When the members of Bob Dylan’s mid-’60s backing band The Hawks decamped to the hills of upstate New York, they had no idea what they wanted to sound like, only that it was time for them to chart their own path.
They had already spent years on the road, playing seedy clubs, backing rockabilly maverick Ronnie Hawkins and Dylan, and even their drummer, Levon Helm, and were a finely-honed unit. But even after settling in Big Pink, the salmon-colored home they shared in West Saugerties, just outside Woodstock, where they soon found themselves singing countless songs with Dylan — about what was going on. become known as The basement strips– in 1967, they still didn’t know what they would sound like on their own, without a lead singer, in the foreground.
It turned out they were unlike any other band before or since.
“It was a complete evolution of our musicality,” guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson said of the sound the group of musicians, eventually called simply The Band, found. “That’s the point we came to very naturally after starting playing on the Chitlin circuit down south, all the way to Canada with Ronnie Hawkins, and then supporting Bob all over the world, on this crazy tour. It was our collective musical experience which was a collection of the music we made, the places we went, the characters we saw.
The unpretentious album by Canadians Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Arkansan loner Levon Helm, named Music by Big Pink, after the now legendary house, turns 50 this summer and just got the luxury box set treatment, featuring a 45 rpm vinyl and 5.1 surround remix from the original session tapes of legendary mixing master Bob Clearmountain. It was born out of jams and writing sessions in Big Pink’s basement when Dylan wasn’t around, and is now considered one of the most important albums of music’s golden age. rock and roll.
“It couldn’t have been a worse place to try to record music, but we did something so magical there,” Robertson recalled. “We had met Bob Dylan and played all over the world, taking music that people were used to being very intimate with – just him, a guitar and a harmonica – and making it explosive and dynamic. We’ve been booed around the world. So it became my dream to have a sanctuary, a clubhouse, a workshop, where we could go and create and make something that everything we had done added up to. We found this ugly pink house that had a basement. It’s still funny to think that’s where it all started.
Still, Music by Big Pink was hardly a success when it was released.
“The songs were more like buried treasure from American tradition than new songs by contemporary artists,” album producer John Simon observed in a 1993 documentary, of the batch of songs that seemed to barely contemporary with the work of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors.
But Music by Big Pink found fans among rock luminaries, who kept talking about it in interviews. Eric Clapton was one of the band’s first and biggest fans, and George Harrison, who returned from a visit to Dylan in Woodstock in early 1969, just as the Beatles were beginning their woe. So be it album, extolled the virtues of The Band’s loose, soulful sound and idiosyncratic collective harmonies, only to find his bandmates far less enamored.
“The confines of a basement, where these songs originally came to life, can work in your favor, in a way that you’re doing something that the environment provides,” Robertson recalls of the unusual circumstances in which The Band found its collective sound. . “So there was value in that. What we discovered was that communication in music was something that went deeper into us than it had ever been before. Because when you add it all up, everything plays a role in what you create. So being isolated in the mountains, and away from the rest of the world, helped us find our own sound.
“I wanted to get out of the hubbub, and everything that could influence us, and interfere with our imagination, especially considering everything that was happening in the world in 1968,” he adds. “So the sanctuary of being in the mountains gave that to us and helped a lot with the music and the idea of being able to do something so independent. It was so freeing, but finding the honesty you hear on the album wasn’t even something we talked about. It just happened.”
“After all those years of sitting in a circle, as we sat and played music to each other, we knew that was what we wanted to share with the world.”
— Robbie Robertson
The results were amazing, although it took time to find its audience.
“There are people who will work their lives in vain and leave them alone,” Al Kooper, the man famous for the propelling organ on Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” wrote in his 5 Star Reviews from the album in rolling stone. “These are fiery ingredients and (the) results can be explosive.”
In fact, many potential fans bought Music by Big Pink for Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” (as well as his co-writes, “Tears of Rage” and “This Wheel’s on Fire”), to be floored by The Band’s simple yet powerful sound, and especially “The Weight”, Robertson’s now classic song.
“After all those years in a circle, as we sat and played music to each other, we knew that was what we wanted to share with the world,” Robertson says of the finished product. “It was what we had been building on the whole time we were together, so when we walked in to record, and finally heard each other come out of the speakers when it was played back to us, we agreed that it was who we were. It was the sound we were headed for, so Music by Big Pink was, for us personally, a destination.”
The haunting vocals and remarkable harmonies that Helm, Danko, and Manuel deliver throughout were also unlike anything that had come before, and set a new standard by which every rock band worth their salt has been measured since.
“The impact of these voices cannot be understated,” said Barney Hoskins, author of Small town talkabout the late ’60s music scene in Woodstock, I was told in 2016. timeless.”
If there’s one thing the album lacks, it’s that The Band were a scorching rock and roll band in 1968. In fact, it wasn’t until their nearly perfect self-titled album the following year and eventually the live album rock of agesthat fans unable to catch the band in concert fully appreciated the power of the sound of the quintuple.
So while Simon’s original mix of the album presented an intimate take on The Band who would become almost single-handedly responsible for the alt-country genre, Clearmountain’s new mix bounces and rocks, just as Robertson remembers The Band had done this during the original sessions. in New York and Los Angeles.
“John Simon was great in helping to translate what we were doing, with all the limitations of technology at the time, but Bob went so much deeper into the textures and sounds of this record,” says Robertson. “We had started recording in small isolated booths, unable to see each other. But we couldn’t create that way, because we couldn’t see each other, play with each other, and make eye contact. So John put us in a circle and checked us in that way, even though it presented technical issues. And all of a sudden the songs blossomed. So when Bob and I went back and forth on the new mixes, our goal was to get it to a place where you would really feel like you were sitting inside that music, just like I m remember when we recorded it, rather than sitting and watching it. And so now you are more a part of it than you ever were before. Now it sounds like The Band I remember.