Robbie Robertson and more tell the tale of The Band's seminal debut

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During October and November Dylan went off to Nashville to make John Wesley Harding and The Band honed their songs. Grossman had secured a record deal with Capitol, after a little initial confusion about what was on offer. “Albert said, ‘Do you want to do an album of Dylan instrumentals or something?’” recalls Robertson. “I said, ‘No! We’re going to do something else.’”

To produce, they called on John Simon. He had recently worked with Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel, but it was the record he’d made with Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is The Massage, that got him the gig. A gifted musician, Simon played a significant role in arranging the songs and, he says, “got so assimilated that’s it’s rare when any of us can point to any one element and say, ‘So-and-so came up with that.’”

“He was brilliant and imaginative,” explains Robertson. “Here’s a guy who can adapt to anything, because we’re making up new rules here. He comes to the basement and he says, ‘Oh my God, this is what I’m looking for! This is fantastic, this is real.’ He really gravitated towards it. We did as much as we could at Big Pink, but we didn’t have the microphones or the board that you needed. These were field recordings.”

In January they went into A&R’s four-track Studio A in New York. Honouring, as Hudson puts it, the “old carpenter’s ethos: measure twice, cut once,” they had rehearsed their songs to a fine point so they could record live in the studio, with few overdubs. The major concern was retaining the free spirit of Big Pink in a commercial studio seven flights up in the heart of the city. “Playing in the basement taught us that going into somebody else’s place, where they don’t go past six o’clock, there are union rules and everybody is watching the clock – that’s not the way to make music,” says Robertson. “We said we need to bring the situation so it fits us, rather than vice versa.”

At first it was a struggle. “They had the drums go over here, they spread us all out so there was no leakage,” remembers Robertson. “We were just doing what we were told because this huge room was famous for getting a fantastic sound. After a while we said, ‘We can’t do this. We’ve got to get in a circle like the basement, we’ve got to play to one another. We’re speaking a language. This doesn’t work.’ The engineer is like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ But he said, ‘All right, let’s give it a shot, but it’s not going to sound too good.’” They formed a tight circle and switched to Electro Voice RE15 mics “that don’t pick up much unless you’re right on them. We put them on everything, because they served our purpose.”

The first song recorded was “Tears Of Rage”, Big Pink’s audacious opener which seems to encapsulate everything daring and heretical about the album. The pace is not so much stately as funereal; Manuel’s extraordinary vocal lends fathoms of emotional depth to Dylan’s mournful, allusive lyric, with Danko’s harmony bolstering the effect on the chorus. The overdub of soprano sax and baritone horn adds an old-time sepia tone, and once you start focusing on Helm’s deadened tom-toms, tuned down and played with gentle finesse, it’s hard to drag your ears away from them. Hudson’s Lowrey organ, preferred over a more conventional Hammond, set the music even further apart from anything remotely contemporary.

“I was aware of sounds on records, and I didn’t hear much of anything we were doing,” says Hudson. “I think we were aware we were doing something new.”

“We listened back to it and it sounded fantastic,” says Robertson. “It was a whole revelation of recording for us and for a lot of people. What we were doing was exactly what we had been doing at Big Pink, but in a place where the sound was controlled. That was the only difference.”

They quickly cut five songs in New York, recording from early evening through the night. There were, says Simon, “no disagreements. It was joyous! There was only one painful moment. Because of some bad mic’ing, the snare drum on ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ got lost so Levon had to go in and overdub it. Afterwards, he said to me, ‘Don’t ask me to do that again.’”

The last song recorded was “The Weight”. Robertson had written it as a homecoming gift for Helm, who had returned to find all the lead vocals already assigned to Danko and Manuel. “I thought, Jeez, I want to write a song that Levon can sing better than anybody, ’cause I knew his abilities,” says Robertson. “He was my closest friend and I wanted to do something really special for him.” Even so, its magnetic, timeless quality only revealed itself in the studio. “It was on the back burner,” adds Robertson. “Like, if these other ones don’t work out I have something else we could go to. I didn’t realise what it was until we recorded it and listened back.”

Capitol were so pleased with the results of the sessions they offered The Band free use of their eight-track studio in Los Angeles to finish the album. They retrieved Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” from the basement, and also cut Manuel’s “Lonesome Suzie” and “In A Station”. Robertson recalls “it was a little trickier, technically,” in LA, although some of the struggle may have been self-inflicted. “We went into the studio and cut one song,” says Simon. “Then, basking in the sun, staying at the Chateau Marmont, we didn’t go in again for another month until Capitol said, ‘Hey, what’s up with you guys?’”

The engineer was a “Gary-Cooper type” called Rex Updegraft who smoked a pipe and told the band he thought their music ‘darn cute’. Back in Woodstock in the spring, Dylan’s reaction was more expansive, says Robertson. “He couldn’t believe that that’s what we do when we’re not doing what we do with him.”

  1. 1. Introduction
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