5.0 out of 5 stars
Definitive, 21 April 2012
As a fan right from the start I will attempt to explain how and why Big Pink came to represent something of a watershed to many of us who were exposed to it for the first time back in 1968. Why and how it has come to carry such significance to us. Why so many of us rank Big Pink alongside The Brown album at the very pinnacle of The Band's recorded musical achievement. Why we perceive those who do not see it in such context as failing to see the entire picture as lucidly as they perhaps should. Why - in so far as history must surely end up judging - such a contention actually goes to the very core of what The Band represents.
I'll begin with a broad perspective on how we formulate judgements on these sort of things.
Let's take somebody who has just latched onto a particular artist. Any artist of significance. They naturally rate this artist highly and are genuinely earnest about acquiring a completely balanced perspective on this artist. In such an instance which would constitute the most reliable way for them to become acquainted with the catalogue of that artist? I guess it would be to do so as chronologically as possible? Clearly, not always the easiest way - nor the most affordable. However, in order to formulate a truly objective appreciation of a particular artist's development, both in its own right and in relation to its peers, surely the best way?
In other words, you can certainly have your favourite snatches of any artist but unless you have viewed everything through the appropriate objective lens then such favouritism remains merely that.
I'll venture a personal experience where I perceive relying on mere favouritism can tend to obscure such judgement.
I have spent many an hour on various websites defending the magnificence of the Beatles first album, 'Please Please Me'. What I have tended to find is that many of the Beatles more recent fan base are invariably only too eager to dismiss the - shall we call them in hindsight - rather naive and simplistic qualities of that first album. They compare it with the sophisticated intricacies and resonances of subsequent Beatles offerings, such as Revolver, The White Album, Abbey Road or any late sixties/early seventies Rolling Stones classic album and declare poor old PPM a non-starter by comparison.
In doing so they are - in my opinion - overlooking what simply has to be a crucial part of any such judgement. That is the comparison with what else was on offer at the relevant time.
In the Beatles case this is straightforward enough to demonstrate, of course - or at least it is for those of us who happened to be around at the time. We take it as read the pivotal importance PPM occupies in rock history. Before it, for example, no other popular artist had self-penned so many songs purely for an album. Further no other popular artist had so successfully merged pure pop with R&B and R&R. The fact is that at the relevant time - namely early 1963 - PPM was simply staggering in its consistent quality. It was, comfortably, the best pop/rock album up to that point in time. The best, in fact, until The Beatles next album - 'With The Beatles'. Indeed, as a little 'test the water' gauge on this, one needs only look at arguably the joint weakest track on that second album. The track "I Wanna Be Your Man" was given to The Rolling Stones by John and Paul and became the Stones' - up to then - most successful song. It also convinced Mick and Keef that they could try their hand at songwriting. A prompting of some significance I'm sure most would agree.
Thus, in the case of The Beatles, it would be extremely flawed reasoning to form a judgement on PPM - or its follow up - without placing such judgement in its historical context. Also without taking cognizance of all the ensuing limitations of what at that time the Beatles' peers were creating or, indeed, what it was humanly possible given the technology available for any contemporaneous popular music artist to create.
......Moving onto the case of The Band, we find things are significantly different.
The Band's creative arc never mirrored that of The Beatles. True, their musical development did not begin an awful lot later than The Beatles - possibly only a matter of a few years or so at most. The crucial difference was that by the time The Band formally released their first recorded offering in 1968, namely Music From Big Pink, they were already comfortably the finished article, possibly as tight and accomplished as it was possible for any combo to be. What's more, they were able to dip selectively into the full repertoire of rock music's, by then, already formidable legacy and marinate it with their own vast range of contemporary and traditional musical influences. By so doing they created a sound that, whilst in itself no more unique than that of The Beatles, carried a maturity that was entirely unique.
A major part of that maturity evolved from an instinctive democracy that seemed to permeate every pore of that first album. Each tiny part of Big Pink appeared to exist simply to serve the whole. It was as if each vocal, each harmony, each instrument - in fact each and every contribution - was teetering on some invisible tightrope between dominance and subservience; competing frantically for every available space yet never less than complementary or utterly accommodating to the other.
Meanwhile, the products of these precarious balancing acts [the ensuing finished album tracks] - no matter how memorable and distinctive they happened to have been - were, in effect, always going to be there as merely a part of an integral whole. It meant Big Pink was not simply a collection of outstanding yet ultimately disparate songs. Rather, like the group who'd created it, the album was a genuine entity where everything fused together seamlessly to create a whole that was simply magical.
The instinctive `metaphorical' jettisoning from this notional entity of This Wheel's on Fire and I Shall Be Released by some fans - myself included - was to come later. As it stood at the time of its inauguration, it was to be little wonder that The Band's contempories had never before heard such a sound, let alone that they were never able to approach the mark it set.
Nor was such unmatched accomplishment the only quality that distinguished Big Pink from anything else around.
Possibly even more distinctive and defining was its inherent authenticity. The sound conveyed everything about where it was from. The singers and performers on Big Pink sang of their everyday life; the everyday trials and tribulations of the community they were so clearly an integral part of. Crucially their words and sentiments were not mere posturing. In contrast to the vast majority of their white contempories with their - by comparison - sometimes limp offerings, these fellows were the real deal. True representatives of their own bretheren.
This wasn't Joe Cocker asking you to lend your ears for him to sing you a song or Eric Clapton waiting for some mystical love to shine in. It wasn't even John Lennon dissecting the pitfalls and/or merits of a revolution. Rather these were ordinary Joes, country cousins and kinfolk singing from all corners of their front parlour - often at the same time - in some deliciously raw and previously unheard yet unmistakable harmony of the rural American community they had emanated from. The music they were making was simply an extension of that community.
Earthy yet heavenly; bleak yet uplifting; stark yet comforting.
Significantly, too, they were also inviting you, their audience, to become a part of what that music - their music - was offering. Its joys and heartaches; its mundanity and its mystery; its suffering and its healing. Even if it were only for the magical interludes when you were listening to them extolling it, then it was still more than enough for it to sink its teeth into your psyche and draw you right in to its very heart.
"Come let me show you how...to milk a cow" was no idle aside. Rather this was a fully blown invitation for you to get those city hands of yours carressing those cow's teats for all they were worth.
Forget anyone else, this was the nearest to complete Soul - and, for that matter Blues and Gospel - that any white artists had ever got; have ever got. The community they extolled was opening up before your very ears - and eyes. Imprisoned in some inner city bedroom you simply couldn't ask for more from a piece of long playing plastic than for it to transport you heart and soul into the backwoods and homesteads of rural America.
Big Pink - and its successor The Band - were a reflection of an artistic entity at the very zenith of its individual and collective power and sensibility. They were performing and singing about - and within - an environment in which they had become steeped; about which they were genuinely passionate.
And it showed.
In every note, in every chord, in every pause came evidence of that conviction. It may not have been the easiest listening music in which you'd ever attempted to immerse yourself. It may not have contained a solitary moment of what we might term pure pop or rock. However, once you had allowed its rhythms and pulses, its front parlour harmonies and sentiments, its craftsmanship and sheer mastery of the idiom to invade your own sensibilities then you could not help but become convinced that you were in the presence of some unique musical entity wherein the sum of the constituent parts amounted to far more than seemed at all humanly possible.
Not surprising the attachment grew stronger with each play. And there were hundreds and hundreds of those playings. One after the other as the album's ambience entered your every orifice. And lingered for all time.
You'd find yourself reading the words of the back cover over and over again searching for some hidden clues as to what these fellows were about, which bit of the respective songs each of them was singing, where they had come from, where they were going. Frustratingly, you'd find little to quench your thirst. All you had to go on was the music and vocals spitting out from what seemed like different parts of that little mono record player before you. There was a complete absence of fuss or hype. It left you craving for the merest snippet. Your intrigue at the stark simplicity of their collective name would soon cede to a glaring realisation. What else, after all, could these guys possibly have been called?
Then there was the utter appropriateness of their own names - Danko, Manuel, Garth, Jaime and Levon. 'Levon' for Chrissakes!! You just couldn't make this sort of stuff up, so authentic did it all sound. And then the few brief sentiments uttered by the guy on guitar, Jaime 'Robbie' Robertson, about them enjoying it all 'just enough to smile at one another when we're playing'. It was like some snatched insight into the mental rigeurs of a bunch of musical geniuses. What else would they do, you'd reflect knowingly, smiling to yourself at the logic of it all. Not only was all this utterly convincing. For those to whom such things mattered - and as you might expect with these sort of things that was regrettably a minority - it was intoxicating, enchanting. In short it became vital.
Meantime, the downside was there as well, of course. Invisible, undetectable yet nevertheless looming all the time in the background.
Not surprisingly, The Band as a collective power could never surpass such an epiphany; such bona fide genius. With Big Pink and its bedfellow The Band they had succeeded in establishing a ceiling that nobody before nor since has got near.
Their achievements had soared beyond merely the sound their music had created. Somehow, the sincerity and sheer downhomeness of their songs and performances on those albums had married together to create an aura of ordinary folk community, rustic life and American history that had resulted in something unique. An art form within an art form as it were. What's more, they had taken it as far as it could go. In the process they had set a mark that was to become unattainable not only for others but also for themselves. Thereafter, inevitably, they, their music and that art form waned. As unerringly as an arrow falling from the apex of its arc, they - and we - were all destined to head towards planet earth.
As they and, hence, their music grew away from the very togetherness and lifestyle that had helped forge it; that had created and sustained it. Inevitably, inexorably it was to lose its substance. The integrity and purity of Big Pink and The Band - those albums' very essence - had been but a tangible manifestation of what was a living breathing entity. Now the inherent pressures and trappings of fame meant The Band were struggling to hold that together.
Sure, their subsequent offerings were still of the very highest order. Fact was even at their lamest these fellows were peerless musicians and vocalists. Many individual tracks were remarkable. There still came moments of exquisite beauty. Stagefright, their third album contained a string of magical songs and performances that were a testimony to artists of such stature. Rock of Ages was ludicrously accomplished and unleashed My Brother Jake for goodness sake. Moondog Matinee was a nostalgic delight. Northern Lights, meanwhile, presented luscious textures that just soothed the soul.
The difference was in the tales these subsequent albums told; in the windows they opened.
No longer did those tales carry that indefinable authenticity of Big Pink and The Band. No longer did those windows open up to reveal a consistent cinematic landscape. What had once somehow sucked you into its tapestry until you had felt an integral part of it, now merely enthralled you with its isolated layers of brilliance.
That validity which had singled those masterpieces out; that had set them apart was - understandably - gone. Those very ingredients that had made Big Pink and The Band such complete entities, once so available, were now proving more than elusive even for these multi-talented folk.
The sobering fact was no longer did the new material speak for an entire breed of people. Rather it spoke just for the singers and performers and - while that made perfect sense for someone in their position and could still sound at times like heaven - it was simply no longer enough to sustain the aura. The Band's first two creations had made them immortal. Now, manifestly, they were showing they were not. Remorselessly, life was calling in its dues.
A sense of duty is an instinctive thing. Mostly we display it in respect of family and those closest to us. The need to protect them and defend them. To be responsible for them. It is part of the bond.
To feel something akin to that for what is merely a rock album is most probably a preposterous notion. Nonetheless, that I feel such a bond for 'Music From Big Pink' is quite evident from what I find I've written here. This is not least in response to what I have perceived since first discovering this site as a tendency of some to relegate the importance of Big Pink. The intensity of my sentiments may or may not be shared by others. And in the overall scheme of things that, frankly, matters not. What does matter, as far as I'm concerned, is that what I see as the unique majesty of Music From Big Pink has now been represented in a manner which I hope has done it some form of the justice I believe it merits.