In 1967 during the peak of psychedelia, the Summer of Love, Bob Dylan was recuperating from his legendary near-fatal motorcycle accident (or much needed break and detox period, depending on which stories you believe). While the rest of the rock world was collectively freaking out on LSD and acid rock, Dylan was quietly holed up in the woodsy outback of Woodstock, NY with his friends and recent touring crew, The Band, laying down a sprawling set of informal home recordings, a mix of old-time folk songs, homespun shaggy dog stories, and dark tales of loss and deep mystery. A portion of this collection would eventually be cleaned up and released (eight years later, an eternity in 1967), as the infamous Basement Tapes but in the intervening years, the set was heavily bootlegged under the title Great White Wonder, a copy of which made it into the hands of every influential songwriter in rock (Neil Young famously got his recording musicians in the right frame of mind by playing the bootlegged Basement Tapes in the studio before rolling tape).
The next year, The Band released their own debut, Music From Big Pink (1968) and their follow-up album, The Band (1969).
These two plain-spoken albums of folksy Americana music would have a huge impact on the rock scene at large, virtually burying the psychedelic movement and pointing the way to a much more austere, resonant form. Eric Clapton is said to have heard Music From Big Pink and immediately disbanded Cream in favor of something more funky and authentic. The album’s simple resonance had a similar effect on George Harrison and all of The Beatles — its influence can be heard as the group moves away from the psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour to the more austere and authentic approach of The White Album. These first two albums by The Band are among the most influential recordings of the Rock Era, abruptly shifting the landscape away from the flowery, overtly poetic and musically baroque sound of the psychedelic movement to a much more austere, funky and authentic approach that gave rise to some of the signature trends of the 1970s, Country Rock and the Singer-Songwriter movement. Even the album artwork of Music From Big Pink signaled a change from the pretensions of psychedelia, the interior gatefold artwork showing not some mind-blowing graphic but a homey photo of The Band pictured with a sprawling assemblage of the band members’ extended families (titled, “Next of Kin”).
These two plain-spoken albums of folksy Americana music would have a huge impact on the rock scene at large, virtually burying the psychedelic movement and pointing the way to a much more austere, resonant form
In current terms, we’d probably categorize the pared-down, authentic sound of those first two albums by The Band as an early version of what we now call Americana Music, but that is a term that seems to require a post-80s musical frame of reference to make any sense. In the context of its day, this folky music coming out of Woodstock in the late 60s had a country sound, or at least a hard-bitten intention that drew more from classic country and electric blues than the polite musings of 60s folk music. And it’s important to remember that these five musicians, The Band were on the front lines of the “Dylan goes electric” tours where they drowned out the folkies’ boos in town after town by turning up their amplifiers and digging deep to find music that justified their very existence. Listen to the electric sides of the Dylan Live 1966 album to get a gimpse of this crucial music. It’s difficult to categorize this proto-Americana genre that The Band was carving out on their first two albums, but their sway over all of the influential rock artists of their day is undeniable. Along with Clapton and The Beatles, The Band’s gutsy, raw approach also influenced The Rolling Stones, who in 1968 moved away from the echoey psychedelic sound of the Their Satanic Majesties Request album (1967) to their astounding quartet of proto-70s masterworks, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street – all albums that bear the mark of Music From Big Pink and The Band.
It’s difficult to categorize this proto-Americana genre that The Band was carving out on their first two albums, but their sway over all of the influential rock artists of their day is undeniable
It’s impossible to say whether the psychedelic movement had just reached its expiration date or whether the power of this austere music was enough to move the rock world. You be the judge.
The opening strains of track one, Tears of Rage (a Bob Dylan/Richard Manuel co-write from the Basement Tapes), with it’s mournful sound and crawling tempo, along with the deep mystery of its family psychodrama lyrics certainly must have made an impact. An audacious start to the most anticipated debut album in rock to that date. Nothing sounds like this.
Side one ends with an instant classic, The Weight. Featuring all three lead singers of the group (the wailing, soulful Richard Manuel, the spooky-vibey Rick Danko, and the down home, gutsy Levon Helm), each taking a verse and all mingling so vitally on the unforgettable “Take a load off, Annie” chorus, this is the song that landed The Band on the charts in the tumultuous summer of 1968. A song about friendship and loyalty, grounded in the chunky, supple drums of Levon Helm (“the only drummer that can make you cry” said critic, Jon Carroll), with those indelible voices harmonizing, this is the sound of pure empathy.
We could needle-drop anywhere on Music For Big Pink and find something haunting, but this particular song is actually sung from the perspective of a ghost. Wrongfully accused of murder, he watches over his “best friend’s wife” lover who lives her remaining years mourning his passing after he had willingly gone to the gallows rather than expose her as his alibi. Long Black Veil, a 1959 country ballad first sung by Lefty Frizzell is a powerful tale on its own. In the hands of The Band, it’s gutsy, chilling, and real.
The individual components that make up The Band are prodigious. Robbie Robertson’s influence as a guitarist and songwriter on his peers cannot be overstated. The 3 lead singers, plus the dual keyboard sound of pianist Richard Manuel and their mad scientist organ player, Garth Hudson creates an intertwining sound of great complexity and richness while Levon Helm brings Ringo-styled simple drumming to a new emotional height, always underpinned by an empathetic and inventive bassline from Rick Danko. But what makes the sound and the presence of The Band so compelling is the fusion of the individual elements plus their storied history. The Band is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. That and truly great songwriting.
Are You Ready For The Country?
Concurrent with the pared-down, honest, post-psychedelic music coming from Dylan and The Band was the emerging influence of California Country music on American psychedelic rock bands like The Byrds and The Grateful Dead, who would put aside their loftier aspirations for a more intimate, authentic country-influenced statements like The Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweethearts of the Rodeo and The Dead’s two Americana masterworks, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Notably too in this late 60s era, a strong American country influence could be heard in the music of The Stones who were hanging out and recording with Ry Cooder and Gram Parsons who were also influenced by the music of The Band. Once established and legitimized, the country influence on rock would grow serious legs in the guise of major 70s artists, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, and The Allman Brothers.
It’s impossible to directly parse the influences, country, folk, Americana. There was a lot going on in the late 60s. But suffice it to say that when the Basement Tapes started to filter down among the rock cognoscenti and especially when Music From Big Pink hit the stores and the airwaves, the 60s psychedelic era was suddenly over and the currency switched from lofty poetics to a much grittier, more honest form of expression, pointing the way to a new decade of music, the 70s.