It’s hard to compete with free. When more than one version of a product is available, the free one is generally chosen by the consumer. This, in a nutshell, is what irks the music industry right now more than anything else. With the huge popularity of file swapping software like Morpheus, Kazaa, Freenet, and countless other available options that allow computer users to download MP3 music files free of charge onto their hard drives, the labels are scrambling to stop the drainage from their bloated bank accounts. Whether they have a good reason to be upset or not is a debate for another column. Of interest here is how the industry is responding to their dilemma. While a good portion of their effort goes into mounting a legal offensive against software providers (see the death of Napster for an example of this strategy) and attempting to “educate” the public on the evils of downloading music over the Internet with public service announcements, nothing has worked so far.
But now, a small but growing contingency of labels are attempting to provide audiophiles with a product that isn’t so easily downloadable. These products include advanced audio formats that provide a higher fidelity recording for the listener than is possible with compact discs or in an MP3. The latest format to be mass marketed is DVD Audio. DVD Audio discs are encoded in a different way than popular CDs. The DVDs can hold about eight times as much information as a compact disc, and provide a true multichannel format sound. The discs won’t play on your old CD player, and the difference in quality is hard to notice unless you own expensive audio equipment. But if you do happen to own a high end receiver and speakers, the sound is crisp and true. Rather than fighting technology, the record industry’s solution embraces what’s new.
In this case, Capitol Records has chosen to re-release some of its classic catalog albums, which it’s betting will appeal to music lovers who also happen to own expensive stereo systems. One of the better contenders in this series is Music From Big Pink, originally recorded by the Band in 1968. The fact that this album was chosen as a key disc to release in the new format proves that not everyone at the major label is a complete moron. Really, it’s a perfect choice. Music From Big Pink was a groundbreaking album when it first hit the racks 25 years ago. The fact that it’s being used to help launch a new audio format today is fitting.
Although the music group known as the Band was around in some incarnation or other as early as the late 1950s, they did not achieve true notoriety for a decade. Moving north from his native Arkansas, Ronnie Hawkins thought to try his musical wares up in Canada where there was more demand for rock music in 1958. He organized a backing band for himself in the great white North that included the only one member that would still be around when the group achieved its huge success a decade later: Levon Helm. After making a name for themselves as a solid dancehall band in Canada, and replacing all members but Helm with local Canadian musicians, the group made its way down to New York City where they met Bob Dylan. Dylan was impressed with their energy, and asked them to be his backup band when he went electric. They played with him through roves of booing crowds, those angry at the folk icon’s decision to “sell out” during his 1966 electric tour. During this time, Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman secured a recording contract with the Band with Capitol Records. The result was Music From Big Pink, an album named for the giant pink house in Woodstock, New York where much of the writing and some of the recording for the album took place. Prior to recording their own album, the Band and Dylan spent much time at this bright residence recording many of rock history’s most famous bootleg tracks: The Basement Tapes. The tracks would be collected in 1975 and released as a double album, ending with “The Wheel’s on Fire”, which also appears on Music From Big Pink. For it was during these recordings that Music From Big Pink would germinate.
The Band is perhaps best known for the five distinct sounds it produced. This included the haunting guitar of Robbie Robertson, co-lead singer and bassist Rick Danko, the signature Lowrey organ of Garth Hudson, drummer Levon Helm, and the fantastic vocals of Richard Manuel, who many compared to Ray Charles. In fact, the only members of the Band who didn’t make significant vocal contributions to the group’s music were Robertson and Hudson. The group truly lived up to its name, naturally combining their natural musical talents in a way that sounds pure and unrehearsed.
Music From Big Pink was a freak of nature when it was released in 1968. It sounded like nothing else being recorded at the time, and garnered immediate critical acclaim. The album’s musical styles emerged from genres ranging from folk, blues, gospel, and R&B, to classical, and rock & roll. It is music steeped in Americana, made by a group of Canadians. Perhaps it was their status as outsiders that allowed the five musicians to lend such a powerful perspective on American life. Much like the way that British rock guitarists of the era such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page were fascinated by American delta bluesmen, the Band had a great appreciation for what they saw in American culture. Unlike many Americans, they took little of it for granted.
Building on the excellent reviews and notoriety as the musicians who backed up Dylan, the Band slowly edged their way into the public spotlight after the release of Music From Big Pink. It took some time for them to show up on music fans radar. In the decade to come, they would become one of the most popular and influential rock bands of all time. It was the first album, though, that turned the world on its ear. The loose combination of rootsy guitar work, bubbling organ, and vocals passed around like a bottle, sound so spontaneous that it’s hard to believe they’re calculated or produced. This was the sound that served as the foundation for the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, who went on to make several of the selections from this album famous, including “The Weight” and, one of Jerry’s favorites, “I Shall Be Released”.
Dylan himself leant his magic pen to a trio of songs on Music From Big Pink. He co-wrote “Tears of Rage” with Manuel and “This Wheel’s On Fire” with Danko. “I Shall Be Released”, which subtly closes out the album like a quiet blast is also a Dylan contribution. However, the true genius of the Band, and the reason for their continuing success, rests in the amazing song-writing ability of Robbie Robertson. This can be gleaned on tracks like “The Weight”, which was the group’s first hit on the singles chart, and “Chest Fever”, with Hudson’s ripe spoonfuls organ at the song’s opening. His writing captures the mythology of America’s nineteenth century in tall tales filled with just enough sharp detail to make them believable. Somehow, his songs seem just as relevant now as they must have 25 years ago. They are compositions that wove the themes of family, faith, and the American pastoral setting as their themes with the doubt of the times.
There’s not much to criticize about Music From Big Pink. The album has been positively reviewed for 25 years with good reason. There’s not a weak track on the album, and any fan of rock music should have no trouble appreciating this masterpiece. The Band were a group that turned a musical corner for everyone, influencing a generation of musicians in the process. The longevity of their influence extends on through to today, in the work of bands like Gomez and Phish. Most important, the album still sounds good. It maintains its power to walk the listener along the highway of emotion. Audiophiles who are interested in upgrading to DVD Audio would do will to start their collection with this classic.