The Story of the Band’s Debut Album, ‘Music From Big Pink’
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In five seemingly short years, the Band went from backing a mostly obscure rockabilly singer to joining Bob Dylan on tour to becoming a super-popular group in its right. By the time they released their debut album, Music From Big Pink, in July 1968, the Band were already semi legends.
Much of their rep came from backing Dylan during his combative tour of England in 1966, where old folk faithfuls turned on the singer-songwriter for plugging in and (in their view) abandoning the genre. The Band sealed their fate the following year, when they holed up with Dylan — reportedly recovering from a motorcycle accident — in a house in Woodstock, N.Y., that they called Big Pink and recorded a bunch of songs that became known as The Basement Tapes.
Even though an official abbreviated album of those sessions wouldn’t be released until 1975, songs began showing up on bootleg records, on other people’s albums and, eventually, on the Band’s debut, which they recorded during the first part of 1968. (While many of the songs were written at Big Pink, the LP was recorded in professional studios in New York and Los Angeles.)
Still, Music From Big Pink sounds homegrown, like an organic collection of songs hatched and nurtured by five musicians secluded from the rest of the world. Rustic, dusty and seeped in old-world flavor, the album didn’t have much in common with everything else that cam out in 1968.
Instead of studio-saturated psychedelia, the Band delivered front-porch and backwoods Americana that appeared to be a century removed from its era. Songs like “Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “I Shall Be Released” — some co-written by Dylan and recorded in early versions with him during The Basement Tapes — offer glimpses into both the group’s collective and individual psyches.
Saddled with doubt, sadness and redemption at a price, the songs on Music From Big Pink reflect artists whose insular existence and worldview helped shape one of the greatest albums ever made. But its centerpiece, the folksy singalong “The Weight,” is almost biblical in nature, structure and stature. Characters weave in and out of a tale of favors, burdens and a sense of longing that never reaches any sort of conclusion or resolution. It became a classic almost overnight, and it pins Music From Big Pink to a tradition that the Band never could live down (or up to, for that matter).
Even though it wasn’t a huge commercial success at the time (the album reached No. 30, and “The Weight,” the sole single, made it to only No. 63), the LP’s and the Band’s influence on generations of back-to-basics artists ranging from rustic ’70s rockers to modern-day alt-country musicians is immeasurable. Music From Big Pink is the cornerstone of that foundation.
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