Two of my all-time favorite albums — works that also are considered among the best of all time — celebrated the 50th anniversary of their release late last month.
I’m speaking of The Band’s self-titled sophomore effort, issued Sept. 22, 1969, and Abbey Road by the Beatles, which came out four days later, and was the last LP the Fab Four recorded (although not the last they released) before their dissolution the following year. Hard to believe that two albums of that quality, and commercial success, were basically released the same week, but 1969 was — as I blogged earlier this year — an amazing year for rock LPs.
I was a Beatle fan from the start, but The Band caught me by surprise late in 1969. In September of that year, before the debut of Radio Free Madison on the Wisconsin capital city’s WIBA-FM, I was still getting most of my new music from Top 40 AM radio.
The Band had already released a single, the classic “The Weight” (backed with another gem, “I Shall Be Released”), more than a year earlier. But it only got as far as No. 63 on the Billboard Hot 100, so I might not have heard much of it, if at all.
Radio Free Madison debuted the end of October ’69, and I think I probably heard cuts from The Band there sometime thereafter. Chances are good that what I first heard was “Up on Cripple Creek” or “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” although it might have been one of the lesser-known and -played cuts.
Whichever first got in my ear, I recall that it knocked me out — interesting, for a guy who was getting increasingly into music like the Doors, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, etc. But the music must have appealed to the Inner Hillbilly in me; my mother’s mother’s people were all from the South, and Mom grew up listening to cousins and uncles play music that she only later in life identified as Appalachian.
I’m pretty sure I bought the album later that fall or early winter, at a time in my life when I didn’t buy a lot of LPs. I pretty much wore it out over the years, and it — and The Band’s debut album, Music from Big Pink — were early purchases in my compact disk library.
I listened to the album a couple times the past two weeks, in preparation for writing this blog post. Fifty years on, it holds up very well, and I still think it’s one of the best ever. But although I’ve always said it didn’t have a weak song on it, I do now realize that there are several that are not quite as good as the others.
Still, most of the cuts are outstanding. As I noted in my last post (re: songs about autumn), “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” is one of the best. “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” could be considered overplayed, and the latter over-covered, but lyrically and musically they rise above that.
“Up on” has a bunch of lines that I Can’t Get Outta My Head: “Me and my mate/Were back at the shack/We had Spike Jones on the box/She said “I can’t take/The way he sings/But I love to hear him talk”; and “Now there’s one thing/In the whole wide world/I sure would like to see/That’s when that little love of mine/Dips a doughnut in my tea.” It also has that wonderful jaw harp-sounding thing — which, in reading up for writing this, I found out was created by keyboardist Garth Hudson running a clavinet, an electronic keyboard, through a wah-wah pedal.
Then there’s “Jemimah Surrender,” with its lyrical callback to The Band’s former self, the Hawks, and — like “Rag Mama Rag” — a paean to countrified seduction. “Look out Cleveland” comes as close to contemporaneous political commentary as the album gets, but does so with tongue-in-cheek humor.
The lyrics of “Whispering Pines,” and the vocals of Levon Helm and Richard Manuel, hypnotically transport you to a coastal dreamscape. “Rockin’ Chair” is a touching, but humorous, ode to friendship and growing old, brightened by the accordion of the multi-instrumentalist Hudson.
(A classically-trained musician, Hudson — afraid that his parents would object to the music education they paid for being applied to rock and roll — when he joined the Hawks insisted that the other band members pay him $10 a week for music lessons, and give him the title "musical consultant." His pre-nup agreement also required the purchase of a Lowery organ, the keyboard that provided one of the signature sounds of The Band.)
It’s all done with a musicianship honed by nearly a decade of learning your craft by playing for demanding taskmasters (Ronnie Hawkins, the rockabilly impresario who put The Band/Hawks together) and an iconic folk-turned-rock musician (Bob Dylan, who they backed in the studio and on tour). And a sensibility that is part rock and roll, all Americana — done by Canadians, Helm being the American exception.
And that sound, at least on this album, was put together in, of all places, a Los Angeles, Calif., pool house. The group was looking to generate a “clubhouse” sound like the one they had produced on The Basement Tapes project they had recorded with Dylan at the “Big Pink” house in upstate New York.
They ended up recording most of The Band at the Hollywood Hills estate owned by Sammy Davis Jr., finishing in a New YorkCity studio. But the country and roots-rock still shone through.
This has gone longer than expected, so I’ll get to Abbey Road in the next blog post.