Here’s a clip that actually changed my life – well, it made me more of a music geek than I had been previously. I know; hard to imagine. It’s the Band appearing on the Ed Sullivan show in 1969, promoting their single ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ from their (arguably) best album, The Band.
That weird, frog-like sound is organist Garth Hudson playing a clavinet through a Leslie Speaker, in turn connected to a wah-wah pedal. It’s not a jew’s harp, as some people have written in the past.
I saw this for the first time while I was living in England, specifically in Cricklewood, North London in Ebbsfleet Road. The house was made up of a bunch of displaced persons – some from Liverpool, another from Austria, and me the lone Canadian. I’d heard of the Band loosely, but I’d not really seen them perform or known much about them. In some ways, it was an inevitable discovery for me because a) they are generally more renowned in England for whatever reason and b) four-fifths of them are (were) Canadian, each member actually from my home province of Ontario. Only Levon Helm, the coolest singing drummer in the world, is an American. He’s from Arkansas.
I’d heard ‘Cripple Creek’ before on the radio, plus ‘The Weight’ and ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. But, In watching this in the dingy front room of our spacious, yet slovenly, flat in North London, something happened. I realized just how funky, loose, and sexy this tune was. And I noticed what great players these guys were, that they could create this weird amalgam of country, New Orleans funk, and rock music with a pop appeal so effortlessly. I went out and bought a greatest hits that day at Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus. Their entire catalogue was to follow.
At this point in their career as a group when this clip was filmed, they’d been doing shows since the early 1960s, first backing Ronnie Hawkins (cousin of ‘Susie Q’ writer Dale Hawkins), and by very bravely backing Bob Dylan on his ’66 electric tour, the one where they were booed by folk purists every night. They were the Hawks then, closely followed by a stint as Levon & the Hawks, and then (unbearably) as The Canadian Squires. But by the next year, they’d gone to upstate New York very close to Woodstock, which was an artist’s community before the hippies got there, in order to write their own music. Three of them – Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson – rented a house which soon became known as ‘Big Pink’.
Levon Helm, who had quit the group mid tour as he couldn’t see why being booed every night was a good career move, rejoined them when it became apparent that songwriting was beginning to be fruitful. Robbie Robertson was the writer, pulling together some of their jams, and writing a few numbers with Richard Manuel. Bob Dylan was a frequent house guest as he was also a neighbour, and they recorded what is now known as The Basement Tapes (actually recorded in the basement of Big Pink), which was given an official release in 1975. Their first album was Music From Big Pink in 1968, featuring some of their strongest songs in ‘The Weight’ and the J.S Bach-Gets-the-Funk number ‘Chest Fever’.
They were also visited by George Harrison and Eric Clapton, both of whom were in awe of them and would quit their respective bands (the Beatles and Cream) afterwards, partially in an effort to pursue similar sounds in their own solo careers. George called them ‘the best band in the world’. Eric wrote songs with bassist Rick Danko and appeared in the film about the Band’s last concert together (and about the end of the 60s era) by Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz.
They were viewed as something as an enigma after their first album came out, since they were making music that seemed to run contrary to the psychedelic music being made at the time. This was warm, homey, physical music. This is no dreamy, head music. You can smell the sweat off of it. You can hear the creak in its floor boards. It is homemade, like a witches brew. It is sensual. Many bands – mostly alt-country and Americana bands – have been compared to The Band. But, there has never been anything to match them, to approach reproducing the recipe of those five guys together.
Listen to me gush!
Anyway, everyone. Rent the Last Waltz and tell me what you think.