Day Twenty: The Beatles – Abbey Road

Capitol Records ■ SO-383

Released September 26, 1969
Produced by George Martin
Recorded by Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald
Assistant Engineering by Alan Parsons

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Come Together
  2. Something
  3. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
  4. Oh! Darling
  5. Octopus’s Garden
  6. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
  1. Here Comes the Sun
  2. Because
  3. You Never Give Me Your Money
  4. Sun King
  5. Mean Mr. Mustard
  6. Polythene Pam
  7. She Came in Through the Bathroom Window¹
  8. Golden Slumbers
  9. Carry That Weight
  10. The End²
  11. Her Majesty³
 ¹Tracks 3 (“You Never Give Me Your Money”) through 7 (“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”) are often thought of as a medley
²Somewhat unbeknownst to me, 8 (“Golden Slumbers”) through 10 (“The End”) are also thought of as a medley. It does make sense, though.
³Unlisted on original issue. This pressing does not include it on the outer sleeve, but does list it on the label.
Yesterday, I was tasked–by either the gushing overconvidence in me or sadism practiced upon me by friends and family–with discussing the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I’m not sure it turned out all that well, but I felt a bit out of place with it–many people seem to see me as quite knowledgeable musically, but I don’t think that piece of writing bore that out. It tends to make patently obvious my limitations in the music theory sense. The iconic nature of the cover above–along with the overall reputation of the music within it–is not something encouraging insofar as escaping that same trap on this immediately following day. However, it occupies an odd place. The most iconic Beatles album remains Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I would definitely feel about it the way I felt about Pet Sounds: a need to correctly place it in pop history and acknowledge that monolithic and kneejerk placement of it. It’s the sort of thing that’s generally no longer defended–it just is the greatest album of all time, or whatever. Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t get addressed in a lengthy way most of the time anymore: it’s mostly the brainwashed kind of “Oh, Sgt. Pepper,” or the “I refuse to be brainwashed” response of “Anything but Sgt. Pepper.” As a result, despite being voted the best Beatles album with some regularity by both aggregated response and individual judgment on many occasions, Abbey Road often appears behind Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, and Rubber Soul in many a list of more general selections (the 1960s, all time, so on). That it is also my own personal favourite Beatles album does me no harm in my comfort.
However, the Beatles have been dissected more widely and thoroughly as a music group (and people) than the Beach Boys ever were, or likely ever will be. The very copy I own of this album has an insert for the Compleat Beatles book, and there’s the career-long Anthology set, the Anthology film set, the Compleat Beatles movie, and whole books that break down any and all recording sessions down to the take. The original liner notes for Past Masters, the non-album singles collections, actually talk about which take and which edits were used for final release, amongst other things. There are a few other bands who experience somewhat similar treatments (obviously, Pet Sounds has had some similar treatment, but much of the rest of the Beach Boys career has not, and the Kinks’ ’60s material has ended up similarly, but the pursuit has languished in the material that was released in the two decades following). The information is widely disseminated, and that the Beatles have a reputation even with those who don’t like them–and not just one for “surf songs”, but for being the best of this, that, or the other for all time.
It doesn’t leave me nervous and wary, but it does leave me to wonder: what information do you include in a self-contained piece on this? Silly trivia that’s old hat to people who look at music trivia, like the fact that this was recorded after Let It Be, despite the fact that Let It Be was released later, or that it was one of the only two Beatles albums officially released only in stereo? All of the nuanced commentary and ultra-specific recording history from Emerick, Martin and the Fab Four themselves? Context, with Yoko Ono and the strain on the band and all the changes and phases and moments that led to this? I’m not inclined to include a lot of that; where it seems appropriate, relevant trivia seems like a reasonable but not necessary thought. Describing the music–as I’m wont to do–seems like a waste of your time (and thus mine), unless it’s to clarify or elaborate on a more abstract or general point.
The album’s opener was part of a double A-side release with the track that follows it (“Something”). It is an extremely recognizable song, one of Lennon’s efforts (though, as always, credited to “Lennon-McCartney”, as was their practice) and in the vein of “Revolution” (the b-side of “Hey Jude”, not “Revolution 1” from The White Album), being rather rough, using distorted guitars and rather spare instrumental backing (though the guitar in “Revolution” is quite loud and constant, it seems to stand out by itself with how it is mixed). While much ado is made about Ringo’s “bad” (or at least banal) drumming, this is one of the tracks that really lets you understand the kind of feel that defined him, as well as letting him branch out into a more unusual beat. 
There are three parts that have always stuck out in the song to me: John’s voice (and he uses the “wilder” one, which emphasizes the connection to “Revolution”, for my ears), Paul’s bass riff, and Ringo’s hissing hi-hat venting of that riff. And that’s really what it feels like: the bass riff moves the song, but its weight needs a bit of a valve to let the rest of the music have some space, and that hiss is that valve–even sounding like one. In talking of Pet Sounds, I mentioned my normal approach of hearing music as a whole cloth, and that is emphatically true with music I’ve heard my entire life, which includes any and all Beatles hits, and many non-hits. The advantage of sitting and listening as this demands means I get to hear things like the wonderful trip across the toms that Ringo takes after that hiss, which is one of my favourite drum sounds in general when used properly. The simple beat he uses under the verses is just that, but the hits are just the right kind to fit the restrained aggression and chilly “cool” of the song. When John sings the last line of the verse and Ringo moves to that heartbeat bass kick, I realize that I really do like his style, however much or little skill it took.
And, of course, Paul’s bass, if you follow it through the song, is actually quite stunning. Driving the song with it in a way that never registered as being all bass to my young ears and just seemed like part of how songs were made–and, in general, it isn’t–is one thing, but the way it rides under the verses, the same riff, smoothed out but still powerful, that is something special.
It’s not much of a secret that, if pressed, I’d have to name George as my favourite Beatle (despite the empathic animated Ringo from Yellow Submarine defining my preference for many years–who of course had only a tenuous link to the real one, though he’s often been called the nicest, most humble and in general the “heart” of the actual Beatles). That means that the general feel of “Something” is one I’ve always found attractive–the fragmented guitar parts that seem to fade in only momentarily in the majority of the song, but that come out so noticeably after the chorus are just brilliantly tasteful. As a lead guitarist he rarely comes off as showy (and it was never his style, even in the years following), and even his solo here is neither the overly technical kind of impressive, nor the more jaw-droppingly soulful kind of solo that comes from the best of the blues: it’s just mood, and the tone and style he relied on–enough that he’s recognizable in his contributed solo on Badfinger’s “Day After Day”. The subtle descent in from Ringo, and the way Paul’s bass trades off and accentuates the song without controlling it–well, rhythm sections were never my strong point in listening, unless I concentrate. I’m realizing what a shame this is as time goes on.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Well, I can’t discuss this–can’t even begin to–without noting that it was the song that apparently broke my friend John on the Beatles. That is, broke him into them. It’s kind of funny, as, name indicating, he’s more of a “John” (as in Lennon) kind of person, taste-wise, and John quite hated the song and thought it was stupid “Granny music”, but John (the one I know myself) liked that the Beatles could be so cheerful about murder. And so they are: it’s not unfair of Lennon to declare this about the song (ever the mediator, Ringo elaborated that it may indeed be “Granny music”, but that this was necessary to help the album be listenable), but the subject matter is a bit odd for a pop musician known for his pop stylings but not known for that kind of ironic tone (at the least, up to this point). The song just bounces along merrily, even the anvil that represents the hammer (played by Ringo on the recorded version, though road manager/assistant Mal Evans can be seen in video playing it on another take) seeming more merry than menacing. The Moog bits, too–I’d never noticed those. Paul plays a short solo after the first chorus on it that wouldn’t be out of place in many a synth-defined album, though he matches it with a piano instead at the second entrance.
“Oh! Darling” is emphatically reminiscent of earlier rock (and preceding genre) music–my thought was more of the music that inspired and was covered by the Beatles themselves, but others have suggested Fats Domino-style R&B, which I think is perfectly reasonable. Still, Paul throws in a “Woo!” that it’s hard not to think of as influenced by Little Richard, of whom they were known to be fans. Paul uses his own “wild” voice, quite deliberately, on the song, and it helps that feeling of rougher, more soulful music that the song inspires. Oddly, Lennon thought Paul sang it poorly–but I’ve always felt his vocal performance was exactly in line with his intention to record “as though [he’d] been performing it on stage all week.”
In terms of songwriting credits, Lennon and McCartney were notoriously dominant in those credits, with Harrison rarely exceeding two credits on an album, though his songs were rarely thought of poorly. Ringo, however, has only two full credits. The first is on The White Album, which should come as no surprise for a sprawling double album that covers absurd amounts of ground. While he actually sang more songs for the Beatles than this (“Yellow Submarine”, “Good Night”, “Boys”, etc), he never got much further with songs he wrote. The second (the one on The White Album is “Don’t Pass Me By”) is actually the next: “Octopus’s Garden”. He wrote the song while away from the others, frustrated with their arguing and general tense mood. It’s very much in keeping with the notions of Ringo as a person and as a songwriter: it’s a bit goofy, as it describes a silly world where he and friends visit an octopus in the garden it builds from found objects, but it’s very warm and cheerful, too. He gives it a nice beat, but a much nicer piano performance on his part. The amusing studio activities of the rest gave it the little “underwater” touches that crop up, like the sound of bubbles, or altered voices.  In some respects, it makes for a nice break from the rest of the album, as Ringo himself apparently did in general: it’s a pleasant sounding song that doesn’t carry the weight of the serious tone in even the other positive songs. It also has some nice guitar from George and John, which never hurts.
I often reference “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” as a strong indicator of the talent of the Beatles. Fourteen words across nearly eight minutes–and it never gets boring or overly repetitive (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t repeat elements, of course–just that they don’t feel tired). Lennon actually plays the rather tasty lead that follows his own vocal, though George did contribute other guitars, and it only furthers the extremely emotive nature of the track–apparently written to/about Yoko. The desire in Lennon’s voice (and playing) is bare and naked. When the song shifts to the “She’s So Heavy” portion, the guitars are slowed, deliberate and heavy as all hell, the pick seeming to pull at each string with all the energy of desire focused–as much as such a thing can be focused–into each pick of a string, spaced out with the intense restraint needed to keep that focus. And let’s not forget that ending: it’s a shock as John intended, even as it comes out of the wash of the white noise machine, and somehow a brilliant end to Side One, despite its unexpected and sudden nature.
Let’s be honest for a moment: when I decided to name a favourite Beatles album for the first time, it was driven by my love for “Here Comes the Sun”. I’ve already noted my love for George’s songs, his guitar style and sound–though my favourites of his, and indeed favourite Beatles songs were neither singles nor normal album tracks. Still, that defining lick, and the way it seems to sit off in a corner, tiny and quiet but so pretty at the start, and then to seem almost shy in the way he plays it under his vocal, notes almost lost, only to come out clean and clear in the chorus and following it is just…affecting. It’s absolute beauty, and I remember deliberately pulling out the record as one of the few I played on the same turntable and stereo I use now to listen to before a day of high school, lo those many years ago–particularly one morning before school. Harrison even brings the Moog back (which, again, I had not noticed), too, and uses it in a fashion I think one might call a bit more normal–a bit more like an organ or standard electronic keyboard, perhaps, for the most part, though there are some unusual bits here and there. The very subtle orchestral inclusion avoids being overbearing or intrusive, too–which I suppose we can thank Martin for.
“Because” opens with Martin on a harpsichord, playing a melody that always reminds me of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, but quickly becomes much lighter, with the full harmonies the boys use (overdubbed to a full nine “voices”, 3 each from Paul, John and George). Those harmonies are really the focal point of the song: it keeps the whole thing in the air (as does the absence of anything  more than a rather quiet, simple bass from Paul in the rhythm section).
The “Abbey Road Medley” consisting of “You Never Give Me Your Money”, “Sun King”, “Mean Mr. Mustard”, “Polythene Pam”, and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” I always forget is a medley myself–and, in truth, that’s something I fear we might lose as we move toward this digital formatting of music. It’s not an issue at all with isolated tracks, or collections of songs meant to be played in an order–but correct transitioning between otherwise delineated tracks is something that can be easily lost or treated poorly, either with non-master crossfades, or with variances in how software chooses to separate tracks. Still, it is a medley, and a listen on vinyl makes that far more abundantly clear. The piano and bass that Paul opens the track with (both are his performances) are an exquisite sound, a kind of sadness in the initial piano bit that is brought up to something more like bittersweet by the bassline. The harmonies on this intro are also wonderful, and create a space for the bass to gain volume and pull the song into its transition, announced by Ringo. And then we get to hear one of my favourite Paul vocal styles, the kind he also uses on “Lady Madonna”–it’s pushed down and sort of strangled into a seeming parody of being straightlaced–or, at least, that’s the impression it always gives me: I always see him pushing his chin down and tucking it in slightly when he sings this way. It makes a kind of sense–there’s a certain musical synergy between the two songs otherwise in some ways. It’s actually a heavily varied song in-and-of itself, with the wind chimes and tape loops Paul includes at various points. If you aren’t familiar, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a huge chunk of the medley, rather than a single song that is part of it.
The movement to “Sun King” is forced for reasons I will get into later, but you wouldn’t know it had to be hacked together for listening, as quiet natural sounds are used to help the overlap. The opening is, interestingly, somewhat tonally similar to “Here Comes the Sun” (that it was originally titled “Here Comes the Sun King” and still includes this phrase doesn’t help), not in a way that feels like a repeat of any kind, but just like a coincidental mirroring. It’s very relaxed, and feels as if it might play over a cartoon vacation in some islands with palm trees, a kind of lilting sway to the guitars.
When it suddenly turns into “Mean Mr. Mustard”, it is simultaneously natural and strange: the tempo shifts so completely, yet so organically, you almost wouldn’t notice, as there’s only a small drum fill from Ringo that carries it, but it’s done at a natural point in the song–you think there’s more of “Sun King” coming, and another song starts playing, and whether the first reaction is “Ah, okay” or “What?” is a toss up.
It’s less disparate, the difference between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”, as the tempo is up at a similar rate, though it has a very unusual, very wild, primal drumbeat from Ringo. John is back to his more “distant” style of vocals (a la “Revolution”).
It shows that “Polythene Pam” led directly to “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” even as performed, with that pounding drum from Ringo seamlessly transforming into a more typical balance of bass and snare than tom-focused drumming. Paul brings back his “self-harmonizing” approach, which has a very unique and particular sound in the way it seems to create a weird expansion and funnel to his voice that hones in on it for “Didn’t anybody see?”, though the backing vocals of John and George give it that particular twist indicative of their overall unified vocal sound.
“Golden Slumbers” announces the final transitions of the album, with a string-enhanced piano melody, and gentle singing from Paul. It gives the feeling of descent from the album’s climax, and when he turns on the energy, it tells us that things may be winding down, but it isn’t without some energy still behind them. The second moment it seems it will go this way, we’re instead led to “Carry That Weight”, which manages to jump from “Hey Judge”-style chorus and repetition to a piercing horn sting of a bridge to an excellent and intimate–though “big”–solo from George. It’s enough that “Golden Slumbers” was recorded as leading directly into “Carry That Weight”, but after that solo it also calls back to “You Never Give Me Your Money”, which ties the two medleys of songs together. When the horns return again to bring the song back to its own identity, its as if the effect of that horn interruption is doubled.
“The End” is an exciting bit: while it is a clear transition from “Carry That Weight”, it manages to include a pounding opener from Ringo that is answered by a brief guitar riff, leads to another fill from him, one line sung by Paul and then a really, really great solo from Ringo, despite his distaste for them (ever the one to bow to group needs). The song comes back, and then we get a real treat: the three guitarists trade licks. Paul starts off with the sharp points and bends of a more “normal” guitar solo, George follows with the sliding tones he is known for, and John follows with a chunkier, more distorted blast, and they repeat the process. It feels like a trade off, too, which avoids the frustration (for some, at least) of solos designed purely for the purposes of showing off–it feels too much like them playing off each other. There’s a choral, string-backed, dramatic, ending point then: the point at which “The End” feels like The End, with George slipping in one last solo.
But there’s a brief pause, and we get a sudden chord–but it only leads to Paul and a finger picked guitar, singing for just a very brief time and cut off at the end. And that’s it–in some sense, the chronological end of the Beatles, even if Let It Be was yet to be released.
It’s actually very difficult to name a favourite Beatles album. There are no real clunkers (naysayers about the early years, at one point including myself, just need to listen more), but there’s definitely still a greater magic to the albums from about Rubber Soul onward, where more varied instrumentation and ideas were put into play. I’ve always chosen Abbey Road because there’s nothing off-putting (“Revolution 9”, I’m looking at you, and only you–and possibly “All Together Now”). A lot of the great songs weren’t on albums originally in the UK (“Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Rain”, “Revolution”, etc). Each album has some truly excellent songs, too, so there’s not even that feeling of “Okay, but it doesn’t have anything that great…” Other than my admitted cop-out (that I base the decision almost exclusively on “Here Comes the Sun”, which is no way to do this), there’s just a nice variety here, and one that doesn’t go on too long, that has some new and interesting elements, without letting those control everything. It’s a weak explanation, but does it really matter? The point is you can’t narrow it down to one album anyway. Picking one is just a waste of time, as you’d have to watch so much great stuff fall away as you drew it away from the others, you’d start fretting and place it back, and try to repair your little garden of Beatles–don’t really want anything missing, want it all in nice, neat shape with everything in place.
Is that a cheat? Maybe. But it’s the actual truth–it’s like when you ask me my favourite colour. If I’m bored or distracted, I will tell you orange (which apparently makes me weird; it seems that is oft-considered an ugly or terrible colour, I’ve slowly gathered). If I’m feeling sarcastic or overly honest, I just cheat. Indeed, I’ll often tell you my favourite colour is “iridescent”, which isn’t a colour at all. But, if you get something iridescent (often the aim of “favourite colour” questions), you end up with something that displays all the colours in some fashion. So, it’s a cheat, but a sort of honest one–as it gets to the reality of it: it’s a “puppet” favourite. There isn’t a real one in place, at least, not one with the kind of “power” a favourite really has. I feel as though I should make some snarky comment tying that thought into the ending–“Her Majesty”–but I can’t place one. Feel free to create your own.
■ ■ ■ 
Oh, and if you’re curious, those two favourite Beatles/George songs are “It’s All Too Much” and “Only a Northern Song”. They only appeared on the Yellow Submarine songtrack. I’d blame that movie–which I absolutely love–for this, but those are not segments I like most at all. Indeed, I have a bad habit of wandering away from the ending where “It’s All Too Much” appears. There’s just something about, more than anything, that wailing distortion and that organ riff, and my love for organs is no secret. Which, for those familiar, should make “Only a Northern Song” no kind of surprise, actually.

Day Sixteen: The Band – The Band

Capitol Records ■  STAO-132

Released September 22, 1969
Produced by John Simon
Engineered by John Simon and Robbie Robertson
Mixed by Joe Zagarino and Tony May

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Across the Great Divide
  2. Rag Mama Rag
  3. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
  4. When You Awake
  5. Up on Cripple Creek
  6. Whispering Pines
  1. Jemima Surrender
  2. Rockin’ Chair
  3. Look Out Cleveland
  4. Jawbone
  5. The Unfaithful Servant
  6. King Harvest (Has Surely Come)

Well, I already had the unenviable task of attempting to talk about AC/DC’s Highway to Hell to interrupt my plan to avoid the trap of exhaustive coverage of classic albums, but hard rock is a genre that, as a whole, receives less attention and writing anyway. It’s sort of a niche market, in its way, even as it has achieved a huge level of mainstream, average-listener kind of success. It still hasn’t really encouraged a bunch of writing or the kind of pontification that truly defines “Best Records Ever Recorded” lists and books (even if it shows up in them, it’s not as often with loads of essays behind it). Now, I’m about to hit a slew of trouble, which begins today with being volunteered to discuss the 1969 sophomore effort from The Band, self-titled, and occasionally referred to (apparently!) as the Brown Album (not to be confused with all the other “Brown Albums”–some more ‘official’).

The Band is a peculiar subject: I am often reluctant to talk about them for fear of either being stuck in a “Who’s on First” routine or being subjected to an onslaught of Robbie Robertson hatred. I came to The Band through Robbie Robertson, as I grew up hearing his first few albums a lot in my childhood. I also get confused, sometimes, about the fact that “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is often thought of first with The Band, despite “The Weight” remaining their song with the most penetration and familiarity–though, admittedly, it remains a song not as readily identified as being by The Band if asked of a random non-music-obsessed kind of person. Sometimes, I’m left, then, with the notion that I’m some kind of shallow musical luddite when it comes to the band, resistant to the notion that Robertson didn’t write as much as he’s credited with (for the record, a claim I’m not at all strict about, one way or the other, though I’m inclined to think the totality was certainly a group effort, musically). Let’s really just get this out of the way: this is one of those discussions I really don’t want to get into. As much as I think financially Robertson may have taken more credit (and in a way that gave more financial recompense) credit than was earned, I think the endless slamming (at the least, with regard to music) is unwarranted and a result of “baby-with-the-bathwater” mentalities. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?
Moving on then!
As I rarely process artists I’m unfamiliar with in reading beyond names sticking with me, my first exposure to The Band came with their debut, Music from Big Pink, though I rapidly sped through at least the next few (eventually slacking around Cahoots, a stopping point I’ve never successfully reminded myself to restart from) as I had the immediate access to my dad’s own record collection (which is rather robust, insofar as The Band, for instance). I was still in high school, I’d taken a shine to his Robbie Robertson CDs (all four of his then-released albums, including my probable yearlong affair with 1998’s Contact from the Underworld of Redboy), and I was often found parsing through his collection for the songs I’d heard on the radio, associating their artists and listening more heavily–often slowly expanding my listening throughout the albums those songs came from. It’s no surprise then, if one puts all the information mentioned together, that I started with Big Pink, as it’s where “The Weight” came from.
For a long time, The Band was semi-ignored in my personal musical canon. It wasn’t a bad album, it wasn’t an okay album, but it wasn’t one I’d feel myself drawn to. Maybe it’s that brown cover with a monochrome picture of the boys looking dour (except Garth Hudson, anyway),¹ I don’t know. I’d often listen to it in my usual digital way: put on the earliest released track I had by an artist, and let it just play on. I’d enjoy it, but I associated it with “The Night…” and “Up on Cripple Creek”, which I had learned were the big singles/songs from it (“Night” was a bigger hit for Joan Baez though, apparently), and I liked them well enough, but not as much as I did “The Weight” or “Tears of Rage” or “This Wheel’s on Fire”. When I bought this copy–as best I can tell, from the original pressing, thus the duct-and-masking-taped-together look, a condition many of my 40+ year old records share–I was in college, and it was The Band, and it was $3. No, it’s not in fantastic condition as a record, either, but it lacks locked grooves, severe noise or any other major distortions. Just lots of nice pop and crackle.
The band (or The Band, or The Band, take your pick, I guess) opens with “Across the Great Divide”, an anticipatory intro of piano, horns and Richard Manuel’s vocal, the music itself seeming to hold itself back, each note beginning with punch, and then it holds, and in comes Rick Danko’s bass and Levon’s drums, with just a bit of organ that grows to layer the background from Garth. The song begins to bounce along, pressing only at the end of each line of the chorus. It has a swinging–I don’t mean swing music, just swinging–sort of feel that is indicative of the atmosphere of the album as a whole.
Rick Danko’s violin (well, let’s be honest: fiddle) intro almos defines “Rag Mama Rag”, and is just achingly perfect in a way that a handful of moments on this album are. The ragtime-y piano from Hudson replaces it, largely for the majority of the song as Levon sings with dragged syllables over the beat he lays down, becoming a big, well, raggedy over the chorus, drawing out “Rag” and singing “mama” quickly. Rick sings a brief bridge, but the latter half of the song is dominated by Hudson’s restlessly wandering fingers.
There’s always been something vaguely uncomfortable to me about “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, but something that is captured in a lot of my reaction to certain segments of Southern culture. I’m eternally grateful to Patterson Hood (of the Drive-By Truckers) and Jason Isbell (formerly of the Drive-By Truckers) for helping me to grapple with this (in ways that would take too long to explain here–we can save that for when I get to records from either). I’m always wary of the kind of romanticism about Old Dixie exhibited here, considering associations–I always have been, even as a child. Yet, like Robbie describing the second time he heard “The South will rise again”, saying it touched him, that he heard a “a pain there, a sadness there”. 
The song has all the right elements for the attitude it conveys: Richard Manuel is back on the keys, and brings the song in from the bottom end, a lick used later to return from the chorus to the verses, and rhythmically carries the song along with Danko’s bass, as the song is all about Levon’s vocals and the story he’s telling–whoever wrote the lyrics, there is no doubt whatsoever that Levon is the right singer–which is about the South, and “the winter of ’65/We were hungry/Just barely alive”. He sings as Virgil Caine, who assists the Confederate Army and talks of the final fall of the Confederacy–with pain and sadness, but the respect and (wounded) pride that defines the feeling that lingers. Robertson’s guitar adds just the right upward bend to his moments–mixed somewhere in the middle, rarely in the front–to give that contrast that defines the tone here, but with a strong attack on each note in the chorus–and that chorus! Levon brings a string of rolls in to a chorus that limps like his drumbeat for the song, even as the Band’s collective voices rise to unison for the chorus. And Levon always leads into it perfectly: the verses have his voice following each beat with a syllable, and then holding on the last word before the rolls and voices carry us up into that sorrowful pride.
Whew. I know I didn’t intend to spend any of this blog writing about a single song, and I just mentioned that song is not a favourite of mine–but it’s so damn well put together!
We get a relief from the tension and loss of “The Night…” with Rick Danko’s vocal lead on “When You Awake”. Rick’s voice isn’t the “angelic” sound of Richard Manuel (and that’s a common adjective for him), though Manuel co-wrote (or wrote, or whatever) this song. It does continue the feeling that “Across the Divide” and “Rag Mama Rag” largely establish: we’re listening to a band playing for some sort of town celebration–all the best players in town coming together to jam out some songs for the close of a harvest festival or something of that nature. It’s not the feel of “quaintness”, it’s the feel of uncorrupted musical performance; there’s something intimate and comfortable about the album, that is represented by a cover photo that isn’t carefully arranged (in feeling), and is very “to the point”–it’s like the collected recordings of a group of musicians not out to be recorded musicians. “Field recordings” of stunning quality, but with a few odd touches of clearly studio-required effect.
Now, The Band are masters of the introduction to songs. “Chest Fever” has one of the most amazing organ parts I’ve ever heard, like Garth Hudson is head of his own church, lost in a fever of–but, I digress. “Chest Fever” isn’t on this album, it’s on Music from Big Pink. Now, “Up on Cripple Creek” is on here, and that intro from Levon’s dry and funky drum and Rick’s ridiculously dirty, funky bassline that is perfectly accented by the upward turns of Robertson’s guitar–fantastic stuff. I always forget that, as it is in keeping with the rest of the song, but it lacks the organ and wah-wah’d clavinette (!) of Hudson, Levon’s vocals and the more appropriately upbeat bass of Danko that defines a chorus that rides its chorus happily. It ends with a great lead from Robbie, too, but has never transcended itself successfully enough for my tastes to call it a “favourite”–just a damn good song, and one I can’t blame anyone else for marking a favourite.
Side One is closed out with “Whispering Pines”, which is probably the best song for a side-closer on the album. It has the falsetto-oriented, wavering vocals of Manuel, as well as a whole slew of keys under it–an electric piano from producer John Simon, organ from Hudson, and piano from Manuel himself. It’s one of the more relaxed songs on the album (thus its quality as side-closer). As is often the case, Manuel’s vocal is vaguely ethereal, the wispiest voice of the group.
Side Two opens us off with the most emphatic guitar riff of the album in “Jemima Surrender” (which I have to admit I can’t help but associate with syrup automatically). The riff seems to try to repeat and emphasize it’s point, as if it is restarting as it goes, being played between every few lines of the verse, but it’s let free to give Robertson room to breathe, instrumentally and throw in some great moments. The song shifts briefly for a bridge that sounds just great, led back into the rest of the song by that riff–only now accented by horns. 
And then, unexpectedly, we hit my favourite swath of the album, starting with “Rockin’ Chair”. Levon moves to mandolin, Hudson to accordion, and the song has the flittering, hanging feeling of much music associated with those instruments, which all fades to an isolated set of deliberately notes picked out by Robertson (with just a little tip of the hat from what I think is Hudson’s accordion). John Simon plays tuba under the whole thing, but it’s all about–for me, at least–the chorus: “Oh, to be home again/Down in ole Virginny/With my very best friend/They call him Ragtime Willie”. While the verses are led by Manuel, the chorus is sung by him, Danko and Levon in unison, with a faltering rhythm that gradually moves to a smooth one that holds and seems to drift off into the air. For reasons I honestly can’t quite fathom, I associate the song with a Warren Zevon favourite–“Play It All Night Long”, even if Zevon is, as ever, darker (by a long stride) and speaking of Alabama, not Virginia. Don’t ask me–something just clicks.
“Look Out Cleveland” has another one of those fantastic moments: it begins with a driving piano intro and a guitar riff that just strikes again and again (like some early rock tracks), before Levon comes in riding his cymbal and a sliding bassline from Danko. But then it turns on a drum fill that stops suddenly on a ringing, open version of that guitar chord, Levon’s cymbal ride only gradually coming back up to volume, as his voice calls out, “Look out Cleveland, the storm is coming through/And it’s runnin’ right up on you”, the ringing guitar chord dropping as it strikes on each beat and is let ring. The verses then turn to a more familiar feel of a band let loose, before that chord comes back again, ringing out and letting that chorus seem to slide upward on a gradually increasing curve toward an apex that is actually a plateau. I really cannot say enough about that chorus–just perfectly done.
I often forget “Jawbone”, as it opens on flittering piano that turns into weird, rising unison vocals from Levon and Manuel and turns to a rather steady, piano driven verse. But the music drops and Manuel gets out “I’m a–” alone before the instruments come back to emphasize the next word: “thief,” and follow him for the rest of the line: “and I dig it”, when the bass and keys seem to get stuck and repeat themselves, the rhythm somehow just perfectly emphatic, and then follow him for the rest of the chorus: “I’m up on a beef, I’m gonna rig it/I’m a thief and I dig it”. That chorus, again, is just something. It tightens my chest, like a welling of pride–a moment that I just love, like a high to be chased, without the risks that a lot of highs can bring. It’s held for just the right amount of time and couched in a solid but otherwise unspectacular song. And, good lord, Manuel, the way he sings those lines–like he poured his whole damn soul into them. And then the chorus drops us at the feet of one of the best solos from Robertson on the entire album, one of the few moments he is given the auditory spotlight, before he blends back in for his tasteful tweaks and licks within the song.
“Unfaithful Servant” is another good side closer, relaxed, with paired saxes from Hudson and Manuel–but the only time Hudson plays a soprano, allowed to run with Manuel’s baritone. And damn if that isn’t the best solo from Robertson on the whole album: high, rapid notes that turn slow and sweet and bend at just the right places, eventually just becoming an exquisite set of notes.
But, of course, “Unfaithful Servant” doesn’t close the album. For a moment, it’s a bit strange: we’ve got this uptempo guitar/key riff, but the first bass hit introduces the hushed–but not whispered–voices of Manuel and Helm, and the hushed, half-muted bass and guitar behind them, Levon eventually pushing a splash of cymbal louder and louder, which reminds us how muted everything is, before it lets him drop an actual beat, which gets us right into the funky, guitar-driven song itself. Hudson’s organ seems to take over, but it all hushes again for that chorus: King Harvest has surely come. And somehow that chorus, to me, is like the Band saying, “Okay, we were trying to end there, but we just had to get one more on here. We just had to play more, we couldn’t help ourselves.”
And that’s the feel overall: it’s a group of musicians, not fighting for a group spotlight, or even individual spotlights musically. It’s a group of skilled players gathered and playing loosely but in a pre-determined fashion. I was inclined, originally, to wag my finger at everyone for dumping an album like this on me–especially when Stage Fright is my favourite Band album (largely attributable to the title track, and a closer that reminds me of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” in some ways). That’s really, I guess, the point of doing those polls: while on some level I want to tell people about things they don’t know about, it’s nice to have myself pushed in a direction I might not have gone in. It makes me listen and pay attention and describe something I wasn’t originally going to. And I get to learn something to–and that’s always fun.
  • Next Up: Baroness – Yellow & Green
¹Left to Right: Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson