While other albums soared towards the same directions, most critics and outside observers agree that The Band’s debut album, Music From Big Pink, was a seminal step that helped define the genre now known as Americana. The group, made up of four Canadians — Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel — and a lone American, Levon Helm, had previously been called the Hawks when they functioned as Bob Dylan’s backing band while on tour overseas. Seeking to establish an individual identity for what would be their initial outing, they encamped at a rented house boasting distinctive pink siding in West Saugerties, New York, not far from the iconic village of Woodstock. There they wrote the material that would eventually form the basis of an album that would later be known as one of the most notable landmark recordings in all of rock history. Released on July 1st, 1968 and about to celebrate its 50th year, Music From Big Pink has not only stood the test of time, but also provided a template for any number of outfits operating in today’s Americana arena.
As with any project of such majestic proportions, there are a number of little-known facts surrounding its creation. Nowadays, it’s the stuff of legend, and clearly serves to heighten its magic and mystique..
1. Assumptions to the contrary, Music From Big Pink wasn’t actually recorded at Big Pink, but rather in New York City, with later sessions held in L.A. Many people mistakenly believe it was borne from the initial recordings that would later come to be known as The Basement Tapes, but as an early bootleg, was dubbed instead The Great White Wonder. Those recordings were done with Dylan at Big Pink and boasted several of the same songs, but they were never officially released until 1975, and never in its entirety until 2014.
2. Although Dylan cowrote two of the songs for Big Pink — “Tears of Rage” with Richard Manuel and “This Wheel’s on Fire” with Rick Danko — as well as “I Shall Be Released,” which he penned on his own, Dylan does not perform on the album. Although he initially offered to contribute vocals, it was decided that he ought not detract from the fact that this was to be a bow by The Band.
3. Nevertheless, Dylan’s presence is there regardless. He did the iconic painting that adorns the cover. Interestingly enough, six musicians are depicted in the picture. Later, photographer Elliot Landry was dispatched to Toronto to take the band’s family photos that would be included in the album as well. A picture of Helm’s parents was also added next to a caption that read “Next of kin.” Another Dylan connection persists as well. The sleeve design was overseen by Milton Glaser, the man responsible for the poster that accompanied Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits.
4. Albert Grossman managed both Dylan and The Band, and he was the one responsible for the group’s signing to Capitol Records. At the time he approached the label hierarchy, the group had abandoned the name the Hawks and were simply presented to Capitol as “Bob Dylan’s backing band.” Stanley Gortikov, the Capitol rep who signed them to the label, originally contracted them under the name “The Crackers.” However, if anyone was a “cracker,” it was Arkansas citizen Levon Helm. In fact, he was the last to join the reconstituted ensemble, having been lured back to the recording sessions from his job on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
5. “The Weight,” one of the signature songs from the album was first heard in the film “Easy Rider,” released soon after. However due to licensing conflicts, the film’s soundtrack bore a cover version by the Smiths instead.
6. As expected, the album received near-unanimous critical kudos. Surprisingly though, sales were less than spectacular, even though the album did make it as far as number 30 on the Billboard album charts. Likewise, not all the pundits chimed in its favor. Critic Robert Christgau offered some praise in his review for The Village Voice, but was generally dissatisfied. As Wikipedia notes, he referred to the record as boring and morose, citing a lack of energy that underscored what he termed the “metaphorical impenetrability of the lyrics.
7. One of the album’s most lingering impressions was left on other artists. Eric Clapton cited it as reason for leaving Cream and eventually taking part in more communal combos, such as Derek and the Dominos and Delaney and Bonnie’s backing band. George Harrison, then in the midst of the eternal squabbles plaguing the Beatles, admired its organic sound and was inspired enough to fly to Woodstock to spend time working with Dylan. Roger Waters has called it the most influential rock album of all time, second only to Sgt. Pepper’s. Likewise, Al Kooper, who had collaborated with Dylan prior to The Band’s arrival, gave his successors high praise when he wrote a rare review for Rolling Stone.
8. The house that spawned the album is now a private residence that’s still standing in its original location and, appropriately, still pink. However tourists best be advised; at various times it’s had two addresses. Its first was 2188 Stoll Road. However, for those dependent on their GPS to get them there, the current locale is listed as 56 Parnassus Lane. The field where the musicians stood for their iconic group portrait is as panoramic as ever and located on the other side of the driveway.
9. While Music From Big Pink was mostly a product of the material written and recorded by Dylan and The Band during the earlier Basement Tapes sessions, one outside cover song was included, a take on the vintage standard “Long Black Veil.” Written in 1959 by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin and first recorded by country singer Lefty Frizzell, its tale is told from the perspective of a man who was executed for a murder he didn’t commit. That was because he didn’t offer an alibi as he was sleeping with his best friend’s wife at the time of the crime. The song’s high lonesome sound and mournful melody allowed it to fit seamlessly with the album’s other offerings.
10. Unlike the previous sessions that encompassed The Basement Tapes, the majority of songs on Music From Big Pink were written and sung individually. “We Can Talk,” a staple of the group’s early concerts until it was dropped from their set list in 1971, is the only track that credits the vocals to more than two members of the group — Manuel, Helm and Danko. Only two other songs feature a dual lead — “To Kingdom Come” (Manuel and Robertson) and “The Weight” (Helm and Danko).
So there you have it — the various shades of Big Pink.