Music From Big Pink at 50: As Mystical, Myserious and Powerful As Ever
Music From Big Pink, The Band’s debut album, came out 50 years ago, in the summer of 1968, and sparked a musical revolution. Its success hinged on its mysticism, mysteriousness and power. It remains relevant today for the same factors, too.
Thankfully, Capitol has released a remarkable package befitting rock and royalty, under the watchful eye of Robbie Robertson of The Band. It is complete with far enhanced recored sound, liner notes and the original single of The Weight/I Shall Be Released.
The extraordinary album now sounds even better. It has a modern production quality. Richard Manuel’s vocal on Tears of Rage, Levon Helm’s booming bass drum on The Weight and Garth Hudson’s organ solo at the front of Chest Fever are only three of the great new delights and pleasures of the improved sound quality.
Big Pink, as Robbie Robertson, The Band’s guitarist, principal songwriter and de facto spokesman, has said, was noteworthy for rebelling against the rebellion. In 1968, the Vietnam War was raging. The civil rights movement was gathering strength and the feminism movement was gaining momentum.
And in rock and roll, distorted guitars, extended drum solos, psychedelia, mindbending names for bands was the norm. Expressing open hatred of parents and distrusting college professors was all the rage among baby boomers. It could be said — as Amy Madigan’s character Annie expressed in Field of Dreams, a Hollywood love letter to the Sixties, as much as anything else, “a time of great madness.”
Against this troublesome background The Band released Music From Big Pink. First, who had ever heard of a band called The Band and not The Strawberry Alarm Clock. Pink Floyd and the Electric Prunes?
Even before you put the album on your turntable, it reeked of mystery. The cover consisted of an abstract paintings of musicians. That Bob Dylan, then a reclusive music genius, had painted it only added to the mystery.
The back was equally confusing. Instead of a photo of the smiling band members, the album featured a picture of that ugly pink house. And what the heck did “Music From Big Pink,” mean, anyway?
In 1968, there was, of course, no Google, YouTube, Wikipedia or Internet of any kind. You had to be incredbly hip to know that The Band had backed Dylan on his worldwide excursions in 1965 and 1966. The Band gave virtually no interviews. Dylan didn’t talk about them. All you had to go on was the quality of the music.
The album opened with “Tears of Rage,” which Dylan had written the previous year, off the road. He recorded it with the backing of The Band inside Big Pink but up to that point almost nobody had heard it.
The Band shrewdly featured this Dylan gem as the opening song. Slow, stately and beautiful — thanks largely to Richard Manuel’s haunting, painful vocal — Tears of Rage set a distinct tone. Where was the drum solo? No screaming guitar? No 14-minute-long songs that announced, We’re egomaniacs!
The next few songs continued the rustic, easy-flowing, sentimental feel of Tears of Rage.
Then came “The Weight” — and everything changed at once. A very “nice” and “interesting” album became an instant and enduring classic.
The Weight had a sneaky charm, releasing guitarist Robertson to strum a few naked chords before a wooden sound, coming largely from Levon Helm’s muffled drums. Helm had a featured vocal of his own for the first time so far on the album. Manuel and Rick Danko sounded like Canadians in a band that reflected what seemed like the norms of Canada — informality, modesty and friendliness.
But Helm’s vocal was unmistakable American South. No other vocalist anywhere could have carried this off like the masterful vocalist that Helm was on this song and would continue to be for as long as The Band made music together — and beyond.
“I pulled into Nazareth/Was feelin’ bout half past dead.” Those were the song’s evocative opening lyrics. Was the song supposed to have Biblical overtones? (Songwriter Robertson later puckishly revealed that Nanreth was actually a town in Pennsylvania where the Martin guitar factory stood).
As The Weight rolled along, the audience met a series of people straight out of a colorful southern circus or carnival: Mister, Carmen and The Devil, Crazy Chester, Anna Lee and, of course, Miss Fanny herself.
Garth Hudson intoxicating keyboard mastery carried the song along. The song sounded like nothing we had heard to that point, though after the release of The Basement Tapes, first in 1975, we could better understand how Dylan had mentored Robertson in the art of Americana songwriting and inventing memorable characters in songs.
Side two was equally memorable, with Manuel’s carnival-like, church-like “We Can Talk,” the mountain ballad “Long Black Veil” (sung in an otherworldly voice by Danko), the rollicking “Chest Fever,” the heartbreaking “Lonesome Suzie” and the two Dylan songs that close the album, “This Wheels on Fire” and “I Shall Be Released.”
Looking back, it is too simplistic to attribute the elegance and majesty of Big Pink solely to Dylan — and he doesn’t exactly need the credit. Since Robertson went on to write almost all of the memorable songs in The Band’s catalogue, it’s fair to say he was its leader and visionary.
Robertson must have sensed that the revolutionary musical excesses of Jimi Hendrix did not apply to what he had in mind. Robertson wanted to be in a group of five excellent musicians and three singers, signs of prodigious talent slmost unheard of in a rock and roll band, then or now. He didn’t need to play a 15-minute solo in the middle of Who Do You Love? He didn’t want to, either.
The best explanation of The Band’s style and success cane be found in critic Greil Marcus’ book, “Mystery Train.” He writes well about cozy, inspiring sense of community that the five musicians found when they made music in Big Pink and elsewhere during this period. You can hear the friendship in the supportive harmonies.
That’s why Big Pink’s power has lasted and not diminshed like so many period pieces in rock and roll. Yes, the musicians were top notch. Yes, the vocals were soulful. Yes, John Simon tied it all together with skill production work. And yes, this album sounded like nothing else. What helped create this sensation was the obvious brotherhood that the five guys had forged.
Sadly, the good feeling melted over the years, thanks to the usual star-maker machinery: drugs, money, egos, insecurities, paranoia, restlessness.
But for a debut album, Big Pink reflected happier times. The album holds up today as a 50-year classic. Not bad.