For everyone who listens to popular music there are always albums that for one reason or another stand out in their minds. Some of them are of personal significance, like the first album you ever bought, and some of them take on a little more meaning.
The first album I ever bought was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and it will always retain a special place in my heart. I got in 1969 in exchange for a Christmas present that hadn't worked or something like that at a post holiday sale and held onto the disc for more then thirty years. Since that time there have been other albums that have taken on various different types of significance for me, and like everyone else, they were evaluated according to my own special criteria.
We all have our own means of judging why we think a piece of music or an album is important. That's why when I first heard about Eagle Rock Entertainment's reissue of the VH1 Classic Albums series of DVDs I was a mite suspicious of what was going to be deemed a "Classic" by the people at VH1, and whether I was going to agree with any of their selections.
I also wondered what the hell are they going to do for an hour on tape — sit around and interview people talking about how great they had been? But, after viewing two releases — Catch A Fire by Bob Marley and The Wailers and Aja by Steely Dan — I realized that wasn't the case. In fact, they were pretty fascinating documentaries on how an album is assembled, and the history of the groups involved.
Over the next week or so I'm going to be reviewing four more DVDs from this series starting with what I still think was the best "roots rock album" ever recorded — even though the genre didn't even exist in those days: The Band by the Band. Aside from the confusion about the title of the album and the title of the group it and the album that preceded it (Music From Big Pink) those have always been the two albums I automatically associate with The Band.
Contained within those two albums are almost every song that you associate with them: "The Weight," "Up On Cripple Creek," "Rag Momma Rag," and of course "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The last three songs were all from The Band, and it's those songs, plus a couple of others from the album that come in for the closest scrutiny.
What makes this Classic Albums disc so special is the fact that the film makers have sat down with both Levon Helm (the drummer and lead vocalist) and Robbie Robertson (guitar and primary songwriter) and allowed the two men to separately go through the songs and break them down track by track to show what it is they think made the songs so special.
To me those are the highlights of the disc. Sure, the history behind the making of the album is interesting enough — it was recorded in Sammy Davis Jr.'s pool house in Los Angeles — but to be honest, I really couldn't care less what Bernie Taupin or Eric Clapton thought of the album, or much of what any of the other talking heads had to say. The music doesn't need to be justified by celebrity endorsements and unfortunately that's what moments like these feel like.
The only person who was of interest outside of those who had been directly involved with the recording process was Don Was because of his producer's ear for analysing what they had done in the studio. His input was an interesting augmentation to the information that Robbie, Levon, and the original producer/engineer John Simon provided.
Both Rick Danko and Garth Hudson also took part, but I found them to be more of a distraction than anything else. Rick because he was so overweight, and I knew he was due to die a year or so after this had been filmed, and Garth because he just sat at his keyboard and played long complicated pieces of music which, as far a I could tell, had nothing to do with the songs under discussion.
But all that was more than compensated for by the input and eagerness that both Robbie and Levon brought to the table. It's unfortunate that they don't seem to have been able to settle what ever their differences had been, because I'm sure it would have been great to hear them together. However, there were advantages to them being separate as it gave them each an opportunity to focus on the parts of the music they thought important.
One of things I'd always loved about the Band's songs was their ability to harmonize. None of them had what anyone could call a "beautiful voice" by any stretch of the imagination, but they all had character and passion. Somehow or other when they would come together on a chorus the sounds would mesh beautifully.
Levon lets us in on the secret of how that worked for the Band. When it came to the choruses they would divide the parts up by who could hit what note. Usually that meant that Richard Manuel was the one who ended up singing the high harmony because he was the only one who could hit the notes. It didn't matter that he also sang lead vocals on a lot of the songs. For the chorus, somebody else would take over the lead vocal line and he would shoot up for the high harmony, and then he would be right back into singing lead again when the verse started back in. On quite a number of their songs there was no pause between the verse and the chorus but they were so seamless in their performance you could barely notice the switch to or the switch back.
Even when Levon sat at the mixing board playing back the old masters one vocal track at a time, once he started weaving them together, I was no longer able to tell where the switch took place. These types of details are what makes these Classic Album discs so fascinating. Both Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm are intelligent and fun, so not only can they tell you all sorts of details about the music; they are enjoying every minute of talking about it and that make you enjoy it all the more.
The first time we see Robbie sitting behind the console he looks and acts like a kid whose just been given an amazing present and doesn't quite know what part to play with first. Here's a guy whose written scores for movies, recorded and produced a number of his own projects, yet this music that he recorded almost thirty years earlier still excites him so much that he doesn't seem to know what he wants to talk about first. That tells me a lot right there about how good this music really is.
I have two quibbles with the DVD from a technical standpoint. One is the sound quality. Maybe they couldn't do anything about this, but I'm curious as to why there was no other option for sound aside from straight stereo? Perhaps it was my system, but on occasion there was quite a bit of bass distortion — as if too much sound was being forced through too little space. The other thing was the packaging is limited to a single sheet with a list of the songs they talk about from the album and a blurb on the back cover. I would think that albums that are considered "Classics" would merit a little more attention than that.
But those are just minor points. What this disc wants to do, and succeeds as far as I'm concerned, is to convince the viewer that The Band by The Band merits the sobriquet Classic in terms of popular music. If you are a fan of The Band you'll want to see this disc for the pleasure of gaining a deeper appreciation of their talent. If you were unfamiliar with their work until now than Classic Albums, The Band makes a great introduction to one of the great bands and the great albums of the last forty years.