It was Peter who first played me The Band’s second album. I reckon it must have been about 1970. He still lived in North London but my family had moved to Kent in 1966. Still, we managed to keep in touch right the way through to 1973 when we lost touch for 40 years. But that’s another story which will have to wait until I write about “Defending Ancient Springs” by Jackie Leven.
Anyway, he played me this album and told me it was a perfect album. I don’t always agree with him about music (Sun Kil Moon anyone?) but he was spot on with this assessment. 12 songs all arriving out of nowhere, all perfect, featuring astonishing vocals, great ensemble playing and a pretty unique style. No obvious influence apart from their first album – the one that caused Cream to split, to make George Harrison temporarily leave The Beatles – but this is, in my opinion much more consistent. The UNCUT Music guide to “Bob Dylan and The Band” rates every track on a 1-5 star rating and it gives every track here either 4 or 5 stars.
Astonishingly, the album wasn’t recorded in the mountains of Woodstock where The Band had famously jammed with Bob Dylan for The Basement Tapes but at Sammy Davis Jnr’s former house on Sunset Plaza Drive in Los Angeles.
The Band had three extraordinary lead vocalists. The anguished emotion of Richard Manuel (“King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”), the power of Levon Helm (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) and the utterly beautiful soulfulness of Rick Danko (“The Unfaithful Servant”). It’s impossible to separate these voices and say I prefer one over the other. They are all remarkable.
The songs on the album are often said to be timeless. I think that’s right. They don’t really reflect the attitude of the late sixties. This approach had started on “Music From Big Pink” where “Tears Of Rage” describes the breakdown of a father/daughter relationship from the point of view of the father. Here “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” describes the American Civil War from the point of view of a Southerner wallowing in the plight of the Confederacy. “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” describes the worries of a poor farmer at harvest time. “The Unfaithful Servant” depicts the end of the relationship between a master and his servant. These were not the issues that were in the forefront of the people who bought this record. Vietnam, the legalisation of cannabis, fashion and nuclear war were conspicuous by their absence in these songs.
John Simon co-produced the album along with The Band. It’s his brilliant piano on “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”. He also worked with Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Blood Sweat And Tears, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Taj Mahal and Mama Cass.
Robbie Robertson is, I think, my favourite guitarist of all time. To see him at his most astonishing watch the bit in “The Last Waltz” when Eric Clapton comes on stage and his guitar strap breaks. Robbie Robertson has to take over immediately and plays a blistering solo that, in the parlance of the time, “blew Clapton offstage.” There’s not much of this virtuosity in this collection of songs and most of the playing is understated. Who was it said “it’s not the notes that you play but the notes you leave out”? I think it was Nick Lowe. There are some exceptions to this though. There is a magnificent guitar playing on the up tempo “Look Out Cleveland”, there is some delicate playing worthy of Richard Thompson on “The Unfaithful Servant” and the final guitar solo at the end of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” is stunning.
Robbie Robertson was to The Band what Paul McCartney was to The Beatles. He pushed them forward, inspired their direction and history has not been kind to either of them, portraying them as power mad autocrats. Robbie Robertson wrote all the songs on this album either by himself or with Richard Manuel or Levon Helm. Not knowing anything about the recording process, I assume that they all deserve writing credits for turning the writers conceits into the performances that we hear on the record. Levon Helm was angry until his death about the lack of credit given to the whole group. Rightly so, in my opinion.
There’s a lot of attention paid to the sepia tinted cover shot of the group where “their scowls brought an extra frisson of backwoods standoffishness.” I love it that they chose Elliot Landy to be the photographer because instead of finding the best photographer they could, they thought they would find the worst photographer in New York.
It may be a photograph of five men scowling but the music within is joyous, uplifting and, yes, timeless. It’s as good now as it was when I heard it in Peter’s house in 1970.