Relix 44: The Band’s ‘Music From Big Pink’
Welcome to the Relix 44. To commemorate the past 44 years of our existence, we’ve created a list of people, places and things that inspire us today, appearing in our September 2018 issue and rolling out on Relix.com throughout this fall. See all the articles posted so far here.
A Sound Without a Time Stamp: The Band’s Music From Big Pink
Just over five decades ago, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson were collectively and commonly still known as the nameless group that backed Bob Dylan. In 1967, the ensemble moved into a rented house in the Hudson Valley town of West Saugerties, N.Y., to work with Dylan on a series of informal recordings that subsequently became The Basement Tapes. The house, with its distinctive pink siding, was called “Big Pink,” and would become the home base for the quintet, now christened simply The Band.
In 1968, The Band signed with Capitol Records, and on July 1, following recording sessions in both New York City and Los Angeles, issued their debut album, Music From Big Pink. An almost cleansing antithesis to the psychedelic remnants of the Summer of Love, the 11 songs—including the indisputable classic, “The Weight”—are a melting pot of musical idioms, created in the basement of that pink house and performed with accordant unvarnished authenticity.
50 years later, the album stands as one the finest debuts ever and an enduring influential work for generations of artists. To celebrate the album’s golden anniversary, The Band will reissue Music From Big Pink, with previously unreleased tracks and new mixes overseen by Robertson and renowned engineer Bob Clearmountain.
Robertson shared his thoughts on the vital creative process behind Music From Big Pink:
This idea of having this place that we called Big Pink had been a dream of mine for years. I wanted a workshop. I wanted a clubhouse. I wanted a place to go where I could create, where I could start putting together these things that I had in the back of my mind. I wanted a place where we could take all of the musicality that we had been gathering over the years, playing the chitlin’ circuit down South. Everywhere that we played, we were always gathering. It was like woodshedding; learning our skills, sharpening our blades, getting it to a place where it never had to be obvious.
We had been in New York City and we couldn’t find anywhere to really create. It was always like we were bothering somebody or somebody was bothering us. Finally, there was the idea of going up into the mountains, into Upstate New York. Bob already had a house up there and [Dylan’s manager] Albert Grossman said we could get a place up there and make all the noise we wanted. We could do anything.
We wanted something like Les Paul had, a home studio. We couldn’t afford really expensive equipment in the basement, but it gave us a place good enough that we could start writing and creating on a level that didn’t have to follow in any footsteps.
We started making this gumbo. We put some gospel music in there. We put some mountain music in there. We put a little bit of blues. We put in a little bit of rockabilly. We put in all these pieces of musicality until, finally, we stirred it up and thought we had something. We were equipped to do something that was our destiny.
At Big Pink, in the basement, that was a place to draw the diagrams. That was a place to create the feel— the idea, a direction. We didn’t have a setup where we could make a real record. We thought, “How do we take what we’re doing here, bring it out into the world, and take it to the studio and do it there?” That was the objective.
John Simon, our producer, understood that. We all, in our minds, knew how we made this particular kind of music together, which was different than anything we’d ever done before. We didn’t sound that way at all with Ronnie Hawkins. We didn’t sound that way at all with The Hawks or with Bob Dylan. This was a different wavelength, a different approach. We could hear it inside us somewhere.
When we went into Phil Ramone’s A&R Studios, John Simon told us it was the best sounding studio in New York. We go in the studio and they tell us this is how you set up, where you set up. That’s how they do it here. That’s how they make great-sounding records. We’re like, “Oh, OK.”
We did exactly what we’re told. We started playing a song, just ran over something. We were working with headphones. We get halfway through the song and I said, “This doesn’t work. We can’t play music like this.” [The studio engineers] were like, “What are you talking about?”
I said we have to set up in a circle to see each other and communicate, musically. That’s how we make whatever sound we make together, through this communication. They said it’s going to sound like shit. We said we don’t have a choice. We can’t set up with everybody off in a cubby hole somewhere.
That’s why it’s called Music From Big Pink. Because it was created in an atmosphere, and in a certain language. If we went somewhere else and couldn’t speak that language, we didn’t know what we were talking about.
So, we set up in a circle and the engineers were just shaking their heads. They said there was going to be so much spill. There’s going to be so much leakage. It’s going to sound awful. They were also thinking about their reputation, of this studio and knowing how they normally do it.
There was a lot of leakage. John Simon said, “Let’s use microphones that only pick up what’s right in front of them.” The engineers told us they were cheap microphones. And John said, “We don’t have any choice. These guys, [The Band], if they’re not happy, this isn’t going to work.”
We put these Electro-Voice RE15s on everything: on the drums, on the vocals, the piano. They were going along with it, but you could see the pain in the engineers’ faces. Now we could see one another. Now, we’re in sync with one another. We’re jamming around, playing some music, and it feels good to us. Now, we recognize the noise that we make. Now, we’re OK, we’re comfortable. That was the key for us. The engineers said, “I think we’re getting somewhere.”
We started running over “Tears of Rage.” We ran it down, and John Simon says, “You’ve got to come in and hear this. This is beyond any of us in here—what we thought we were going to get.” This was the first moment we heard what The Band sounded like. We heard what we just did and figured out what we needed to do emotionally in the music to take it to the next place. We all locked in. We ran it down a couple more times, and John said, “We got it.” We heard it and said, “That’s it. That’s what we were looking for. That’s what we sound like. That’s what we do.”
We didn’t know what to compare it to. Because we recorded that song first, it ended up being the first song on the album. The record company said, “Do you really want to start your record with a long, slow song?” We were like, “Yeah, what’s wrong with that?”
That was the key to opening the door. It was really speaking that language that we invented in that basement and bringing it into the studio. We had no idea about satisfying anybody. We wanted to make a sound that you couldn’t put a time-stamp on and, at the same time, this was 1968, one of the most vital periods in American history. We were swimming around in that.
We were against the idea of going in and making popular music. We were so not trendy in our taste in music; we didn’t want any part of that. We had come in on a train where most of the music we admired was obscure or was something that we discovered that was fantastic. It could’ve been something Garth turned us on to in Egyptian music. Or it could’ve been a gospel group that nobody’s heard about but this track is killer. That’s what we were drawn to. We weren’t trying to be underground. We had to be so honest with this music because we didn’t know any better.
When they say this is the 50th anniversary, I’m just mind-boggled by that to begin with. I’m relieved that it holds up, to me. I’m relieved that it’s had such a tremendous influence on music and musicians over the years. When I listen to this music now, I’m very happy I can feel that way about it. I look at it with a real warmth and pride. I’m very proud of the guys, my brothers, that I played this music with.
This article originally appears in the September 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.