When the members of Bob Dylan’s mid-‘60s backing band The Hawks decamped for the hills of Upstate New York, they had no idea what they wanted to sound like, only that it was time for them to carve their own path.
They’d already put in years on the road, playing in dingy clubs, backing rockabilly maverick Ronnie Hawkins and Dylan, and even their drummer, Levon Helm, and were a finely-honed unit. But even after settling in to Big Pink, the salmon-colored house they shared in West Saugerties, just outside of Woodstock, where they soon found themselves woodshedding countless songs with Dylan—on what would become known as The Basement Tapes—during 1967, they still weren’t certain what they would sound like on their own, without a lead singer, front and center.
As it turned out, they didn’t sound quite like any other band, before or since.
“It was a complete evolution of our musicality,” guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson says of the sound the group of musicians, eventually called simply The Band, hit upon. “It was the point we came to very naturally after starting out playing the Chitlin’ Circuit down south, on all the way up to Canada with Ronnie Hawkins, and then backing Bob all over the world, on that crazy tour. It was our collective musical experience that was a gathering of music that we made, of the places that we went, of characters that we saw.”
The unassuming album by Canadians Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and lone Arkansan Levon Helm, named Music From Big Pink, after the now-legendary house, is 50 years old this summer, and just got the deluxe box set treatment, complete with a 45 RPM vinyl and 5.1 surround remix from the original session tapes by legendary mix master Bob Clearmountain. It had grown out of the jams and writing sessions in the basement of Big Pink when Dylan wasn’t around, and is now considered one of the most significant albums of the Golden Age of rock and roll music.
“It couldn’t have been a worse place for trying to record music, but we did something so magical down there,” Robertson recalls. “We’d hooked up with Bob Dylan, and had played around the world, taking music that people were used to being very intimate—just him and a guitar and harmonica—and making it explosive and dynamic. We were booed around the world. So it became my dream to have a sanctuary, a clubhouse, a workshop, where we could go and create and make something that all of what we’d done had been adding up to. We found this ugly pink house that had a basement in it. It’s still funny to think that that’s where it all began.”
Still, Music From Big Pink was hardly a hit upon release.
“The songs were more like buried treasure from American lore than new songs by contemporary artists,” the album’s producer John Simon observed in a 1993 documentary, of the batch of songs that hardly seemed contemporaries with the work of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors.
But Music From Big Pink found fans amongst rock’s luminaries, who couldn’t stop talking about it in interviews. Eric Clapton was one of The Band’s first and biggest fans, and George Harrison, who returned from a visit to Dylan in Woodstock at the beginning of 1969, just as The Beatles began their ill-fated Let It Be album, extolled the virtues of The Band’s loose, soulful sound and idiosyncratic, collective harmonies, only to find his bandmates far less enamored.
“The limitations of a basement, where these songs originally came to life, can work in your favor, in a way that you’re doing something that the environment provides,” Robertson recalls of the unusual circumstances under which The Band found their collective sound. “So there was a value in that. What we discovered was that the communication in the music was something that went deeper inside of us than it ever had been before. Because when you add everything together, each thing plays a part in what you’re creating. So the fact that we were isolated up in the mountains, and away from the rest of the world, helped us find our own sound.”
“I wanted to get out of the hubbub, and everything else that might influence us, and interfere with our imaginations, especially given everything that was going on in the world in 1968,” he adds. “So the sanctuary of being up in the mountains gave us that, and contributed greatly to the music and to the idea of being able to do something that was so independent. That was so liberating, but finding the honesty you hear in the album wasn’t even something we talked about. It just happened.”
The results were astonishing, even if it took time to find its audience.
“There are people who will work their lives away in vain and not touch it,” Al Kooper, the man famous for the propulsive organ on Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” wrote in his 5-star review of the album in Rolling Stone. “These are fiery ingredients and (the) results can be expected to be explosive.”
In fact, many would-be fans bought Music From Big Pink for the Dylan-penned “I Shall Be Released” (as well as his co-writes, “Tears of Rage” and “This Wheel’s on Fire”), only to be floored by the simple but powerful sound of The Band, and especially “The Weight,” Robertson’s now-classic song.
“After all of those years sitting in a circle, while we would sit and play music to one another, we knew this was what we wanted to share with the world,” says Robertson of the finished product. “This was what we’d been building to all the time we’d been together, so when we went in to record, and then finally heard ourselves coming out of the speakers when it was played back to us, we agreed that this was who we were. It was the sound that we’d been heading to, so Music From Big Pink was, for us personally, a destination.”
The haunting vocals and remarkable harmonies Helm, Danko and Manuel deliver throughout were also unlike anything that had come before, and set a new standard by which every rock band worth their salt since has been measured by.
“The impact of those voices cannot be understated,” Barney Hoskins, the author of Small Town Talk, about the late-‘60s Woodstock music scene, told me in 2016. “The songs are remarkable, of course, and they are great players in total harmony, but it’s those fantastic vocals that make the album so unique and, of course, timeless.”
If there is one thing lacking in the album, it’s that The Band were a red-hot rock and roll band by 1968. In fact, it wasn’t until their near-perfect self-titled album the following year and, eventually, the live album Rock Of Ages, that fans unable to catch the band in concert fully appreciated just how powerful the fivesome’s sound was.
So while Simon’s original mix of the album presented an intimate view of The Band that would go on to almost singlehandedly be responsible for the alt-country genre, Clearmountain’s new mix bounces and rocks, just the way Robertson recalls The Band did during the original sessions in New York and Los Angeles.
“John Simon was wonderful in helping translate what we were doing, with all of the limitations in technology back then, but Bob has gone so much deeper inside of the textures and the sonics of this record,” says Robertson. “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. So when Bob and I went back and forth on the new mixes, our goal was to get it to a place where it really felt like you were sitting inside this music, just as I remember it when we recorded it, rather than sitting back and observing it. And so now you’re more a part of it than you’ve ever been before. Now it sounds like The Band I remember.”