- Melody / Hooks
Music from Big Pink 1968
The inimitable sound of The Band’s first L.P., composed at the house “Big Pink” in New York State combines an astonishing blend of country, roots rock, and folk with sophisticated, elegant classical ideas through an alchemical combination of talent.
Uniquely The Band often achieve a disquieting musical fervour within the relaxed, melodic feel and groove of a good time ‘jam’ session.
This album appears at number 34 on the Rolling Stone magazine list of 500 Greatest Albums.
In a way that is humble without being simple, majestic yet unpretentious, innovative without resorting to flamboyance, and sentimental without becoming indulgent, “Music from Big Pink” is an achievement of undeniable and rarefied chemistry. While it may have seemed a strange a debut, a cat amongst the pigeons, Al Kooper’s Rolling Stone appraisal was unequivocably luminescent.
Band Members Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and notably producer John Simon deliver a timeless and daring monument to bygone, sepia Americana through a combination of simple story telling, biblical imagery together with otherworldly and unusual instrumental qualities. The spit and sawdust feel, together with salt of the earth portraits, often tastes as good as apple pie.
Yet, beneath what appears to be the bonhomie of simple dysfunctional ‘clothesline’ sagas belies a very subtle and dark sense of human failure and disappointment that creates a tension, bringing an epic relief to their music.
The record begins with Richard Manuel’s uniquely tremulous, funereal and poignantly elegaic “Tears of Rage”. Building slowly into a crescendo of rattlesnake tambourine, somnambulent brass, keyboards and hypnotic swells – this is a harrowing but beautiful start to the album.
The Southern, straight country charm of “To Kingdom Come’s” cyclic hooks contrast with the lyrical incantation – a vague, revelatory mysticism which ends with a showcase to Robbie Robertson’s taste – his guitar leaps and breathes.
Manuel’s beautiful and ethereal “In a Station” preoccupies itself with the torpor of unrequited love, and conjures progressive high Renaissance themes from Hudson’s glassy keys through an unusual progression and glissando vocal chorus.
The remarkable country waltz of “Caledonia Mission” then moves from a celestial, almost ‘ambient’, mix of keyboard (and guitars) sounds into a swinging southern boogie flavoured hook. The first side of the L.P. ends with “The Weight”.
“We can Talk” uniquely showcases The Band’s vocal finesse with Danko, Helm and Manuel taking turns to sing the verses while the Band’s rendition of country star Lefty Frizzel’s hit “Long Black Veil” (1959) dispenses entirely with sounds of the Louisiana Hayride, offering an ominous, slow clipped shuffle underpinned by otherworldly bass rumblings.
Richard Manuel sings his fourth composition “Lonesome Suzie” and proves exactly why, for so many, he was The Band’s “lead” singer.
“I was madly in love with Richard… At the time,  we had the same troubles. I felt insecure and he was clearly insecure, and yet he was so incredibly gifted….For me he was the true light of the Band. The other guys were fantastic talents, of course, but there was something of the holy madman about Richard. He was raw. When he sang in that high falsetto the hair on my neck would stand on end. Not many people can do that.” Eric Clapton
The penultimate war cry and epic drama of “This Wheel’s on Fire” gives way to Manuel’s mourning plea, “I Shall be Released” which closes the album, illuminated by Helm and Danko together on vocals with Hudson’s swirling Roxochord.
Hudson’s remarkable organ sings and hums like an unearthly machine; especially on the menacing groove of the remarkable “Chest Fever”. Besides the stellar songwriting of “Caledonia Mission”, “The Weight”, “To Kingdom Come” and “Chest Fever” Robbie Robertson’s unusual and distinctively vital approach to the guitar delivers an economy, phrasing and tone that ought be considered one benchmark for any guitarist looking to play tasteful, expressive and energetic guitar within the greater context of a group.
The language of Levon Helm’s articulate drumming proposes a perfect puntuation to a band that never indulge themselves – sonically this album sounds fantastic – a perfectly pure mix built upon a very subtle and superb approach to multi-instrumentation. The music sounds incredible on a pair of twenty dollar speakers.
The combination of Manuel’s cool tenor vocal imparts a haunting ominous edge, counter to the rougher voice of Helm and the emotional depth of Danko.
The Verdict – Good, bad or just ugly?
All of this combined with quite stunning and refreshing arrangements plus an undeniable feel ensure that this record will always be considered a definitive album. It’s testament to the chemistry and composition that the music never tires, but improves, and once these songs come to an end you want them to go on forever.
Here’s The Band’s great drummer Levon Helm with a drum lesson that demostrates the innovative less-is-more approach that the band use when working on their compositions.
Levon also made an appearance in the film “In the Electric Mist” with Tommy Lee Jones, featuring the wonderfuk soundtrack work of Marco Beltrami – you can read our review of the film, and listen to Beltrami’s engaging mix of Creole, Country, Swamp and Zydeco here.