Sunday, 04 July 2010
ELDER MUSIC: The Band
You never know who you're going to meet on the internet and I came to know Peter Tibbles (bio here) via email over the past couple of years. His extensive knowledge of most genres of music and his excellent taste became apparent only gradually (Peter's not one to toot his horn) but once I understood, I knew he needed his own column at Time Goes By - or, better, that TGB needed his column - which appears here each Sunday. You can find previous Elder Music columns here.
I’ll be down to get you in a taxi, honey
Better be ready by half past eight
Now, honey don’t be late
I want to be there
When THE BAND starts playing...
That’s from The Darktown Strutters’ Ball and is quoted on the back of The Band’s second album. If they can do it, so can I. If you’re going to steal ideas, steal from the best.
Today, as is obvious by now, I turn to The Band, the best group ever in rock music. That’ll get the Beatles fans agitated.
I’m not alone in this assessment. Someone who should know, George Harrison, said The Band was “the best band in the history of the universe.” Eric Clapton, upon hearing the basement tapes and their first album, disbanded Cream and flew to America to visit The Band. He wanted to become a member of the group. They refused the offer. Well, they already had a better guitarist.
Why don’t I just play all of Big Pink, The Band and Stage Fright? There would be few better ways to spend the next three hours. Okay, better not.
For those who came in late, The Band consisted of four Canadians and one American. They were Robbie Robertson: Guitar, keyboards, main songwriter.
Richard Manuel: Piano, drums, early songwriter, high falsetto and deep soul vocals.
Garth Hudson: Organ, piano, clavinet – any keyboard really – saxophone, accordion, you name it, he’ll play it. Garth was classically trained which gave the group an edge in musicianship over their rivals, particularly early in their career.
Levon Helm: Drums, mandolin, guitar, vocals.
Rick Danko: Bass, guitar, violin, trombone, vocals.
Among them, these men could play more than seventeen instruments, sang with three distinct voices and had watched and listened to rock’s greatest songwriter from a metre away for years.
The story starts with rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins who was from Arkansas. He was looking for a drummer for his band and happened upon a teenaged Levon Helm, also from Arkansas. Levon jumped at the chance of joining a professional band.
Ronnie had heard there were lucrative pickings for his style of music in Canada, especially Toronto, so he headed north. Gradually, over a couple of very interesting years indeed, the members of his band, who had become disenchanted with the Canadian weather and wished to return to warmer climes, were replaced by the Canadians mentioned above.
Last on board was Garth. His nice, middle class parents didn’t want him to be in a rock & roll band so he was hired as a music teacher for the band. This wasn’t completely a fib as he did teach the others elements of music and so on.
At first, a couple of them resented this until they saw the results in considerably improved musicianship. Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks traveled throughout Canada and the south of America pretty much blowing everyone else who dared share a bill with them off the stage.
Here’s Ronnie and the Hawks with Hey Bo Diddley, a song Ronnie claimed to have performed years before Bo Diddley himself. Who knows?
After some time, The Hawks, especially Robbie and Levon, were producing music away from rockabilly and they wanted to proceed further, so they went out on their own as Levon and the Hawks. They pretty much traveled the same highways and byways as they had with Ronnie.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch – sorry. Meanwhile, Bob Dylan needed a touring band as the one he had had all hightailed it out of there as they got sick of the booing and people throwing things at them. Interestingly, this happened only in the effete north, not in the south where they were accustomed to full tilt rock & roll.
The Hawks were recommended to Bob by several people including John Hammond (the blues singer, son of John Hammond, the discoverer of musical talent). So they hit the road with Bob performing the concerts that changed the face of popular music.
I saw them in Melbourne in 1966. Bob, in that black and brown hounds tooth checked suit, was so stoned he kept hitting the microphone with his guitar and he nearly fell off the stage a couple of times.
Here are Bob and the band performing Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. Remember on the back of certain albums the tag, “This should be played loud”? Well, it goes for this as well. Pretend you’re 21 again for six minutes.
After some months of touring, Bob had a motor cycle accident. The rest of the tour was canceled. The accident either broke his neck, slightly injured his wrist or neck or was a good excuse to recover from amphetamine psychosis that made those concerts such interesting events. Whatever the reason, Bob retired to his house in Woodstock, New York, to recover.
Four of the band joined him there. Levon had dipped out early in the concert tour as he had had enough of it all. He was sent a message to return to the fold. However, in his absence, the centre of gravity in the group had switched from him to Robbie where it remained for the rest of the group’s existence.
Several members of the band rented a large house in West Saugerties (near Woodstock) that was painted pink.
Over time, they (and Bob) would play music in the basement of this house. Garth set up a two track machine and recorded a lot of this. Some of these songs were eventually sent around to various artists – The Byrds, Peter Paul and Mary, The Rolling Stones and so on – as demo records to see if they wanted to record any of them.
These tapes escaped and became the first rock bootleg album, The Great White Wonder. Years later, when they were officially released and sold really well, Bob remarked that he was surprised at that as he thought everyone had a copy.
Bob and others urged the band to make a recording and that’s what happened. The band was signed to Capitol records making them only the third rock band on the label at the time. You’d wonder how Capitol could have survived except that the other two were the Beatles and the Beach Boys, so I guess they did okay.
They were originally signed under the name “The Crackers,” a joke of Levon’s. Eventually Capitol saw through this and “Music From Big Pink” came out with The Band as its band’s name.
I played the album for Norma, the Assistant Musicologist, and asked her which track I should feature. After hearing it she suggested, “All of them.” Well, as I said above, I wish I could, but just the one, and that one is Caledonia Mission.
Now we come to the best album of them all, simply called “The Band.” I won’t play one of the obvious tracks which, come to think of it, probably also means all of them. However, since this is an Elders’ website, I’ll choose Rockin’ Chair.
As you listen to it remember that this was written by a man in his twenties. I think it captures the ambivalence we feel about getting older. Others may see something quite different, but that’s okay. That’s what good music is all about.
“Stage Fright” is the album that separates the real fans of The Band from the others. The others rather dismiss it. Well, not dismiss so much as downgrade it in the canon. Probably because it followed “The Band” and who could follow that?
I think it’s the group’s second best album, just missing by that much equaling its predecessor. This is the title song, Stage Fright.
As the seventies wore on, the group was suffering from a touch of the henries, or a dose of ennui to be pedantic about it. A combination of years of constant touring, drug problems (well, three of them), bickering and boredom were tearing them apart. They produced a few lacklustre albums (at least by their standards; almost anyone else would have been proud to have called them their own). There was a fine live album, “Rock of Ages,” that encapsulated their career till then.
However, The Band still had another masterpiece left in them and it came in 1975 with the album “Northern Lights – Southern Cross.”
For the first time in his writing career, Robbie explored his country of birth, particularly with the song Acadian Driftwood.
After the defeat of the French by the British on the Plains of Abraham, the Acadians (French settlers) were given the choice of swearing allegiance to the British or lose their land. Some did just that. Others went back to France, some went to various Caribbean islands. Some went south to Louisiana and became Cajuns. This song is about the last group.
After a contractual agreement album, they decided to call it a day. Well, I believe Robbie decided to call it a day; I don’t know about the others. They went out with a bang with a Thanksgiving dinner and concert that was one of the major events in rock history.
This was recorded and a film was produced by Martin Scorsese called, The Last Waltz that is one of the best musical concert films ever. The cream of rock (and other) musicians were there. I won’t dwell on this - rent or buy a copy.
Three of The Band made solo albums after The Last Waltz. These were good but they weren’t as good as The Band’s albums. But then, nobody else has made albums as good as The Band’s either.
Although Robbie was the main songwriter and guiding force in The Band, he was the fourth best singer in the group. Still, he’s made some interesting albums. This is Night Parade from “Storyville.” I include it as it is a departure from the sound of The Band.
Levon continues to make good albums. He has also had an intermittent acting career, most notably playing Sissy Spacek’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter. This is Even a Fool Would Let Go.
The Band recorded the song Twilight for the “Islands” (the contractual agreement) album but it wasn’t on that record. I don’t know why as it was better than everything else on it. Fortunately, it has appeared on the remastered, bonus-tracked release. Rick has recorded the song several times on his solo albums. This is one of his versions.
The Band reformed for a while without Robbie and made a few records, one of which, “Jericho,” wasn’t bad. They toured again but were a shadow of their former selves so I’ll gloss over this as if it didn’t happen.
Richard committed suicide in 1986 after a lifetime of alcoholism and drug addiction.
Rick died in his sleep of a heart attack in 1999 after a lifetime of enjoying himself.