The “Listen Again” series was popular enough that your favorite record reviewer decided to follow the lead of some L.A. TV execs and do a spin-off. In this series we once more examine previously-released albums BUT the platters we’ll peruse in this particular series will be (Rolling Stone magazine) FIVE-STAR albums. In this edition of the series we will focus on The Band’s The Band.
For those not up on the band though, let’s discuss some music history. The Band is an acclaimed, influential rock group on the L.A.-based Capitol Records label. The Band produced two of the most acclaimed albums of the late 1960s.
One of those records was The Band. This is their noteworthy second studio release also known as “The Brown Album”. The original roster–formed in New York—featured Canadians Rick Danko (bass guitar, fiddle, trombone and vocals), Garth Hudson (organ, clavinet, piano, accordion, melodica, saxophone, slide trumpet and bass pedals), Richard Manuel (piano, drums, baritone saxophone, harmonica and vocals), Jaime Robbie Robertson (guitars and engineer), and American Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, rhythm guitar and vocals).
John Simon, who co-engineered and produced the album, was also considered a “sixth member” because he also contributed on baritone saxophone, tuba, electric piano, baritone horn, tenor saxophone and “high school and peck horns”. They had played together as “the band” for numerous frontmen such as Bob Dylan so the group’s tag “The Band” grudgingly seemed apropos when they became a separate act.
The album was recorded in Los Angeles in early through mid-1969 as a follow-up to their critically-acclaimed Music From Big Pink (recorded in Los Angeles and New York). The album opens on “Across the Great Divide”. This was the first of twelve tracks that were co-composed if not composed by Robertson.
The second selection is “Rag Mama Rag”. Though as a single it would go on to leave its own mark, on the record it’s quickly overshadowed by the now classic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. The tune tells the tale of the American Civil War and how the South suffered and would go on to become a top ten hit for Joan Baez covered it in 1971. (It would go on to be slotted in as the 245th “greatest song of all time” by Rolling Stone. Later still, in an updated, more recent version it would still endure as the 249th “greatest song of all time.”)
The next number is the first co-written cut—“When You Awake”. Robertson worked with Manuel on this one. This, too, is overshadowed by yet another now classic cut “Up on Cripple Creek”. Again Robertson draws on some of what would become some very familiar themes: alcoholism, American folk music and the South in a song about a miner in Lake Charles.
Following quickly behind are another Manuel-Robertson piece “Whispering Pines” and “Jemima Surrender” which Robertson wrote with Helm. Also included are more Robertson numbers—“Rockin’ Chair”, “The Unfaithful Servant” and “Look Out Cleveland”. The latter would later be used in the film A Home at the End of the World and go on to be covered by other artists. The final collaboration on the album is “Jawbone”. This was yet another Manuel-Robertson work that leads into the closing cut “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” which details the trials and tribulations of a poverty-stricken farmer.
Released on Capitol Records in September of 1969 the album had a running time of almost 44 minutes. The LP was thought by some to be a concept album with songs that were a blend of roots rock, Southern rock and original Americana and lyrics that focused on people, places and well-known traditions. The tunes cull from historic themes for such songs as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” and “Jawbone” which was written in Manuel’s strange 6/4 time signature.
The record reached number 9 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart and bore two charting singles. The songs “Rag Mama Rag” and “Up on Cripple Creek” slotted in at 57 and 25 respectively on the Pop Singles chart. As it is with other classic albums, The Band lived on into the future as in 1998 publications such as Q magazinewould praise the work as readers voted The Band the 76th “greatest album of all time.”
The project would be re-released on CD in 2000 complete with several bonus tracks taking the song count up to 19. Included here was a stereo outtake of “Get Up Jake”, a rough mix of “Rag Mama Rag” with alternate vocals, an alternate mix of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and alternate takes of “Up on Cripple Creek”, “Whispering Pines” and “Jemima Surrender”. An alternate performance of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” also appears here.
The new millennium re-release was also available as a double disc set packaged along with the group’s debut disc Music from Big Pink. Once more the release would be both critically and commercially successful. It climbed to number 10 on the Billboard Internet Albums chart.
It continued to be honored as in 2003 the release would be ranked as number 45 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Three years later (2006) TIME magazine would list it in their unranked list of “100 greatest albums”. 2009 witnessed the reissue of the work as a limited edition gold CD which included the bonus track single b-side “Get Up Jake” which had been dropped from the original vinyl platter due to its supposed similarity to another number on the playlist.
More recently, the album, rated 5 stars by Allmusic, was entered into the National Recording Registry because it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or informs or reflects life in the United States.” Critically speaking, the work was one of the most profound rock albums ever made and somehow seemed to reflect the experience of being Canadian, coming to America and the deep and sometimes frightening experiences the band members shared.
To this day, one may still find this classic album in such record stores as Amoeba Music located in L.A. and elsewhere. The recording defined the 1960s and early 1970s to many listeners. Indeed, while The Band’s The Band/Cap. STAO-132 may not have immediately lived up to its incredible implications it was as close to a perfect statement of purpose as any band would ever come.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.