Music from Big Pink is the debut studio album by the Band. Released in 1968, it employs a distinctive blend of country, rock, folk, classical, R&B, and soul. The music was composed partly in “Big Pink”, a house shared by Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson in West Saugerties, New York. The album itself was recorded in studios in New York and Los Angeles in 1968, and followed the band’s backing of Bob Dylan on his 1966 tour (as the Hawks) and time spent together in upstate New York recording material that was officially released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes, also with Dylan. The cover artwork is a painting by Dylan.
The Band began to create their distinctive sound during 1967, when they improvised and recorded with Bob Dylan a huge number of cover songs and original Dylan material in the basement of a pink house in West Saugerties, New York, located at 56 Parnassus Lane (formerly 2188 Stoll Road). The house was built by Ottmar Gramms, who bought the land in 1952. The house was newly built when Rick Danko found it as a rental. Danko moved in along with Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel in February 1967. The house became known locally as “Big Pink’ for its pink siding. The house was subsequently sold by Gramms in 1977, and since 1998, it has been a private residence.
Though widely bootlegged at the time, the recordings Dylan and the Band made were first officially released in 1975 on The Basement Tapes, and then released in their totality in 2014 on The Basement Tapes Complete. By the end of 1967 The Band felt it was time to step out of Dylan’s shadow and make their own statement.
The Band’s manager Albert Grossman (who was also Dylan ‘s manager) approached Capitol Records to secure a record deal for a group still informally described as “Dylan’s backing band”. Stanley Gortikov at Capitol signed The Band—initially under the name The Crackers. Armed with news of a recording deal for the group, they lured Levon Helm back from the oil rigs where he had been working, to Woodstock where he took up his crucial position in the Band, singing and playing drums. Helm’s return coincided with a ferment of activity in Big Pink as the embryonic Band not only recorded with Dylan but also began to write their own songs, led by guitarist Robbie Robertson.
After meeting with producer John Simon, the Band started to record their debut album in Manhattan at A&R Studios, on the 7th floor of 799 7th Avenue at 52nd Street in the early months of 1968. The Band recorded “Tears of Rage”, “Chest Fever”, “We Can Talk”, “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “The Weight” in two sessions. Robertson has said that when Simon asked them how they wanted it to sound, they replied, “Just like it did in the basement.”
Capitol were so pleased with the initial recording session, they suggested the group move to Los Angeles to finish recording their first album at Capitol Studios. They also cut some material at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard. The songs on Big Pink recorded in L.A. were “In A Station”, “To Kingdom Come”, “Lonesome Suzie”, “Long Black Veil” and “I Shall Be Released”.
Dylan offered to sing on the album, but ultimately realized it was important for the Band to make their own statement. Instead, Dylan signified his presence by contributing a cover painting. Barney Hoskyns has written that it is significant the painting depicts six musicians. The cover of Music From Big Pink was intended to establish the group as having a different outlook from the psychedelic culture of 1968. Photographer Elliott Landy flew to Toronto to photograph the assembled Danko, Manuel and Hudson families on the Danko chicken farm. A photo was inserted of Diamond and Nell Helm, who lived in Arkansas. The photo appeared on the cover with the caption “Next of Kin”.
The initial critical reception to the album was positive, though sales were slim. In Rolling Stone, Al Kooper’s rave review of Big Pink ended with the words, “This album was recorded in approximately two weeks. There are people who will work their lives away in vain and not touch it.” which helped to draw public attention to it (even though Rolling Stone referred to them as “the band from Big Pink” instead of just “the Band”). The fact that Bob Dylan wrote one and co-wrote two of the songs on the album also attracted attention.
In 1968, “The Weight” peaked at #63 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart in the US. The song was a bigger hit elsewhere, peaking at #35 in Canada, and #21 in the UK. The album peaked at #30 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart in 1968, and then recharted as a #8 hit on the Top Internet Albums chart in 2000 (see 2000 in music). “The Weight” gained widespread popularity, from the Band’s performance of it at Woodstock on 17 August 1969 and due partially to its inclusion in the film Easy Rider, though it was omitted from the soundtrack because of licensing issues. A cover version by the band Smith was included on the soundtrack album instead.
In 2003, the album was ranked number 34 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The laid-back feel of the album attracted the attention of other major artists. For example, Eric Clapton cites the album’s roots rock style as what convinced him to quit Cream, and pursue the styles of Blind Faith, Delaney and Bonnie, Derek and the Dominos and his debut album. George Harrison was also impressed by the album’s musicianship and sense of camaraderie, and Roger Waters called it the second “most influential record in the history of rock and roll”, after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and said that it “affected Pink Floyd deeply, deeply, deeply.” (by wikipedia)
None of the Band’s previous work gave much of a clue about how they would sound when they released their first album in July 1968. As it was, Music from Big Pink came as a surprise. At first blush, the group seemed to affect the sound of a loose jam session, alternating emphasis on different instruments, while the lead and harmony vocals passed back and forth as if the singers were making up their blend on the spot. In retrospect, especially as the lyrics sank in, the arrangements seemed far more considered and crafted to support a group of songs that took family, faith, and rural life as their subjects and proceeded to imbue their values with uncertainty. Some songs took on the theme of declining institutions less clearly than others, but the points were made musically as much as lyrically. Tenor Richard Manuel’s haunting, lonely voice gave the album much of its frightening aspect, while Rick Danko’s and Levon Helm’s rough-hewn styles reinforced the songs’ rustic fervor. The dominant instrument was Garth Hudson’s often icy and majestic organ, while Robbie Robertson’s unusual guitar work further destabilized the sound. The result was an album that reflected the turmoil of the late ’60s in a way that emphasized the tragedy inherent in the conflicts. Music from Big Pink came off as a shockingly divergent musical statement only a year after the ornate productions of Sgt. Pepper, and initially attracted attention because of the three songs Bob Dylan had either written or co-written. However, as soon as “The Weight” became a minor singles chart entry, the album and the group made their own impact, influencing a movement toward roots styles and country elements in rock. Over time, Music from Big Pink came to be regarded as a watershed work in the history of rock, one that introduced new tones and approaches to the constantly evolving genre. (by William Ruhlmann)
Rick Danko (bass, fiddle, vocals)
Levon Helm (drums, tambourine, vocals)
Garth Hudson (keyboard, clavinet, saxophone)
Richard Manuel (keyboards, drums, vocals)
Robbie Robertson (guitar, vocals)
John Simon (horn, saxophone, piano)
01. Tears Of Rage (Dylan/Manuel) 5.24
02. To Kingdom Come (Robertson) 3.23
03. In A Station (Manuel) 3.35
04. Caledonia Mission (Robertson) 2.59
05. The Weight (Robertson) 4.39
06. We Can Talk (Manuel) 3.07
07. Long Black Veil (Wilkin/Dill) 3.06
08. Chest Fever (Robertson) 5.19
09. Lonesome Suzie (Manuel) 4.04
10. This Wheel’s On Fire (Dylan/Danko) 3.14
11. I Shall Be Released (Dylan) 3.19
12. Yazoo Street Scandal (outtake) (Robertson) 4.02
13. Tears Of Rage (alternate take) (Dylan/Manuel) 5.32
14. Katie’s Been Gone (outtake) (Manuel/Robertson) 2.47
15. If I Lose (outtake) (Poole) 2.30
16. Long Distance Operator (outtake) (Dylan) 3.58
17. Lonesome Suzie (alternate take) (Manuel) 3.01
18. Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast) (outtake) (Manuel) 3.40
19. Key To The Highway (outtake) (Broonzy) 2.28
20. Ferdinand The Imposter (outtake) (Robertson) 4.00
The “Big Pink” house in 2006