Fifty years ago today, The Band released their 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, experimenting and letting their creativity run free as they unknowingly uncovered a new catacomb of music some might call “Americana.” So while Music from Big Pink was in fact recorded with in studios in New York and Los Angeles, they were chasing after those sessions, trying to make it sound, as Robbie Robertson said, “Just like it did in the basement.”
Mostly written at Big Pink, with Dylan credited or co-credited on three tracks, the songs have a familiar-yet-impenetrable quality that would define their elusive aesthetic.
The reminiscent “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 essential “Chest Fever” exhibits their highly cultivated sound. “The Weight,” meanwhile, with its nostalgia-drenched aura and Levon Helm’s evocative drawl, became The Band’s first and biggest hit.
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 and roll with the enigmatic American folk tradition that music critic Greil Marcus famously coined 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.