Fifty years ago today, The Band released their groundbreaking debut album, Music from Big Pink, and changed rock and roll forever.
The LP was born out of the mythical Basement Tapes sessions where, following their 1966 tour as Bob Dylan’s backing ensemble, Bob and The Band spent months out of 1967 holed up in a pink farmhouse in upstate New York – jamming, writing and letting their creativity run wild. Whether they were aware of it at the time, they were digging beneath the very foundation of what rock music was at that stage, excavating a forgotten catacomb of roots music and basically inventing what folks today might call “Americana.”
Mostly written at Big Pink, with Dylan credited on three tracks, the songs have a familiar-yet-impenetrable quality that would define The Band’s deeply familiar yet endlessly elusive aesthetic. And while the versions featured Music from Big Pink were in fact recorded in studios in New York and Los Angeles, the group was consciously chasing the muse of those magical sessions, trying to make it sound, as Robbie Robertson said, “just like it did in the basement.”
The sentimental “Tears of Rage” epitomizes The Band’s democratic rotating format, where each of the five members sings lead. Fusing rhythm & blues with classical, acid rock and zydeco, the organ-driven “Chest Fever” exhibits their unmatched musicianship. With its nostalgia-drenched aura and Levon Helm’s evocative Southern drawl, the unforgettable “The Weight” became The Band’s first and biggest hit. The Dylan-penned gospel “I Shall Be Released” has been covered more times than anyone can count.
Since its release, the likes of Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Roger Waters have hailed Music from Big Pink as a sacred text – a Rosetta Stone connecting rock music with the enigmatic tradition that Greil Marcus famously coined as the “Old, Weird America.” Marcus would later credit Bob Dylan and The Band for ushering in a new chapter in rock and roll, which evolved from a “teenage immersion in the present to an adult sophistication steeped in deep knowledge of rock’s roots in blues and country and lyrics that likewise looked to the past for inspiration.”
Whatever witchcraft occurred in that basement, the combined forces of Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm – not to mention one Robert Zimmerman – opened a Pandora’s box of cosmic American music that could never be put back in.
Ryan is a writer, editor and vinyl collector currently based in Los Angeles. He started Mini Music Critic in 2017.