This Thanksgiving, I am watching the film The Last Waltz, which is a Martin Scorsese concern film, documenting the The Band’s final concert (on Thanksgiving of 1976). For those not familiar with The Band, they were a group that rose to popularity in the late sixties and early seventies, with a raw sound, that avoided psychedelic studio production, and emphasized old time, traditional, American sounds. They have been a favorite group of mine for a long time and watching this film has become a bit of a Thanksgiving tradition in my household. I may be writing a review of the movie for this blog, in the near future. Part of what I like about the Band is their role in a musical phenomenon that has always fascinated me: the “back to basics” trend of the late 1960s.
Simply put, following the release of the Band’s debut album, Music From Big Pink, many other prominent groups followed their example and dropped all or most psychedelic experimentation in favor of bare bones, stripped down rock with traditional American influences. I first noticed it, when listening to The Beatles’ album let it be, which always sounded incredibly Raw compared their previous works, Sgt. Pepper’s lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery tour and their self titled release (AKA the White Album). George Harrison acknowledge the influence of The Band at this time, claiming that he originally wrote the song “All Things Must Pass” for Let It Be and imagined The Band’s Levon Helm singing it.
Other examples of albums from that era that pursued a similarly stripped down approach include The Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet (and the string of similar records that followed it) as well as the Door’s Morrison Hotel, The Byrd’s Sweet Heart of the Rodeo, and The Grateful Dead’s Working Man’s Dead. It is undeniable that all these releases featured a rejection of studio oriented experimentation and an exploration of more traditional sounds. Additionally, Eric Clapton has stated that he has spent much of his solo career, trying to recreate different aspect’s of The Band’s sound. The release of Music from Big Pink, prompted him to break up the group Cream and redevelop his style. Clapton’s project Derek and the Dominoes may be the one where The Band influence is most clearly felt.
In a related note, Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding, which features perhaps one of the most extreme returns to basics, but predates the Band’s Debut by several months. Though, it is well known that Dylan did not develop his new sound independently of The Band’s development of their own. The Band were Dylan’s backing band, and after his infamous motorcycle crash, they retreated to Woodstock New York, where they explored traditional American music and recorded what would eventually be released as The Basement Tapes. The Basement Tapes featured Bob Dylan and the Band recording the earliest “back to basics” material, though this was not officially released until nearly ten years latet ( it was, however, given to other artists, who covered songs from it and was spread as a bootleg).
To me, the move away from psychedelic rock towards more raw production and old school sounds, represents a important step in rock music becoming more mature. I’ve often wonder what would of happened if a similar development happened in some of the genres and sub-genres that emerge in a subsequent decades. In my opinion it produced some great albums and was an interesting an unexpected period in the history of popular music.