In the spring of 1969, The Band were one of the most hyped young rock bands in America — and nobody really knew who they were.
Sure, their names were credited on the sleeve of their 1968 debut Music From Big Pink, which instantly established them as critical darlings to watch. And anyone who caught one of Ronnie Hawkins’ rockabilly shows in the early 1960s (when The Band first came together as his supporting band, The Hawks), or happened to be at Bob Dylan’s 1965–66 tour (when The Band were his band) might’ve already seen them in the flesh, of course. But heading into their highly anticipated second album, The Band had still not played a formal live performance, and had only given a few mysterious interviews, such as a cover story for Rolling Stone featuring an image of them with their backs to the camera.
That post-Big Pink reclusiveness was largely because they didn’t want it known in the press that bassist/vocalist Rick Danko was recovering from a serious car accident, in which he had broken his neck — the group had a bad habit of driving recklessly in and around Woodstock, where they had all recently moved to write, and were lucky to escape their various accidents alive — but it was also because they preferred the mystique. The Band were, after all, a group completely out of place and time, eschewing the trendy late-’60s psych-rock styles and instead embracing something more antique. Finding out that they were real, contemporary people, with wives and dogs and poor driving skills, might ruin the fun.
“All anyone knew of us was that we were affiliated with Bob Dylan and that we lived somewhere up in the mountains,” guitarist/vocalist Robbie Robertson writes in his 2016 memoir, Testimony. “Coming out into the open would pull back a veil that we thought suited us.” Things were simpler — and likely never better — than when they were in the basement of Big Pink, their Woodstock meeting house. But fame and fortune laid in wait, so they gave in and left the mountains to make their next album in Hollywood — in the most Hollywood way possible, too, by renting out Sammy Davis Jr.’s house, loading up on amphetamines, and adopting a sleep-all-day/work-all-night lifestyle.
Literally down the road from the Sunset Strip, as well as directly adjacent to Laurel Canyon, Robertson, Danko, drummer/vocalist Levon Helm, keyboardist/vocalist Richard Manuel, and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson were tasked with making an album for Capitol Records that would fit into the musical landscape of Doors and Byrds they had been thrust into. But The Band didn’t fit into that landscape at all. This was a group that showed up in San Francisco to play their first official shows, at the Winterland Ballroom in April of 1969, and promptly shut down the hippie aesthetic being forced onto them: “Hold the psychedelia,” Helm remembers the group saying to the light-show people in his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire. “It made me nauseated,” Robertson notes in Testimony. Around that same time, they were offered the opportunity to score Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper’s soon-to-be definitive account of the ecstasy and excesses of the counterculture. They turned it down. (“The Weight” made it into the film anyway.)
The Band did end up playing the Woodstock festival, serving as a sort of local representative of the area, but they have less than fond memories of being at the muddy mess that invaded, and arguably tarnished, their home base for “three days of peace and music.” And so rather than offer an album that played into that scene, they instead released a set of 12 stubbornly old-fashioned Americana songs with tuba parts and odd time signatures, which were mostly arranged and recorded DIY-style in Davis Jr.’s pool house (along with producer John Simon).
Then, as if to match this anachronistic sound, their lyrics were written from the perspective of various characters in distant-past American settings: Dust Bowl farmers (“King Harvest [Has Surely Come]”), Civil War soldiers (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), Manifest Destiny fulfillers (“Across the Great Divide”). It’s a concept album of sorts about the working class and the shared tragedies inherent in the mundane. Label executives’ hair must have been torching up in the background as the tapes arrived.
“It was a complicated record,” Helm writes in Wheel. “We wanted to make one that you didn’t really get until the second time you played it.”
Complicated it still is: When The Band came out fifty years ago this week (Sept. 22), it was immediately (and correctly) received as a masterpiece — “Abbey Road captivates me as might be expected, but The Band is even better,” Robert Christgau wrote in The Village Voice at the time — but its legacy has proven to require more renewed thematic analysis than many other canonized classics. One key reason for that is due to the fact that The Band is an album about America as written by a Canadian band (with the notable exception of Helm, who was from Arkansas). And it’s within the complications of that dynamic that perhaps The Band’s best song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” lives, wrought with a particular type of humanity and heartbreak that’s increasingly hard to reckon with, given that its foundation lies within the perspective of a Confederate.
It’s worth pointing out that the album was nearly called “Harvest,” because, as Helm explains in Wheel, they “were reaping this music from seeds that had been planted many years before we’d even been born.” (A couple years later, another free-thinking Canadian would make his own commercial breakthrough with that title instead.) These stories weren’t really theirs to begin with — they were just there to be plucked. And part of what makes it such a compelling, enduring, and difficult artifact of popular music to grapple with is this feeling that it’s a document of the country’s thorny past without being a strict endorsement of it. (Certainly they were not singing in a positive way about issues like war and poverty.)
“We could have called it America as well,” Helm continues, “because this music was right out of the air. We were saying, Listen! You can’t ignore this.”
After its release, the group would go on to face their own complications: Robertson was credited with writing most of the album himself — a divergence from the more diverse credits of Big Pink, which included three tracks that credited Manuel exclusively. And when sales pushed The Band to No. 9 on the Billboard 200 — with “Up on Cripple Creek” becoming their highest-ever charting single at No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 — that meant a substantial amount of money was going to Robertson alone.
“[Robbie] and [manager] Albert [Grossman] get all the money, and the rest of us get all the leftovers,” Helm lamented in a 1998 interview with OffBeat. “And he was supposed to be one of us, and was.”
In between The Band and 1970’s Stage Fright, the group were featured on the cover of Time Magazine — the first North American rock band to do so. The writer of that story, Jay Cocks, witnessed their dynamic just before Robertson’s name started coming first in the press, before the band fractured back into five separate people. In the story, Cocks writes, “The group could use a leader and front man but does not have one because, as they explain, ‘nobody wants the job.’” It’s fitting that the quote is unattributed; at that point still, The Band spoke, and worked, as one.
It seems obvious now that what made The Band so special was that they didn’t want a leader — that they all traded instruments and cars and friends in a clubhouse-type manner, creating a sum greater than its parts, making them able to pluck something universal about life on Earth from thin air. But once Robertson was given that leader designation, whether fairly or unfairly, whether his decision or not, that spark started to fizzle. It was then that they confirmed what Robertson was worried about all along: that the industry can sometimes be toxic to what was already a good thing, that the veil was probably best left on.