‘The Band’ at 50: An Album that Didn’t Fit the Mold Then or Now

'The Band' at 50: An Album that Didn't Fit the Mold Then or Now 1

Simply after taking part in Woodstock, The Band launched their definitive anti-counterculture doc, tackling the ghosts of American previous that proceed to hang-out to today.

Within the spring of 1969, The Band had been some of the hyped younger rock bands in America — and no person actually knew who they had been.

Positive, their names had been credited on the sleeve of their 1968 debut Music From Massive Pink, which immediately established them as crucial darlings to observe. And anybody who caught one among Ronnie Hawkins’ rockabilly exhibits within the early 1960s (when The Band first got here collectively as his supporting band, The Hawks), or occurred to be at Bob Dylan’s 1965–66 tour (when The Band had been his band) would possibly’ve already seen them within the flesh, in fact. However heading into their extremely anticipated second album, The Band had nonetheless not performed a proper reside efficiency, and had solely given a couple of mysterious interviews, comparable to a canopy story for Rolling Stone that includes a picture of them with their backs to the digicam.

That post-Massive Pink reclusiveness was largely as a result of they didn’t need it recognized within the press that bassist/vocalist Rick Danko was recovering from a critical automobile accident, through which he had damaged his neck — the group had a foul behavior of driving recklessly in and round Woodstock, the place that they had all not too long ago moved to put in writing, and had been fortunate to flee their varied accidents alive — nevertheless it was additionally as a result of they most well-liked the mystique. The Band had been, in any case, a bunch utterly misplaced and time, eschewing the stylish late-’60s psych-rock kinds and as an alternative embracing one thing extra vintage. Discovering out that they had been actual, up to date folks, with wives and canine and poor driving abilities, would possibly smash the enjoyable.

“All anyone knew of us was that we were affiliated with Bob Dylan and that we lived somewhere up in the mountains,” guitarist/vocalist Robbie Robertson writes in his 2016 memoir, Testimony. “Coming out into the open would pull back a veil that we thought suited us.” Issues had been easier — and certain by no means higher — than after they had been within the basement of Massive Pink, their Woodstock assembly home. However fame and fortune laid in wait, in order that they gave in and left the mountains to make their subsequent album in Hollywood — in probably the most Hollywood means doable, too, by renting out Sammy Davis Jr.’s home, loading up on amphetamines, and adopting a sleep-all-day/work-all-night way of life. 

Actually down the street from the Sundown Strip, in addition to immediately adjoining to Laurel Canyon, Robertson, Danko, drummer/vocalist Levon Helm, keyboardist/vocalist Richard Manuel, and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson had been tasked with making an album for Capitol Data that may match into the musical panorama of Doorways and Byrds that they had been thrust into. However The Band didn’t match into that panorama in any respect. This was a bunch that confirmed up in San Francisco to play their first official exhibits, on the Winterland Ballroom in April of 1969, and promptly shut down the hippie aesthetic being compelled onto them: “Hold the psychedelia,” Helm remembers the group saying to the light-show folks in his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Hearth. “It made me nauseated,” Robertson notes in Testimony. Round that very same time, they had been supplied the chance to attain Straightforward Rider, Dennis Hopper’s soon-to-be definitive account of the ecstasy and excesses of the counterculture. They turned it down. (“The Weight” made it into the movie anyway.)


The Band did find yourself taking part in the Woodstock competition, serving as a type of native consultant of the realm, however they’ve lower than fond recollections of being on the muddy mess that invaded, and arguably tarnished, their dwelling base for “three days of peace and music.”  And so moderately than supply an album that performed into that scene, they as an alternative launched a set of 12 stubbornly old style Americana songs with tuba elements and odd time signatures, which had been largely organized and recorded DIY-style in Davis Jr.’s pool home (together with producer John Simon). 

Then, as if to match this anachronistic sound, their lyrics had been written from the attitude of varied characters in distant-past American settings: Mud Bowl farmers (“King Harvest [Has Surely Come]”), Civil Conflict troopers (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), Manifest Future fulfillers (“Across the Great Divide”). It’s an idea album of types concerning the working class and the shared tragedies inherent within the mundane. Label executives’ hair will need to have been torching up within the background because the tapes arrived. 

“It was a complicated record,” Helm writes in Wheel. “We wanted to make one that you didn’t really get until the second time you played it.” 

Difficult it nonetheless is: When The Band got here out fifty years in the past this week (Sept. 22), it was instantly (and appropriately) acquired as a masterpiece — “Abbey Highway captivates me as is likely to be anticipated, however The Band is even higher,” Robert Christgau wrote in The Village Voice on the time — however its legacy has confirmed to require extra renewed thematic evaluation than many different canonized classics. One key purpose for that is because of the truth that The Band is an album about America as written by a Canadian band (with the notable exception of Helm, who was from Arkansas). And it’s inside the issues of that dynamic that maybe The Band’s greatest track, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” lives, wrought with a specific kind of humanity and heartbreak that’s more and more arduous to reckon with, on condition that its basis lies inside the perspective of a Accomplice.

It’s value stating that the album was almost known as “Harvest,” as a result of, as Helm explains in Wheel, they “were reaping this music from seeds that had been planted many years before we’d even been born.” (A couple years later, one other free-thinking Canadian would make his personal industrial breakthrough with that title as an alternative.) These tales weren’t actually theirs to start with — they had been simply there to be plucked. And a part of what makes it such a compelling, enduring, and tough artifact of in style music to grapple with is this sense that it’s a doc of the nation’s thorny previous with out being a strict endorsement of it. (Actually they weren’t singing in a optimistic means about points like struggle and poverty.) 

“We could have called it America as well,” Helm continues, “because this music was right out of the air. We were saying, Listen! You can’t ignore this.”

After its launch, the group would go on to face their very own issues: Robertson was credited with writing many of the album himself — a divergence from the extra various credit of Massive Pink, which included three tracks that credited Manuel completely. And when gross sales pushed The Band to No. 9 on the Billboard 200 — with “Up on Cripple Creek” changing into their highest-ever charting single at No. 25 on the Billboard Sizzling 100 — that meant a considerable amount of cash was going to Robertson alone. 

“[Robbie] and [manager] Albert [Grossman] get all the money, and the rest of us get all the leftovers,” Helm lamented in a 1998 interview with OffBeat. “And he was supposed to be one of us, and was.”

In between The Band and 1970’s Stage Fright, the group had been featured on the quilt of Time Journal — the primary North American rock band to take action. The author of that story, Jay Cocks, witnessed their dynamic simply earlier than Robertson’s identify began coming first within the press, earlier than the band fractured again into 5 separate folks. Within the story, Cocks writes, “The group could use a leader and front man but does not have one because, as they explain, ‘nobody wants the job.’” It’s becoming that the quote is unattributed; at that time nonetheless, The Band spoke, and labored, as one.

It appears apparent now that what made The Band so particular was that they didn’t desire a chief — that all of them traded devices and automobiles and mates in a clubhouse-type method, making a sum higher than its elements, making them in a position to pluck one thing common about life on Earth from skinny air. However as soon as Robertson was on condition that chief designation, whether or not pretty or unfairly, whether or not his resolution or not, that spark began to fizzle. It was then that they confirmed what Robertson was fearful about all alongside: that the business can generally be poisonous to what was already a superb factor, that the veil was most likely greatest left on.

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