The Band – Introductory Page

The Band

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The Band are one of the most famous and beloved classic rock bands of all time, largely for reasons having little to do with their actual music, two or three ubiquitous songs notwithstanding. Their cred arises mostly from their Bob Dylan connection, and from the self-mythologizing circle jerk The Last Waltz, which, yes, is one of the best rock films ever made (though it pales in comparison to the Flaming Lips’ Fearless Freaks), but can anyone honestly claim that has all that much to do with the Band’s songs? “Get off the stage, Neil Young! Let Rick Danko sing ‘Stage Fright’ again! Fuck you, Muddy Waters! I wanna hear ‘Life Is A Carnival!’” Nobody has ever said these things, ever.

Not to say this bunch of Canadians weren’t a big deal in their day. They began life in 1964 in the cold, abnormally polite bosom of Toronto, serving as the backing band for American rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins under the name the Hawks. Hawkins had brought drummer Levon Helm up with him from the States, and soon recruited guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, and keyboardist Garth Hudson. They became popular locally in Toronto but split from Hawkins before getting any farther. In 1965 and 1966, Bob Dylan tapped them, minus Levon, to serve as his backing band for his first full electric tour, which of course subjected them to the full brunt of the vocal ire of a bunch of butthurt folkies who thought the electrification of Dylan was the work of Satan himself. That was where their legend simultaneously was born and began immediately to overshadow their actual music… trying to match Dylan’s jumpy, amphetamine-fueled pace, the Hawks/Band played with a manic energy on that tour, which some old fogey critics have likened to punk rock, which I suppose applies if the only punk rock you’ve ever listened to is Patti Smith. The historic importance of the “Judas” tour began to eclipse the reality of what it actually sounded like, and for years all we heard about it was how the Band in 1966, backing Dylan, played like the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the history of the universe. They didn’t. Yeah, they were great and high energy, but they sure weren’t all that, as any sane person who has heard Bob’s Live 1966 archival release can tell you. But the legend continued to grow, especially after Bob crashed his motorcycle and retreated to the basement of Big Pink (a house in upstate New York then owned by Danko, Manuel, and Hudson) to collaborate with the Hawks on what later became The Basement Tapes. Dylan emerged sounding like a changed man with John Wesley Harding, and a few months later, the Hawks, now officially renamed the Band, followed suit with their 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink. Though it may seem unlikely now, that album had almost as huge and immediate an impact on the direction of rock music at the time as the Band’s work with Dylan had a couple of years earlier. Its heavy, plodding tempos, embrace of American roots music, and eschewing of psychedelic excess has been acknowledged as an influence by everyone from Eric Clapton to Roger Waters. With their pastoral vibe, old-fashioned facial hair, and songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” they seemed like troubadours transplanted into the 1960s from a century before. Levon Helm even kinda looked like Ulysses S. Grant at the time, which his Confederate ancestors would have probably shot him for.

And yet, after years of being aware of their storied history, their persona, and their music, I still don’t know quite what to make of the Band. They were supposed to be, like, a down home country rock band, right? So what are all those gross, chorusy synth effects doing all over the place? Yup, for me, problem number one with the Band is Garth Hudson, who was, erm, progressive in use of keyboards right from the beginning. It’s obnoxious enough to listen to him overplay on everything even when he sticks to the trusty old Hammond organ, but as his reliance on hideous synth tones of the sort favored by Emerson, Lake and Palmer advanced, so, too, did the Band’s astonishingly rapid devolution into bloated 70s dinosaurs. I have very little that’s favorable to say about Hudson’s contributions to the group, so I’ll move on. If you can’t say anything nice…

Problem number two would be guitarist/primary songwriter/ringleader Robbie Robertson, but not for the reasons everybody else complains about him. Namely, that he was an authoritarian dick whose outsized ego destroyed his relationship with his bandmates and, ultimately, the band itself. That’s more or less the way Levon Helm used to tell it, but I find those accusations fairly dubious. I mean, sure, you only have to listen to the guy talk for about five seconds to realize how full of himself he is, and Levon does have a point about The Last Waltz being cut in a way that makes Robertson appear to be the leader and everyone else to be sidemen, when in fact what made the Band so appealing in the first place was their brotherly, democratic camaraderie. But members of the Band not named Robbie Robertson have spent more time over the last forty years complaining about not getting enough songwriting credits on Band albums than they have actually proving that they are capable of writing decent songs. So no matter how big an asshole Robertson may or may not have been, the in-fighting that ultimately broke the Band up strikes me as outrageously stupid, petty nonsense. It wasn’t Robbie’s fault that he was the only consistently capable songwriter in the group.

And he was capable, and certainly wrote some doozies in his day, but in my opinion, he’s a very long way from being in the top few tiers of rock songsmiths. That’s largely because, other than “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” he very rarely ever wrote a lyric that either a) touched me emotionally in any way, b) struck me as particularly clever, or c) made any sense at all. Seriously, for all the times you’ve heard “The Weight” and “Up On Cripple Creek,” do you have even the faintest clue what they’re actually about? I sure don’t. Still, his lyrics don’t bother me nearly as much as his guitar playing, which I personally just find really fuckin’ irritating. The wiry, choppy, ham-fisted way he hacks away at his instrument just reminds me too much of the way I amateurishly attempt to play lead guitar, I guess, and believe me when I tell you: I suck.

So… any positives? Well, they’ve got three lead singers, and I like it when any band can keep me on my toes by coming at me with that many different vocal approaches. Actually, Rick Danko’s wounded bird warble and Richard Manuel’s operatic, nasal whine are too tonally similar to draw much of a contrast to my ear, and both have performed vocals that range from brilliant to hideous. Basically the only Band member I don’t really have a bad word to say about is Levon Helm. I will never tire of his twangy Southern bellow, and he injected some genuine Arkansas spirit into a band that desperately needed it. Not that Canadians are inherently incapable of playing American roots music in an authentic and convincing fashion (Neil Young would like a word with you). But the Band rarely sounded as good when Levon wasn’t singing.

Ultimately, when it comes down to it, I dig the heck out of most of the Band’s hits, but generally find getting through almost any of their full albums to be a hairier proposition than giving Robin Williams a rim job. Plus, their almost universally celebrated golden era lasted only two albums, which means you’d be hard pressed to find even a hardcore Band fan willing to call anything they did after 1969’s self-titled album a classic (to say nothing of the trio of albums recorded in the 90s without either an uninterested Robertson or Manuel, who came down with a nasty case of suicide in 1986). They had their moments, though.



6 Comments

  1. victoid wrote:

    Oh mein gudness! Mr Etc here embodies the aphorism “opinions are like assholes”…or is it “assholes are like their opinions”? Whatevah. Not to harsh on your first (or second) amendment rights, but you make a number of flimsy assertions here that must not go uncorrected as long as I draw stinky breath! To wit:

    trying to match Dylan’s jumpy, amphetamine-fueled pace, the Hawks/Band played with a manic energy on that tour, which some old fogey critics have likened to punk rock, which I suppose applies if the only punk rock you’ve ever listened to is Patti Smith. The historic importance of the “Judas” tour began to eclipse the reality of what it actually sounded like, and for years all we heard about it was how the Band in 1966, backing Dylan, played like the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the history of the universe. They didn’t. Yeah, they were great and high energy, but they sure weren’t all that, as any sane person who has heard Bob’s Live 1966 archival release can tell you.

    First off, I was lucky enough to see that tour at the Academy of Music in Philly in early ’66. I can tell you this Mr. Blind Melon: After Bob’s obligatory solo acoustic set and a snort break, the full band took the stage to the smattering of boos from Neanderthal coffee house toads who were quickly and firmly shouted down and justly humiliated. Far from being just an “amphetamine-fueled pace”, this was a concert of dynamic range and artistry. From Richard Manuel’s haunting piano on Ballad of a Thin Man to the raucous carnival revue of Everybody Must Get Stoned and Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat I have rarely heard a tighter,expressive set.

    As for you fallacious reference to punk rock, the only punk rock apparent here is the one where your brain should be.

    As for Robertson’s ham-fisted and raw guitar technique, I find his work not unlike your man-crush Neil Young.

    All this misinterpretation is understandable given that you have only experienced the synergy of Bob and these friends through the fun-house mirror of “The Last Waltz” and a few atypical recordings. I can forgive you since you were living some past life when this bit of magic was real.

    Carry on, Mr Etc…they can’t all be gems!

    • Jeremy wrote:

      I duly accept your rebuke, on the following conditions:

      1) In no way did I mean to disparage the ’65-’66 Dylan & the Hawks shows. In fact, I find the recordings of that tour much more entertaining than any Band album. I simply aimed to make the point that the Band’s legend overshadowed their music right from the beginning, and even though they were really great on that tour, it wasn’t the Holy Grail of rock that some critics have led us to believe. And no, I wasn’t there, but I am basing my opinion on some good quality bootlegs and the excellent, officially released “Live 1966” album, which I don’t think even you consider an “atypical recording” since you play it at home all the time.

      2) Your memory is a little fuzzy. Dylan didn’t play “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (which you erroneously refer to as “Everybody Must Get Stoned”) live until 1969 at the Isle of Wight festival (at which he was, incidentally, backed by the Band). And based on all known recordings of the ’66 shows, Bob himself played piano on all renditions of “Ballad Of A Thin Man” and gave Richard Manuel a one song breather. Perhaps Bob wasn’t the only one taking a “snort break” that night?

  2. victoid wrote:

    Tu a raison mon petit.
    The memory cataracts of the intervening 47 years since this seminal
    life event have robbed me of the intimacy with that night that I felt
    for so so long. Yes, Dylan did tinkle (on) the keys for Thin Man.
    I also can’t shake the memory of Rainy Day Women (I claim the license
    to use Stoned as a mnemonic to jog balky memories…like mine)
    being part of the set- ah but in my dimInished capacity I defer to
    your younger and more agile psyche (use it while ya got it).
    Well done Mr Etc. Continue please Guvnah.

  3. victoid wrote:

    Oh, and by the way you ignorant slut- in 1966 I had only vaguely
    heard of maryjoowana (evil weed with roots in hell). I didn’t see any
    dat shit til late ’67. Snorting anything was far, far into my future.
    I heard smokin banana peel, pine needles wrapped in rhododendron
    leaves and eating nutmeg would give the longed for buzz.
    Tried em all…nothing but horrible mouth grunge.

  4. Robin wrote:

    Gotta love my boys…………


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