Music From Big Pink, the debut album from The Band, was released in July of 1968—the same month, fifty years ago, that found such albums as Waiting for the Sun by The Doors, Wheels of Fire by Cream, and My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows by Tyrannosaurus Rex also hitting the market.
Why mention the L.A. bad boys, the British blues-rockers, and the obscure U.K. psychedelic folk art duo (then still a few years from morphing into T. Rex and pop stardom)? Because, in the case of Music From Big Pink, an unassuming work that quickly upended the course of rock music, context is everything. In the late 1960s world of popular music, where excess suddenly seemed a kind of virtue—production values crowing with grandiloquence, instrumental solos extending into the outer regions, rebellious attitudinizing becoming mandatory, and everything getting, well, louder—The Band’s album gave a good shake to rock and roll, kicking sonic overload and all that posturing straight out the door.
Music From Big Pink spoke of unity: a rock group—no, make that a real band—subtly reveling in musicianship, song craft, and ensemble cohesion, guided by deep respect for cultural traditions. Its honesty, poetry, mystery, understated virtuosity, and lack of pomposity shook every sentient rock musician who heard it, influencing subsequent recordings from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead and Neil Young, among innumerable other artists on both sides of the Atlantic. A half-century later the album’s power has yet to diminish. The cleansing quality of its songs continues to draw in new generations of musicians and listeners seeking authenticity and purpose in popular music making. The case can be easily made that Music From Big Pink is the spiritual grandfather of the Americana and alt-country genres, a wellspring for visionaries ready to head off the grid, including Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, and My Morning Jacket. And for all its seismic power, the album peaked at number thirty on the 1968 Billboard charts.
Thanks primarily to director Martin Scorsese’s cherished if overly sanitized 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, the birth of The Band—by now nearly an origin myth—is cemented in the minds of fans. (Credit must also forever be given to author Greil Marcus, who in his 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, included a brilliant essay on The Band that has been the foundation source for all subsequent commentary.) Comprising four Canadians raised on American rock and roll—guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, and keyboardist Garth Hudson—and the Arkansas-born drummer Levon Helm, the band (but not yet The Band) honed its considerable chops by touring throughout the early ’60s before hooking up with Bob Dylan in late 1965. After groundbreaking international tours, from which Helm quickly jumped ship and ended after Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966, the Canadians and their erstwhile boss settled down in the Woodstock, New York, area.
In Dylan’s home, and then in the basement of the house that Danko, Hudson, and Manuel shared—the garishly painted domain dubbed “Big Pink”—the crew informally recorded what would come to be known as “The Basement Tapes,” made up of new Dylan tunes and a host of folk, rock and roll, R&B, country, and blues songs that Dylan brought to the months-long get-togethers. The informally produced performances, which include such classics as “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “Quinn the Eskimo,” and “I Shall Be Released,” are as stirring and mysterious as anything in Dylan’s canon, demonstrating the comfortable rapport that the master songwriter and his willing and eager compatriots had established. But, no matter all that Robertson and his cohorts absorbed from working with Dylan, the music of “The Basement Tapes” offers only intimations of The Band’s recording debut, lacking both its core identity and its inimitable glow.