The Band – Music From Big Pink

The Band – Music From Big Pink
Released July, 1968

Week Two of the Crash Course brings us The Band’s album, “Music From Big Pink”. It peaked at number 30 on the Billboard chart in 1968 and Rolling Stone Magazine has it as their number 34 in the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. Frankly, I’m at a loss, because this is not the first time I’ve listened to it, and it’s still a hard slog to get through it. There’s no denying it’s influence, however, as Eric Clapton says the album is what inspired him to leave Cream and pursue his solo career, and as a rock fan, I’ve gotta be grateful for that.

I’ll probably upset a few people with this review, but I was not looking forward to writing it, let alone listening to “Music From Big Pink” again. The overuse of organ, the jangly guitars, and the GOD-AWFUL lyrics made it really hard for me to listen to. And really, the high-school poetry is back with a vengeance. Listen to ‘We Can Talk’. Really, The Band? “Did you ever milk a cow? I had a chance to one day, but I was all dressed up for Sunday”? Bob Dylan wrote three tracks on this album, why did you let him stop there? Many songs have lyrics thrown together just because they rhyme, not because they actually make sense.

I’ve said a lot of negative things about this album, but I think there are two good tracks on it. Well, tracks I didn’t mind listening to anyway. The first is ‘The Weight’. I think this is one of those songs that is ingrained in all our memories and we’re not really sure why. It did make it in the top 50 of Rolling Stone Magazine’s  “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, so that says something. There’s nothing too out of order in it, it’s very neat, with quite a catchy chorus, and some quite nice piano work. (Coincidentally, Aretha Franklin did a sweet version of it.) The other is ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’. I like the bluesy feel to it. It’s one of Dylan’s songs that he recorded with The Band on the Basement Tapes, another album recorded at the Big Pink studio house. It was always a relief when the final track, ‘I Shall Be Released’ (a fairly apt title for the last song) finished. It meant I didn’t have to listen to it anymore. This won’t be an album retaining its spot on my iPod. If it was an eBay seller I would leave feedback of “Terrible seller, would not listen to again”.

Sorry if I’ve offended anyone*. I gotta review it like I heard it.

*not actually sorry

The first time I listened to Big Pink, I was cooking dinner and quite enjoyed grooving around the kitchen until about track 7, at which point it just began to sound like noise and I had to switch it off. Listen two – at work – was near on impossible. But I persisted and strategically planned out listen number 3; I was sure that there must be a good reason that The Band were listed at #50 in the Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Greatest Artists of all Time”; surely I had something to learn from the process. So I lay on my bed, turned off the lights, lit a candle and plugged into my iPod with no other distractions. In this ‘light’ I was able to enjoy the undeniable musicianship, the light and shade of the different vocalists and the understated harmonies.  From listens 4-8 there was toe-tapping to my favourites, ‘To Kingdom Come’, ‘Caledonia Mission’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ and ‘We Can Talk’. The licks of honky-tonk piano teamed with infectious drum beats and layers of organ, sealed the deal for me with Big Pink. The lowest point was undoubtedly the random synth harpsichord and almost-fugal intro to ‘On a Station’. Conversely, I really came to like the synth organ into that gradually builds into the slightly psychedelic ‘Chest Fever’. I must admit that I couldn’t really connect emotionally to “Music From Big Pink” as I couldn’t really get the nonsensical lyrics, but in the end I appreciated this album, the musicality was tops; I (probably) will listen to it again.

I’m quite conflicted with this album. It contains the classic song ‘The Weight’ and a wonderful version of ‘I Shall Be Released’ but there are some pretty average tracks here, namely ‘Lonesome Suzie’ and an unnecessary cover of ‘Long Black Veil’. However, this record has struck a chord with many people; Eric Clapton famously being one of them. I can see its merits, but I think it pales in comparison to their 1969 self-titled follow-up. One reason that might be is drummer Levon Helm only sings lead on a couple of tracks. Rick Danko and Richard Manuel have great voices, but there’s something about Levon belting out ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ or ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ that defines what I think makes The Band great. Robbie Robertson’s songwriting certainly comes to the fore too. It bothers me that two songs on this record co-written with Bob Dylan, ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ and ‘Tears of Rage’, are, in my opinion, quite boring. The intro on the former I find particularly grating. There is much to like here though, and the vocal harmonies are one of the group’s biggest assets. Tracks like ‘Caledonia Mission’ and ‘To Kingdom Come’ showcase the unique blending of the three vocalists and demonstrate how tight The Band play together, as well as their musical versatility. Garth Hudson’s fabulous keyboard opening on album highlight ‘Chest Fever’ pre-dates stadium rock by a few years. This album is a good introduction to the group, but they only get better from here. Watch Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, if you haven’t already!

Musically I get this album. I can understand why people would’ve got their panties all a twist over it. Dylan had a huge influence on The Band and is credited writing three of the songs on the album. And it’s a pretty and lush album. Pretty harmonies, but not in a sugar sweet way like The Beach Boys. Instrumentally it’s different, incorporating your standard guitar, drums, bass and piano with lots of synthesizer action and horns. It’s as if rock, country and doowop all met at a party and ended up in a drunken Menage a Trois. Who wouldn’t get excited about that? Every time I listened to it, my toes sure were a tapping along! My first few listens to “Music From Big Pink” were quite pleasurable. And then I paid attention to the lyrics. And therein lies the problem I have with this album. Now I understand that the 60s were a time of irresponsible excess and flamboyance (thanks Wikipedia). I’m aware that there were many successful artists of that time writing strange, and some would say somewhat drug induced, lyrics. But The Band? Well they take the cake when it comes to the plain awful lyrics department. It’s like reading bad high school poetry where words are being used just because they rhyme. Where rhyming couplets are there, but with no sense of pattern or structure. As much as I tried to enjoy it I just couldn’t get past it. I understand why people love this album, and power to them. I just don’t think I’ll be putting it on again for a while. ‘The Weight’ is tops though!

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