July marks the 45th anniversary of the release of The Band's debut album Music From Big Pink. I don't think that there has been a more influential debut album in popular music, certainly not one as assured as Big Pink. The album had an enormous impact especially amongst musicians, when Eric Clapton heard it he immediately questioned the relevance of his own group Cream. It was also a big influence on the growing country/rock movement, the likes of The Byrds and The Grateful Dead owe a debt to Big Pink.
It's an album that went against the times, 1968 saw the emergence of a harder more bluesy rock and roll sound, mixed with the prevailing trend of psychedelia. Big Pink had a long gestation period, it was born from seven years on the road from the sweat of southern roadhouses to the clubs on Yonge Street in Toronto, to traversing the globe with Bob Dylan and soaking up his immense influence. It came out of a deep appreciation for the blues, but also for country and gospel music, The Band possessed three distinct vocalists so harmony singing and old style shape note singing were also deeply influential. Reaching the delta was a dream come true for Robbie Robertson, he reached the source, for him the south held these myths and mysteries that he wanted to explore. When it came to writing the album Robertson had a wealth of material that came from his impressions of the south, in a way it was a tribute to the deep south and all the music that came from that region. The influence of Bob Dylan on The Band's development can't be understated, he taught them that there was no formula, a song could come from anywhere, musically and lyrically, it offered them a unique freedom from which to start their canvas.
Big Pink came to light out of the basement tapes sessions that had started in the basement at the Big Pink house in West Saugerties. The opening track of the album Tears Of Rage alerts you to something different, musically it has a sparse sound, wooden muffled sounding drums and a distorted guitar line, and then that voice! Richard Manuel at his most expressive, voicing that sense of despair about the dislocation and fracture that was effecting American society at that time. As the song slowly meanders Garth Hudson supplies an ethereal organ undertone, music for a funeral march, despondent and depressing. To Kingdom Come is one of those songs taken from the shadows, you're not quite sure what it's about, but a strong biblical theme runs through the song and it's something that can be found in some of the other songs. It's also one of very few songs that would feature the lead vocal of Robbie. It features his blistering guitar work something that he would refrain from using on future albums.
Richard was a great songwriter but for some reason his output dropped after this release and after Stage Fright he never submitted another song. In A Station starts of this amazing melody from Garth, performed on a wurlitzer, creating this dreamy soundscape. It's a cry for something real, in a time of uncertainty isn't there something that we can cling to, maybe the past holds the key.
Isn't everybody dreaming
Then the voice I hear is real
Out of all the idle scheming
Can't we have something to feel.
Caldonia Mission is straight out of the southern mythology, classic Robertson storytelling the idea of the power of the south with all it's magic. There is a mystery there, you can't be certain of where it all originates, possibly from a dark side alley full of grifters and hucksters. The Weight continues on with the theme once again evoking these amazing images of the south with all these characters, but it's also linked to the souths strong evangelism. "Carmen and the devil walking side by side" , the devil had a strong mythological link in the south, obviously from a religious view but also in the story of the great bluesman Robert Johnson who it was said made a deal with the devil in order to great express himself as a bluesman. We Can Talk has a distinct gospel feel, especially with the swirling melodies from Garth's Lowery. You can also hear Levon, Richard and Rick trying to work out how to blend their voices, the harmonies are very loose. On Long Black Veil Rick delivers a suitably restrained performance, but there is a quiver in his voice that really gives the song some depth. Chest Fever is just startling, Garth is given full rein here and it's just a sonic explosion, full throttle distorted organ sounds that build like an orchestra. Lonesome Suzie is an aching beautiful love song written by Richard, no one wrote from the heart better than him, and The Band's albums perhaps became one dimensional because of the fact that he stopped writing.
This Wheel's on Fire was written by Rick and Dylan during the Basement sessions the previous year, musically it has that distorted keyboard feel that throws the song delightfully off centre. I Shall Be Released is a fitting close to the album, penned by Dylan, it's a gospel styled song that speaks of redemption, fitting for the period of time when a country engulfed in violence needed to find it's own peace and redemption.