By Jeff Burger
For many rock acts, 1968 was a year for exploring psychedelia and the outer limits of the studio. The Beatles took off on a Magical Mystery Tour, for example, while Jimi Hendrix served up the otherworldly guitar excursions of Electric Ladyland.
But a few artists—most notably Bob Dylan, followed closely by his friends the Byrds and the Band—headed in a completely opposite direction, turning away not only from prevailing trends but from the styles of their own past work. Early in the year, Dylan went all the way to No. 2 on the album charts with the stripped-down folk balladry of John Wesley Harding, an astonishing followup to Blonde on Blonde that actually came out a few days before 1968 began. The Byrds helped launch the country-rock genre with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which appeared in August of ’68. And a month before that, the Band—the group that had been working as Dylan’s backup outfit—released Music from Big Pink, which still ranks among the most significant debut albums of the entire rock era.
The record—which sports a whimsical cover painting by Dylan and takes its moniker from the group’s nickname for the house where several of them lived at the time—is as atypical of its period as it is first-rate. It contains no obvious studio embellishments, no guitar solos; and its deliberately rough-edged vocals have virtually nothing in common with what was currently on the radio. If there had been rock music shortly after the Civil War, it might have sounded a lot like this. If there had been an Americana/roots genre in the 1960s, this would have been an important part of it.
As is, nobody had ever heard anything quite like Big Pink; at the same time, though, it sounded reminiscent of records you’d been listening to all your life. That’s because the album draws on virtually every strain of American music—rock, blues, gospel, soul, country, rockabilly, and more. What was new about it in 1968 was the way the Band merged all of their influences. Their work seemed completely fresh, and also as traditional and timeless as the tracks on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
The group that delivered this highly influential tour de force had no one standout star: Levon Helm (drums), Robbie Robertson (guitar), Garth Hudson (organ), Richard Manuel (piano), and Rick Danko (bass) all made major instrumental contributions; and the Band had three strong vocalists in Danko, Manuel, and Helm. As for the tightly constructed story songs, the album includes one classic after another: it features the debut of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” as well as “This Wheel’s on Fire,” which Dylan wrote with Danko, and “Tears of Rage,” which he penned with Manuel. Also here: Robertson’s “To Kingdom Come,” “The Weight,” “Caledonia Mission,” and “Chest Fever”; Manuel’s “In a Station,” “We Can Talk,” and “Lonesome Suzie”; and one well-chosen cover, the 1950s country ballad “Long Black Veil,” which Lefty Frizzell first recorded.
The protagonist of “Long Black Veil” is a man who was executed for a crime he didn’t commit because he refused to use his alibi: at the time of the murder, he’d been in the arms of his best friend’s wife—a woman who now “walks these hills in a long black veil” and “visits my grave when the night winds wail.” That vignette fits right in on an album loaded with mournful lyrics on songs like “I Shall Be Released,” in which Manuel applies his evocative tenor to the tale of a man in prison who remembers “every face of every man who put me here.” And yet there are moments of lightness, such as in “Caledonia Mission,” where “we’ll be gone in moonshine time / I’ve got a place they’ll never find.” There’s also the funky “We Can Talk,” a seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyric that asks, “Did ya ever milk a cow? / Well I had the chance one day but I was all dressed up for Sunday” and concludes, “I’d rather be burned in Canada than to freeze here in the South.”
Music from Big Pink sounds better than ever in a 50th anniversary edition that incorporates an incisive essay by David Fricke and photos by Elliott Landy that make the group look less like rock stars than 19th century Southern gentlemen. The package delivers a new stereo mix by Bob Clearmountain of the 11-song original album. It also offers alternate takes of “Tears of Rage” and “Lonesome Suzie”; outtakes of “Yazoo Street Scandal,” “Long Distance Operator,” and “Keys to the Highway,” all from the Basement Tapes sessions with Dylan; and a fine a cappella version of “I Shall Be Released.” A Blu-ray features a 5.1 surround-sound mix of all 17 of those tracks. There’s also a vinyl version of the original album, with the songs spread over two 180g LPs for added fidelity. For serious vinyl junkies, the box additionally includes a reproduction of the 1968 seven-inch single of “The Weight,” the album’s most famous song (b/w “I Shall Be Released”).
The Clearmountain mix adds depth plus a bit of studio chatter to the songs, but you’d probably have to be a major fan—and the owner of good audio equipment—to want to upgrade from the original album just to hear it. The half-dozen bonus tracks are another potential carrot, though only the a cappella “I Shall Be Released” was previously unavailable.
I can think of several other compelling reasons to buy this box, however. For starters, it’s a must for anyone who doesn’t own the original album or has a scratchy old vinyl copy. But even if you have a pristine LP or CD, you might well want this for the Blu-ray: you will need a high-quality five-channel sound system to appreciate that, but like most such mixes, it sounds dramatically better than stereo and showcases detail that gets buried in the original version. (As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of Blu-ray audio. As far as I’m concerned, we should forget the back-to-vinyl movement and go forward to Blu-ray surround.)
Hearing Big Pink again made me want to revisit the group’s later albums and also wish for something new, but that, of course, is impossible, since Manuel, Danko, and Helm respectively fell victim to suicide, heart failure, and cancer between 1986 and 2012. At least they and their bandmates left us a lot to remember them by, starting with this fine debut.
Jeff Burger’s website, www.byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.