Music From Big Pink: The Band: 50th Anniversary edition

MFBP box 2018 front

2018 50th Anniversary box set: dippled matt finish

September 2018 sees the 50th Anniversary reissue of The Band’s Music From Big Pink, undoubtedly one of the most influential rock albums of all time. 2018 reviews like to say it invented Americana.

I know exactly where I saw it for the first time. It was the upstairs record department in W.H. Smith, Bournemouth. It was windowless, and the A to B section started over at the far wall from the cash desk. No words on the front of the sleeve. I’d heard the cover painting was by Bob Dylan. I had heard that this was the Canadian band that had backed him on the 1966 tour, not that I had ever seen any concerts, but only knew there had been booing. Folkies I knew told me the backing had been inept. I didn’t manage to find a Royal Albert Hall bootleg until 1970, so I had no way of judging how wrong they were.

The painting is what is kindly called “primitive” veering to the style known to Modern Art Museum curators as “My kid sister paints better than that!”

Turn it over. No group name, just the five strange names. The same on the LP and 45 labels.

Manuel? Was he Spanish? What was Danko? Then Garth Hudson. The only Garth I’d ever heard of was the comic strip in the Daily Mirror, but I knew who Henry Hudson was because a reproduction of the painting of him drifting to his death amid the icebergs sat right outside my classroom at school. Levon? Sounded Biblical, but whoever had met anyone called Levon?

Peruse the track list. Three co-written by Bob Dylan. A major plus. This Wheel’s on Fire had already been a hit for Julie Driscoll, and we had heard of the fabled acetate of basement songs, and that Too Much of Nothing, Mighty Quinn and (erroneously as we later discovered) If You Gotta Go, Go Now were among them.

New Musical Express, 7th September 1968

UK original 45 of The Weight, 1968

I didn’t buy it, but a few weeks later, back at Hull University for my final year, I found The Weight on the jukebox in the Student Union. It was in a Common Room where they had a complete set of daily newspapers. I’d heard the secret of a high grade (I was doing American Studies with Politics) was to refer everything to the most recent events, so I scanned the newspapers every day, and compared views. It was an invariable daily habit. Coffee. One shilling in the jukebox. It was sixpence for a play (2.5p), but three for a shilling (5p). You couldn’t select both sides of a single one after the other because it screwed up the mechanism and you just lost one of your three. So every morning, five days a week, it was The Weight … White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane … then the B-side I Shall Be Released. 

I Shall Be Released: UK B -side

I was fickle over the second play. Sometimes it was My White Bicycle by Tomorrow (with Steve Howe, later of Yes and Asia, on guitar). Sometimes it was This Wheel’s On Fire by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity. I still prefer her version to The Band’s actually:

With its use of distortion, the evocative imagery of the song’s title and the group’s flamboyant dress, this version is closely associated with the psychedelic era in British music. 
Wikipedia

I saw Spooky Tooth play live (one of the best bands I saw in the era), who had the British cover version:

New Musical Express, 7th September 1968

They got the front page of the New Musical Express while The Band got a third of a quarter page advert in the same issue. Jackie DeShannon’s cover was in the same issue, with more space than The Band. So, on promotion, Island Records – 1, Liberty- 2, Capitol – 3!

Then the reviews started coming of the album too:

Al Kooper (Rolling Stone)
The album of the year … this album was recorded in two weeks. There are people who will work their lives in vain and never touch it.

Eric Clapton loved it so much that he decided to jack in Cream and travel to Woodstock. He hung out wondering if they needed an extra guitarist.

Eric Clapton
Back in 1967 or 68, I heard a record called ‘Music From Big Pink,,’ and it changed my life. It changed the course of American music.
(introducing The Band at the Dylan 30th Anniversary Tribute)

George Harrison joined the pilgrimage. The influence on The Beatles was powerful … Paul McCartney particularly picked up the vibe on Let It Be and Long and Winding Road.

A friend got his dad to bring an American copy in from the USA. The original US edition of the LP was worth obtaining for its gatefold sleeve which had been dropped for the British release. It has a photo of the members of The Band with their extended families outside the Danko family barn in Ontario (not Big Pink).  I envied him that copy. Eventually I found secondhand ones. First the Canadian release, then a couple of years later the US one.

Listening to the album was extraordinary. We had no idea whose voice was whose, as they wove in and out of each other. One was Southern and only took the lead on The Weight, but you heard him coming in on the others. Then there was the high falsetto guy. The lyrics were obscure and hidden. There seemed to be two main songwriters, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel. Manuel had co-written Tears of Rage with Bob Dylan and Rick Danko had also co-written a Dylan song, This Wheel’s On Fire. Hang on! These guys were CO-WRITING with Bob Dylan. What?

Then the drums, wooden, low, reverberating, everything placed in an innovative way, sounding like nothing else in those days of drum solos. The best recorded drums I’d heard. No screaming guitar solos either, but unusual prickling strange fills. Ethereal organ runs, but not a trace of Georgie Fame or Jimmy Smith. No bass runs, but the bass gurgled along as if it were a tuba  … the only solo bravura bit was the organ intro to Chest Fever. Then there was the world they conjured up, especially in The Weight.

It’s actually not my favourite Band album, that is The Band aka The Brown Album. Then Side Two of Stage Fright equals it. Big Pink is so often cited as the origin of Americana. I’ve tried it with twenty-something music fans who can’t see the connection, seeing Americana as like Sweetheart of The Rodeo or at least with a more country tinge. Music From Big Pink is a rock album, just a very different one. The Weight might be the origin of the Americana story, but it’s really The Band (aka the Brown Album) that cements it. That IS Americana.

As the years rolled on and the Band split after The Last Waltz you could re-evaluate the relationship with Big Pink.

When they reunited in 1983 (without Robbie Robertson) to tour with The Cate Brothers, Richard Manuel was still on board, but from 1973 on, his songs had quietly disappeared, partly due to unreliability on stage. When the 1990s Band reformed after his death, The Weight and Chest Fever were the only guaranteed tracks from Big Pink though Caledonia Mission had several airings.

I have a long chronological Band playlist … OK, it’s the complete works, on my in-car iPod. I have noticed that I tend to skip to the Brown album after Chest Fever, ignoring the last three tracks. I mentioned it once. Others do the same.

THE BOX SET:

So here we are in 2018, and the full remastered box set edition:

  • You get lithographs by Elliot Landy.
  • A book with photos, and new liner notes by David Fricke.
  • A remastered CD. As in 2000 it adds the then new “outtakes” but adds an allegedly “acapella version” of I Shall Be Released. It isn’t.
  • A blu-ray disc containing a 2.0 PCM 96 bit version, plus two 5.1 surround versions.
  • A two LP set in the US gatefold sleeve. This is simply the original album, but recorded at 45 rpm (like a “12 inch single” from the 1980s and 1990s) so as to have a wider dynamic range … basically louder with more bass.

The box set was launched at £83, with the vinyl 2 LP set available separately. The 2 LP set features pink vinyl. My LPs in the box are black as above, as are the ones illustrated on amazon.co.uk. The Sound of Vinyl illustration shows them in baby pink.

No, I may be completist but getting the pink vinyl copies as well is beyond even my obsessive nature. I will point out that fanatic hi-fi buffs believe the carbon in black vinyl adds electrical interference that is absent in coloured vinyl, so they argue that transparent sounds best, followed by colours with the minimum black in their mix! But these are the people still sticking tiny squares of aluminium foil on their electrical plugs and sockets.

The front cover of the CD / blu-ray / 45 single packaging

THE EXTRAS

Record Collector pointed out the paucity of extras. The only new track is the “acapella” version of I Shall Be Released. It sounds as if the faders had simply been lowered on the instrumental tracks … something Robbie demonstrated on the Classic Albums: The Band video and DVD years ago. To be acapella, you have to go in with the intention of using voices only. You can hear the instrumental.

The extra tracks on the CD and Blu-ray are:

  1. Yazoo Street Scandal (Outtake)
  2. Tears Of Rage (Alternate Take)
  3. Long Distance Operator (Outtake)
  4. Lonesome Suzie (Alternate Take)
  5. Key To The Highway (Outtake)
  6. I Shall Be Released (A Cappella)

So they skipped some of the tracks on the 2002 Remastered CD, which had added:

Katie’s Been Gone (outtake)
If I Lose (outtake)
Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast) (outtake / demo)
Ferdinand The Imposter (outtake / demo)

There may be a clue here to the question of what was a Basement recording and what was a demo for the proposed Capitol recording in this later selection, or possibly cull.

The 2002 remaster has this note:

Anomalies exist in the sound quality of If I Lose, Orange Juice Blues and Ferdinand the Imposter. These tracks were mastered from the best possible sources available. They appear here for their historical value only.

So that’s why they’re not on the new set. That doesn’t explain Katie’s Been Gone‘s absence. In Testimony Robbie says they’d thought of Yazoo Street Scandal as ideal for Levon – who returned to the fold right at the end of the basement recordings with Bob Dylan.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN …

Record Collector mentioned the long promised From Bacon Fat to Judgement Day from Garth Hudson’s archives and regretted the absence of new material (thus reducing their rating to ***). I agree and find the omission of a contemporary live recording both odd and foolish. It’s what everyone else seems to do with remasters … as Bob Dylan did with the Self Portrait box where he included the live Isle of Wight set.

There is an obvious candidate which has been heavily bootlegged in various versions, which is the Band’s 1969 Woodstock set. The 2004 bootleg has superb sound AND a photo of The Band from the same session as that which adorns the fold-out CD packaging on this set:

German bootleg, 2004

It has seven songs from Music From Big Pink as well as desirable versions of Don’t Do It, Don’t Ya Tell Henry and Ain’t No More Cane on The Brazos. An earlier 2000 bootleg added Lovin’ You Is Sweeter Than Ever. It looks an ideal candidate to me.

Woodstock 25th Anniversary: 4 CD box set, 1994

Three of the Woodstock 1969 songs were officially released in 1994 on the Woodstock 25th Anniversary AlbumLong Black Veil, Lovin’ You Is Sweeter Than Ever and The Weight. So you don’t even have to delve into the murky world of bootlegs, though such a fine-sounding bootleg as the Woodstock set means a proper recording exists.

Other strong but rejected candidates were Ain’t No More Cane on The Brazos and Baby Lou from A Musical History. Rob Bowman suggests in A Musical History that there was an “either/or” choice between The Weight and Ain’t No More Cane. They should have used both.

I also think, given the price of a CD to a manufacturer that it was worth including a CD of the original mix, in its latest (2009) remastered version.

IS IT ESSENTIAL?

To buy, or not to buy,
That is the question

Hope springs eternal that some new corner or aspect will at last be revealed. So how many copies do you need?

We already had five LPs. Two of the original UK release (one each), the Canadian release with gatefold, the US release with gatefold and EMI’s 2000 Millenium remastered LP.

We already had five LPs. Two of the original UK release (one each), the Canadian release with gatefold, the US release with gatefold and EMI’s 2000 Millenium remastered LP.

MFBP box 2018 rear

50th Anniversary box set rear with track lists

So what does it sound like?

The reviews:

First … Robbie

Robertson also lauds producer Bob Clearmountain’s work in creating the 50th anniversary edition from what was rudimentary, raw material. “It was recorded on four tracks…in a way that couldn’t be messed with a lot,” he explains. “There’s not a lot of variables in it. It wasn’t like now, when you’ve got things on 50 tracks and can play with them a lot. But Bob did such a majestic job. I hear things that I never heard before — and I know this record pretty well. He did something that took me deeper inside of the experience of the music, without messing with it, which I was I was really hoping for. It just sound better, and it surrounds you more
Billboard, 24 August 2018

The clarity is outstanding as hitherto unnoticed musical flourishes take the spotlight, vocals feel much brighter and higher in the mix and studio chatter is uncovered. While the original stereo sometimes felt unbalanced and distant, this version has clearly been seen as an opportunity to correct that. It makes for a more satisfying headphone listen. The drunken horns halfway through Chest Fever, Richard Manuel’s tour de force of a vocal performance on Tears of Rage … the highlights pile up with every listen … but whether it has the rare magic of the original, that’s another question altogether. ***
Jamie Atkins, Record Collector #483, September 2018

Sonically the quality of previous editions has been questioned, but all versions of this edition sport a new stereo mix by Bob Clearmountain from the original masters, including a bit of ambient studio chat. It sounds both timeless and brand new.
Music 9/10. Extras 6/10 Alastair McKay, Uncut #257, October 2018

Sensitively remixed and remastered – like cleaning stained glass for brighter colours – and in a combination of formats, here’s a masterpiece that lives up to its legend.
*****, Michael Simmons, Mojo #299, October 2018

Six tunes are added to the program (oddly, 2001’s reissue had three more) but the major improvement is Bob Clearmountain’s splendid remix. He delicately infuses more presence to the audio without diminishing the innate equilibrium of a performance where each member was an equal contributor.  5/5
Hal Horowitz, American Songwriter  5 September 2018

This beautifully packaged 50th-anniversary box set offers a brighter, sharper mix than past reissues, so you can really hear the lust in “Chest Fever,” the sorrow in “Long Black Veil” and the half-past-dead blues in “The Weight.” There’s also an insightful essay by Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke, and a new a cappella edit of “I Shall Be Released” that shines a lovely spotlight on Richard Manuel’s falling-angel falsetto. If you love the Band, it’s mostly nothing you haven’t heard a couple thousand times before, but little else is needed. 4.5/5
Simon Vozick-Levinsion, Rolling Stone 31 August 2017

This anniversary edition …features a revelatory new mix supervised by veteran engineer Bob Clearmountain. His work brings a feeling of presence to the album; listen on the right headphones and it almost sounds like you’re right there in the Band’s rehearsal space, the basement of the pink-sided house in upstate New York that gave the album its name. Individual voices and instruments leap out of the mix: Hudson’s piano on “To Kingdom Come” positively sparkles, while the more prominent bass on “Chest Fever,” the album’s most conventional rock cut, makes the low end sound heavier than ever. This version of Music from Big Pink even includes a few glimpses behind the curtain of the album’s creation—a snatch of studio chatter at the beginning of “The Weight,” a hushed count-in for “Lonesome Suzie”—that strip away 50 years of familiarity and accumulated myth. That renewed vitality is important, because despite the timelessness of the Band’s sound, their place in music history feels increasingly removed from our own. *****
Zachary Hoskins, SLANT, 1 September 2018

This newly mixed and mastered 50th Anniversary Edition doesn’t differ greatly from the 2004 Japanese issue, which included all the bonus tracks except the a-cappella I Shall Be Released, but devotees will like the Blu-ray, the pink vinyl option, the seven-inch repro of The Weight single and the hardback book. Even without the bells and whistles the music from the 1968 sessions retains a timeless outlaw appeal apparent from Bob Dylan’s Tears Of Rage, the mighty Chest Fever and Robertson’s biblical epic The Weight, driven home by Helm’s magnificently lived-in southern drawl. The Band were massively influential: everyone from The Beatles, Beach Boys and Grateful Dead borrowed their progressive country chic. They in turn copped ideas from Dylan’s Desolation Row, notably on Lonesome Suzie, which owes a debt to Charlie McCoy’s guitar work. Great tracks are studded all over. Caledonia Mission fired up Workingman’s Dead and Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late To Stop Now, and you hear To Kingdom Come percolate through the Boys’ Holland.
Max Bell, Classic Rock, UK, ****

The Clearmountain mix adds depth plus a bit of studio chatter to the songs, but you’d probably have to be a major fan—and the owner of good audio equipment—to want to upgrade from the original album just to hear it. The half-dozen bonus tracks are another potential carrot, though only the a cappella “I Shall Be Released” was previously unavailable. I can think of several other compelling reasons to buy this box, however. For starters, it’s a must for anyone who doesn’t own the original album or has a scratchy old vinyl copy. But even if you have a pristine LP or CD, you might well want this for the Blu-ray: you will need a high-quality five-channel sound system to appreciate that, but like most such mixes, it sounds dramatically better than stereo and showcases detail that gets buried in the original version.
Jeff Burger, The Morton Report 26 August 2018

Back in 1968 Capitol foolishly rejected Bob Ludwig’s original mastering of this LP fearing the bass would cause skipping on kiddie phonographs so if you’ve got an original there’s pretty much no bass below 80Hz. Mobile Fidelity’s second go round (the first was decades ago and is pretty rare) a few years ago is a sonic spectacular, making the need for a new stereo re-mix difficult to understand—it’s not a complex production like Sgt. Pepper’s… so why bother remixing?
Michael Fremmer, Analog Planet

Not everyone was impressed:

Thus, formulating a 21st-century remix of an album as singular, cherished and influential as “Big Pink” would be a daunting chore for any production hand. The job fell to Clearmountain … who has always been most comfortable in a hard rock or pop context, (and) was destined to be challenged by the distinctive aesthetic of the album’s original producer John Simon …  For the new edition of an album originally distinguished by neither brightness nor definition, Clearmountain ignores Simon’s original intent and offers a mix so brilliant it makes your teeth hurt; in every instance where Simon, always subtractive in approach and ever attentive to subtlety and balance, mixed down certain instruments and pared the music to its essence, Clearmountain responds by pushing all the faders up, as if intent to give all the players some space whether they deserve it or not. Strangely, while the remix is keen to add volume and jarring sonic elements to goose the proceedings for millennial ears, it eliminates certain resonant facets of the original recording. Clearmountain seems especially leery of the sonorous horn work of Hudson and producer Simon, which lofted two of Richard Manuel’s most potent vocals, “Tears of Rage” and “Lonesome Susie”; their saxophones, which contributed so deeply to the songs’ emotional pull, have been reduced to a whisper. I found myself wondering why Hudson’s tour de force Bach-inflected organ overture to “Chest Fever” sounded so bombastic, until I realized that Clearmountain had removed the delay that added an eccentric echo effect; now the introduction resembles the work of Keith Emerson … The new “Big Pink” betrays nearly everythinthat was exciting and original about the album when it first appeared.
Chris Morris, Variety, 24 August 2018 LINK TO FULL REVIEW

Clearmountain takes pains to separate the elements that were previously inextricably intertwined, shattering the specific otherworldliness that has been retained in every reissue of the album over the past fifty years. Sometimes, certain parts are pushed to the forefront—the call and response on “We Can Talk” by Helm and Danko are isolated from each other—and sometimes, everything piles on top of each other, as on the cacophonic “This Wheel’s on Fire.” Worse, extraneous studio chatter has been added to “The Weight” and “Lonesome Suzie,” a move that punctures the illusion that Music From Big Pink materialized out of thin air from a cheap rental house in the woods of New York.

Perhaps this super deluxe reissue accidentally deflates that myth, but the legend of Music From Big Pink is so deeply ingrained in musical culture that one single splashy reissue can’t tarnish its reputation. If anything, this super deluxe edition—complete with a 49-minute album pressed as a double-LP at 45rpm—encourages exploration of the original album, because even with the bright, discordant new remix, there remains a mysterious core that can not be explained but only experienced.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Pitchfork, 1 September 2018 LINK TO FULL REVIEW

Do you remember those original CD adverts? The medium would bring “new light through old windows” according to Sony and Philips.

1982 advert for first Sony CD player, the CDP-101. I have one in the attic.

In 1987 the Uffizi Gallery in Florence put their restored Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (aka Venus on The Half Shell) on display after a total restoration. It looked weird, just as if it were painted the day before. Glowing, incredibly bright. Lurid, garish even. You felt you needed sunglasses.  There in the Renaissance gallery it looked unreal, wrong, out of its time frame. But the experts say that’s just what it must have looked like back in 1485.

The CD v LP debate goes over similar territory. Our spoken voice audio producer for years had been a BBC sound engineer and had spent a decade recording live music in the studio. He insisted that CD was far closer to live music, but that most people rarely experienced live music. And yes, he said, live was harsher. The bass did shake the floor and most people had not been close enough to a bass amp. He even agreed that the warm ambience of LP was a more pleasant listening experience, but NOT because it was more accurate.

Note that while there were several different REMASTERS, trying to get the most possible information off the master tapes, this 2018 is a REMIX where Bob Clearmountain was allowed to change the balance of the existing material.

REMIX is a loaded word. The 2018 Record Store Day saw a “rework” of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War that is totally unlistenable. Vague echoes of the song fading in and out of a dance producer’s reworking. Then also this year Paul Simon released Graceland: The Remixes with the same radical complete overhaul and rebalancing so all that I love about the songs is destroyed. I haven’t managed to listen all the way through yet. It’s mind-numbingly misguided and awful.

This is certainly NOT a remix in that sense.

MY IMPRESSIONS

I got fed up of doing a complete track by track head to head comparison, because you’re not listening to the music but listening to the hi-fi. But I did start …

I  spent my first happy hour with the box set, and trying to compare, so only listening to The Weight. It’s hugely system dependent. The blu-ray disc has 2.0 PCM, and two choices of 5.1 mix. Obviously for most people that plays on your 5.1 TV system which may not be attuned to music, though my MK speakers (no longer made) are music-oriented. Mostly the sub-woofer (the .1) on 5.1 systems is designed for sudden explosions and gunfire rather than bass and bass drum, but I eventually found one that  does bass guitar really well.

Immediate reaction is clarity, but the 5.1 mixes sound better than the ultra high-def PCM stereo, not because they’re utilising the surround sound, but because they bring in the sub-woofer and centre speaker, thus improving the bass markedly. That’s because of the speakers.

So then I switched to CD on my main Myrad hi-fi system through big classic Mission speakers … all my stuff is 20+ years old, the Missions probably 30+. The CD sounds smoother, but again that’s the big hi-fi speakers compared to a surround sound system. Rick Danko’s bass and Levon’s drums leap out on any decent sized speakers as incredible work. I’m amazed that serious reviewers talk about reviewing on headphones. The speaker cone needs to shift air for me.

To compare like with like, you need to check the CD rather than the 5.1 blu ray. I did a comparative on the 2000 remastered CD and the 2018 remixed CD, same Myrad system which has no tone controls, same volume setting. I’m not going to go through the whole album.

I chose Tears of Rage first as one of the sonically most different tracks.

The 2018 remix brings up everything. The organs and horns sound more prominent in the mix. The bass is loud and rumbling. It’s also messy to me, too much competing for attention – I don’t agree that there’s more separation either. The drums don’t stand out as distinctively- a key point of the song. I moved to the 2000 remaster.

My instant feel was more air, more space in there between the instruments. The drums aren’t as loud but they have more bounce and resonance. More SNAP! to the tambourine (if that’s what it is). The bass feels quieter, but also tighter, more controlled. The organ is lower most of the time but swells into place as needed.

A more modern system? I have a Harmon Kardon multi-spreaker car system, the best of the three that were available nine years ago. As I listen in the car a lot, and loud so know the system well, I took Tears of Rage out to the car. I thought the 2018 bass guitar was even more tuba like, and the stereo soundstage felt wider. I still liked the bass and drum space better on the 2000.

Tears of Rage: definite and strong preference for the 2000 CD.

I moved straight to We Can Talk on the grounds that it’s a favouriteThat is radically different. The voices have all been repositioned in the stereo sound stage. In 2000 Levon comes in centre / right (There are five standard stereo mix positions: left – centre left – centre – centre right – right.) On the 2018 Levon comes in louder, clear and left. All the voices are shifted around and so is the guitar. The three singers are definitely more distinct, and more separated. Fascinating, but one of the joys of the song is never being sure who’s singing what. On the 2018, you know. I guess it’s a soundstage they found doing the 5.1 mix.

Over to the 5.1 True HD mix. Yes, that’s why they played around with placing the voices. I found it somewhat disconcerting. I thought I was in the ideal listening place, but then Levon’s drums were behind me. It felt odd.

We Can Talk – unsure. It was a revelation to hear the voices moved around. A definite plus for the Levon fan.

vinyl

The LPs are effectively “12” singles” as we used to call them, so that it’s spread over 2 LPs playing at 45 rpm instead of 33 rpm. That makes them louder too. As ever analogue sounds different.  Warmer, you could listen all day, but very slightly duller. Less bass.

Then I put on my oldest CD (not the 2000 remaster but the first CD issue) and actually it sounds fine. To me, much more like the LPs than the later ones, probably because they just used the LP compression with restricted bass. Yes, it’s not as “full” but if like me you’ve been listening to it for years I wouldn’t think the box would be a revelation.

The new mix IS much brighter and louder.

We have a sonic deer scarer in our garden. Poole is much afflicted by urban deer eating the flowers. I pass it and I can just hear it in the distance. My grandkids put their hands on their ears and scream. I have to switch it off. Bob Clearmountain and Robbie Robertson, like me, are of an age when any ear specialist will tell you the treble and bass ends of the hearing spectrum are going. Young people can hear down to 20 hertz (bass) and up to 20,000 kilohertz (treble). Wiki says that under test conditions, people can detect 12 Hz to 28 Khz, thus beyond CD. That was the range selected for CD. Vinyl fans will assure you that we can be aware of these sounds outside our hearing range without actually being able to “hear” them, so CD is a limitation at the extremes. Hearing range shrinks from the age of eight on, though more slowly in women than men. I asked an ear specialist I know. He assures me that no one in their 70s, however trained can hear 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.

So in mixing, they will push up the volume on the treble. It will be brighter. Does that mean better?

BUT it’s a beautiful package, lovingly presented too. It’s a fabulous “possession” but you’re not going to hear anything you missed.

A HISTORY OF MUSIC FROM BIG PINK

Original Master Recording 2009

Mobile Fidelity CD / SACD hybrid

This was a curious release, which went along with a Mobile Fidelity LP pressing. I had bought some SACDs for £1 each from a SALE browser bin, just before it came out as everyone was scrapping the format. I never had an SACD player, but my DVD player could take them. In terms of resolution, this is the best-available version of the original mix.

The LP version of the Original Master Recording

The aim was sound quality. No bonus tracks.

The DVD-Audio 5.1 version, 2002

DVD Audio 2002

Is this the same mix as the new 2018 box set?

This, I think, is one of few multichannel releases, either SACD or DVD-A, in which the rear channels are successfully used in different ways for different tracks. In some cases, they stretch the echoes, and in others, create a circle of music.
Daniel Wolfson, Music TAP, 2002

The Band Remasters, 2000

See the full article on the 2000 remasters by Dave Hopkins (LINKED)  on The Band website.

24-bit remastered. This gave us the outtakes and they were remastered by Dan Hersch at DigiPrep with Andrew Sandoval, Hollywood.

Cheryl Pawelski, A&R Director, Capitol-EMI
For a long time we wanted to redo the Band catalog, considering there have been a couple of titles deleted and others not sounding so great. We felt with the Band being such a seminal band of the 1960s-early ’70s, some attention should be paid to it.We spent a lot of time tracking the absolute original masters, and we found all of them except `The Band,’ where we used the production masters, which still sounded better than anything on CD before. It was a difficult process. We went to [the studio in] Bearsville, N.Y., looking for additional bonus tracks and to get the masters. All surviving members of the Band were contacted regarding the project. They have all given us their blessing. Garth Hudson helped in looking for additional material, Robbie Robertson listened to the bonus tracks and gave us his comments, and Levon Helm will be most active in doing publicity.
Interviewed by Ray Waddell, Boston Globe, 6 June 2000

Levon Helm
That’s company stuff. I guess they figured out some way to re-box it up. I just hope [they] give me some royalties on it.
Interviewed by Ray Waddell, Boston Globe, 6 June 2000

The important point was the inclusion of a very full sleeve note by Rob Bowman.  I don’t think any of the outtakes is a genuine competitor for inclusion on the original LP, either sonically or as material. The most interesting was a radically different and faster Lonesome Suzie.

Incidentally, checking out the current £5.99 budget offer on the CD recently, the current widely available budget version in your local store is this remastered one.

TOSHIBA-EMI RELEASE, 1998, Japan

As artefacts, the best-looking Band CD reissues were from Toshiba-EMI from Japan in cardboard sleeves. They went as far as reproducing the stippled cover on The Band and wrapping the posters around Stage Fright and Moondog Matinee. TheBig Pink reissue exactly reproduces the original American sleeve.

FIRST CAPITOL CD release, 1986, UK version

At this point, Capitol thought it would need an over-printed title. They did this with the UK Millenium LP remaster too, and they had done that on late 1970s UK LPs. People moaned about the sound quality. I liked it. Of all the CD issues, this is the only one with a pink spine. I liked that too.

1970s Cassette 

From eBay

8 track cartridge

From eBay

There was even an 8-track car cartridge. These never took off in the UK, but they have an iconic appeal … this one was advertised at $29.99 on eBay and the chance of it still playing is slight. I went to a Chevrolet Corvette rally with a friend many years ago. We admired a 1960’s Corvette, top down with The Beach Boys playing. The 8 track cartridge was showing in its original slot in the beautiful dashboard. I told the owner I was amazed at the sound quality after all these years. He told me the music emanated from a CD player in the trunk and hidden speakers. The 8 track was just for show.

Reel to Reel tape

Ampex Reel=to-Reel Tape (from Discogs)

Reel-to-reel tapes were very rare in the UK. Note they take the side break before Long Black Veil. As with 8-track there is an extremely strong chance that tapes will have shed oxide and sound has printed through.

The LPs, 1968 to 2000

MFBP LPs fropnts

Top left: original UK LP. 1968 Glossy front, so brighter colours
Top right: original US LP 1968 (white outer border)
Bottom left: original Canadian LP 1968 (all black border).
Bottom right: EMI 2000 Millenium remaster. Glossy.  

MFBP LPs rears

Top: US copy with ‘Next of Kin’ gatefold. The UK copies never had a gatefold.
Bottom left: Original 1968 UK copy rear

Bottom right:  Canadian copy rear / same as US copy rear

My original article on Music From Big Pink with revisions follows

This was originally written between 1990 and 1992 as part of a proposed book on The Band. To my horror, Barney Hoskyns’ Across The Great Divide came out, and I decided I might have to shelve it. Six months later Levon Helm & Stephen Davis issued This Wheel’s On Fire and that was the end of it. For a few years I added revisions as new facts appeared. Mostly I expanded the sections on original songs at obsessive length and put them on the Band website (theband.hiof.no). They are linked at the end. I have re-looked at this as I cut and pasted it, and added some things.

I was concerned about paraphrasing original speakers in prose, so decided that wherever possible the story would be in quotes. It’s inevitably Robbie-heavy because he was the spokesman.

Rolling Stone advert, September 1968

The Critics

So, The Band had a hit album, which garnered them acclaim and reputation, though it never gained mega sales. What next? A follow up tour? Not yet. Not in fact until work was well under way on the follow up.

 Critics on the original album:

Greil Marcus (Mystery Train)
The sound is an uncanny blend of ancient folk songs, New Orleans jazz, postwar blues, white gospel groups, the Monotones and Motown; and these sources are only a few of the obvious, picked almost at random … the richness of ‘Big Pink’ is in The Band’s ability to contain endless combinations of American popular music without imitating any of them.

Andy Gill (Q, September 1987)
Resplendent now in CD clarity, we can see – or rather hear – just how far ahead of its time Big Pink actually was … Whilst complexity was being misinterpreted elsewhere as the adoption of ‘high art’ forms like classical music into rock music, The Band were quietly, secretly making an album so complex in its blend of musical styles that much of its richness is only really evident now. An LP waiting for CD to happen, sort of.

Mick Gold (Let It Rock)
‘Music From Big Pink’ was distinguished by high, wailing white soul singing, a thudding cardiac drum beat, and ethereal piano and organ flourishes round a very pared-down rhythmic core: halfway between a funky funeral and a sombre fairground sound. It was mature, stable and profoundly conservative.

100 Best Albums of The Last 20 Years, # 41 (Rolling Stone 27 August 1987)
The Band took what it had learned from Dylan – and from  its own extensive background in blues, folk music and rock ‘n’ roll – to invent a rich musical vocabulary that seemed at once utterly original and so deeply traditional as to be mythic … it persists as a landmark in American popular music.

Paul Gambaccini (Presents the Top 100 Albums, # 64)
This album was a startling display of egoless teamwork in a charisma-crazed system.

Levon Helm
Our local paper in Woodstock, by the way, said the album was OK, but we could have done better.
Quoted in Rolling Stone, 1 July 2018

Background …

Fast-forward through the history (in my planned book this was Chapter Four). Ronnie Hawkins assembled the musicians who became The Hawks. They jumped ship and went out as Levon & The Hawks, making a couple of singles under that name, and as The Canadian Squires.

Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm were recruited by Bob Dylan to play two electric concerts with Al Kooper on organ, and Harvey Brooks on bass. They insisted that he take the full group for a tour through 1965 and 1966. Levon quit after a concert in Washington DC:

Levon Helm
I just didn’t want to go. We had played the American part and that part was pretty good. But back in those days when you played for some of the folk-purist crowds, the electrical portion, which was us, would get all the booing and the hissing and stuff. after a while it wasn’t a whole lot of fun. It wasn’t like I was ready to go into a hospital and give up or anything like that, but I figured maybe we should practice or something.
Modern Drummer interview, 1984

Robbie Robertson
It broke my heart when Levon left., I remember, I walked him down to the corner and said goodbye as he got a taxi. Somebody told me he left because he said he wasn’t made to be booed, but really he left because he didn’t like the music, he didn’t believe in this music at all. I was saying, It’s just being discovered, it’s our job to find it, not to walk away from it. I tried to talk him into staying. But he didn’t like these people: he didn’t like Bob Dylan, or Albert Grossman.
Interviewed by Andy Gill, Mojo November 2000

Levon went to work on an oil rig in the Gulf, though later reports said he spent much of the time entertaining the crew. Then he worked around with The Cate Brothers and in California.

The Dylan tour ended in May 1966. Meanwhile, following Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident, the other four gravitated to Woodstock by March 1967. They were still under contract to Dylan, as was Mickey Jones on drums from the 1966 leg of the tour. Oddly he was never persuaded (or asked) to join them. They were loaned Peter, Paul and Mary’s equipment to set up (Albert Grossman also managed them).

During this Woodstock period, they were pitching for a record contract, and were signing with Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman.

John Hammond
Later (The Hawks) signed with Grossman too and he had his way of making people feel they were better than anybody else blah blah blah – a ‘stick with me, kid, I’ll turn your money green’ kind of mentality which I found really unpleasant.
Interview by John Bauldie, The Telegraph #44, Winter 1992

There were demos and trips to New York City. Sid Griffin says they had recorded at Barry Feinstein’s photography studio in February 1967 before moving up to Woodstock to join Dylan.

In September 1967 they got the Capitol contract. Grossman had first tried to sign them with Warner Brothers, but couldn’t get hold of Warner Brothers chief Mo Ostin. He then tried Capitol and a deal was quickly done, with the group’s name listed as The Crackers.  Grossman’s expertise (and track record) are amply illustrated in the advance he secured.

At that point they invited Levon Helm to rejoin them. Rick Danko called Levon in Memphis.

Rick Danko
Once we got out of the south people started booing a lot. But they were booing at Bob, they didn’t really know who I was. It bothered me, not as much as Levon who left the group; he went down to Mexico and New Orleans. Levon was in New Orleans when I called him up about our Capital Record deal. I always knew that he would be with us when we recorded a Band album.
On The Tracks, 16th August 1996

Rick Danko
I called Levon and said, ‘Levon, we’re gonna get ready to record. They’re giving us a couple of hundred thousand dollars we’d like to share. ‘ He said, ‘I’ll be on the next plane.
Rob Bowman’s sleeve notes to ‘To Kingdom Come’

Levon returned after an absence of just under two years, though for some inexplicable reason anyone writing on The Band seems to quote his absence as one year. According to his own biography he returned in late October 1967. John Simon describes meeting the other four members of The Band when they serenaded him dressed in outlandish costumes at Howard Alk’s house on Halloween, which turned out to be Alk’s birthday. Levon was not present then, so not on 31st October. Simon says that he met with Robbie a few days later, who told him that Levon had just returned. This would make it early November 1967. Other sources (including a different John Simon quote) say that after serenading Alk, they went back to Big Pink to find Levon had arrived.

landy2

The Band at Pig Pink

This is why there is only one Levon lead vocal on Music For Big Pink, on The Weight. That was a late addition and we have to assume much had been discussed and planned and vocals assigned before he got back. Levon Helm has said that Orange Juice Blues was cut before his return. Levon was explicit in a 1984 interview:

Levon Helm
By the time we got our recording contract, we were already old enough to shave, so to speak, and we’d been playing for a long time. By then, we wanted success, naturally, and we wanted to please our families and friends. But we wanted to do it on our own terms, and that was a conscious effort. We decided we’d go with our music a certain way. Some things we would do and some things we wouldn’t. We never did want to take that full-throttle sort of commercial gear. I never wanted to be recognized on the street and mobbed. I like going to places without all that star stuff. I like applause when I’m out on the stage, but I like to leave after the show and go in a bar and enjoy the rest of my life. We tried to do it that way.
The Big Beat: Conversations with Rock’s Great Drummers, Maz Weinberg, 1984

Sid Griffin in Million Dollar Bash says they then moved out of Big Pink and Danko and Helm were living in Wittenberg Road, and Manuel and Hudson off Ohayo Mountain road. Throughout Robbie was with Dominique.

Robert Palmer
During the first months in Woodstock the songs had come slowly, and maybe that was because Levon,… wasn’t with them. They recorded a lot of the music on ‘The Basement Tapes’ without him, but they found that they needed that razorback spirit and  never-say-die Confederate orneriness to be a real band. When Levon rejoined them and sunk roots in Woodstock … the transformation was complete. They were no longer The Hawks, a band; they were the Band.
Robert Palmer ‘A Portrait Of The Band As Young Hawks’ Rolling Stone 1 June 1978

For years the “feud” over who wrote what divided Band fans into The Levonistas (who believed all should have equal credit) and the Robertsonians who subscribed to the auteur theory. When Levon & The Hawks existed, Musician Union rules required an official bandleader, and it was Levon Helm. After two years away, he returned and clearly Robbie was then the creative force and leader. That was never resolved. It just simmered for a few years.

The Hawks name had to go. Ronnie Hawkins was history, but as Robbie has pointed out, by 1968, Hawks meant warmongers. Right wingers. Bomb Hanoi!

Capitol realized that The Crackers was not much better. Nor was The Honkies. The Band didn’t even have an official name until the second album was released. On the contract they were called The Crackers. On the album cover they were listed by their five individual names.

Robbie Robertson
Names were really goofy at that time. Everybody was thinking up very psychedelic names, and just to go against that we said., ‘We’re not going to name the group.’ The record company went crazy  … We said, ‘OK, we’ll call ourselves The Crackers.’ And they said, ‘That’s a cute name.’ They were thinking soda crackers or biscuits. Then they came back and said, ‘No, you can’t call yourselves that. That means something else altogether.’ From playing with Dylan … everybody called us The Band. That was about as anonymous as we could get.
Interviewed in Joe Smith ‘Off The Record’ 1989

Music From Big Pink  was released in America in July 1968, in the UK in August 1968. No one had released an album that looked quite like it before – there was  a crude and child-like painting of The Band by Bob Dylan, interestingly showing six figures of musicians and an elephant (a symbol of weight, but also of the Republican party, i.e. conservatism), but with no group name. No doubt it’s not supposed to be representational, but the guy playing double bass has a red Indian feather (a nod to Robbie’s heritage?), the drummer has a cowboy hat, one figure is helping another to clamber over the back of the piano to get to the keyboards, while in the foreground is a guitar player and another character sitting on the ground playing a sitar with a purple pot on his head (pothead?).

Robbie Robertson
Bob offered to help us out in any way we wanted – play harp or piano or sing harmony. We thought it over and decided it wasn’t right to trade on the name of a famous man, so, instead, he painted the cover for us. A very warm neighbourly gift.
Quoted by John Bauldie in ‘The Motorcycle Crash & The Woodstock Seclusion’ in ‘All Across The Telegraph’.

On the American gatefold sleeve there was a picture of The Band with members of their extended families in the middle. Media interest was attracted by the presence of three then new Dylan compositions.

The album’s initial success was, in retrospect, surprisingly modest for an album which frequently appears in lists of the Top 100 Rock Albums of All Time. It got to #30 in the US charts while the single, The Weight reached only #63

the-weight-spooky-tooth-copy

The Weight: cover version by Spooky Tooth, Island 1968

Other artists had more sucess with covering The Weight.  Versions by Jackie DeShannon (1968), Aretha Franklin (US R&B #3, POP #19, April 1969, and featuring Duane Allman on guitar), The Supremes with The Temptations (US #46, September 1969) all charted.  Significantly for both royalties and for general public awareness, the Diana Ross and The Supremes With The Temptations’  album from which the single was taken reached US #2 and the Aretha Franklin album, This Girl’s In Love With You,  reached US R&B #2 and POP #17.

The Weight was also heard on the soundtrack of the Peter Fonda / Dennis Hopper film Easy Rider in 1969, which in turn spawned a successful soundtrack album (US # 6 in October 1969 and 41 weeks on the chart).  The Band agreed to their version being used on the film soundtrack, then refused permission for it to appear on the subsequent album. Smith did a close cover version which can be heard on the Dunhill soundtrack album. Just as foolishly, The Band declined to appear in the Woodstock film, apparently displeased with their performance. It came out on an extras video decades later and is pretty good. Versions also appeared on albums by The Staples, Bloomfield and Kooper (Live Adventures of Bloomfield & Kooper ), Spooky Tooth (On It’s All About … Spooky Tooth, a very direct cover, with the interesting addition of harmonica ) and King Curtis. Virtually every cover cuts out a verse or two. Four hit singles as well as its presence on even more albums within a year means a high profile, in spite of the modest sales of the original single.

In the UK the single was more successful, just failing to get into the top twenty (#21 on September 28 1968). In other words, the Band were not solely responsible for making the song a rock classic. It is the number they are most associated with, and it turns up on every anthology and every recorded live concert.

This Wheel’s On Fire was also a major British hit for Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and The Trinity reaching #5 in June 1968, prior to the album’s release, while the Driscoll / Auger album Open reached #12 in the British album chart. In later years, Rick Danko said the income from the use of the song (in various versions) on the Absolutely Fabulous sitcom credits were his lifeline.

The Recording Sessions

Music From Big Pink was not recorded in the basement, though the myth that it was is widespread – helped by reading too much into the words on the sleeve:

‘It (Big Pink) is the first witness of this album that’s been thought and composed right here inside its walls’.

However, the Basement situation reflected on the sound of the album.

Robbie Robertson
Now we were in this basement, with all those hard surfaces, our usual style became a little irritating on the ears. So we ended up playing in a way that we had a balance amongst us. If anybody was playing too loud it was really obvious because you couldn’t hear the singer. That became a bit of a standard of us in a circle, playing to one another.
UNCUT 31 July 2015

Garth Hudson
Each member is accompanying the words. When the singer was singing, the guitar would play something that would complement it. That’s also how I saw my job: texture, the occasional solo, little fills. It’s simple. In the basement, we were all close together, it was an acoustic approach, and I think when you listen to Big Pink you hear that. Nobody tries to jump in and take over.UNCUT 31 July 2015

Half of the album was done at Phil Ramone’s A&R Studio in New York City over just two sessions – Tears of Rage, Chest Fever, We Can Talk, This Wheel’s On Fire and The Weight. They were recorded on a four track machine (as was Sergeant Pepper ). The Band laid down the instrumental live on tracks 1 and 2, put horns on track three and vocals and tambourine on the fourth track. Producer John Simon has mentioned the wonderful acoustics of A & R studio where it was recorded.

A&R was described as a barn-like studio at the top of the building. In the sleeve notes to various releases, and in Robbie Robertson’s autobiography, Testimony, there is discussion over the sessions. Initially they were set up in the studio separated by sound baffles, but they felt at a loss without eye contact, so asked to be set up in a circle without baffles. This disconcerted the engineer, because this meant sound leakage between instruments, which meant difficulty in isolating one on the faders.

Robbie Robertson
There was a certain attitude of knowledge from the engineers. ‘Here’s how you make a great sounding record – you do it our way ‘cos we’ve tried everything and we know what works and what doesn’t work.’ We went along with the whole thing and we got to a place where we were going to record a song. We got halfway into it and none of us knew what to do or where to go next. We didn’t memorise music that way. We absorbed music through one another … We communicate by nods of the head, a look in the eye, the way I move my guitar neck- it signals a break coming up. If we can’t see the signals, we’re wandering in space. We have to set up in a circle where we can see one another and communicate.
Mojo #299, October 2018

Robbie Robertson
I laid out the floor plan. “Rick needs to be right here, facing Richard. Take away all the baffles. I’m gonna sit right here in front of Levon, and Garth will be between Rick and me … the drums can stay where they are, I said, and we’ll all just move in.
Testimony, 2016

Levon Helm
Actually, a lot of that stuff was cut upstairs at A&R Studios on Seventh Avenue in New York City. We would usually use the big room up there on the seventh floor. That studio was so big, they used to do a lot of those live dance party records there. When we played there, I would set up in the middle of the room. They had a sound booth over against the wall. and Garth would put a couple of his speakers into that sound booth so he could distort them, or whatever. The piano would be in a standard sort of place, and we’d pull a couple of chairs up for Robbie and Rick, and they’d pull up their amps beside them. We’d have a couple of barriers around the drums to keep them from leaking. We’d have the mikes on the amps. The bass would usually go direct, and we’d have live vocals.
The Big Beat: Conversations with Rock’s Great Drummers, Max Weinberg, 1984

Levon Helm
 There were sound baffles around the drums, and John Simon would kind of lean over them to discuss different drum ideas and strategies.
This Wheel’s On Fire, 1993

Baffling … ‘Take away all the baffles‘ v ‘There were sound baffles around the drums.’ The sound of cymbals and hi-hat are like WB40 penetrating oil. Without some kind of baffle they’re all over everything. Some studios put drums in a soundproof booth, as I know well. We have used a music studio for spoken voice ELT recording, and I was the voice of instructions for audio exercises. I found myself isolated in the drum booth after lunch because of stomach gurgling. I spent many unhappy and lonely hours there.

Or was it John Simon’s idea?

Robbie Robertson
John Simon was wonderful in helping translate what we were doing, with all of the limitations in technology back then, but Bob (Clearmountain) has gone so much deeper inside of the textures and the sonics of this record (the 50th Anniversary Remix). We’d started off recording in little isolated booths, unable to see each other. But we couldn’t create that way, because we couldn’t see each other, and play off each other and make eye contact. So John put us in a circle and recorded us that way, even though it presented technical problems. And all of a sudden the songs just blossomed.
Daily Beast 1 September 2018

However, check out the many photos of Beatles recording sessions at Abbey Road. Early on they are sitting or standing in a circle facing each other. In the Revolver sessions, you can see sound baffles around each of them. So in 1968, A&R were generally using baffles, but surely removing them was simply going back a few years?

Robbie mentions as if a revelation that they used different mics.

Robbie Robertson
John (Simon) said “Let’s use mics that only pick up what’s right in front of them. You know, those ElectroVoice RE15 mics. Do you have many of them? ‘We’ve got loads of them …’
‘They’re not high quality microphones,” Don cautioned …
Testimony, 2016

I take that with a pinch of salt. Bands always knew about unidirectional and omnidirectional mics. When I worked on a summer variety show in 1967, I was on lights, not sound. But we had to break down the set on Saturday night for a symphony concert the next day, which was done by ten of us. On Monday it had to be reset, and that was just three of us. There was a 16 piece band, and a careful mix of unidirectional and omnidirectional microphones. It wouldn’t have been a revelation that they had different characteristics. I Googled, and the ElectroVoice ER15 was then new … announced in 1967.

To me back in 1968, and still in 2018, the most remarkable thing throughout was the drum sound. On the 2018 remix, it’s even more startling.

Robbie Robertson
After months of being pounded down in the basement, the drums Levon was using sounded pretty dull. He was putting on new heads one day while I worked on a chord progression on the piano, and as he tuned the heads I noticed how deep and rich the drums now sounded. I asked him to leave the toms tuned low, so when you struck the head with a drumstick, it changed tonality and rang out with an ambiguous note. Levon somewhat reluctantly tuned the top and bottom skins of his toms much looser than normal, and when he played they rang out with a song of their own, as melodic as it was percussive … (later) By then Levon was into it and stopped to fine tune the drums even more. Pretty soon he was playing them like a stand up bass, and the rest of us had to leave room for them to breathe throughout the arrangement of a song.
Testimony 2016

That then-strange wonder of a Levon drum track came immediately the album started with Tears of Rage, Compared to the average rock drum part, it’s almost avant-garde.

Levon Helm
(Tears of Rage) had those trademark horns and organ and the moaning tom-tom style of drumming that I’ve been credited with by some observers, but I know that Ringo Starr was doing something like it at the same time. You make the drum notes bend down in pitch. You hit it, it sounds, and then it hums as the note dies out. If the ensemble is right, you can hear it sustain like a bell, and it’s very emotional. It can keep a slow song suspended in an interesting way … As a matter of fact, I found the tuning I used in Tears of Rage by tuning to the fluorescent lighting in the studio.
This Wheel’s On Fire, 1993

Garth Hudson
I was aware of sounds on records, and I didn’t hear much of anything we were doing. I think we were aware we were doing something new.
UNCUT 31 July 2015

The rest of the album was then recorded over a period of a month at Capitol’s own studio in Los Angeles, where an eight track machine was available. It seems Capitol were delighted with the New York sessions and happy to put more money into the Band. The Capitol Studio was free of charge, allowing more time to be spent, and it was cheaper for The Band to pay transport and accommodation in LA than pay for studio time.

Levon Helm
On our way to California to cut the tracks, Robbie had gone ahead with Albert (Grossman) who needed to talk big business at the Capitol Tower. Garth, Richard, Rick and I brought up the rear. Cash was still scarce, so Rick bought us the plane tickets with a credit card he’d gotten somehow.
This Wheel’s On Fire

Capitol in Los Angeles was not bothered about their wish to set up in a circle, seeing each other, probably because the engineer was less involved. A hassle was that this was a full union regulation studio, so John Simon was not allowed to actually touch the knobs and faders. I’ve spoken on how to use educational video material in Italy in union venues, where only the qualified local union technician could touch “pause” or “play”. That was even worse, as they spoke no English. The same used to happen until the late 80s on video shoots, where the director’s request to actually touch a camera or look through the eyepiece drew sharp intakes of unionized breath and mutters of “Film school,” the ultimate craft put-down. With sound faders saying “up one tenth of an inch” is not the way to do it. You fiddle it up and down and listen.

At one point, when Capitol’s studio was engaged, they recorded four tracks at Phil Spector’s Gold Star Studios in LA.

Levon Helm
I’d like to think we took the time to put them together right and get them recorded pretty good. We didn’t use a lot of tricks. It sounds like what it was, with good clean miking. You just try to get good sounds on all the instruments as opposed to a lot of fancy electronic sounds. The things we found that worked we used more often, and the stuff that didn’t work we quit doing. I’m proud of my part in it. Some of it I probably could’ve done better if I had another chance, but I was pretty lucky, and I’m happy with it. Interview by Ray Waddell, Boston Globe 6th June 2000

The impact on rock … (added section, 2018)

The 2018 Uncut special Bob Dylan & The Band draws out more quotes.

Al Kooper
Big Pink became its own category. People still say about other bands, “That sorta sounds like The Band,” and I always reply, “Yeah, sorta,” but no one else has ever had the writing, arrangement or similar vocal prowess to really compete with it.”
Quoted in Uncut 2018 Band special.

the-weight-bloomfield-kooper-copy1

Eric Clapton and George Harrison are always cited as early devotees.

Eric Clapton
What brought me up short was being introduced to the music of The Band by … Alan Parisier … He had tapes of their first album called Music From Big Pink and it was fantastic. It stopped me in my tracks and it also highlighted all the problems that I thought (Cream) had. Here was a band that was really doing it right, incorporating influences from country music, blues, jazz and rock, and writing great songs. I couldn’t help but compare them to us, which was futile and stupid, but I was frantically ooking for a yardstick, and here it was.
Eric Clapton: The Autobiography, 2007

Eric Clapton went to visit them in Woodstock.

Eric Clapton
I really sort of went there to ask if I could join the band! But I didn’t have the guts to say it.
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame speech, 1994

Eric Clapton
The Band had a great effect on me. I’d never really liked country music. I always thought it was oversentimental. This is when I was into being very aggressive and playing just straight blues. Country music was just sloppy. But the Band bridged the gap. The Byrds got there quite early. But the Band gave it a bite that country music just didn’t seem to have before.
SOUNDS,October 1976

Paul McCartney added Take a load off fanny … as the Beatles played out a TV version of Hey Jude.

Jonathan Gould
Throughout the sessions (for Let It Be) at Twickenham, George Harrison had made no secret of his admiration for The Band, whose extended rehearsals in the basement of their house in Woodstock had yielded the songs for Music From Big Pink. To some extent, The Beatles’ decision to reocate to the basement of Apple was to cater for George’s enthusiasm for turning the foundering film and album project into their own version of Music From Big Green. In a further nod to the gospel-influenced timbres of The Band’s music, Harrison asked the American organist Billy Preston to sit in with the group when they began rehearsing at Apple.
Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain & America, 2007

The early 1990s Band went full circle when Billy Preston joined them briefly. He played as a Band member live, but the venture ended when he went to prison.

Robbie Robertson
I just recently got a message from Donald Fagen. He was listening to “Let It Be- Naked” and he said “Oh, my God! Were these guys ever influenced by The Band.’

Add in some of Abbey Road … Carry That Weight? The End?

There’s a snippet of Elvis Presley doing I Shall Be Released on Walk A Mile In My Shoes: The Complete 70s Masters.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin were completely enthralled. First on Elton John, but totally on Tumbleweed Connection, right down to the cover shot echoing the brown album. On to Madman Across The Water, and we have the songs Levon and Tiny Dancer. The Tiny Dancer is “LA Seamstress to the band” or possibly “LA Seamstress to The Band.” How erudite was Taupin on Shakespeare? Seamstress was a 16th century slang word for prostitute (she got lots of pricks … the bard’s joke, not mine.) A good story, but Bernie Taupin said it was really inspired by his first wife, Maxine, who did create Elton’s stage clothes. The clincher is “With love to Maxine” on the credits for the song.

Elton John
When I heard The Band’s Music from Big Pink, their music changed my life. And Levon was a big part of that band. Nigel Olson, my drummer, will tell you that every drummer that heard him was influenced by him. He was the greatest drummer and a wonderful singer and just a part of my life that was magical. They once flew down to see me in Philadelphia and I couldn’t believe it. They were one of the greatest bands of all time. They really changed the face of music when their records came out. I had no idea (Levon) was sick so I’m very dismayed and shocked that he died so quickly. But now my son, Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John, has his name.”
Entertainment, 19 April 2012 (Levon Helm tributes)

The Grateful Dead have been explicit on the huge impact on first Workingman’s Dead (note the sleeve again) and on American Beauty. It’s said they enlisted David Crosby to teach them how to do three part vocals ‘like The Band.’

Look at Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Deja Vu sleeve. Another major attempt to emulate the brown album, though The Band would have eschewed gold printing.

Fairport Convention had already covered If You Gotta Go as Si tu dois partir and in 2018 have rounded up their various Dylan covers on a CD A Tree With Roots, which includes several Basement songs: Too Much of Nothing, Million Dollar Bash, Down In The Flood, Open The Door Richard, Jack O’Diamonds. So their interest predated Big Pink, but it was Big Pink that decided them on the path of doing the equivalent of Americana for English folk.

Richard Thompson
We loved the rootsiness. They seamlessly blended Americana styles – blues, country, rock, R&B, Appalachian – and regurgitated it all with their own unique sound. I think there was considerable cultural impact for us to. These guys had short hair and suits, totally against the fashions and styles of the day.
Quoted in Uncut 2018 Band special.

Joe Boyd (producer)Big Pink hit the UK like a ton of bricks. It was an unexpected and perfect bridge between the working-class roadhouse music of the South and the folkies who were studying American roots music like a thesis … My belief is that Big Pink guided Fairport away from “American” music as they had been doing and forced them to create something as “British” as Big Pink was “American.”
Quoted in Uncut 2018 Band special

Take Traffic, the “British equivalent of The Band.” They were ahead of The Band in “getting it together in the country” but followed Fairport Convention’s explorations in John Barleycorn Must Die ‘s title track in 1970.

Van Morrison has said that Brand New Day from Moondance was inspired by I Shall Be Released.

Uncut picked up an unexpected link … Pink Floyd.

Roger Waters
That one record changed everything for me. After Sgt Pepper it’s the most influential record in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. It affected Pink Floyd deeply, deeply, deeply. Philosophically other albums may have been more important, like Lennon’s first solo album. But sonically, the way the record’s constructed, is fundamental to everything that happened after it.
Dallas Morning News, 2008

That reminds me of Wembley 74, when we were sitting behind two guys. During The Band’s set one exclaimed, ‘Wow, sounds like Pink Floyd!’ but of course that was during Garth Hudson’s long solo The Genetic Method intro to Chest Fever.

Nick Lowe is a long time devotee, and Brinsley Schwarz were major Band fans. Listen to the early albums. Add Roger Morris’s solo album of the same period.

I’ll add one. Supertramp. They were formed from adverts in Melody Maker and sent off to “get it together in the country” with a copy of Music From Big Pink (and Horace Silver).That’s why they chose a Wurlitzer electric piano for the percussive effect, not a Fender Rhodes. Richard Davies had twin keyboards, a Hammond and the Wurlitzer, but early on contemplated adding a piano player (Gilbert O’Sullivan in fact). They had three singers. Two years later, Roger Hodgson started using the Wurlitzer and you can hear the influence of Richard Manuel’s “rhythm piano.” A song from the first incarnation of Supertramp was The Gold Rush, a conscious attempt to emulate The Band. They tried to record it several times, and it finally surfaced on Slow Motion 2002.

Every musician I knew was influenced by it. This is from my Tribute to John Wetton article.

I once had a cover version to myself. John knew I’d written extensively on The Band. I went to get him for lunch and I mentioned a furious debate on The Band Guestbook on the chords at the start of The Weight, which apparently every bar band gets slightly wrong. One erudite guitarist had written and explained that one chord was one note “out” or different to expectations. John said, ‘Hang on, let’s see …’ picked up his acoustic guitar, thought for a few seconds and played the intro perfectly. Then once he’d started he played and sang the first two verses, word perfect, then as he was sitting on the piano stool, turned and finished it on piano. ‘Have you ever played it before?’ I asked. ‘Nah, but I’ve always loved it.’ I know that to be true … in the days when John was with Family and could pick up Warner-Reprise freebie LPs, he saw that Karen and I both had copies of Music From Big Pink on our shelf. He swapped one for three of his free Grateful Dead albums. ‘Three?’ I said. ‘It’s me that’s got the bargain,’ John said.

Note: he was word perfect, more than forty years on. John also explained that Rick Danko was akin to Paul McCartney in playing notes that the average jobbing bassist would never have thought of.

From the same era, the Scottish band Forever More’s two albums always make me think of The Band, with folk and soul influences right up together. (They later became the core of the Average White Band.)

In 1969 and 1970 it was simply the album every musician seemed to own. There are “musicians’ albums” … in late 1970 everyone I knew in music had a copy of Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats too. A year later it was What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. A couple of years earlier it was Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends.

the-wight-aretha-copy

Re-reading those impressions, they mention everything except soul, and soul was the one that leapt out to me from the outset. Richard Manuel’s voice goes into “Deep Soul” territory and as noted, it was soul singers … Aretha Franklin, The Staples, Diana Ross with The Supremes and Temptations, Odell Brown, King Curtis, Rotary Connection, Dionne Warwick, Chambers Brothers … who were covering The Weight.

The lyrics

Robbie Robertson
I hate having (lyrics on albums) now. I say ‘Is my diction so bad?’ People piss and moan about it, but I don’t like it. When I read other people’s lyrics on their sleeves I think they look stupid. If I read the lyrics to some of my favourite songs, they don’t mean shit to me. But if I hear ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’, it is so powerful and emotional. All I want out of any of these songs is the right emotion. I don’t give a shit what the lyrics are. Dylan rambled on way too much for my liking. I remember years ago saying to him: ‘listen to ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’; I like this more than any of the songs we’re playing. This is emotional to me; our songs are clever. I don’t care for clever. Let’s try and get somewhere that has an emotional thing.
Vox Magazine, October 1991

The track which Robertson urged Dylan to listen to varies every time he has retold the story, sometimes its Smokey Robinson, sometimes it’s Curtis Mayfield  – but it’s always a soul classic, so we get the idea.

Robbie Robertson
I have a funny attitude to words though. I grew up on rock ‘n’ roll music and there were no words on the back of the album. I learned the words to all of Little Richard’s songs the best I could, and what I couldn’t figure out didn’t matter. 
Rolling Stone 27 December 1969

Here’s Richard Manuel’s take on the words:

Ruth Albert Spencer
You never put the lyreics on the albums. You always have to listen about twenty times to get the words.
Richard Manuel
No not on the album (Big Pink). But on most of our albums we had them on the sleeve.
Ruth Albert Spencer
No, no.
Richard Manuel
Yes, on most of them we did.
Ruth Albert Spencer
No, honey.
Richard Manuel
I definitely remember. The lyrics are on there.
Ruth Albert Spencer
No. They were never written out. You’d just have to figure them out.
Richard Manuel
Well, then, they gave me phony covers and jackets.
The Woodstock Times, 21 March 1985

Greil Marcus
When the music (on Big Pink) is most exciting – when the guitar is fighting for space in the clatter while voices yelp and wail as one man finishes another man’s line or spins it off in a new direction – the lyrics are blind baggage and they emerge only in snatches. This is the finest rock ‘n’ roll tradition.
Mystery Train.

Ronnie Hawkins recalled how Roy Orbison remembered the words of Mary Lou for him. That was happening all the time with rock songs. When I was at school, and every kid wanted to be in a group, we’d swop lyrics to Stones songs or Chuck Berry songs. You were never quite sure what the words actually were. Take Memphis, Tennessee. The song sheet says that his uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall. It surely doesn’t sound like that. Most bands in my area voted for ‘the phone boy took the message …’. I once gained instant acclaim by sweating out the words to Route 66 from a detailed atlas while the Stones version cranked tinnily out of the Dansette behind me – and looking back I made a few mistakes even with the atlas. Most British groups just used to mouth meaningless noises –

‘See a Murillo, gallop to Mexico, and half of Arizona, don’t forget to phone ya, winston, dumadumdum, saint bernadine, oh, what you’ or crap to that effect.

Chuck Berry sang ‘Jack, take my way’, everybody else, including Mick Jagger, sang ‘Just take my way’. And Berry’s words were an example of great clarity compared to Little Richard. Robbie is quite serious when he says he believes lyrics should be part-heard, part-understood. That’s the difference between a song and a poem. Good rock is not poetry (however widely you want to define poetry) set to music. Rock is something else. Few great songs are transparent in meaning. Many of the best are not-quite-heard.

On top of that, Robbie got the confidence to write lyrics whilst working closely with Dylan at Dylan’s most impressionistic stage. I wouldn’t regard Robbie as a disciple of Dylan. As The Band is musically more thought out and and polished that almost anything Dylan has done, a Robertson lyric generally seems more carefully-honed than a Dylan lyric. The lyrics throughout Big Pink are considerably less transparent and more fragmented than those on their second album, but this is nothing that needs apologising for. I’ve enjoyed the music (and the words) on Big Pink for years without feeling any compulsion to see them written out, or to puzzle out detailed meanings. The music gives a mood, and the words heighten and enhance it.

THE ALBUM TRACK BY TRACK:

The “who played what” (and when) is from the listing in the Band box set “A Musical History” where possible.

Tears of Rage
Written by Bob Dylan & Richard Manuel.

Richard Manuel: Lead Vocal & Piano
Rick Danko: Bass, vocal
Robbie Robertson: Electric Guitar
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ & Soprano Sax
Levon Helm: Drums
John Simon: Baritone horn, tambourine

Recorded 10 January, 1968 A& R Studios, NYC

This broke every perceived rule of album programming. You were supposed to start out with a rocker, then do the slow ballad. Instead Music From Big Pink opens with this slow, stately song sung by Richard Manuel.

Levon Helm
Tears of Rage opened the album with a slow song, which was just another way of our rebelling against the rebellion. Few artists had ever opened an album with a slow song, so we had to. At the zenith of the psychedelic era with its flaming guitar solos and endless elongated jams, we weren’t about to make that kind of album.
This Wheel’sOn Fire, 1993

The philosophy behind the song was often quoted in articles on The Band. In direct contrast to the mood of the times, they were not writing about hating their parents or breaking away from their families – hence the ‘Next of Kin’ photo on the centrefold of the album. These are typical quotes:

Robbie Robertson
You know the punky attitude that had to do with music – hate your mother and stab your father. It’s kind of a trend of some sort, and this  (the next of kin photo)was a statement that we weren’t there. We don’t hate our mothers and fathers. It (Tears of Rage)’s from a parent’s point of view. So what if your parents did you wrong? Maybe they did, but so what? Everybody’s doing what they can do, right or wrong. I’m just tired of hearing all this – that little girl, Janis Ian. You know, Jim Morrison and all those people. I just think that they’re a drag. Even if that is their situation, who cares?
Rolling Stone, 27 December 1969

Of course everybody ignored the fact that the Manuel melody had a Dylan lyric, not a Robertson or Manuel one. It appears by Dylan and The Band in three versions on the bootlegs from the unofficial basement tapes, and again on the official 1975 releaseThe Basement Tapes.  All three predate Music From Big Pink,  but none of them had been released at the time of the album.

The 2000 CD reissue added Tears of Rage (alternate take)

The Basement Tapes  Bob Dylan version has strong vocal backing from Richard and Rick, a more dominant organ part, but a similar fragility and mood. It would have been recorded before Levon returned to the fold. Because it was done with Dylan (who also sings it superbly) it had not been worked on to anything like the degree of the Big Pink version. As well as consideranble instrumental polishing, the lyrics had been tidied in small details throughout in The Band’s version.

Richard Manuel
(Dylan) came down to the basement with a piece of typewritten paper – and it was typed out – in line form – and he just said ‘Have you got any music for this?’ I had a couple of musical movements that fit, that seemed to fit, so I just elaborated a little bit, because I wasn’t sure what the lyrics meant. I couldn’t run upstairs and say, ‘What’s this mean Bob? Now the heart is filled with gold as if it was a purse.’
The Woodstock Times, 21 March 1985

Greil Marcus
One hears a pure naked emotion in some of Dylan’s writing and singing – in Tears of Rage especially – that can’t be found anywhere else, and I think it is the musical sympathy Dylan and The Band shared in these sessions that gives Tears of Rage, and other numbers their remarkable depth and power.
Sleeve notes to The Basement Tapes, 1975

Never mind who wrote it, it seemed to sum the Band up, and certainly everything they had to say to interviewers fitted the song:

We carried you in our arms
on Independence Day
Now you throw us all aside
and put us all away
Oh ,what dear daughter neath the sun
could treat a father so?
To wait upon him hand and foot
yet always tell him  no?
Tears of rage, tears of grief,
why must I always be the thief?

Dylan was already a parent; none of The Band were, but the song is still surprising because it’s not till kids are teenage that you get that feeling (though one supposes they’d all spent time considerable listening on the road to nubile teenaged girls moaning about their parents). Looking at the song from my ageing viewpoint, it is full of powerful resonances. But the song was written by two men in their twenties. Never mind that it’s a Dylan song. The Band arranged it. They placed it in its position of total prominence. Richard sang it. As commentators have pointed out, oddly it sounds more like a Robertson song rather than Manuel or Dylan, but this is being wise after the event.

The magic image it starts with is the family group on Independence Day, a national holiday where parents watch parades, kids in arms. But of course the problem is that when kids arrive at their own personal day for independence – a mirror of the initial Independence Day – you can’t carry them in your arms anymore, even metaphorically. 

To Kingdom Come
by Jaime Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson: Lead Vocal & Electric Guitar
Richard Manuel: Piano, vocal
Rick Danko: Bass, vocal
Levon Helm: Drums, vocal
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ

Recorded February 1968, Capitol Studios, LA

This is unusual in that Robbie sings it. Levon comes across as pretty uncharitable in his comment years later:

Levon Helm
(It) was Robbie’s song and he sang it – the last time he sang on one of our records for years. Robbie didn’t sing, wasn’t a singer, didn’t like to sing, but he sang on this one.
Levon Helm & Stephen Davis, This Wheel’s On Fire, 1993

Robbie Robertson
I plugged in Garth’s black box and turned off the fan / Leslie effect and switched on my tremelo to see what it sounded like in the guitar solos … Levon coached me through the vocal, when to hit it harder and when to pull back, and we laid it down in just a couple of takes.Testimony 2016

It was written during the recording session. It never seemed a particularly prominent song in their repetoire – until that is it gave its title to the ‘definitive collection’ of their work in 1989. The first two-thirds of the song is all Manuel, Danko and Helm, with a tour de force bass performance from Danko throughout. The last third of the song is an extended guitar showcase for Robbie – a highly unusual thing for The Band. Listen to Robbie’s guitar part, then listen to Clapton and Harrison on side two of Abbey Road recorded a year later. The Robertson influence screams out at you on the latter, both stylistically and melodically.

Some critics have heard the voice of the sideshow preacher which echoes on through Robbie’s work, via the carnival atmosphere of W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show on Stage Fright, then the film Carny to Soapbox Preacher on the Storyville  album nearly 25 years later. In spite of the jumbled wealth of religious imagery, of ‘waiting for the end to come along’, and of ‘a golden calf pointing back at me’, I can’t see a preacher there at all. There’s obviously something about temptation and judgement, but come to that, I can’t make head nor tail of the first couple of lines anyway. There is an interesting comparison with The Weight in the way Robbie mixes religious images with American themes (I pulled into Nazareth …). The recurring line ‘tarred and feathered, yeah, thistled and thorned’ does this, in that ‘tarring and feathering’ conjures up Mark Twain and Brer Rabbit and being run out of town, while ‘thistled and thorned’ brings in Jesus – and the narrator is given the choice between the two fates.

A longer version (3m 57s instead of 3m12s) appears on A Musical History. According to Rob Bowman’s liner notes, To Kingdom Come was the last song to be assigned to the album.

In A Station
Written by  by Richard Manuel

Richard Manuel: Lead Vocal & Piano
Rick Danko: Bass, vocal
Robbie Robertson: guitars
Garth Hudson: Clavinette, organ
Levon Helm: Drums, vocal

Recorded 13th February 1968, Capitol Studios, LA

Richard Manuel sings lead vocal. He said that the song was ‘totally inspired by Overlook Mountain’ just above Woodstock, and expounds on the idea in this extract from a 1985 interview with The Woodstock Times.

Ruth Albert Spencer
… to me (it’s) the ultimate song about Woodstock and Overlook Mountain.
Richard Manuel
‘Once I climbed up the face of a mountain’
Ruth Albert Spencer
I’ve done that, fallen asleep out there.
Richard Manuel
And that ‘taste your hair’. You know, when your hair has been baking in the sun. It gets a whole aroma … bouquet, shall we say.
Ruth Albert Spencer
Of the grass?
Richard Manuel
No, your hair. Just your hair – out in the sun – the hot sun. I always liked that line, ‘I could taste your hair’. And also, to type it out, it looks good on paper.
The Woodstock Times, 21 March 1985

Actually, that only covers the theme of one verse of the song, though it’s the verse that sticks in the mind most. The song is called In A Station, not ‘On A Mountain’, and the first line (Once I walked through the halls of a station, someone called your name) invokes the huge stations of Toronto and/or New York. The narrator wanders through a series of settings (the station, the streets, the mountain) lost in fragrant memory. It’s all archtypal Manuel, adding to the mythologising that his sad end provokes.

Levon Helm
(Richard) used to call it his George Harrison song, by which he meant it was spiritual. I’ve heard this song described as ‘visionary.’ I agree with that assessment.
This Wheel’s On Fire

Caledonia Mission
Written by Robertson.

Rick Danko: Lead Vocal & Bass
Richard Manuel: Back Vocal, drums
Robbie Robertson: Electric Guitar & Acoustic Guitar
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ
Levon Helm: Acoustic guitar
John Simon: Piano

I’d enjoyed it for years without ever trying to analyse the lyrics, so much so that in my copy of the I-Ching (dating I hasten to add from 1970) I was surprised to see inscribed in my own much younger hand a quote from the lyrics:

‘I do believe in your hexagram,
but can you tell me how they all knew the plan?’

Then I checked through the 1969 Hawkins interview.

Ronnie HawkinsI do understand the lyrics though, and better than most people. That one about Caledonia Mission and being surrounded by Mounties, that was one time they got busted at the border. They’re writing about true things, the things that happened to us along the way.
Rolling Stone, 9th August 1969

Levon Helm agrees (and he was there):

Levon Helm
Richard sang the lyrics that alluded to  the little problem we’d  had with the law a few years earlier.
Levon Helm & Stephen Davis, This Wheel’s On Fire

The bust occurred just before they joined with Dylan and had maximum publicity in Toronto. Levon & The Hawks had been trailed by eight RCMP cars for the hundred miles between the U.S. border and Toronto before being arrested. It caused them hassle for years (read Levon’s autobiography for the hilarious details).

Rick Danko
We got set up. This guy was trying to impress my girlfriend. None of us would have known him, but he knew what time we were coming through the border that day, and he told the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that we were bringing in a trunkful of pot.
Quoted in Levon Helm / Stephen Davis, ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’.

Hmm. I had to relisten a lot of times to get anywhere near that interpretation. There’s obviously some sort of betrayal in the song, and the woman is prevented from seeing the narrator by a magistrate. I’d always half-guessed that it was some kind of parental injunction pulling them apart. Listen and try and find the RCMP version. There are hints there, I guess:

The singer makes some kind of arrangement with a woman who can foretell the future but lives is some kind of hidebound traditional way. Someone gives the singer a ‘remedy’ which makes it hard for him to see or feel. He thinks that ‘this magic might be real’. The woman is locked away from him, she’s locked away by a magistrate who  thinks her tears are a lie, but the singer doesn’t doubt that she wants to escape. The dogs won’t bother her. He’s got a hiding place they’ll never find, but fate comes in – ‘they’ all knew the plan. Did she trip or slip on their gifts? Why did she do it? The singer is hiding out in the dawn. He leaves condemning her to stay in the mission hall down in (old dark? / Modock?) Arkansas.

OK, that could all relate to a betrayed attempt to carry something across a border, a runaway seems as likely as dope, maybe it was both.  I didn’t find the border necessary, and saw it as more universal, and that is the secret of The Band at their best. The stories may be based in real events, but are polished into a mythic dimension.

Cathy Smith, mother of “The Band baby” recounts the Hawks being busted in her autobiography Chasing The Dragon. She was under age, and claims she was sent to a hotel to seduce the arresting cop, then tell him her age. Whether that’s the same bust or another, who knows … but The Band don’t come out shining with glory in her account.

Caledonia Mission later reappears in a rather ragged version (the horns are intrusive rather than complementary) on Rock of Ages, with the last line changed from ‘down in (old dark?) Arkansas’ to ‘on a river bank in Caledonia’ for no apparent reason, except that modifying lines live is a Danko habit. It was also an unexpected revival throughout the 1994 to 1996 live shows.

Having checked the AAA Road Atlas of Arkansas, there is no town called Caledonia in Arkansas, though there is a tiny town called Caledonia just north of Columbus, Mississippi, a good 120 miles east of the Mississippi River, which forms the Arkansas – Mississippi border. Maybe someone had pointed out to them that Caledonia wasn’t in Arkansas (If you can remember the sixties …). Even so, the nearest sizeable river to Caledonia is a couple of miles away. Barney Hoskins calls it  ‘a wrly oblique song of longing for a missionary in the non-existent town of Modock, Arkansas’ The mystery deepens. Where did Hoskyns get the word ‘Modock’ from? It might be ‘old dark’ or ‘Modock’ – whatever, Rick had dropped it by Rock of Ages . And I haven’t seen the sheet music. Maybe he had. A look back at the AAA atlas reveals a tiny town called ‘Moark’ right below the Arkansas / Missouri border, just off Highway 67 – and taking a runaway across a state line would have been a federal offence (Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry step forward). Neighbouring settlements are called Supply, Success, Biggers, Tipperary and Attica.

Funnily enough, Hoskyns refers to the 1975 song Ring Your Bell from Northern Lights as being ‘Robbie’s account of the band getting busted by Mounties at the Canadian border’  but that song appeared six years after the Ronnie Hawkins interview. (It does contain the lines ‘run that rebel across the tracks, with the mounties on his trail’) Same incident, two songs about it? Ronnie Hawkins reading the tea leaves accurately? Well, that’s the point of not putting the lyrics on the sleeve, I guess.

The Weight
by Jaime Robbie Robertson

Levon Helm: Drums, vocal
Rick Danko: Bass, vocal
Richard Manuel: Organ, vocal
Robbie Robertson: Acoustic Guitar
Garth Hudson: Piano

Recorded 12 January 1968, A&R Studios, NYC

The Weight: repro 7″ single from the 2018 50th Anniversary box set

The Weight is the centrepiece of the album, both musically and lyrically. First, Robbie Robertson on The Weight:

Robert Palmer
When you wrote something like ‘The Weight, did you work over the lyrics a lot, condensing, sharpening the imagery?
Robbie Robertson
Well, hopefully, I would write more than I needed, It was mostly a matter of ‘Are these pictures getting this thing across?’ and knowing I only had so much time to tell this story in. Sometimes it was condensing, sometimes it was searching, sometimes it was beating my head against the wall. And I never developed a method or a particular technique. It was all just wrenching it out of your gut.
Rolling Stone 14 November 1991

Robbie Robertson
I just wrote it. It’s just one of those things. I thought of a couple of words that led to a couple more, and the next thing I knew I wrote the song. That song was the only song on ‘Music From Big Pink’ that we never did rehearse. We just figured that it was a simple song, and when it came up we gave it a try and recorded it three or four times. We said that’s fine, maybe we’ll use it. We didn’t even know if we were going to use it, and it turned out to be the album.
Rolling Stone 27 December 1969

Robbie Robertson
The following day I played the tune for the guys to see if it might be a contender. They reacted very strongly to the song’s possibilities, but I mostly thought of it as a fallback tune in case one of the other songs didn’t work out.
Testimony, 2016

Robbie Robertson
We had tried it a number of different ways, but we weren’t that excited about it. So we were in the studio, and just out of trying to not be boring, we said, ‘Well, let’s give that “Take a load off Fanny” song a shot. We recorded it, and it wasn’t until we listened back to it that we realized, ‘Holy shit, this song’s really got something.
Guitar Player, 1995

Robbie Robertson
When I wrote ‘The Weight’, the first song for ‘Music From Big Pink’, it had a kind of American mythology I was reinventing using my connection to the universal language. The Nazareth in ‘The Weight’ was Nazareth, Pennsylvania. It was a little off-handed – ‘I pulled into Nazareth’. Well I don’t know if the Nazareth that Jesus came from is the kind of place you pull into, but I do know that you pull into Nazareth, Pennsylvania! I’m experimenting with North American mythology. I didn’t mean to take sacred, precious things and turn them into humour.
Interview in Vox, October 1991

(On the album, The Weight closes side one, so Robertson must mean it was the first song written for Big Pink. )

Robbie Robertson
(Buñuel) did so many films on the impossibility of sainthood. People trying to be good in ‘Viridiana’ and ‘Nazarin’, people trying to do their thing. In ‘The Weight’ it’s the same thing. People like Buñuel would make films that had these religious connotations to them but it wasn’t necessarily a religious meaning. In Buñuel there were these people trying to be good and it’s impossible to be good. In ‘The Weight’ it was this very simple thing. Someone says, ‘Listen, would you do me this favour? When you get there will you say “hello” to somebody or will you give somebody this or will you pick up one of these for me? Oh? You’re going to Nazareth, that’s where the Martin guitar factory is. Do me a favour when you’re there.’ This is what it’s all about. So the guy goes and one thing leads to another and it’s like ‘Holy Shit, what’s this turned into? I’ve only come here to say “hello” for somebody and I’ve got myself in this incredible predicament.’ It was very Buñuelish to me at the time.
Interviewed by Rob Bowman, sleeve notes to To Kingdom Come compilation

(The Martin guitar factory is indeed in Nazareth Pennsylvania.)

Norwegian 45 of The Weight

The Weight has been painting pictures for me for nearly twenty-five years now; it’s an intensely visual song, and my pictures aren’t of anywhere making guitars in Pennsylvania. My Nazareth is a dusty western town sometime in the late 19th century.  Neighbouring towns might be called Jerusalem or Babylon … or Jericho (which was a deliberate reference in the Band’s comeback album title in 1993).  Carmen and the devil are strutting their stuff in red silk dresses, fringed with black cat fur, along a wooden sidewalk. Chester is the town character straight out of the TV series Gunsmoke  which was set in Dodge City in the 1880s. Gunsmoke  ran from 1955 to 1975 and was the archtypal TV western. Chester Goode was the name of the deputy marshall in the series who spent his time limping rapidly along the dusty main street dragging his ramrod-stiff gammy leg. In the TV series, Chester had a catch-phrase. As he limped after the town marshall, Matt Dillon, he used to shout out ‘Marshall Dillon!’, ‘Marshall Dillon!’ (Marshall Dylan! Marshall Dylan?)

Over-interpretation? I’ve half-jokingly been pointing this out for years. After writing this, I saw the article ‘Brief Encounter: Dave Berger’ (The Telegraph, Autumn 1992). Berger says that ‘Marshall Dillon’ was his 1961 nickname for Bob Dylan.

Carmen might be the programme’s Miss Kitty, who owned the Longbranch Saloon – a tart with a heart. Old Luke’s another town character (not from the TV series this time) whose rockin’ chair ain’t goin’ nowhere, as he puffs his pipe waiting on the judgement day. The Cannonball steams into the station, a great cow-catcher across the front. Pure Americana…

OK, a Cannonball summons up a streamlined 1930’s train, and a wild west Carmen wouldn’t be invited ‘Come on let’s go downtown’ because the one-street town I see wouldn’t distinguish between town and downtown.  Chester caught the narrator in the fog, which doesn’t conjure the west much either. John Simon, who produced the album says that ‘Crazy Chester’ was a real person, known to the members of the Band Levon Helm maintains that everyone in the song was known to them.

Levon Helm
The song was full of our favorite characters. ‘Luke’ was Jimmy Ray Paulman  (of The Hawks). ‘Young Anna Lee’ was Anna Lee Williams from Turkey Scratch. ‘Crazy Chester’ was a guy we all knew from Fayetteville who came into town on Saturdays wearing a full set of cap guns on his hips … he was like Hopalong Cassidy and a friend of The Hawk’s.
Levon Helm & Stephen Davis, This Wheel’s On Fire

Levon’s quote places Luke in the Wild West as well, albeit a fake Wild West. It doesn’t matter. Other people place the mystic town in the Deep South. The lyrics are impressionistic and will live with your picture as well as my picture and whatever Robbie’s picture and Levon’s picture might have been.


A Time magazine article in 1970 read the beginning of the song as a meeting between an old testament character and a 1970 rock musician:

I pulled into Nazareth
Was feelin’ ‘bout half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head
‘Hey, Mister can you tell me where a man might find a bed?’
He just grinned and shook my hand
And ‘no’ was all he said.

It sounds pretty New Testament  – no room at the inn, but this Nazareth is set in an American landscape. The guy he meets is a town booster – a-skinnin’ and a-grinnin’, but has zero to offer. It might be that a rock musician pulls into Nazareth, Pennsylvania but if so, Nazareth warps itself into the biblical town then into a western town before his eyes. Robbie liked playing with time and place. In Up On Cripple Creek he leaps from the 1890s Colorado gold rush (at Cripple Creek) to Lake Charles, Louisiana watching Spike Jones on the box, presumably in the 1950s.

I’ve heard a few interpretations – a Canadian musician swore to me in 1971 that ‘Take a load off Fanny’ was all about catching and disseminating the clap (= a load), and that there was a double take – ‘off’ could also be ‘of’ (presumably using the  English sense of the word ‘fanny’ rather than the American one) – Take a load off Fanny /of Fanny, and you put the load right on me. The clap is Miss Fanny’s regards to everyone. Of course, being Canadian, he claimed to have been told this directly by a member of The Band.  Twenty years later, another Canadian assured me that this was perfectly true, again tracing the explanation to an un-named Band member. I can easily believe that a Band member told someone this, but it doesn’t mean it’s true. I’m interested that this particular story is so widespread, and so ignored by Robertson when he’s talking about the lyrics. While we’re worrying about intepretations of a load, move over to The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

Load: A burden of affliction, sin, responsibility etc; a thing which weighs down, opresses or impedes a person.
Load: a material object or force which acts or is conceived as a weight, cog etc.
Load: = DOSE slang, 20th century (dose= an infection with venereal disease)

So maybe a dose of clap is part of the weight, or more likely, a symbol of the weight. The same Canadian source thought that verse 3 was about a bordello (Go Down Miss Moses … there’s nothing you can say …).  On the other hand, ‘Go Down Moses’ is the title of a short story by William Faulkner, which in turn gives its name to a collection of seven stories about the South. Robbie has mentioned a fondness for Faulkner. Barney Hoskyns says the characters are like characters from a story by William Faulkner or Carson McCullers (in Across The Great Divide).

Faulkner’s story is about an African-American small-town crook, Samuel Beauchamp, who is on death row in Chicago (about to ‘go down’ for first degree murder). His grandmother in Mississippi is trying to pay for his body to be brought home after execution . The story is told through the eyes of a newspaper man who visits her house just before the execution (waiting on the judgment day?) and everyone’s chanting:

‘He could hear a third voice, which would be that of Hamp’s wife – a true constant soprano which ran without words beneath the strophe and antistrophe of the brother and sister:
‘Sold him in Egypt and now he dead.’
‘Oh, yes, Lord. Sold him in Egypt …’
… ‘Sold him to Pharoah
‘And now he dead.’ 
William Faulkner, Go Down Moses, (1942)

This semi-gospel song has a wordless soprano running behind it, then. (Richard Manuel’s part?). When they’re talking about raising the money for a coffin, the newspaper man says:

‘And I understand that old Luke Beauchamp had some money in the bank.’

Critics argue that all seven stories in ‘Go Down Moses’ form an episodic novel. Five of the stories feature the same family, which has both white and black descendants. Race relations are central to the book, and of course The Weight blends black gospel and white country.  Lucas Beauchamp (old Luke), was black, the central character and the grandfather of the condemned man. He features most heavily in ‘The Fire and The Hearth’. I don’t for a moment think that Robbie was making a deliberate and directly parallel literary reference, but there has to be some atmosphere derived from the Faulkner collection.  I don’t even know why the last story is called ‘Go Down Moses’ as it was surely Joseph who was sold into captivity.

One commentator swore that The Weightwas all about dope dealing (assuming a rather literal and mundane sense of ‘a weight’ and interpreting ‘fix your rack’ as ‘fix your pain … by giving you a fix’).  Websters Dictionary gives rack as ‘a cause of anguish or pain or the resulting suffering.’ It also gives an obsolete meaning ‘the shock of meeting’. Then Dave Marsh talks about ‘Luke with his bag sinking low’ which has got to be a misinterpretation. David Hatch and Stephen Millward think the mistress-hired hand theme is central (with Miss Fanny as the mistress who sent the narrator on the errand), and that it reoccurs in Unfaithful Servant from the second album.

If you want to get really heavy (and you have majored in American Literature) you can even say that the narrator fits into the classic myth of the American Adam, the innocent abroad, the seeker with eyes wide open walking into situations of threat and confusion. Greil Marcus has convincingly followed this theme through the first three Band albums.

I feel the load is something deeper and darker and more unnameable than the responsibility of bearing a message. You don’t have to see anyone else’s pictures, but all the levels can co-exist.  We should expect that the lyrics should remain enigmatic. Robbie broke his rule on Cahoots, where his worst ever lyrics got printed on the sleeve (Mind you, a lot of writers would give their right arms for Robbie’s worst lyrics). I’m still not sure what ‘I will fix your rack, if you’ll take Jack my dog’ is about… and I don’t really know if I want to know.

The Band’s trademark of swopping lead on the vocals is here. In the original studio version, there are two voices for the narrator of the song – Levon does most of it (verses 1, 2, 3, 5), but Rick takes the fourth verse (Crazy Chester …). Richard Manuel is taking the high, often wordless, part in the background. In later versions by The Band, it’s certainly Richard preceding Levon as narrator on the third verse (Go Down Miss Moses …) then still Rick on the fourth (Crazy Chester …).  They were already doing it this way by the time of their first concert at Winterland in June 1969, and have stuck with it ever since (Randy Ciarlante replaces Richard Manuel’s part in the 1990s line-up).

With The Staples (Last Waltz), with Ringo Starr, and by Robbie Robertson alone (Guitar Legends concert in Seville 1992), the song becomes a vehicle for turn-taking. I’ve never seen it as multiple narrators expressed by multiple voices, but rather different aspects of the same narrative voice. In solo concerts, Levon, Rick and Richard all did the whole song on their own. Robbie has done verses 1 and 5 in solo concerts. Instrumentally there were changes too. Garth played the piano on the studio version, but by the time they got back on the road Richard Manuel was taking the piano part and Garth was adding organ. In recent years, Garth adds an organ solo, or where it’s too much hassle to set up his organ (e.g. Ringo Starr tour, The Letterman show) produces accordion instead.

The detailed sleeve notes to The Complete Last Waltz  bootleg say that Garth played piano, and Richard played organ on this version. If so, this was unusual. It’s hard to tell. Also, Robbie moves from acoustic guitar (Big Pink, Woodstock ), to electric guitar, which changes the whole underpinning of the song.

The lyrics shift as the years go by and further versions emerge – it’s on every Band live album except Watkins Glen.  If you listen to later live versions they’re altering lines all the way through – ‘Miss Carmen and the devil’, ‘Come on let’s shake it downtown’, ‘won’t you feed him when you want’ (instead of ‘can’ which rhymes with ‘man’) and even Rick’s ‘won’t you feed old Chester whenever you can’ which makes even less sense than the original (Woodstock, 1969,The Complete Last Waltz 1976). We also get a number of ‘feed him’ and a number of ‘feed me’ for the same line, but both are better than ‘feed old Chester’. At Woodstock 1969 they even try call and response as Levon calls out ‘What did he say?’ answered by Rick ‘He said, that’s OK boy …’ Adding words makes it easier to scan the lines. It was and is harder to do it in the 1968 version, but Robbie Robertson’s broadcast solo versions are notably lyrically closer to the original.

It’s interesting that Ronnie Hawkins saw Big Pink as a return to country roots by The Band. Look at the roster of performers who have covered The Weight. Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, The Temptations, King Curtis, The Staples – none of those names sound country, do they? Even so, the soul versions all introduced a jangly mock-C&W guitar. The Weight is more complex than R & B at the same time. It’s only in recent years that the song has been reclaimed by country artists. My favourite version? The original 1968 cut, not that I haven’t enjoyed hearing all the changes.

Last word to Robbie, talking about the filming of the 1976 version of the song used in The Last Waltz, where The Band performed with The Staple Singers:

Robbie Robertson
The biggest thing was the religious connotation of the song. I remember there was this huge argument between  Marty (Martin Scorsese, the director)  and Michael Chapman about the mood and the lighting for ‘The Weight’. Marty was insistiting that it was a very Catholic vision, it had to be. And Michael was saying ‘No, this is a very Protestant story, it’s Baptist, Marty.’ He was explaining to Marty the gospel music connotations.

I liked everything they were saying because I had never thought of any of it, though I was brought up Catholic. I thought it was quite brilliant the credit they were giving me. For me it was a combination of Catholocism and gospel music. The story told in the song is about the guilt of relationships, not being able to give what’s being asked of you. Someone is stumbling through life, going from one situation to another, with different characters. In going through these catacombs of experience. you’re trying to do what’s right, but it seems that with all the places you have to go, it’s just not possible. In the song, all this is ‘the load.’
Quoted in ‘Martin Scorsese: a Journey’ by Mary Pat Kelly, 1992

The Weight US Capitol promo single

We Can Talk
by Richard Manuel

Richard Manuel: Piano, vocal
Levon Helm: Drums, vocal
Rick Danko: Bass, vocal
Robbie Robertson: guitar
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ

Recorded 10 January 1968, A&R Studio, NYC

This is a perfect opener for side two and another Manuel song, but unlike his other compositions, this is tailor made for the ensemble rather than for a lead vocal by himself. The way the lyrics are swopped between singers, and get lost in the general hurly-burly previews what happens on the next track but one, Chest Fever. The lines are exchanged, finished for each other, then everything suddenly blends together in a line that sums up their finest vocal work:

‘One voice for all, echoing (echoing) around the hall!’

Manuel’s writing is as dense, complex and enigmatic as Robertson’s. We Can Talk defies explanation, yet bursts from the lyrics imprint themselves in the mind:

We could try to reason but you might think it’s treason …

Did you ever try to milk a cow? I had the chance one day but I was all dressed up for Sunday …

I’d rather be burned in Canada than to freeze here in the south!

We’ve got to find a sharper blade or have a new one made…

There’s no need to slave, the whip is the grave  

The song is a series of snatches of conversations; perhaps it’s emphasising the eventual cameradie among the members of The Band after years on the road (and presumably the inevitable fallings out).

Levon Helm
It’s a funny song that really captures the way we spoke to one another; lots of outrageous rhymes and corny puns. Richard just got up one morning and started playing this gospel music that became this song.
This Wheel’s On Fire

It’s all tied together with the wackiest, oddly-accented most fabulous drum track you’ve ever heard.  Greil Marcus sums it up in Mystery Train(devoting more space to this song than almost any other by The Band):

Greil Marcus
… a Richard Manuel tune that sounds like the best merry-go-round in the world. Full of exultation, exhortation, smiles and complaints, it is the song of a man who has gone far enough to have become part of what he sings about. ‘It’s safe now’, he says, ‘to take a backward glance.’ 

A collectors’ tape has been circulating for years (Greil Marcus had obviously heard it) which includes thirteen takes of We Can Talk giving a fascinating guide to the recording process. They all play on every take, proving that the song was a ‘live in the studio performance’. John Simon’s interjections add interest, ‘Sloppy!’ he says after a false start on take 4. On Take 11 he gets irritated with Garth’s ‘heavy toe’. Even Take 13 is only ‘getting really close.’

It’s certainly “under-compiled” on various Band collections.

Long Black Veil
by Danny Dill & Marijohn Wilkin

Rick Danko: Lead Vocal & Bass
Richard Manuel: Wurlitzer Electric Piano, vocal
Levon Helm: Drums, vocal
Robbie Robertson: Acoustic Guitar
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ
John Simon: baritone horn

Recorded 23 February 1968, Capitol Studio, LA

The only cover version on the album.

Robbie Robertson
I just remembered the song somewhere back in my memory and sang it for Rick one day and he remembered it very well. It fit well with the other songs.
Rolling Stone, 27 December 1969

Levon Helm
I guess we thought it was funny.
This Wheel’s On Fire

It’s also the song with the most obviously ‘country’ melody and lyric, and has a classically Americana sound.  It is not an old country song at all, and maybe that was part of its appeal to The Band. The song – like much of their work – is a deliberate contemporary creation of a mythologically American piece. It was written by Nashville songwriters Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin (the writer of the JFK-mythologisingP.T. 109) in 1959. It was supposedly inspired by the real life murder of a New Jersey priest combined with newspaper accounts of a woman in a black veil who regularly visited Rudolph Valentino’s grave. Dill and Wilkin set out to make it sound like an old Appalachian ballad so as to hang onto the coat tails of the then burgeoning folk music revival. They got the fast-fading country star Lefty Frizzell to record the song in March 1959 (with a line-up that included Grady Martin and Harold Bradley on guitars and Marijohn Wilkin on piano). The result was a hit record and a revived career for Frizzell.

51lAKYbU7SL._SS500

Other artists had recorded the song, including Johnny Cash, Joan Baez and The Country Gentlemen, but The Band learned the song from Frizell’s original version. The song fits the mood of the album perfectly (it would have fit the next album too).

It’s instructive to compare their version with the Frizzell version.  Frizzell sounds pure country. The accents are in completely different places, the drums are played with brushes, and a faint pedal steel plays around in the background. Every hick and hokey technique is on display, from hissing through the teeth on sibillants to a sincere gulp or two when the emotion of the words gets too much. Then turn to The Band. The sound and words may be country, but on closer examination none of the instrumentation is.

Levon slaps the drums with his classic hiccuping sound, this time with a tambourine fixed to the kit. Rick Danko takes the lead vocal with Levon echoing in behind then Richard adding a third layer on the chorus. The acoustic guitar is loud, the organ is prominent and high up, Richard Manuel holds the whole thing together with persistent Wurlitzer electric piano, then the whole thing is underpinned low down both by Danko’s melodic bass line and by John Simon on baritone horn.

The instrumental track sounds like nothing else except classic Band, but through it all the mood is still a country murder ballad. Danko takes the vocal with as much intensity as Frizzell, but Danko is the more subtle actor, though maybe ‘kilt’ for ‘killed’ is over-playing it. One of Rick’s personal specialities was country music send-ups, and he’s illustrated on the Moondog Matinee poster reading “C&W Hits.”By the 1990s Long Black Veil was a solo Danko staple, and usually he hammed it up for all he was worth.

Co-writer Marijohn Wilkin recorded an answer disc to Lefty Frizell’s version herself with barely changed lyrics as My Long Black Veil (I stood in the crowd and shed unseen tears – so there). It has a much less country and more elaborate arrangement, all strings and bass. Both versions are available on And The Answer Is? Great Country Answer Discs From The 50s (Bear Family BCD15793). The 60s compilation is even more fun if you’re into so-bad-that-it’s-good.

Colin Escott
Marijohn tried to double her money by cutting an answer disc. It would have worked better if she’d added a new wrinkle to the plot, but she didn’t.
Sleeve Notes to “And The Answer is”

Chest Fever
by Jaime Robbie Robertson

Richard Manuel: Piano, vocal
Robbie Robertson: Guitar
Rick Danko: Bass & Violin, vocal
Levon Helm: Drums, vocal
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ & Tenor Sax
John Simon: Baritone horn

Recorded 10 January 1968, A&R Stdio, NYC

Apart from Garth’s state-of-the-art organ playing, there is the almost hilarious bridge, where Rick plays violin against wheezing sax from Garth and belching baritone horn from John Simon before Levon hammers back in with the vocal. Robbie says it was a deliberately pathetic kind of sound, building the surprise as they kick back into the song.

When Levon Helm has complained about the share out of royalties at this period, this is the song he quotes. His theme is that Garth’s contribution was always grossly under-estimated and under-credited. As he says, what do you remember about Chest Fever – the lyrics or the organ part? Well, you remember both. And there’s the tune and the rhythm as well. I love Robbie’s lyrics, but it’s never bothered me that I only pick up odd snatches from this one. A close comparison is We Can Talk which is Richard Manuel’s song, but is just about as disjointed. But the snatches you do grab certainly stick. On that credits debate, Levon always criticized Robbie, but never Richard, though on Big Pink Richard has just as many songwriting credits.

Written by Robbie. After The Weight, it is the Big Pink track that has appeared on most subsequent live albums and compilations. It rapidly became an on-stage showpiece for Garth’s organ. The intro was originally from Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D minor.

Garth Hudson
… after that it becomes more unqualifiable, more ethnic.
Sleeve notes to “To Kingdom Come”

It soon grew into a lengthy organ solo piece prefacing the song on live performances, which was eventually called The Genetic Method

Check out Garth’s astonishing four-minute intro from 1976 on the Italian Live in Washington  CD. The lyrics were dummy words, simply designed to fill the gaps while the instrumental tracks were put down. Robbie had intended to rewrite them at a later stage.

Robbie Robertson
I’m not sure that I know the words to ‘Chest Fever’; I’m not even so sure there are words to ‘Chest Fever’.
Up Close, America Media radio show, 1991

He says that the song was a reaction to the mysticism and myth-making of the other lyrics on the album:

Robbie Robertson
‘Chest Fever’ was like here’s the groove, come in a little late. Let’s do the whole thing so it’s like pulling back, then it gives in and kind of kicks in and goes with the groove a little bit. If you like ‘Chest Fever’ it’s for God knows what reason, it’s just in there somewhere, this quirky thing. But it doesn’t make particularly any kind of sense in the lyrics, in the music, in the arrangement, in anything.
Sleeve notes to “To Kingdom Come

You can snatch ideas from the words though, and Robbie has been more forthcoming on the lyrics:

Robbie Robertson
It’s kind of a hard love song, but it’s a reversal on that old rock ‘n’ roll thing where they’re always telling the girl, you know, ‘He’s a rebel, he’ll never be any good,. This time it’s the other way round, people are telling him about this girl and it effects him physically. These things they’re telling him  move him incredibly, and he’s really a victim of that.’
Anthology Volume 1, sleeve notes 1978

Even so, some of the lyrics printed on the Band website were a surprise to me. I’d never heard “any scarlet would back her” in years of listening to it. I reckon I’d given up trying to comprehend by the end, and I’d dispute one or two of them anyway.

What’s there fits his “bad girl” interpretation and there are a number of drug references: tracker, drinking from the bitter cup, ‘She’s stoned’ said the Swede (if that’s what it is), like a viper (grass smoker) in shock, feel the freeze down to my knees. I always reckoned the transcribed ‘They say she’s a chooser’ was ‘They say she’s a juicer’ which echoed the line ‘I know she’s a tracker’ which a switch to alcohol. But when I listen to the post-Big Pink versions I have to agree it sounds much more like “chooser”.

Apart from Garth’s state-of-the-art organ playing, there is the almost hilarious bridge, where Rick plays violin against wheezing sax from Garth and belching baritone horn from John Simon before Levon hammers back in with the vocal. Robbie says it was a deliberately pathetic kind of sound, building the surprise as they kick back into the song.

Lonesome Suzie
Written by Richard Manuel

Richard Manuel: Lead Vocal & Piano
Robbie Robertson: Electric Guitar
Rick Danko: Bass
Levon Helm: Drums
Garth Hudson: Soprano Sax

Recorded January 1968, A&R Studio NYC

It seemed purpose built for his own voice, though in 1985 he seemed dissatisfied with his interpretation:

Richard Manuel
That one (Lonesome Suzie) was a definite attempt to write a hit record. It could have been a hit record, it’s a good commercial song and everything, but I didn’t realize at the time that I never sang it right. It wasn’t for me. Somebody else should have sung it.
The Woodstock Times, 21 March 1985

Most listeners would disagree. With three tracks and a Dylan collaboration on Big Pink Manuel seemed of equal stature to Robertson as a songwriter at this point and early reviewers and listeners noted the asset of two top writers in one group.

Eric Clapton
For me (Richard Manuel) was the light of the Band. The other guys were all fantastic talents, but there was something of the holy madman about Richard. He was raw. When he sang in that falsetto, the hair on my neck would stand up on end. Not many people could do that.
Quoted in Rock Lives, by Timothy White 1990.

Sadly, it all seemed to drift away from Richard. He co-wrote two similarly achingly lovely songs with Robertson for the subsequent albums (the melodic association would indicate that Whispering Pines and Sleeping were Manuel tunes), but then more or less dried up for good, except for Beautiful Thing, a collaboration with Rick Danko for a 1976 Eric Clapton album.

Richard Manuel
I lean more into chord changes and melodic stuff. I can write music very easily, but when it comes to words, I cringe. It’s hard to get those words in the right slot, to just get going
Time magazine, 12 January 1970

Lyrically Lonesome Suzieechoes McCartney’s Eleanor Rigby. Greil Marcus sees it as a central part of the Adamic / quester theme (the narrator’s voice being that of ‘the quester’) which he follows through the Band’s work:

Greil Marcus
There is Lonesome Suzie … an outcast, or maybe an aging spinster, in the timeless and mythical American town in which ‘Big Pink’ seems to be set. She dearly needs a friend, and though the quester isn’t willing, he thinks in Manuel’s wonderful phrase, that maybe he can loan her one. But that, he knows, only makes him one of the confidence men his search has bound him to unmask, and so he gives in: ‘I guess just watching you, has made me lonesome too.’ The whole of Big Pink, and perhaps the best of what The Band has had to say over the years, seems to dovetail into these modest lines.
Mystery Train

Lonesome Suzie is often cited as one of the stand-out tracks on the album, and was covered by Blood, Sweat & Tears, with lead vocal by fellow-Canadian (and Band fan) David Clayton-Thomas. When I started teaching English we had Language Laboratories where students could listen, record their responses and listen back. Headphones were a novelty, and sound quality was good. We ended lessons with songs. On arrival, I found the Blood, Sweat and Tears Lonesome Suzie was a great favourite. I instantly substituted The Band version which proved incredibly popular with an international audience. So many years on, it was my least favourite track on the album, as far too obvious an Eleanor Rigby rip-off. However, the 2018 remix got me back into it.

For one reason or another, the three Manuel solo compositions on Big Pink fail to turn up on later live recordings.

The co-written Tears of Rage appears on a couple of bootlegs. You can find We Can Talk on early tapes. You get two lines of Lonesome Suzie at the end of circulating Winterland 1969 tapes. It could be that even when they were performed (and all of Big Pink was played live on early tours), the nature of the songs made it less likely for a live performance to add anything significant to the studio recordings. It says a lot for the harmony within The Band that the usual battle between composers over compositions on albums – especially live albums – either didn’t occur until years later … or was settled amicably. By the early 70s Robertson was the undisputed songwriter.

A French single issued when “The Band” album was current put Lonesome Suzie as a B-side to Whispering Pines. They fit together well.

This Wheel’s On Fire
by Bob Dylan & Rick Danko

Rick Danko: Bass, vocal
Richard Manuel: Piano,vocal
Robbie Robertson: Guitar
Garth Hudson: Clavinette (with Fuzz) & Lowrey Organ
Levon Helm: Drums, vocal

Recorded 10 January 1968, A&R Studio NYC

A Dylan-Rick Danko collaboration from the basement, and is well known in other versions, particularly by The Byrds and Julie Driscoll, as well as a revival by Siouxsie and The Banshees years later. It even emerged as the theme to the British sitcom Absloutely Fabulous late in 1992, sung once again by Julie Driscoll, this time in a in a duet with comedian Adrian Edmondson. Rick Danko said that sitcom version was his breadline in later years.

It was a concert staple, and  turns up in live versions on Rock of Ages , on the unofficial album of a 1973 Jersey City concert,This Wheel’s On Fire,  and on the unofficial 1974 tour album Love Songs from America which was recorded in Boston a few weeks before Before The Flood.

Rick Danko
We would come together every day and work and Dylan would come over. He gave me  the typewritten lyrics to ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’. At that time I was teaching myself to play the piano. … Some music I had written on the piano the day before just seemed to fit with Dylan’s lyrics. I worked on the phrasing and the melody. Then Dylan and I wrote the chorus together.
The Woodstock Times, 11 April 1985

John Simon
The snare drum wasn’t loud enough on the four track recording, so Levon had to go back into the studio and overdub the snare; an awful chore. When it was over, Levon growls at me, “Don’t lemmee ever have to do that again.”
Quoted in This Wheel’s On Fire

Greil Marcus has commented that This Wheel’s On Fire and I Shall Be Released seem not to fit the mood and style of the album. He even says that they sound like fillers on an album that needs nothing of the sort. Perhaps Marcus had got fixed onto the basement interpretations with Dylan before he heard Big Pink. (The acetate was known, though the bootlegs weren’t).

Still my favourite version …

My first meeting with This Wheel’s On Fire was the Julie Driscoll / Brian Auger hit version, which I saw performed live twice. I also love The Byrds version. The Band’s version is not my favourite, even if none of the others match the sweep of Danko’s voice. Barney Hoskyns called it ‘laboured and unconvincing.’

I Shall Be Released
by Bob Dylan

Richard Manuel: Piano, vocal
Levon Helm: Drums, vocal
Rick Danko: Bass, vocal
Robbie Robertson: Guitar
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ

Recorded February 1968, Capitol Studio, LA

I Shall Be Released: The Band, B-side of The Weight. 50th anniversary box set repro 45

This was the B-side of the first single, and is another Dylan composition from the basement era. The different versions from the basement show how Manuel started adding falsetto behind Dylan on the earlier versions, but it was a surprising ommision from the official release in 1975. especially as it was one of the most widely circulated on bootleg.

Robbie Robertson
It just seemed like such a natural for Richard Manuel to sing it.  There was something that Richard could do with his voice that was so touching, and to here him sing it in falsetto was such an unusual thing at that time that it all just happened pretty naturally.There was no big conference about this at all. We just said ‘We should record this song.’

Rick Danko
Richard was one of my favourite singers.without a doubt. It was no  big deal for Richard to sing a song.  I like that.
Both in Robbie Robertson: Up Close, AmericanMedia Radio Show 1991

The ‘Anthology Volume 1’ sleevenote reminds you that this song (like Chest Fever) was far from the country sound associated with their next album. Robbie was feeding an old Stella guitar through Garth’s home made Leslie speaker, a technique also employed on Tears of Rage.A Leslie speaker is a wooden box designed to operate with Hammond organs. A revolving baffle washes the sound from the speaker through 360 degrees. Garth was like many organists in having built his own version. The genuine article had a polished wooden cabinet which made it singularly wasteful for a travelling band to hump around and splinter.

Garth was almost unique in normally using a Lowry in preference to a Hammond (although Hammond is credited as well on some sleeve notes), and in the eighties was known to be working closely with Lowry. Most organists would have derided Lowry as a front parlour / church organ, although it was no cheaper than a Hammond. Maybe the colour- coded organ stops made a Lowry look amateur. Perhaps the universal preference for Hammonds at that time was simple conservatism. It was pretty rare for any serious guitar player to use other than Fender or Gibson guitars as well.

John Simon
The Leslie sound on the electric guitar was exactly that, a nondescript box that had rotating Leslie speaker inside. At the time Garth was playing a Lowrey organ that had a button he could push with the ball of his foor in order to slide the pitch down one note. That’s how he got a sound like a steel guitar at times.
THE BAND FAQ, Peter Aaron, 2016

Garth was playing around with electronics to achieve ocean like rippling sounds. According to the sleeve of To Kingdom Come the effect was achieved by playing a cheap Roxochord through a guitar wah-wah pedal. According to Anthology Volume 1 it was achieved on a Lowry organ. That’s a debate for Keyboardmagazine. Sounds good whichever way!

Levon Helm
The drum sound was me playing the snares of an upside-down drum with my fingers. The windlike sound is Garth playing the organ with one hand and manipulating the stops with the other.
This wheel’s On Fire

THE 2000 REMASTER EDITION OUTTAKES

Music From Big Pink sounds as if it was recorded during a party at which everyone swapped bottles and instruments. The extras only affirm that notion, especially “If I Lose” (an old Stanley Brothers song), Richard Manuel’s solo pianos-and-vocals take on “Orange Juice Blues” (sounds like some old OKeh single from the 1930s) and the oft-bootlegged “Ferdinand the Imposter,” which is as close to soused and sloppy as The Band ever got.
Robert Wilonsky, Phoenix New Times, 31 August, 2000

I Shall Be Released also attracted cover versions, by The Tremeloes and by Rick Nelson.

the-tremeloes-i-shall-be-releas-405672

I Shall Be Released: The Tremeloes, CBS, UK

Yazoo Street Scandal (Outtake)
(Robbie Robertson)
Recorded 10 January 1968 A&R Studios, NYC
A different take to the one on A Musical History

Another version was cut at Gold Star, in LA

Richard Manuel- drums
Rick Danko – bass
Robbie Robertson – guitar
Garth Hudson – organ
Levon Helm – vocal, guitar

Robbie Robertson
Another hodge podge hybrid of things. There’s this place in Arkansas, this street called Yazoo Street. I thought “Wow, they don’t have streets like that in Canada.” There’s no streets up there called Yazoo. It was, “Jesus, let me just make up a story here about this stuff that was going on in this kind of almost red light district. Everything was lit in red in that song. It was done for fun.
Sleeve notes to 2000 remaster.

The sleeve notes go on to quash a rumour (one I’d never heard) that it was listed on original promo copies of Big Pink. Absolutely false although it was recorded during the main Big Pink sessions. Rob Bowman says an earlier version had Robbie on lead vocal, but that once Levon returned, the Arkansas setting made it a natural for him to sing.

It starts in with urgent surging bass, then Levon’s voice comes in high and nasal. (Listen to the way he wheezes out the word ‘wheezy’).  Robertson employs the other classic character of American fiction – the innocent, seduced by Delilah. Greil Marcus calls it ‘a comic horror story’. That’s the picture I get too, but in the best tradition of The Band (much more of this to follow), the lyrics come through in snatches with sections you just can’t interpret. The lyrics wouldn’t have worked on Big Pink, but somehow Robertson was testing out part of the theme from The Weight. This is not The Weight by a long way. The story is moving in the direction though.

Tears Of Rage (Alternate Take 8)
(Bob Dylan – Richard Manuel)
Recorded 10 January 1968 A&R Studios, NYC

The horn overdubs have gone, and Richard’s phrasing differs. Not a big deal.

Katie’s Been Gone (outtake)
(Richard Manuel- Robbie Robertson)
Recorded in NYC, 1968, either at A&R or CBS

Richard Manuel- vocal, piano
Rick Danko – bass, vocal
Robbie Robertson – guitar, vocal
Garth Hudson – organ, clavinet
Levon Helm -drums (according to A Musical History)

Barny Hoskyns
Since the drumming sounds very unlike Levon Helm — John Simon has said it might be ace New York sessioneer Gary Chester — the track suggests that these demos were cut before he rejoined the Hawks.

Sid Griffin
The version on the 1975 official (Basement Tapes) release has drums on it and sounds suspiciously like (an early version from Big Pink) with just such a percussive overdub added.
Million Dollar Bash

Robbie has said that this song was shelved because of its similarity to Lonesome Suzie. It’s one that definitely was never basement, anyway. The pretty melody (‘pretty’ is the best description, I think) of Katie’s Been Gone is a near miss. There’s something about the changes and shifts that are like Cahoots, in spite of the magic way that Danko finishes Manuel’s line with a just breathed ‘somewhere’. The middle section is not up to the rest of the song, and would have needed reworking. The lyric is a straightforward, nice-enough love song with nothing inspire.

If I Lose (outtake)
(Charlie Poole)

Levon Helm – vocal, mandolin
Richard Manuel – drums, vocal
Rick Danko – acoustic bass, vocal
Garth Hudson – piano
Robbie Robertson – guitar

Recorded at Gold Star, LA

It was Charlie Poole’s signature tune. Since Charlie Poole (1892-1931) stopped recording in 1930, it seems unlikely that Ralph Stanley (born 1927) actually wrote the song as sometimes credited(and cited in reviews). The track listing on theMusic From Big Pink reissue in 2000 correctly attributes it to Poole, though the text calls it a Stanley Brothers song

Robbie Robertson
That was not a basement thing. That was a living room thing. We had a little set that we would do in our living room … Because we were up in the mountains, this mountain music became something that we would do in our living room. We would do it with guitar, mandolin, and Rick would play acoustic bass. It was a nice little set up, and Richard would just sing, or maybe play along on tambourine and Garth would sometimes play accordion. Then that actual setup of instrumentation kind of entered what we were doing on other kinds of things, that weren’t necessarily mountain music.
Sleeve notes to 2000 remaster.

It was never intended for release on the album. When Testimony emerged in 2016, Robbie included If I Lose among the songs recorded there, along with versions of Yazoo Street Scandal, Long Distance Operator and Baby Lou (on A Musical History.)

Robbie Robertson
John (Simon) booked us a few hours at Gold Star Studios so we didn’t feel so rigid and “unionized.” We wanted to inject a little more looseness to keep things fresh … for the hell of it, we did a version of the bluegrass classic, If I Lose. Again, Levon got out his beautiful Gibson mandolin, and Richard gave the track his clippity-clop drum style. We didn’t labor over those sessions at Gold Star. This session was more of a party for the soul.
Testimony 2016

Long Distance Operator (Outtake)
(Bob Dylan)
Recorded 21 February 1968, Goldstar Studios, LA

Richard Manuel- vocal, harmonica
Rick Danko – bass, vocal
Robbie Robertson – guitar, vocal
Garth Hudson – organ
Levon Helm -drums
John Simon – piano

Long Distance Operator is a Dylan song which you compare with Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee. Thematically, the connection is there. Lyrically it’s not in the same league. Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee could be called ‘How To Write A Great Rock Lyric’. Long Distance Operator is ‘How To Try And Deliberately Imitate A Great Rock Lyric’.  Musically, it doesn’t sound like a rip off by any means. It’s much more of a blues – and doesn’t utilise the classic Berry riffs or solo guitar passages. On Long Distance Operator they sound superb; tight, together, bluesy guitar, wailing harmonica from Richard Manuel  – it’s all there, the sound of a fantastic R&B group. The Hawks at their R&B peak, but definitely not yet the sound of The Band.

This song was written at least eighteen months before the basement recording – it has emerged on a bootleg tape of a December 1965 concert by Dylan and The Hawks in Berkeley, California.  That performance appeared on collectors tapes and the sound is abysmal. It was also done in the basement. To my knowledge the song had disappeared (temporarily) into oblivion by the time the 1966 leg of the tour got under way. To me it’s a dull generic song. A fourth Dylan song on Big Pink would have been excessive too.

Lonesome Suzie (Alternate Take)
(Richard Manuel)

Richard Manuel- vocal, piano
Rick Danko – bass
Garth Hudson – soprano sax
Levon Helm -drums
John Simon – baritone horn

This is radically different.

John Simon
Arranging is my deal. As far as The Band goes, that’s what I brought to the mix, besides being a good organizer. As far as horn arrangements go, I was competent, versed or familiar with typical big band horn arrangments – that kind of phrasing. So what you hear in that outtake of Lonesome Suzie is my horn arrangement, thinking of it in a kind of big band way, a swing way. I don’t think it worked, because it didn’t match the song. There’s a reason it was an outtake. It was inappropriate.
Sleeve notes to 2000 remaster.

Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast) (outtake / demo)
(Richard Manuel)
Recorded 5th September 1967 at CBS Studio E, NYC

Richard Manuel- vocal, piano
Rick Danko – bass
Robbie Robertson – guitar
Garth Hudson – organ

It’s on the Across The Great Divide set. Barny Hoskyns did sleeve notes for the 2000 remasters which were ditched, perhaps because he referred to Robbie as a ‘vain control freak’ in his book of the same title. He suggests the drums might be Gary Chester.

I really dislike this track in every way. Sorry! I don’t like Richard Manuel: Live At The Getaway 1985 either.

Key To The Highway (Outtake)
(Big Bill Broonzy- Charles Segar)
Recorded 10 September 1968, Capitol Studio, NYC

Richard Manuel- piano, vocal
Rick Danko – bass, vocal
Robbie Robertson – guitar, vocal
Garth Hudson – organ, saxophone
Levon Helm -drums, vocal
John Simon – peck horn

A different mix to the one on A Musical History. It post-dates the recording and release of Big Pink which makes sense of the story that they were trying out Capitol in New York as a potential venue for recording The Band album.

Key To The Highway was a blues (probably) written by pianist Charles Segar circa 1940. Within a year, both Big Bill Broonzy and Jazz Gillum recorded versions. It was covered by Little Walter in 1958 with a full band. That version featured Muddy Waters on slide guitar and reached R&B #6. The Rolling Stones recorded it in 1964 at Chess, but didn’t release it. Eric Clapton did the best version for me, with Duane Allman, on Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs. The Band version is competent R&B, but no more.

Ferdinand The Imposter (outtake / demo)
(Robbie Robertson)
September 1967, NYC

Rick Danko – bass, vocal
Robbie Robertson – guitar, vocal
Garth Hudson – organ
Richard Manuel- drums, vocal

This was recorded in September 1967, before Levon Helm returned to the group. It was part of a two song demo done in New York City. For years, it was said that Motown producer Mickey Stevenson had produced these demos. Robbie says they had known Stevenson, and visited with him on the Dylan tour in Detroit, but that he never produced them.

Robbie Robertson
On those sessions, Albert Grossman was in charge, and it really didn’t work at all.… I thought, “This doesn’t sound at all like what I’ve gotin mind.’ We had to do this stuff really quick. We just went in and slammed these things down, and Albert just kind of gave the engineer a little bit of input on it. The results were very questionable. It just didn’t sound good.
Sleeve notes to 2000 remaster.

SEE a detailed analysis: Ferdinand The Imposter by sadavid, on theband.hiof.no

Out takes in general

There were several compilations of out takes circulating on the collectors’ grapevine. Some of it appeared in the cleaned up versions on The Basement Tapes  in 1975 – Yazoo Street Scandal, Ruben Remus, Bessie Smith, Ain’t No More Cane, Don’t Ya Tell Henry, Long Distance Operator, Orange Juice Blues, Katies Been Gone. There are earlier versions around, two of Yazoo Street Scandal, two of Orange Juice Blues with vocals, plus an instrumental version. Ruben Remus exists in a guitar picking instrumental version, mainly by Robbie. These are mainly studio demos rather than true basement recordings. There’s about a minute of Bacon Fat (Hudson / Robertson), a blues they were playing live in 1965 and which Taj Mahal covered in 1969. Then there is You Say You Love Me in two versions featuring Richard Manuel, and two early takes of Beautiful Thing (Danko / Manuel) which finally emerged (once they’d finished the lyrics) on 1975’s Eric Clapton album No Reason To Cry. Then there’s a whole slew of instrumentals, some fragments, some more or less complete. Titles are pure guesses or invention.

There’s also the messing around with Tiny Tim on four songs (Be My Baby, I Got You Babe, Memphis Tennessee, Sonny Boy), as well as some drunken / stoned attempts at The Banana Boat Song, an attempt to play avant garde rambles behind an Allan Ginsberg poem and some odd trombone and sax games. Clinton Heylin says that two of the 1975 releases were only Manuel piano and voice tracks, but as more emerges that seems to be untrue.

Rick Danko said that other blues / R&B tapes were thrown away by Capitol:

Rick Danko
After we recorded Big Pink we rewarded ourselves by going into Gold Star Studios, this famous old studio in Hollywood, and having some fun on some old blues and country and R& B stuff – ‘My House Ain’t But A Mile and a Quarter’, ‘Sitting Here A Thousand Miles From Nowhere’, ‘Back At The Old Country Shack’, ‘Liza Jane’, that sort of thing. But Capitol were cleaning out their shelves one day and they didn’t think we wanted them and they all got thrown out’. Then in 1970 right after Bearsville Studios were built in Woodstock, to check it out, we went in and recorded another bunch of covers. But those tapes burned up in a fire at Garth’s house in LA years ago.Interview by Kevin Ransom, Guitar Player May 1995

The post-Big Pink Goldstar sessions which according to Danko included Key To The Highway, My House Ain’t But A Mile and a QuarterSitting Here A Thousand Miles From Nowhere (which may or may not be Mose Allison’s One Room Country Shack which includes these lines), Back At The Old Country Shack (which is conceivably the same song), Liza Jane (presumably a recut of The Canadian Squires Go Go Liza Jane)have not turned up to my knowledge, and they say the tapes were destroyed by fire. It’s interesting that they tried out so much before cutting Big Pink.  No one has played me a rumoured basement Little Birdies (which appears on their first San Francisco show).

Much as I like some of these ‘basement’ songs, none of them, with the exception of Ain’t No More Cane could have fitted their first album. None of them were up to the quality, though with a little effort Ferdinand The Imposter which was ignored on the 1975 release, could have been re-done from scratch, and worked up enough to be in with a chance.

RATINGS of Music From Big Pink:

Christgau: A
Rolling Stone: * * * * *
Rolling Stone 1992: * * * *
Q: * * * * *
Q (1998): * * * *
Q (2000): * * * * *
Uncut * * * * *
Gambacinni 100 1987:  64
R.S. top 100: 41
GUINNESS ROCK 250:  104
GUINNESS 1000: 163
VIRGIN 1000 (1998): 258
MOJO Readers 100 ALBUMS: 98
Mojo Readers 100 SINGLES: 65
CANADIAN POLL 100: #8
Rolling Stone 500 2003: #34
Uncut 100 August 2005 #30
Uncut Greatest 200 2016 #66

LINKED ARTICLES FROM THE BAND WEBSITE, thebandhiof.no

These were LONG. Incredibly detailed. Usually I started an article and readers of The Band Guestbook commented and added opinions and information and I incorporated. They’re mainly over twenty years old.

Tears of Rage, Peter Viney 1998
Caledonia Mission, Peter Viney 1997
The Weight,  Peter Viney 1996, revised 2005
We Can Talk by Peter Viney, 1997
Chest Fever, Peter Viney 1997
Long Black Veil, Peter Viney 1998
This Wheel’s On Fire, Peter Viney, 1998

Music From Big Pink by John Niven
Review of the 2005 novella about a drug dealer meeting The Band in the ’60s and ’70s.

SEE ALSO

Al Edge: Music From Big Pink; Another View- The Band’s Best (2002)

My Toppermost “Ten” on The Band.

Return to Big Pink 2011, Peter Viney 2011

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