Robbie Robertson Recalls the Band’s 1969 Masterpiece at 50
More than anything the Band did together in the eight tumultuous and wildly creative years they were together, their self-titled second LP – known ubiquitously as the Brown Album by aficionados – defined them in so many ways.
“This was the mission we were on,” Robbie Robertson recalls, when asked to reflect on what made the album, recently reissued in a super-deluxe, expanded 50th-anniversary edition, so special. “We got launched, we got united with Ronnie Hawkins and then with Bob Dylan. That was a detour from the mission, but it doesn’t get much more interesting as far as detours go. But after the detour, we got down to business, to doing and inventing and discovering who we really were musically.”
The results, heard on 1968's debut, Music From Big Pink, were exceptional, but unlike anything else on the music charts of the day. And after bassist Rick Danko was injured in a car wreck, forcing the Band to cancel a tour in support of the record, the group, which had already appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with the five members' backs to photographer Elliott Landy, virtually disappeared from the cultural consciousness.
"We knew that our brotherhood was really exceptional,” Robertson explains. “We knew each other’s talent. We knew everybody had something beautiful to give. So my dream was to find a sanctuary, like Woodstock had been, to write and invent what we’re looking for. And to take everything that we had gathered over the six or seven years we’d already been together.”
Even before the Band had cut their teeth together, and found their collective voice in the basement of the pink house they’d rented together in upstate New York in the late '60s, recording demos with, famously, Dylan, and for themselves, they had toured relentlessly with Hawkins, as his backing band the Hawks, and then backed Dylan on his 1966 world tour, when Dylan had “gone electric” and was routinely booed.
“Yeah, that was interesting,” Robertson recalls with a chuckle. But, he says, it gave him – and drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, keyboardist Richard Manuel and keyboardist Garth Hudson – the impetus to find a sound all their own, and to strike out on their own terms.
“Peter Yarrow said, ‘You’ve got to go up to Woodstock,’” recalls John Simon, who produced the Band’s first two career-defining records. “I was staying in this house that Peter had rented for me and the film editor, Howard Alk. One night, there was this god-awful bleeting outside the window. We went out, took a look and it was Richard, Robbie and Garth – but not Levon, because he wasn’t there yet – serenading Howard for his birthday on instruments they barely knew how to play, dressed up in some sort of Halloween costumes. That was my first meeting with them. They were just some Woodstock characters. And Woodstock was full of characters. The inmates running the asylum.”
Listen to the Band's 'Across the Great Divide'
Soon, however, Simon realized that the Band were different – as he recounts in detail in his 2018 memoir, Truth, Lies & Hearsay: A Memoir of a Musical Life In and Out of Rock and Roll – and had something different to say.
“Before Music From Big Pink, most bands would get together and say, ‘Let’s take off our shirts and get a record deal,’” Robertson says with a chuckle. “We weren’t cut from that cloth at all. This was not a pop enterprise. This was not a rock-star ambition. This only had to do with all the music that we had gathered, and we had inside of us, and finding how to let it out in a universal way. So when we found Big Pink, we found a clubhouse, a workshop, a sanctuary. That was where the brotherhood blossomed and where the light could go on.”
“It became apparent pretty quickly that Robbie was in charge,” Simon says of his earliest days working with the Band. “He was the most mature guy of the group. He alone was married, a family man, with a kid. He had the ear of [Dylan’s manager] Albert Grossman, and he also was closest to Bob.”
With Big Pink under their belts, the Band were on a mission.
“With The Band album," says Robertson, "we were going to say to the world, ‘We’re not interested in the way this is done. We’re interested in doing something that is about this brotherhood – that is about us making music – and we’re going to live together in a place and we’re going to record in a place that we’re going to make our own sound, in our own studio and our own environment, about our own musicality. And through that, we think we can do something that’s really our own.'”
Tired of the long, cold winters in Woodstock, N.Y., and with a young family to look after, Robertson decamped to Los Angeles. Simon soon joined him.
“Big Pink was not a hit at first,” Simon recalls. “So I went out to L.A. with a carton full of albums and gave them to every rock person I met, and pretty soon, word started spreading. And everybody else in the Band, and particularly Robbie, were handing them out to friends – George Harrison, Eric Clapton – and everybody started talking about it in those inner circles. So it became a big hit. So there they were.”
“Big Pink gave me a path,” adds Robertson. “It was an experiment and gave us the idea that we could do something, and it would be different than anybody else in the world, which turned out to be true. So when Music From Big Pink came out, musicians of every type rallied like you couldn’t imagine. That made the difference. All I knew was that the record – the way it looked, the way it sounded, the way these songs were constructed and executed – was its own thing completely. I embraced that to the degree that it made me think, ‘Oh. Okay. Now I can go deep.’”
Listen to the Band's 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'
Of course there was pressure. Music From Big Pink was so distinctive, and so unusual and so special, from its performances to the vocal blend of Helm, Danko and Manuel, that it felt almost impossible to follow up.
“The songs for a first album come from a lot of trial and error, and a lot of time, and years of working on them, until you think they’re the best of the best – the cream of the crop – and then what?” asks John Simon. “Well, you don’t have any songs because you’ve already blown your load on the first album. So Robbie invited me out to Hawaii with him, first, ostensibly to get some peace and quiet and write songs for the next album. Then we showed up in Hollywood and the guys had come from Woodstock. We really didn’t have material together, but fortunately, Capitol Records didn’t have the recording equipment together for us either. We had put aside two months to make this thing, and the first month, we had no recording equipment. So that first month was all spent in writing and rehearsing. Then the equipment came in and we worked like crazy.”
In an effort to maintain that clubhouse atmosphere, they had rented a home formerly owned by Sammy Davis, Jr., where the Band could live, and then use the pool-house-turned-recording-studio to make their next album. It was dubbed Shangri-La.
“Shangri-La has been written about incorrectly in literature,” Simon insists. “A fellow named Tommy Donovan, who was a friend of Albert Grossman’s, who grew up in Hawaii, and knew the West Coast, scouted a place for us to set up shop. And he found this house that had been Sammy Davis, Jr.’s house, and Wally Cox's too, who was known as Mister Peepers on a popular television show. It had a big pool house that could be a recording studio and it had adequate room for everybody in the Band to have their own private bedroom.”
“We were on an island in our own musical world,” says Robertson of their new lodgings. “But it took longer than we expected to turn a pool house into a real recording studio that we could make a record in. We had to get equipment. We had to soundproof this Rat Pack pool house. But what that really did was it gave me time to work more on writing the songs. So the advantage in that was that it bought me some time and to figure out what we wanted to send out to the rest of the world. I just knew what to do with this theatrical group. I knew their instruments. I knew their playing. I knew their abilities. But I realized I’ve got to figure out how to show everybody else what we can do.”
Once they were up and running, however, Simon insists, even though it was unheard of at the time, it was better for everyone not to be in the marvelous, but relatively stuffy confines of Capitol Records’ fabled studios just a few miles away. “We had everything we needed,” he recalls. “We had a maintenance guy who came by every morning and lined up all the machines, which Capitol provided. And if we needed instruments, we went out and rented them or got them. We went to pawn shops for Levon’s drums, for instance. And the piano we got at a used piano place.”
“We turned the limitations into advantages,” says Robertson.
“As far as the vibe goes, it was the same as the second part of the Big Pink album, in that we were not in Woodstock in January,” Simon adds. “So the vibe was one of sheer joy, being in a nice warm place in January and just being able to enjoy doing what we were doing. Plus, they’d become celebrities. Everyone wanted to come by and meet them, and go and hang out. So it was just a lot of fun. And then we were working on these new songs. So it was a laboratory too. Ideas would come up, we’d try them, we’d toss them. The ones that were good stuck. And we’d just add to them until we agreed, ‘Hey, this one is working now. Let’s just play it 5 million times until we’ve got it down.’ And then we’d record it.”
“The bleed – from being in a pool house, set up facing each other, was part of the sound,” adds Robertson. “So the takes would be a discovery process. Pretty soon, the songs started to reveal themselves.”
Simon insists that, while it was a one-for-all atmosphere, each of the Band's members was pushing himself as an individual player in service to the collective whole.
“Like any musicians, they could fall into the traps of what was comfortable,” he says. “But we were trying to do something beyond that. Just as the Big Pink album was something new, we didn’t want to just repeat the Big Pink album. We were all being looked toward to do something special. So we worked really hard at doing something special. And that was self-imposed.”
Simon also insists that one of the keys to The Band is that it is a record of performances. “There were literally no punch-ins,” he says.
“We didn’t have enough tracks to overdub,” Robertson notes with a chuckle. “The only thing that was overdubbed was the horns. Because everybody couldn’t play horns and play their instruments at the same time!”
Listen to the Band's 'Up on Cripple Creek'
In a '90s-era documentary included in the new box set, Harrison recounts how when he visited Dylan in Woodstock and first encountered the Band, he was knocked out by the blend of their voices and the democratic distribution of performances. When he played their demos to his Beatles bandmates during the Let It Be sessions, they were equally impressed by what they heard.
“Those vocal parts had to be worked out,” Simon says of the rich and gorgeous blend of Helm, Danko and Manuel’s voices on The Band. “I always compare them to a Duke Ellington orchestra, in that they were very special sounding performers and instrumentalists and singers. So their individual and collective qualities would suit each particular song in a certain way. No one could sing the falsetto on the top the way Richard could. But on the other hand, if Rick sang the part on top, it had a different sound, a plaintive sound. And if Levon sang the part on top, it had a real strained but honest sound. So we moved things around and tried different things. But we arrived pretty quickly at who was going to play what part where.”
“I really thought about the singers in this group, everybody, being part of this theatrical force,” adds Robertson. “I would cast whoever was going to sing certain parts. I would write songs specifically for Rick to sing. I would write a song that nobody could sing like Levon could sing. And Richard and I sometimes would write things together that everybody knew that Richard had to be the lead signer on.”
The songs, Simon notes, were a cut above those on Big Pink, and certainly those in the Top 40.
“I was aware of the fact that Robbie was writing a thematic bunch of songs, which was very cool,” he says. “’The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ was one of the first ones he put together. He labored a lot on that one. But once that tone had been set, then songs like ‘King Harvest’ and ‘Across the Great Divide’ came into play. They had such a self-consciously American quality to them. These were new songs in the old tradition and about the old tradition. Of course, as a musical story, that album in particular spawned the genre that later became known as Americana.”
Robertson sees it in far simpler, more intimate, terms.
“I knew what these guys could do,” he insists. “I knew who their characters were. And I was writing screenplays for these characters. I thought I was Ingmar Bergman. I was writing for Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. I thought that was my job. But that’s different than any other group, and it was a different format. Everything was different about the Band.”
Upon its release, The Band was a smash. It eclipsed Music From Big Pink and set the Band on the road to super-stardom. Soon they were on the cover of Time and headlining festivals and arenas around the world.
“It got a good reception, but it was satisfying,” Simon says, emphasizing what a creatively rewarding experience the making of The Band was. “I loved that album. I was just really happy to play it for anybody who wanted to hear it, just as I was for Big Pink. An indication of how successful it was are the number of people now who are Band fans now, of all ages, and especially of that album.”
For his part, Robertson says that listening back to The Band all these years later, as well as working on a new documentary about the Band and his recent solo album Sinematic, which includes an ode to his former bandmates, is satisfying but bittersweet.
“Part of what’s so moving about it is the brotherhood, and that three of the brothers are gone,” he says, wistfully. “Garth is still around – he was the oldest, of course – so I’m really happy that he’s still causing trouble and walking the earth. But for me, there’s a lot that I miss without these guys. So of course it’s tremendously powerful and moving to me. I miss those guys every day.”