Album Review: The Band’s ‘Music From Big Pink: 50th Anniversary Edition’

The new remix of this vastly influential album is so brilliant it makes your teeth hurt.

© Elliott Landy
© Elliott Landy

Some albums become life companions. The Band’s “Music From Big Pink,” which celebrated the 50th anniversary of its release on July 1 and gets a deluxe-reissue next Friday, is such a record.

I haven’t been without a copy of “Big Pink” since the day I purchased it — good lord — a half a century ago. From the first, it was a work that demanded deep listening, and more than one copy got severely gored from repeated plays over the years. In 2017, I got reacquainted the album as I wrote the script for the Wild Honey Foundation’s benefit concert performance of “Big Pink” and its self-titled 1969 successor, a show that featured The Band’s brilliant keyboardist Garth Hudson as its special guest.

The lavish golden-anniversary reissue of “Big Pink,” which comes from Capitol/Universal Music Enterprises, features a new remix created by Bob Clearmountain, along with a CD version of the remix, a Blu-ray disc featuring a 5.1 mix, a two-LP 45 rpm rendering of the stereo mix, and a remixed 45 rpm single of “The Weight” (CD and vinyl versions will also be available separately). This variant edition of a much-prized classic is by its nature a risky venture, but one deemed worth taking in what are presumably the waning days of CD boxed sets. To quote the lyrics to Robbie Robertson’s song “Kingdom Come”: “Just be careful what you do, it all comes back on you.”

Weighing “Big Pink Redux” necessitates some recapitulation of the album’s unusual origins.

Even if you knew back in ’68 that the Band (then known as the Hawks) had backed Bob Dylan on his first electric tour of 1965-66 — in fact, even if you’d seen the group in action — the genesis of the sound of “Music From Big Pink” would have been elusive.

The Hawks — guitarist Robertson, organist Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko and the lone American among the Canadian group, drummer Levon Helm — specialized in a raucous fusion of rockabilly, R&B and blues, which they first banged out behind Arkansas-bred rocker Ronnie Hawkins. They developed a more extravagant, high-volume variety of that sound behind Dylan; the singer-songwriter’s rigid folkie fans loathed it, to the point that their booing drove Helm, the group’s founder, from the tour.

Two months after the conclusion of that world jaunt, Dylan was involved in a serious motorcycle accident, and both he and the Hawks went off the grid for two years. For much of that hiatus, Dylan and his sidemen (minus Helm) hunkered down in the secluded artist colony near Woodstock in Upstate New York, where they woodshedded at Dylan’s home and a pink ranch house occupied by three of the musicians.

They recorded dozens of songs that ranged from old folk, blues and country standards to cryptic new material penned by Dylan or co-written with the band members. The experience mutated the musicians into something rich and strange. With a recording contract pending, Helm returned to the fold in late 1967.

When “Music From Big Pink” arrived in mid-1968, bearing the most minimal of credits and wrapped in a cover bearing a Chagall-like watercolor by Dylan, it baffled even the cognoscenti. The music made by the group now simply known as the Band bore little resemblance to the loud, abrasive hard rock the Hawks had played.

Its sound was muffled, subdued, almost private, brewed from a broad range of influences but resembling no one style in particular. (Today you’d call it Americana, although that genre would not exist without “Big Pink.”) Its songs — two of them co-written with Dylan during those “basement tapes” sessions of ’67 — were lyrically gnomic, suggestive, hard to pin down. (Only after bootleg recordings of those tapes began to emerge in 1969 did the provenance of the Band’s sound start to go public.) In Elliott Landy’s evocative jacket photographs, the musicians looked as if they’d materialized from the previous century.

Nearly everything about “Music From Big Pink” ran against the flamboyant grain of contemporaneous psychedelia. The album, which eschewed histrionic soloing, vocal emoting and trippy studio flash, was a sui generis feat. In his 1975 book “Mystery Train,” Greil Marcus rightly compared its affect to that of Robert Altman’s revisionist 1971 Western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” with the film’s hazy visuals and half-buried dialog akin to the confounding murmur of The Band’s music, which wafted in on a cloud of mystery. It simply didn’t sound like anything else.

Thus, formulating a 21st-century remix of an album as singular, cherished and influential as “Big Pink” would be a daunting chore for any production hand. The job fell to Clearmountain, who has served the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams and Hall & Oates, among others, as a mixing engineer.

Clearmountain, who has always been most comfortable in a hard rock or pop context, was destined to be challenged by the distinctive aesthetic of the album’s original producer John Simon, who also helmed The Band’s sophomore album and served as a sort of sixth member of the group.

Simon envisioned “Music From Big Pink” as an ensemble work. In his 2016 memoir “Testimony,” Robbie Robertson offers a detailed account of the album recording sessions at New York’s A&R Studio and Hollywood’s Capitol Tower, during which the standard studio baffles were removed so the musicians could see and interact with one another face-to-face, and the songs were mainly recorded live to three tracks, with a fourth track left for horns. No one singer took the lead — Manuel, Danko, Helm and even the usually vocally reticent Robertson were all featured up front — and the stacked harmonies and call-and-response vocals were a distinctive feature of the album.

In 1968 the members of the Band sounded as if they were nestled comfortably against one another; in the 2018 rendering — most especially in the noisy, infernally busy mix of Dylan and Danko’s “This Wheel’s On Fire” — they sound as if they’re warring for attention. Helm’s drums and Robertson’s guitar fills have been juiced (while, strangely, Danko’s formidable, funky bass is usually played down). Even the sparse, doomy “The Weight” and the spare, aching album-closer “I Shall Be Released” sound newly cluttered. (And speaking of clutter, the studio slates added to a couple of tracks are a pointless nuisance.)

For the new edition of an album originally distinguished by neither brightness nor definition, Clearmountain ignores Simon’s original intent and offers a mix so brilliant it makes your teeth hurt; in every instance where Simon, always subtractive in approach and ever attentive to subtlety and balance, mixed down certain instruments and pared the music to its essence, Clearmountain responds by pushing all the faders up, as if intent to give all the players some space whether they deserve it or not.

Strangely, while the remix is keen to add volume and jarring sonic elements to goose the proceedings for millennial ears, it eliminates certain resonant facets of the original recording. Clearmountain seems especially leery of the sonorous horn work of Hudson and producer Simon, which lofted two of Richard Manuel’s most potent vocals, “Tears of Rage” and “Lonesome Susie”; their saxophones, which contributed so deeply to the songs’ emotional pull, have been reduced to a whisper. I found myself wondering why Hudson’s tour de force Bach-inflected organ overture to “Chest Fever” sounded so bombastic, until I realized that Clearmountain had removed the delay that added an eccentric echo effect; now the introduction resembles the work of Keith Emerson.

It’s hard to agree with Robertson’s assertion, in the book that accompanies the boxed set edition of “Music From Big Pink,” that Clearmountain “has been very loyal to the music.” One wonders what John Simon, now 76 and still very much with us, makes of that statement. There isn’t a single track on the 2018 remix that will not sound decidedly weird to anyone who has spent significant time with the original record. This new set creates an unnerving disturbance in the third ear of memory.

Few records in the history of rock music have left as indelible an imprint as “Music From Big Pink,” and few were created with such a carefully calibrated approach in the studio. Unlike last year’s Giles Martin remix of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which truly revealed new aspects of that rock monolith while remaining true to its essence, the new “Big Pink” betrays nearly everything that was exciting and original about the album when it first appeared.