The house on Parnassus Lane, formerly Stoll Road, in West Saugerties, New York might be one of rock and roll’s least likely landmarks, with its unassuming residential façade distinguished only by its pink siding. But the colorful house bore witness to the birth of some of the greatest songs in American pop history when Bob Dylan and his band – soon to be The Band – recorded “The Basement Tapes” there. When Capitol Records subsequently signed Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel, the group made a request: that the professionally-recorded music they were about to create would sound “just like it did in the basement.” Miraculously, the eleven songs recorded at Phil Ramone’s A&R Studios in New York and in the venerable Capitol Studios and Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles captured the spirit of the bucolic New York dwelling. Hence, The Band’s debut album was entitled Music from Big Pink and adorned with a now-famous, whimsical cover painting by Dylan. (Why are there six players instead of five? Is Bob himself the elephant in the room?) Fifty years later, that 1968 record – the same one which inspired artists like Eric Clapton and George Harrison to seek out an organic quality in their own music – has been celebrated by Capitol and UMe in a lavish new box set.
The new anniversary edition of Music from Big Pink arrives today in a multitude of formats: CD, 2-LP vinyl, digital, and most notably, in a CD/BD/2-LP/1 seven-inch single Super Deluxe Edition. At the heart of all these versions is a new mix of the original album by Bob Clearmountain from the four-track master tapes. Rather than adhering to the style of producer John Simon’s original mix, Clearmountain has approached it as one imagines he would a new album. He’s added detail and dimension to these familiar tracks, “opening up” the sonics instead of emulating the original’s “lo-fi” feel. (As with other recent high-profile boxes like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or John Lennon’s upcoming Imagine, the original stereo LP mix is not included.) The rollicking piano that opens “To Kingdom Come,” the vocal blend on the poignant, spiritual “In a Station,” and Helm’s earthy drawl on “The Weight” are just a few of the elements that can be appreciated anew in Clearmountain’s remix. The stereo imaging on tracks like “We Can Talk” and the stirring cover of the 1959 country staple “Long Black Veil” is pronounced and vivid. Clearmountain has also added a tiny sprinkling of studio chatter onto the album, a rather more modern touch.
The “Americana” or “roots music” of Big Pink was, perhaps ironically, a fantasia of the American South from a band that was almost entirely Canadian; only drummer Helm was a bona fide southerner, having been born in Arkansas. Still, the group soaked up the influences that defined the sound of America: country, gospel, blues, folk, and soul, all rendered with the craft that informed pop. Dylan’s singular style was naturally felt, too. Although he didn’t play on Big Pink, he contributed three songs: one solo (the achingly elegiac “I Shall Be Released”), one co-written with Manuel (the slow, majestic and altogether unorthodox opener “Tears of Rage”), and another with Danko (the rocking “This Wheel’s on Fire”).
Though the Robertson-penned, Helm-sung “The Weight,” arguably the album’s most famous track and The Band’s most significant anthem, never charted any higher than No. 63 in the U.S., it inspired successful cover versions from every corner of the music world: including from Jackie DeShannon (No. 55), Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations (No. 46) and Aretha Franklin (No. 19). Clearly, The Band had tapped into something truly universal. These were songs which couldn’t be pigeonholed. While Big Pink was a response to, and an antidote for, the heavy sounds of hard rock and psychedelia threatening to overtake the airwaves, those styles weren’t entirely absent from Big Pink. The impressionistic “Chest Fever” even bears the hallmarks of progressive rock with Hudson’s dramatic introductory organ solo and central riff; Clearmountain has magnified their prog majesty in his remix.
While there’s little here in the way of new material on this set, what’s here is choice. Six remixed bonus tracks have been added to the original album including outtakes of Robertson’s edgy, wailing “Yazoo Street Scandal,” Dylan’s “Long Distance Operator,” and a cover of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway.” Alternates of “Lonesome Suzie” (in a wholly different, looser shuffle arrangement with a N’awlins vibe) and “Tears of Rage” add further insight into the making of the album.
Four bonus tracks from the 2000 expanded CD have been left off this edition including a cover of The Stanley Brothers’ “If I Lose” (which the liner notes of that release confirm, per Robertson, was never intended for Big Pink), the outtake “Katie’s Been Gone” (which Robertson felt was too close to “Lonesome Suzie”), and early demos of “Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast)” and “Ferdinand the Imposter.” Note that “If I Lose,” “Orange Juice Blues,” and “Ferdinand” were all presented in 2000 despite sound quality issues; likely the choice was made to leave them off here as Clearmountain couldn’t remix them to match the audio standard of the other songs. The sole new track for the 50th anniversary reissue is a new a cappella mix of “I Shall Be Released,” placing the spotlight squarely on The Band’s tight vocal camaraderie and of course on Manuel’s moving lead.
The 2018 stereo mix can also be heard in high resolution 96kHz/24-bit audio on the box’s accompanying Blu-ray, but the real highlight of the Blu-ray is undoubtedly Clearmountain’s new surround mix in DTS Master Audio HD and Dolby TrueHD. This isn’t the first time Music from Big Pink has been released in 5.1 audio; Don Gillet mixed a version in 2002 for a DVD-Audio release. The new surround mix adds vivid dimension and an enveloping sensibility on “To Kingdom Come” (dig the clarity of the piano in the left rear channel!) and “Caledonia Mission,” just two of the tracks which make particularly good use of the rear channels in highlighting the contributions of each Bandmate. Other tracks are more conservatively mixed, such as “The Weight,” but the results are never less than interesting as the ear can’t help but pick out a new part or line previously submerged. The vocals are well-delineated on “In a Station,” and on “We Can Talk,” the voices of Manuel, Helm, and Danko are very much all around the listener. In a nice touch, all of the bonus material has also been mixed into 5.1. The new stereo and surround mixes don’t, and shouldn’t, replace the original, but do offer valid and compelling alternatives.
Having covered the bases on CD and Blu-ray, the box offers one more audio option with the new 2018 mix of Music from Big Pink on vinyl. The album, housed in a sturdy gatefold sleeve, has been pressed at 45 RPM on two 180-gram black vinyl platters, cut by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering and pressed at GZ Vinyl/Precision. (Both the vinyl and the CD, with bonus tracks, are available for standalone purchase.)
A squarebound, 28-page, LP-sized booklet is included with the Super Deluxe box. It boasts a new essay by journalist David Fricke as well as numerous photographs by Elliott Landy from his book The Band Photographs, 1968-1969. The set is rounded out by a 45 RPM single of “The Weight” b/w “I Shall Be Released” in their new mixes and a folio of three of Landy’s photos. The box itself features a lift-off lid, and the discs and 45 RPM single are packaged within a gatefold adorned with images of original tape boxes.
Longtime fans of The Band will surely find something worthwhile within this anniversary set produced by Frank Collura and Matt D’Amico. Music from Big Pink isn’t just one of the most influential albums of the 1960s, but one of the most influential of all time. Whether in immersive surround on Blu-ray, imbued with warmth on vinyl or in crystal-clear crisp stereo on CD, the music of The Band can’t help but move the soul and spirit. “You haven’t really heard American music before,” an acerbic Bob Dylan once fumed to British audiences in Melody Maker after they took umbrage to his blazing performances with the future Band. With Music from Big Pink, the world heard it loud and clear.
Music from Big Pink is available now at:
Super Deluxe Edition: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
2-LP Black Vinyl: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
2-LP Pink Vinyl: uDiscoverMusic.com