- The Vision Is Sound: Robbie Robertson Embraces The Unconventional When Robbie Robertson visits this year’s AES Convention to receive the Les Paul Award (to be presented to him by musician/producer Daniel Lanois) during the TEC Awards on Monday evening, he will be honored, in part, for the enduring, monumental work he did during his years with The Band. While there is much to be said for and about the content of that work – the alternative vision of America it offered during a time of heated domestic battles over the Vietnam War and a generational conflict over values and morality – The Band’s legend is built on music, musicianship and soundscapes, with no one element capable of being separated from the other without diminishing the whole.
To achieve that magical alchemy, The Band, with the brilliant John Simon [see below] and then Robertson himself at the helm in the studio, went back to the roots of great recording, particularly great rock ‘n’ roll recording, and, to put it as simply as possible, ditched the clock. The viability of that approach was unassailable as far as Robertson and his Band mates were concerned, because the records that had most influenced them, particularly those that had been recorded at Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio in Memphis, had been done off the clock, and had lost none of their captivating allure. Years later, post-Band, Robertson found his own vision being summoned by another generation’s standard bearer.
“About 12 years ago, I went to Dublin and did some recording with U2 on a couple of tracks for a record of mine,” Robertson recalled in an exclusive interview with The Daily. “They had set up in a big living room in a house, and when I went in there, they were all like, ‘Look familiar?’ They believed in that, and really wanted to set up their own atmosphere. People completely understand it and believe it now. On my last record, I did stuff in a big fancy studio, and I recorded a whole song in a guy’s bedroom in London. He had a little gear in there. One recording sounds absolutely as good as the other.”
It was during the informal jam sessions with Bob Dylan, later released (well, first as bootlegs, but finally as a legitimate album) as The Basement Tapes, that Robertson discovered the value of embracing the unconventional during the recording process. The Basement Tapes were recorded in a house off the beaten path in rural Saugerties, NY, where the signal paths were good enough and the mood was conducive to an inspired journey into the roots of American folk and blues. There wasn’t a clock in sight.
“In the course of doing The Basement Tapes, I started thinking there’s something really valuable in not being on the clock in a studio,” Robertson recalled. “What you’re trying to do is create an atmosphere that complements your music to the best of your ability.
Now here we are in a basement, the worst sonic atmosphere according to what they tell you is supposed to be the best sonic situation. We have cinder block walls, a big metal furnace in the middle of the room, and a cement floor. And I came to the conclusion that you don’t want to get fooled by all of this sonic stuff. You want to make it work in your favor. And we just started experimenting with these things, finding sounds that we didn’t hear on other records. That’s a good thing. That’s character.”
So when The Band finally got its own shot, Robertson knew which path to follow. “We thought that we were onto something, and I thought, ‘God, these are the worst circumstances, and some of these songs really have a vibe to them,'” he recalled. “Can you imagine if we did something in even the medium circumstances? We might be in good shape there.” The ‘worst circumstances’ merely produced Music from Big Pink, one of the most influential albums in rock history. For the follow-up to Big Pink, The Band’s eponymous sophomore effort affectionately known as “The Brown Album,” the group moved uptown, into Sammy Davis, Jr.’s pool house, and Robertson took a more active role in producing the sessions along with Simon.
“I thought rather than me explaining things, I could do them,” he said. “I get this – this is bass, this is treble, this is volume, this isn’t complicated. Here we have an analog machine. When I slam something onto the tape, on certain things it sounds really god. On other things, it doesn’t sound very good. Learn the difference. John Simon was great because whatever we wanted to experiment with that seemed off the map that wasn’t necessarily in the instruction manual, I think he accepted it and ran with it in the same way that George Martin would. George Martin never said to the Beatles, ‘You want to play this backwards? That’s stupid.’ He just said, ‘Let me figure out how to make that even better.'”
Producer John Simon was an integral part of the Band’s classic recordings. While helping Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary), edit his rockumentary You Are What You Eat, Simon met members of Bob Dylan’s backup band and repaired with them to their communal home in Saugerties, New York, to help them put together the demos that would become the Band’s Music From Big Pink.
Perhaps the greatest album of what is now called “Americana,” Big Pink was recorded by four Canadians (Robbie Robertson – guitar, Rick Danko – bass, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson – keyboards), an Arkansan (Levon Helm – drums), and a Yankee (Simon). The album yields fresh dividends 30 years after its release like the finest folk music, yet is unquestionably rock ‘n’ roll in its attitude, instrumentation, and sonics.
Simon not only produced but helped arrange and played on Big Pink, and the platinum follow-up, The Band, which was recorded in a converted pool hall in Los Angeles.
Big Pink is a sublime mixture of the traditional (the spooky murder and loyalty-unto-death ballad “Long Black Veil’), and the neotraditional (Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “I Shall Be Released,” Robertson’s “The Weight”). For The Band, Robertson took over writing duties and responded spectacularly with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “Look Out Cleveland” and “The Unfaithful Servant.” If Big Pink isn’t the greatest Americana album, then The Band is.
Simon’s relationship with the Band continued in the ’70s as he co-produced
Stage Fright with Todd Rundgren, and co-produced (with Robertson and Rob Fraboni), conducted and arranged the Band’s farewell concert/film The Last Waltz in ’78. Simon reunited with a Robertson-less Band when he co-produced their Jericho in ’93.