappreciative. Bob and The Band spent the last remaining days of their trip in London with The Beatles before returning to New York.
Finally, it was time for the world to hear ‘The Band’. It was released on September 22nd 1969, and immediately found favour with all who recognised its greatness. In his long, radiant review for Rolling Stone, Ralph J. Gleason, the magazine’s co-founder, said at the time: “It has the sound of familiarity in every new line because it is ringing changes on the basic truths of life, you have been there before, and like the truths of life itself, it nourishes you.”
Surpassing its predecessor by 21 places, ‘The Band’ would eventually reach number nine on the Billboard Albums chart. “It was obvious,” claimed Levon, “that a lot of people who thought ‘Music From Big Pink’ too weird liked ‘The Band’ just fine.”
“I don’t know if people thought that ‘Big Pink’ was too weird. I don’t understand what Levon’s getting at here,” Robbie counters now. “I do think that on ‘Big Pink’ - I can’t remember right now, but I only wrote like four or five of the songs on there - and on ‘The Band’ album, outside of maybe three tunes that Richard and I collaborated on, I wrote the rest of it, and by then, I had a certain confidence that this music that we were making that had nothing to do with what was going on in music at the time, ‘Oh, that’s okay? That’s acceptable? Okay, well let me dig deeper.’ I just wrote more songs and with the unification of The Band at that time - and our workshop mentality and our brotherhood - all of those things were coming together in the way that I really hoped, that I dreamed they should.”
“It was happening,” he continues. “It was happening right before my eyes, and it uplifted my inspiration, my confidence, everything. And so, with that, and because this group was such a unit, it worked. It worked. I wasn’t somebody that was separate from this group and went off and wrote songs; it really depended on the brotherhood very much, and that affected my songwriting over the years with The Band. It told me that all the pistons need to be firing for us to be at the top of our game.”
Nevertheless, the reserved mountain men were now truly of the people. Their connection with Bob Dylan, their two stunning albums, their recent high-profile festival appearances - it all conspired to thrust The Band firmly into the mainstream, a prospect they sat ill at ease with. “Naturally we wanted to share our music with as many people as possible, but that was matched by a suspicion of being trendy, too well known, or corny in our own eyes,” Robbie explains in Testimony. “Part of that came from our already having been together for eight years and having a keen bullshit meter; the other part was that a lot of the music we admired could be somewhat obscure, like hidden treasures.”
Adding significantly to their fame, on November 2nd The Band made their national TV debut, appearing live on The Ed Sullivan Show to play ‘Up On Cripple Creek’. By January 1970, they were on the cover of Time Magazine, who heralded them as “The New Sound Of Country Rock”.
“They loved it!” laughs Jonathan Taplin. “Who wouldn’t? 1969, on the cover of Time Magazine, Ed Sullivan, Woodstock, Isle Of Wight - you’re a rock star! For Robbie, it didn’t really change his life very much because he was a family man, but for Rick and Richard and Levon, it was Fat City - they liked it.”
How contrary they must have felt, though; these inscrutable country boys suddenly exalted as global icons, having to translate their humble clubhouse sound exposed on the world’s biggest stages. As Jonathan Taplin earlier indicated, Richard’s drinking would worsen on the road in the wake of ‘The Band’, while other members of the group were struggling with their own addictions, undoubtedly exacerbated by their newfound wealth.
“Ever make a million dollars fast?” Rick Danko posed to Barney Hoskyns. “Well, I have, and it’s a goddamn crying shame what success can do.”
“All of it took a toll,” Robbie affirmed in his book. “We thought that because we’d been around and seen what it can do to other people we would be a little wiser. But it’s not the same when it happens to you. Suddenly, someone is running in with a glass of water before you’re even thirsty. Next thing, they’re dusting off your jacket and it’s not even dirty. It does something to your mind. As we went out into the world - left our mountain hideaway - the unit that we had been for all those years started to break apart.”
Much more was still to come from The Band before they’d split in 1976, though it can be argued that the deterioration of their once impervious camaraderie had a noticeably comparable effect on each album subsequent to their unrivaled second. The overall playfulness of ‘Stage Fright’, which quickly appeared in 1970, belied the troubles that plagued its personnel - most redolently as Richard took lead on ‘The Shape I’m In’. Darker still was 1971’s ‘Cahoots’, an enjoyable but uneven outing that feels encumbered by the weight of the world, and the expectations it had piled upon The Band.
“The blade was a bit dull,” Robbie told Clash of this time, indicating that their machine could not function properly when certain cylinders were not firing. Which would explain their next move: ‘Moondog Matinee’, 1973’s collection of cover versions that reads like an attempt to recapture the group’s mettle through the influences that once propelled it. A mammoth joint tour with Bob Dylan throughout 1974 led to them providing the sparkling instrumentation on his ‘Planet Waves’ in 1974, the familiar experience of which - in addition to The Band now operating from their own studio base in Malibu - endowed 1975’s ‘Northern Lights - Southern Cross’ with a sense of revitalized dynamism.
Just like The Beatles had done before them, Robbie had mooted to The Band in the mid-’70s the notion of retiring the group from touring commitments - as it transpired, it was a move that would preface his departure, having tired of futilely trying to steer this increasingly unstable ship.
They planned one final hurrah: a farewell concert to be held at Winterland in San Francisco, the site of their first outing as The Band, on Thanksgiving Day, November 25th, 1976.
“By the time The Band did The Last Waltz,” Levon recalled eight years later, “the chemistry had changed, and it wasn't a big thrill anymore to live that studio kind of life. It was a whole lot of fun at first, but after a while it got to be enough. It used to take us a reasonable amount of time to get it to where we felt we could live with it. The chemistry has got to be right, and I think, as we got down towards the end of our contract with Capitol Records, it had grown from a privilege and pleasure into an obligation. I don't know how all that stuff happens, but you do need to keep a good perspective on it. Everybody had other ideas, other projects and different adventures they wanted to have, so The Last Waltz was a good idea at that time.”
“Robbie wasn't the only one who wanted to do other things,” Rick Danko upheld in 1995. “Before The Last Waltz, I signed a production deal with Clive Davis to do my solo shows. Sometimes it breaks my heart when I remember that, in '76, Warner offered us a $6 million dollar deal to do an album a year, and we passed. But there's more to life than being able to live off your royalties. Ego is a funny thing, and after the first two or three albums, The Band pretty much became a Robbie thing, so there was conflict there.”
Joined on stage by a host of friends, inspirations, and key proponents of The Band’s 16-year career - including Ronnie Hawkins, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, and, of course, Bob Dylan - and filmed for posterity by Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz was a powerhouse finale with which to bow out. ‘Islands’, a patchy album of scraps from their vaults, was quickly put out in 1977 to fulfill their deal with Capitol, and enable the soundtrack of ‘The Last Waltz’ to be released the following year by Warner Bros.
1978 would also see Scorsese’s document of The Band’s send-off hit the big screen. The fervent on-stage action, electric in its atmosphere, is countered by lethargic interviews with The Band, who look as if they’d rather be anywhere else than in front of a camera. Especially so Richard Manuel, whose presence in the concert itself is woefully underrepresented. Still, today The Last Waltz is justly celebrated as one of the greatest concert movies ever made.
Stepping away from The Band, Robbie soon engaged in a partnership with Scorsese with a role that endures to this day, acting as Executive Music Producer on movies from the classic Raging Bull through to the incredible new De Niro/Pacino epic, The Irishman. To date, his solo career has produced three books and seven solo albums - the latest of which, ‘Sinematic’, prefaced the 50th anniversary of ‘The Band’ by mere days.
The remaining members of The Band officially regrouped to tour in 1983, but their audiences were no match to those a decade before. Richard Manuel, whose personal battles proved too powerful to overcome, hung himself in a motel bathroom on March 4th 1986. He was 42. Persisting through, The Band, supplemented with new recruits, would put out three admirable LPs - ‘Jericho’ (1993), ‘High On The Hog’ (1996), and ‘Jubilation’ (1998) - before tragically being halted by the death of Rick Danko in December 1999.
Levon Helm’s solo career, which had begun in the early-’80s and spanned acting roles, stints in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, and albums of his own, saw its greatest success come in 2007 when he released ‘Dirt Farmer’: an album whose raw, rural evocations was wholly reminiscent of ‘The Band’, and which bagged him a Grammy. Its progressive follow-up, ‘Electric Dirt’, repeated that accolade in 2010. On April 19th 2012, Levon succumbed to the throat cancer he’d fought so valiantly since 1998.
At 82, Garth Hudson, with his own solo works under his belt, continues to lecture and perform globally. He also continues writing, consulting, and teaching his innovative learning techniques. He has been given the Order Of Canada for his success. He remains the undisputed Lord of the Lowrey.
Half a century on from its creation, and ‘The Band’ has become more than its authors could ever have believed.
On a personal level, it succeeded in realising Robbie’s vision of developing The Band as an ensemble through combined efforts of individual strengths, allowing the group to define and refine their identity, which, they discovered, was indelibly linked with the environment that shaped them.
On a political level, that celebration of the country’s heartland, of the working folk who toiled in it or fought for it, its rugged landscapes, and its complex history and heritage, was a ringing endorsement of a land whose dignity was fast ebbing in the hearts and minds of all those discouraged by the consequences of its leaders’ dubious agendas. “It felt,” Greil Marcus told Classic Albums, “like a passport back to America for people who had become so estranged from their own country that they felt like foreigners even when they were in it.”
On a cultural level, the alchemy that occurred in the process of those inspirations into those songs with those instruments by those musicians produced something entirely new. It was countrified, but it wasn’t country music. It rocked, but it wasn’t rock and roll. It had soul, but it wasn’t soul music. “What Bob and The Band were doing with ‘The Basement Tapes’, and what The Band were doing with ‘Music From Big Pink’ and this second album, are kind of unique,” Jonathan Taplin corroborates. “So it didn’t really have a genre in any way.”
And so a new genre had to be invented: one that could determine a brand of music that was conclusively and redolently homegrown. “Without The Band there wouldn’t be the genre called Americana,” John Simon avows. “And that genre itself is composed of anthems for those of us who don't necessarily think ‘progress’ is a good word. The Band’s implicit notion was that, if we look back, we can see better times, things and values that we’ve lost and should instead cherish.”
“What I get,” Elliott Landy proffers, “is that they represented a time that was very earthy - very connected to the earth, very real, very downhome, very essential. It wasn’t being connected to Corvettes, it wasn’t being connected to jet planes, it wasn’t being connected to fancy food or fancy jewellery or fancy instruments, even. It was being connected to the essence of life. In other words, having friends, being with people, playing music, sharing music with people, getting together as a communal experience to experience music.”
Like The Band’s acknowledgement of America’s marginalized past, the exemplars of Americana are those artists most accepting of their roots - those both existing, and yet to be planted. ‘The Band’ was a template for anyone with a semblance of civic pride to champion the perceptible art, sounds, and rhythms of the place they call home. You can hear it in all who followed in The Band’s muddy footsteps - Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Wilco, Ryan Adams, Alison Krauss, Jason Isbell, Alabama Shakes, etc.
It was a reassuring sense of belonging, and one that could affect any artist despite their nationality. That impression would quickly be felt even by those who hailed from beyond the threshold of the United States - fellow Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell were both early embracers of The Band’s arcadian spirit - and would soon traverse the Atlantic, eventually to infiltrate the sounds being made by the likes of Elvis Costello in England, U2 in Ireland, and, later, First Aid Kit in Sweden. Elton John’s excellent third album, 1970’s ‘Tumbleweed Connection’, was, with its sepia-toned cover portrait and references within to stage coaches, chain gangs, East Virginia farms and riverboats, the most immediately discernible reflection of The Band’s penetrating repositioning of America’s image in contemporary art.
“There was no conscious effort on my part to copy anything on the album,” says Bernie Taupin, whose consummate character studies throughout ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ gave Robbie Robertson a run for his money, and whose distillation of Southern ways of life was remarkably convincing considering the songwriter had at time of writing never even left England. “What it did do was free my lyrical ambitions that up to that point had been closeted from fear of ridicule. I was raised on the kind of music they were channeling, but I imagined it wouldn’t be accepted in what was currently in vogue. They broke down the wall, they made my ambitions hip, and you can see it in the juxtaposition between the second album, ‘Elton John’, and ‘Tumbleweed Connection’.”
“This,” Elliott Landy said of ‘The Band’’s heartening glow, “was just like being at home, sitting on the couch, putting your feet up, having a great fire keeping you warm, and knowing that there’s food in the kitchen that is almost ready to eat, and a warm bed waiting for you. It’s that kind of a comforting essence: a sense of comfort of life. That’s what their music harkens back to, in my feeling. Even though it’s hard work: life is hard work. But it’s just warm and comfortable, and that’s why people like it.”
“The collaboration and the brotherhood of The Band was just an extraordinary experience, musically and personally,” Robbie Robertson enthuses.
“I feel extremely grateful that this music has had such a lasting influence and effect on music. That,” the iconic songwriter confides, “is success to me.”
Words: Simon Harper
The 50th anniversary edition of ‘The Band’ is out now on UMG. Buy your copy HERE.
Robbie Robertson’s new album, ‘Sinematic’, is out now. Read our exclusive interview with Robbie on that album HERE.
John Simon’s autobiography is available through his website and Facebook page, where orders can also be personally inscribed.
Jonathan Taplin is the author of Move Fast And Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, which is available through his website.
Elliot Landy’s books and prints are available from his website.
Garth Hudson is working on a feature documentary film/series with a major Academy Award-winning director set to chronicle 1958 to 1968 and the evolution of The Hawks from Ronnie Hawkins to ‘Music From Big Pink’. Other vinyl surprises are promised too. Follow Garth on Facebook for updates.