Classic Albums is a new recurring feature on The Hub where we look back at some of the greatest albums in music history and enjoy a little nostalgia. For the first entry into our Classic Albums feature, we’ll go back to the summer of 1968 and revisit The Band’s revolutionary, Music from Big Pink.
It’s an apt time to take a look at this album as only a little over a month ago, this debut album from The Band turned 47 years old. A strange and fantastic mix of various tastes and voices coming together, Music from Big Pink was a music lovers dream. Music legends like George Harrison and Eric Clapton not only praised the album but were inspired by it. It still remains the most impressive examples of the talent that made up one of the greatest music groups of all time.
While Music from Big Pink served as the debut album for The Band, the group had already gained a sort of legendary status with their work alongside some notable artists. The beginnings of The Band can be traced back to the rockabilly clubs of Toronto. It was there that a true showman by the name of Ronnie Hawkins was putting together a band to back him up, and what a band he chose! The first to join was an Arkansas boy name Levon Helm, a hell of a drummer and taught in the ways of rockabilly from Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty and Bo Diddley. From there Hawkins pillaged the Ontario musical talents for the rest of the band. Robbie Robertson was a skilled songwriter and hardworking musician who went from a competent guitar player at 16, to a world-class guitar player at 22. Rick Danko’s dreams of being a rock star fit in nicely with the band’s energy, as did his soulful singing and fast-learning on the bass guitar. For their piano player, Hawkins found Richard Manuel, but his real secret weapon was his gospel-trained vocals. Finally, a crucial part of the band was found with organ player Garth Hudson, who knew more about music than the rest of the group combined and even became their music teacher for a time.
After gaining a respectable name for themselves with the “hip” crowd, “The Hawks”, as they were known, decided to break away from frontman Ronnie Hawkins and go out on their own. They performed under several stage names before getting an irresistible chance to tour with Bob Dylan as he tried out his new electric sound. The tour was infamously troubled as Dylan fans were not keen to see their folk hero adopt such a commercial sound. Dylan and The Hawks were often booed at their shows and began to bring down the group’s moral.
A twist of fate would put an end to the tour as Dylan was in a not too serious motorcycle accident. The band, along with Dylan, sought recovery in Danko’s Woodstock home which was affectionately called “Big Pink” (thanks to the house’s paint job). It was there that The Band was born, as was their classic debut album.
Just so everyone was clear that this album wouldn’t be following the rules, first song on Music from Big Pink is the slow and anguished “Tears of Rage”. The tune is an almost King Lear-like viewpoint from a distressed parent which features what may be Manuel’s finest vocal performance. The tempo then picks up with a rare vocal lead from Robertson which is one of many tracks that shows Dylan’s influence on the album. And with that, the album is off and running.
Each member of The Band gets their ample time to shine on the album. Helm lets it be known that, despite being the only non-Canadian in the group, he’s bringing that Southern blues/rockabilly flavour to the group as he hollows away on the most commercial of The Band’s songs “The Weight”. Danko gets to let loose and bring the house down with his wild turn on “This Wheel’s on Fire”. Hudson shows his musical genius and willingness to create a piece of music that is clearly strange and certainly engrossing with “Chest Fever”. And Manuel caps off the album with his sad and beautiful cries on “I Shall Be Released”. All the while Robertson supports with his amazing guitar skills and fantastic song writing.
Best Track on the Album
The honour goes to the hilarious rambling and bizarre tune “We Can Talk”. The song showcases everything that made this album and The Band so special. It’s a melange of sounds and ideas that are impossibly coming together, seemingly be accident, to create a wholly fun and enjoyable experience. It’s not a singer backed up by a band. It’s overlapping, sloppy and a perfect demonstration of a bunch of guys who enjoy playing together. That’s the essence of the group. There’s no room for a frontman, just The Band.