Music From Big Pink: Myth Debunked, Genius Retained

Me debunk an American myth, and take my life in my hands. (The Tragically Hip, “At The Hundredth Meridian”)

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With the recent passing of legendary drummer/vocalist Levon Helm, The Band’s 1968 debut album Music From Big Pink has been enjoying some serious attention on turntables, CD players and iPods. This album is about as mythological as they come in rock history, and many greats such as Eric Clapton and the Beatles have bowed to its genius and credited it with altering their musical course. Along with these accolades, The Band had spent several years playing and writing with Dylan before their first release. This pretty much solidified them as key players in the slow but steady evolution in rock from teenybopper groove to artistic seriousness.

Big Pink did not need years to germinate as a classic; it was immediately embraced as a breath-taking piece of work, an unprecedented gem in the field of popular music. While it met with relatively low sales upon its release, those in the know connected with it out of curiosity about Dylan’s connection with the album. He co-wrote two tunes and also provided “I Shall Be Released.” It was a valuable name-drop for The Band, and those who discovered the album through this portal soon realized that this band was very much into its own thing and certainly not relying on Dylan to sure up its posts.

In the weeks leading up to the announcement of Levon Helm’s advanced illness, I had coincidentally been listening incessantly to Big Pink. As a longtime fan of The Band, I had always gravitated more toward their second self-titled album, sometimes known as the Brown Album. It felt more assured to me, more groove-laden. But with all the mythology surrounding Big Pink, I finally decided to commit to digesting it repeatedly as a unit (even though I had heard all of the songs in other contexts). I played it in the car. I played it at home. I played it exercising. And it became an addictive listen – not for the clichéd ideas of mythology and musical ingenuity that it often inspires in music journalists, but for the album’s very purposeful effort to make a mark and be different. Much of Big Pink’s mythology is centered around its almost effortless ability to be fresh and unique, yet familiar and timeless. But what many still do not see, even after forty-plus years, is that this image was a result of a concerted effort on behalf of the Band to make this impression on its fans and contemporaries. Too much of the mystical is given credit for the mythological attributes of the Band. However, I argue that this very deliberate attempt at selling an image is mythological in itself – an example of a savvy and artful group who knew exactly what they were doing every step of the way while constructing the myth of their debut album.

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Let’s first look at the album art work. On the back of the sleeve we see a picture of a pink house. Those interested in investigating behind the scenes at the time were quick to learn that this pink house, located near Woodstock, New York, was home base to both The Band and Dylan’s musical activities. The basement was set up for rehearsals and demo recording. (In 1975 Columbia Records released The Basement Tapes, a collection of demos recorded in this basement. It was voraciously eaten up by those consumed with the myth of Woodstock and the creative forces that had been emanating from it since Dylan and The Band had moved there in 1966.) Therefore, many listeners assumed that this mysterious album – with nothing on the front cover but a childlike painting by Dylan himself – was indeed recorded in the basement of this house.

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Any discerning professional musician’s ear, of course, would immediately refute this erroneous belief. With today’s technology, we can reproduce some seriously professional sounds in our basements. Back in 1968, however, you needed a proper studio to create what we hear on Big Pink: rich, sparkly vocals, proper instrument separation and mixing, lush reverbs, punchy drums, and impeccable silences. There is no way that Big Pink would have carried that punch had it been recorded with Garth Hudson’s 1/4-inch tape recorder (that gave us much of the rough and ready Basement Tapes). In fact, Big Pink was recorded in three world-class studios: A&R in New York, and Capitol and Gold Star in Los Angeles. Signed by Capitol records, The Band had at its disposal as much funds as necessary to capture the essence of its rustic vision. This by no means takes away from its greatness. If anything, the knowledge that this record had as much of a budget as any major label release at the time makes its success as a mythological creation even more impressive. It succeeded by having the means to properly craft a sound that reflected exactly the image they were trying to sell to the public.

When discussing Big Pink as perpetuating an antiquated image, we cannot ignore the photographs by Elliot Landy that fans excitedly surveyed upon The Band’s entrance into the larger musical foray in 1968. Invariably depicted in black and white, The Band dressed in old suits, wore bowlers and fedoras, and had facial hair belying their relatively young age. (None except Garth Hudson was yet thirty years old.) The photographs communicate a casual, laid-back demeanour; it’s almost as if Elliot Landy just showed up one day unannounced and started photographing them as they always appeared in their daily routine. However, Robertson was well aware of the need to sell an unconventional and non-conformist image. Therefore, he purposely hired a photographer who was not at the time well-known (he later became very well known as a result of these photographs). He did not want The Band to look pretty in the typical rock photography sense; conversely, he wanted them to look like they didn’t care. He wanted the audience to look upon The Band as a group of musicians who were intent on creating timeless music with little or no concern for the trappings of fame or success. He wanted The Band to be perceived as being stumbled upon by the world, an accidental discovery that reaped magic in the form of Big Pink. The reality is that the photos were doctored to look that way, just as the album was meticulously crafted by the best in the business to match this image. The fact that this synergetic vision worked holds just as much genius in it as the original mythology itself.

The real magic that sold the mythology of the Big Pink, however, was the performances. When this album was released, the overriding discussions that occurred over turntables and hash pipes were about the incredible dynamic among the members. Listeners marveled at The Band’s tight yet rollicking harmonies, in-the-pocket grooves, and soul-inspired spirit of camaraderie. Music From Big Pink was one of the first albums that sold the myth of “live off the floor” recordings. With people picturing this music being recorded in the basement of that pink house, inevitably the assumption was that the songs were done in minimal takes, with all of them in one room banging it out effortlessly. But The Band was all about creating a great sound, and they were more interested in achieving this by any means possible rather than adhering to unnecessary standards such as everything being a strictly collaborative, live effort in the studio.  The important thing here is to not to assume that they were above using the latest studio tricks to achieve their purpose, and this included a lot of vocal and instrumental overdubbing. Who do you think is doing the multiple guitar parts all over the record? They only had one guitarist. This is just conjecture, but Robbie Robertson probably took a few days by himself and just laid down all his parts with no one else around. The idea that that they were all in the same room all the time for the recording of Big Pink is a myth, just like many other aspects of the album and the promotion surrounding it. Levon even had to overdub the snare drum on a lot of the record due to level issues in the mix. In other words, he just sat there by himself hitting the snare over and over with his headphones on. But it was necessary for the overall sound of the record that he do this, so he did it.

My intention by exploring the myths surrounding Music from Big Pink is not all an effort to take away from its magic. Rather, my admiration of the greatness of the album inspired me to study its mythology and peel back the layers to see the remarkable beauty of its reality. This to me is much more satisfying than the ambiguity of the conventional mythology that’s long been attributed to it. More importantly, it reveals the men behind the myth. They were mere mortals intent on creating great music – and succeeding in the music business. And if they tricked the Beatles into going live off the floor for the Let it Be sessions, or inspired Clapton to quit Cream and explore more organic forms or music, then they pulled off the biggest false pretense hoax in the history of rock and roll.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Music From Big Pink: Myth Debunked, Genius Retained

  1. Dan Eilenberg

    Hey Chris,

    Just re-read your wonderful post. You really nailed it. One final thing I think bears clarification though. You kind of overshot on the vocal-on-vocal thing. It is not Richard twice (harmonizing with himself) on “Tears of Rage.” Definitely Rick on top on the choruses. Similarly, the reverse is true on “This Wheel’s on Fire,” Richard on top of Rick on the B part of the verses.

    • Dan this is one thing I’ve been grappling with. I think I have to concede your point. It’s been on my mind as a potentially inaccurate observation. In the end it’s maybe a case of them really imitating one another to make the parts accurate. I am going to rework that part of the article.

      Thanks for the input and support!

      Chris

  2. Their Malibu base, known as Shangri-La was rented from Sammy Davis Jr., and was a previously a Bordello.

    Levon’s book “This Wheels On Fire” is an excellent read. It details the events of The Last Waltz. The term “mostly overdubbed” is no exaggeration.

    • Dan Eilenberg

      Joey,

      Let’s not get in a pissing match about exactly how much was overdubbed. We’re not going to resolve here the percentage of live v. overdubbed in final film and soundtrack. Just sayin’, find it hard to believe that a *majority* (which the word “mostly” suggests) of it was overdubbed. If Levon claimed that in his book it may have been a deliberate exaggeration based on his overall bitterness about the project.

      As for Sammy Davis Jr.’s house v. Shangri-La Studios: Sammy Davis’s house—including pool house converted to make-shift recording studio—located in Hollywood Hills; Shangri-La—yes, a former bordello—located in Malibu. Two completely different places. One in Hollywood Hills. One in Malibu. Different.

      • Thanks for the clarification on the Shangri-La vs. SDJ’s house.

        Yes there’s no way to know exactly how much was fixed on the Last Waltz audio. Danko’s bass seems to be what gets picked on the most because it’s so obvious from watching his hands. And Robbie singing….well, that’s a whole other story there.

  3. Hey Chris!
    I really enjoyed the read. Your description of the marketing was right on.
    It was a masterful scheme, Nowhere did they claim it was a basement tape, but the entire package led most consumers to that edge…

    They continued this tactic right up to their last performance, The Last Waltz, which was presented as a live concert movie, but in reality mostly overdubbed in Sammy Davis’ Malibu beach house studio, and pro LA sound stages.

    Levon wrote that he never saw any income from that project.
    (typical “record company business tactics” )

    This is not to say The Band were not a powerful musical creative force. They were. They paid their dues as musicians long before the international fame.

    Carry on my friend!

    • Joey, thanks for reading the piece. What’s you’re saying is right on the money. You could write a similar piece on the last waltz, couldn’t you? They rest of the Band didn’t even want to break up. Only Robbie really had a good time and saw any money from that show.

      Hope all is well….nice to hear from you,

      Chris

    • Dan Eilenberg

      Sure, like many (most, all?) live 70s albums there was a good deal of overdubbing done. In the case of The Last Waltz the overdubbing was called looping, as it involved not just fixing musical boo boos but ensuring that the image on the screen matched the notes being heard. To say the film was “mostly overdubbed” is grossly misleading; makes it sound more synthetic than it was. It’s true that there was an inordinate amount of punching in (looping) of Rick Danko’s bass parts but most of what you hear in the movie is *live* live.

      And footnote, the overdubs were done at the Band’s own Shangri-La Studios in 1977 following the Thanksgiving 1976 show. They didn’t need to rent out Sammy Davis’s pool house since the recording of the eponymous Band (or “Brown”) album in 1969.

      • Dan,
        Thanks for reading and for the commments. The Band’s history is very intriquing. I was under the impression that Shangri-La was Sammy Davis’ old house, and that the studio in the house was in the old pool house. Now I remember Danko explaining on The Last Waltz that it was an old bordello, but I thought it was a bordello before Sammy Davis owned it as a residence. I totally had it ass-backwards. Ha. Regarding the overdubs on The Last Waltz, I read somewhere that Levon’s parts were the only ones that didn’t need doctoring. Still, it’s not uncommon for a live recording to be fixed after the fact. In keeping with show business, no one wants reality anyway. At least they didn’t back then. Now show biz is all about reality. As Ron Sexsmith sings, “Reality’s a show.”

  4. Well thought out piece. To my mind, neither a motive nor different methods detract from the genius that is the album.

  5. Neil

    Hi Chris. That was excellent. Very well written and something I’d not considered before. Thanks so much.

    Neil

  6. perry

    Hey Chris! Hope all is well with you Michelle and the boys. Only (very) recently discovered your Blog and have very much enjoyed reading your entries. Have fond memories of meeting you at the Rose n’ Thistle all those years ago when “Too Commercial” was still a newly minted album (I still brag about how good that CD is to anyone I know who appreciates quality music!) and of course the frienship you, Michelle, Maxx and I shared in the years afterwards …
    Take care my friend … keep on writing … and singing and playing … maybe someday I’ll catch you performing again … I’d enjoy that very much.
    All the best.
    perry

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