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Music / The Band

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The Band in 1971. From left to right: Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, and Rick Danko.

"There hasn’t been any good American rock since, alas, The Band disbanded."
Harold Bloom, Paris Review interview, 1991

The Band were a highly influential Canadian-American rock group specializing in blues, roots rock, and Americana music.

The original lineup consisted of:

  • Rick Danko (electric bass guitar, fiddle, trombone, lead and backing vocals)
  • Levon Helm (drums, assorted percussion, acoustic guitar, mandolin, lead and backing vocals)
  • Garth Hudson (organ, piano, clavinet, synthesizers, soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, slide trumpet, accordion)
  • Richard Manuel (piano, organ, drums, lead and backing vocals)
  • Robbie Robertson (electric and acoustic guitars)

Danko, Helm and Manuel all sang lead vocal, sometimes harmonizing and sometimes separately. The Band members were also (apart from Robertson, who mainly concentrated on guitar) accomplished multi-instrumentalists, trading roles as needed from song to song. Manuel and Robertson shared songwriting duties in the early years, but as time went on Robertson took over as principal songwriter (a subject of controversy—see below).

The Band first came together as "The Hawks", the backup band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins was born in Arkansas but found success touring Canada, and he hired the members of The Hawks one at a time between 1958 and 1963. Hawkins brought Helm, a fellow Arkansan, north to Canada to tour with him; the others were all from Ontario, being local recruits by Hawkins on his Canadian tour.

The Hawks left Hawkins in 1963 and struck out on their own, touring Canada as Levon and The Hawks and other names. Their big break came when Bob Dylan hired them to be his touring band for a series of concerts in 1965 and 1966. This was Dylan's first tour since transitioning from folk music to electric rock. Fans of Dylan's folk music reacted so badly to the change that Levon Helm, disturbed by the negative reception, quit the group and went home.

After touring on their own for a while, The Hawks—minus Helm—rejoined Dylan at his rural retreat in Woodstock, New York in the fall of 1967. Danko, Manuel and Hudson rented a pink-colored house (subsequently nicknamed "Big Pink") in nearby Saugerties, and together with Robertson and Dylan began making a series of demo recordings in its basement. A number of the songs from these informal sessions circulated for years on very popular bootlegs before finally being officially released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes. Soon the group started recording their own songs as well. It was at Woodstock that they settled on the name "The Band". They had stopped being known as The Hawks and the record company nixed the idea of the "The Crackers" (as in "white guys"), and after years of playing as "the band" for singers such as Hawkins and Dylan, they went with that as their official name.

In 1968, with Helm back in the fold, they went into the studio and recorded their debut album, Music from Big Pink. It did not sell particularly well—The Band were never a chart-topping act—but the group's roots rock / Americana sound proved highly influential. "The Weight", a Robbie Robertson song on the album, was included in the soundtrack for Easy Rider and became one of the group's most famous songs; it is now a roots rock/Americana/country-folk standard. In 1969 they played at the famous Woodstock music festival and accompanied Dylan at the Isle of Wight Festival in the UK. That same year their followup album, titled The Band, cracked the top ten and raised The Band's profile. "Up on Cripple Creek" became a minor hit single, while "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" would become a hit cover song for Joan Baez a few years later and remains another of The Band's best known songs.

Stage Fright appeared in 1970 and also reached the top ten. It was during this time that Robbie Robertson began to take over as principal songwriter; Music from Big Pink had featured equal songwriting contributions from Manuel and Robertson as well as other songs written by Danko and Dylan, and Manuel and Helm had contributed songs for The Band, but Manuel eventually dried up as a source of original music as he fell into alcoholism and Danko, Hudson, and Helm never had been prolific writers, so the composing duties consequently devolved to Robertson. Later there would be a great deal of dissension over this. Helm engaged in a long and bitter feud with Robertson in which he charged that Robertson had stolen songwriting credits from him and other members of The Band. Robertson denied taking any credits he wasn't due, and in 2008 his daughter wrote a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times noting that Helm still wasn't writing his own material. The feud continued until Helm's death in 2012.

The Band released Cahoots in 1971; this record received less favorable reviews than their previous efforts. The Band then went four years without recording an original album as acrimony within the group increased. Instead they released the concert album Rock of Ages in 1972 to critical acclaim and commercial success. Next came a cover album, Moondog Matinee, in 1973. That same year The Band played the "Summer Jam at Watkins Glen" music festival along with The Allman Brothers Band and The Grateful Dead in front of over 600,000 fans. They also reunited with Bob Dylan, providing the instrumental backing on his Planet Waves album and then joining him for another tour, which yielded the concert album Before the Flood in 1974. Next came Northern Lights - Southern Cross in 1975. It was The Band's first album of original material in four years, and the only one for which Robertson was the sole composer. It drew critical praise but did not sell well.

In 1976 Robertson, who had grown tired of touring, convinced the rest of The Band to retire from live performances. The idea grew into a farewell concert in which The Band would play along with other artists that they admired and had influenced them. That idea further developed into a feature film of the concert, to be made by hot young Hollywood director Martin Scorsese. The concert, called The Last Waltz and held in San Francisco on Thanksgiving night 1976, featured the Band playing their own music as well as playing alongside guests that included Dylan, Hawkins, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and Van Morrison among others. The Last Waltz album was released in 1978 along with Scorsese's film of the same name. It has been regarded ever since as one of the best concert films ever made. Levon Helm was embittered by the experience, however, charging that Robertson pushed the whole project in an effort to launch himself into a movie career, and that Robertson manipulated his good friend Scorsese into presenting Robertson as the frontman of the band. (The film does indeed include quite a bit more commentary, and in-concert camera time, from Robertson than from any of the other Band members.)

It seemed that the plan was then for The Band to keep making records as a studio-only outfit, a la The Beatles in the late '60s. (In 1977 they released Islands, a collection of B-sides and leftovers meant to get them out of a record contract.) However, for various reasons—including the aforementioned intra-band fallout over The Last Waltz—this didn't happen, and after 1978 the original lineup never played together again. Robertson never returned to the group, instead releasing a few solo albums (his song "Broken Arrow" became a big hit for Rod Stewart) but spending most of the rest of his career as a film soundtrack composer, including a long professional relationship with Martin Scorsese as music composer and arranger for Scorsese's films.

The Band re-formed in 1983 with Jim Weider on guitar in place of Robertson. However, seven years out of the public eye (and possibly Robertson's absence) led to the group playing considerably smaller venues than they had in their glory days. In March of 1986 Richard Manuel hanged himself in his hotel room after The Band played a show at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge in Winter Park, Florida. He had relapsed into severe alcoholism as well as cocaine use following a period of sobriety in the early 1980s. The Band continued to play with other musicians replacing Manuel. In 1990 they played at a concert in Berlin along with other acts to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1994 Danko and Hudson performed with Robbie Robertson when The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Helm, still feuding with Robertson, did not attend.

The Band (now comprised of Danko, Helm, Hudson and Weider along with drummer Randy Ciarlante and keyboardist Richard Bell) released three new albums in the 1990s, their first original material in twenty years. However, The Band finally ended for good when Rick Danko died of a heart attack in 1999. Hudson and Helm continued to record and perform. Helm won a battle with throat cancer that almost cost him his voice, then triumphantly returned from illness with the Grammy-winning albums Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, before a recurrence of the cancer led to his death in April of 2012.


  • Music from Big Pink (1968)
  • The Band (1969)
  • Stage Fright (1970)
  • Cahoots (1971)
  • Rock of Ages (1972) (live album)
  • Moondog Matinee (1973)
  • Planet Waves (1973) (with Bob Dylan)
  • Before the Flood (1974) (live album with Bob Dylan)
  • The Basement Tapes (1975) (with Bob Dylan)
  • Northern Lights - Southern Cross (1975)
  • Islands (1977)
  • The Last Waltz (1978) (live/soundtrack album with some studio material)
  • Jericho (1993)
  • High on the Hog (1996)
  • Jublilation (1998)

Tropes from Big Pink:

  • Album Title Drop: "Smoke Signal"
    When they're torn out by the roots
    Young brothers join in cahoots
  • Alliterative Title: Moondog Matinee
  • All Love Is Unrequited: "It Makes No Difference"
    There's no love as true as the love that dies untold
  • Ancient Astronauts: "The Saga of Pepote Rouge" talks about "A golden spaceship with the mother of the Earth carved in stone", apparently an extraterrestrial who gave birth to the human race. It's actually a Shout-Out to Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods, which theorizes that something like this happened at the ancient Tiwanaku site in Bolivia.
  • Artistic License – History: "Acadian Driftwood" and the Seven Years' War. The expulsion of the Acadians did not happen when "the war was over" as a result of "what went down on the Plains of Abraham" (that is, the decisive 1759 Battle of Quebec). The deportations happened at the start of the war, because the British, who had taken over Acadia after winning the last war, thought the Francophone colonists were disloyal (some of them were, but the British deported everyone). Of course, "what went down on the Plains of Abraham" was too cool a lyric to not use.
  • Artistic Stimulation: Helm, Danko and Manuel all had addiction issues over the years, with drugs being contributing factors in Danko's and Manuel's deaths. This all inspired Robertson to write a song about heroin addiction ("Forbidden Fruit"). In his autobiography, Robertson makes it clear that he wasn't a novice at drug use either (mainly weed).
  • The Band Minus the Face: Public reaction after The Band reformed.
  • Canada, Eh?: All of the members came from Canada, specifically southern Ontario, except for Arkansas native Levon Helm. Occasionally you can hear it in the singing (like the way Danko pronounces "sorry" in "The Unfaithful Servant").
  • Christmas Songs: "Christmas Must Be Tonight"
  • Clear My Name: "I Shall Be Released"
  • Coat Full of Contraband: "Life Is a Carnival"
  • Concert Film
    • The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's film of their Thanksgiving 1976 concert, is one of the most famous concert films ever made.
    • See also 2003 film Festival Express, a documentary about an all-star cross-country concert tour of Canada. The Band was one of the acts and they perform three songs in the film.
  • Cover Album: Moondog Matinee, Jericho
  • Deal with the Devil / Rock Me, Asmodeus!: "Daniel and the Sacred Harp"
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The first two albums are accompanied with old-timey looking black and white photos of the group. Also applies to the small poster that originally came with the third album.
  • Distinct Double Album: The Basement Tapes (with Bob Dylan), Rock of Ages, Before the Flood.
  • A Dog Named "Dog": A band called The Band.
  • Downer Beginning:
    • Music from Big Pink opens with "Tears of Rage", an anguished ballad in which a father pleads to an estranged daughter to return to her family. This was a very audacious choice for 1968, when the conventional wisdom was that a rock album needed to open with a rousing uptempo number.
    • A lyrical example in "Acadian Driftwood".
      The war was over and the spirit was broken
  • The End of the Beginning: "Christmas Must Be Tonight"
    It's the end of the beginning
    Praise the newborn king
  • Epic Instrumental Opener: "The Genetic Method", the organ improvisation Garth Hudson would use in concert to segue into the Epic Riff of "Chest Fever". The original recording of "Chest Fever" began with an organ solo, and over time, Garth would draw it out longer and longer and get funkier and funkier until eventually the intro became its own separate piece.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Supposedly thanks to Executive Meddling; according to Levon Helm, they originally wanted to be The Crackers and weren't completely happy to find themselves credited as The Band on their first album.
    • They also considered not using a collective name and just crediting their individual names. "The Weight" was released that way as a single.
  • Femme Fatale: Underneath the Word Salad Lyrics the subject of "Chest Fever" sounds like one of these.
  • Forbidden Fruit: "Forbidden Fruit". Which was apparently Robbie Robertson writing about the substance abuse problems some of his fellow band-mates were struggling with.
  • French Accordion: "When I Paint My Masterpiece" features an accordion in this style, though the lyrics are mostly about Rome (but the final verse takes place in Brussels).
  • Friendly Local Chinatown: "Shoot Out in Chinatown".
    Streets were wide open
    Till the break of dawn
    'Twas Frisco in its heyday
    Imported from Hong Kong
    For about five dollars
    Or one thousand yen
    You could gamble and ramble in a brothel
    Or take it to the opium den
  • Genre Mashup: Their music frequently draws from a variety of genres including folk, blues, country, gospel and R&B.
  • Grand Finale: The Last Waltz
  • The Great Depression: "Knockin' Lost John"
  • Greatest Hits Album: Several, despite the group's lack of hits. The Band: A Musical History is a comprehensive, 5-CD collection of the original lineup's work.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Richard Manuel and Van Morrison, when they both lived in Woodstock. Their duet "4% Pantomime" on Cahoots was based on a real drunken escapade the two had in L.A.
    We went up to Griffith Park
    With a fifth of Johnny Walker Red
    And smashed it on a rock and wept
    While the old couple looked on into the dark
  • Hobos: "Hobo Jungle". It seems a hobo jungle is a real thing.
  • Indecipherable Lyrics: Most of the Word Salad Lyrics of "Chest Fever" are hard to make out without a lyric sheet.
  • Instrumentals: "The Genetic Method", "Third Man Theme", "Theme from the Last Waltz", "French Girls", "Greensleeves", "Islands" (Robertson didn't finish the lyrics in time for the recording sessions, so they just left it as an instrumental).
  • In the Style of: Richard Manuel called "In a Station" his "George Harrison song", with its yearning sound and reflective lyrics. Taking things full circle, Harrison later said that "All Things Must Pass" was his attempt at a Band-style song.
  • Intercourse with You: "Jemima Surrender", "Volcano".
  • Large Ham: Robbie Robertson, all throughout The Last Waltz.
  • Later-Installment Weirdness: Islands was basically a collection of leftovers and has lots of Out Of Character Moments for the group, like a mellow Christmas Song ("Christmas Must Be Tonight"), an Easy Listening instrumental ("Islands") and a bizarre song about Ancient Astronauts ("The Saga of Pepote Rouge").
  • Lead Drummer: Levon Helm.
  • Live Album: Rock of Ages, Before the Flood, The Last Waltz
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: The more that "Up on Cripple Creek" goes on, the more Bessie sounds like one of these.
  • Medicine Show: "W.S Walcott's Medicine Show"
  • Murder Ballad: Their cover of "Long Black Veil".
  • New Sound Album: Northern Lights—Southern Cross represented a move away from their earlier rootsy sound to a more highly-produced, almost cinematic pop style.
  • New Year Has Come: Rock of Ages was recorded, in part, at a New Year's Eve 1971 show. (Garth Hudson incorporated "Auld Lang Syne" into his performance of "The Genetic Method" right as the clock stuck midnight and 1972 began, to the delight of the audience.)
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: "The Weight" is about a favor that keeps ballooning and leading to competitions when each recipient adds new tasks to it. According to songwriter Robbie Robertson, the lyrics were inspired by what happened to saintly figures in the films of Luis Buñuel.
  • Non-Appearing Title: "Caledonia Mission", "Chest Fever", "Last of the Blacksmiths", "The Weight" (although Aretha Franklin includes a Title Drop in her version).
  • Odd Friendship: They hung out with Tiny Tim for a while in The '60s and backed him on a few songs for the countercultural film You Are What You Eat.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: The intro to "Chest Fever".
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted, but Richard Danko went by Rick to differentiate himself from Richard Manuel.
  • One-Woman Song: "Ophelia", "Evangeline"
  • Performance Anxiety: The chorus to the fittingly named "Stage Fright" provides the page quote.
  • Perpetual Poverty: "The Shape I'm In":
    I just spent 60 days in the jailhouse
    For the crime of having no dough
    Now here I am back out on the street
    For the crime of having nowhere to go
  • Posthumous Narration: "Long Black Veil"
  • Putting the Band Back Together: Minus the lead guitarist.
  • Protest Song: "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)"
  • Record Producer: The first two albums were produced by John Simon, who also played instruments on several tracks and essentially functioned as a sixth band member. The Band produced the rest themselves beginning with Stage Fright (although they were "assisted" on that album by engineer Todd Rundgren).
  • Regional Riff: The Epic Riff in "Shootout in Chinatown" is a variation on the Oriental Riff.
  • Repetitive Name: Robbie Robertson (his actual first name is Jaime).
  • Reviewer Stock Phrases: "Rustic" and "homespun" can be found in most Band reviews, especially for The Basement Tapes, Music from Big Pink, and the self-titled album.
  • Revolving Door Band: Various musicians filled the voids left by Robertson and then by Manuel.
    • How they formed. After learning that Canadians Love Ronnie Hawkins, Hawkins relocated to Toronto. The Arkansas native musicians in The Hawks (except Levon Helm) left and Hawkins recruited various configurations of Canadian musicians until the final lineup crystallized.
  • Rockumentary: The Last Waltz. The concert segments are brilliant, as are the studio performances, but the interview segments of the film suffer from too much Robertson, and Scorsese completely misses the seething tension within The Band.note  The Last Waltz seems to have inspired Rob Reiner's satirical masterpiece This is Spın̈al Tap, with Reiner's clueless Marty DiBergi being an obvious No Celebrities Were Harmed goof on Scorsese.
    • Festival Express, a 2003 documentary about the 1970 Canadian train tour of that name, features performances by The Band along with such artists as The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin.
    • Sadly averted with the Woodstock movie, from which their entire set was omitted due to the filmmakers being unable to come to terms with their manager Albert Grossman.
  • Satan: From the second verse of "The Weight": "I picked up my bag/I went lookin' for a place to hide/When I saw Carmen and the devil/walkin' side by side."
  • Self-Titled Album: The Band.
  • Shaped Like Itself: "Forbidden fruit/It's the fruit that you'd better not taste"
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"
  • Shout-Out: to Spike Jones, of all people, in "Up on Cripple Creek".
  • Sleeping with the Boss: Possibly implied in "The Unfaithful Servant".
  • Soprano and Gravel: Manuel and Helm, occasionally. "Whispering Pines" is a good example.
  • Special Guest: Bob Dylan joins the Band for four songs at the end of the expanded CD version of Rock of Ages. Van Morrison duets with Manuel on "4% Pantomime" from Cahoots. And, of course, The Last Waltz is pretty much wall-to-wall special guests.
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Robbie Robertson sings lead or co-lead vocal on "To Kingdom Come", "Ain't No More Cane", "Bessie Smith", "Knockin' Lost John", "Out of the Blue", and "The Last Waltz Refrain". An unusual example, in that Robertson wrote most of the group's material but almost never sang.
    • Inverted in concert, where according to Helm they'd often leave Robertson's microphone turned off.
  • A Storm Is Coming: "Look Out Cleveland"
  • Take That!: Helm's vituperative autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire, filled with invective directed at Robertson. Robertson's autobiography Testimony is a bit more tactful, but his portrait of Helm isn't all that positive either.
  • Textless Album Cover: Music from Big Pink
  • Title Track: Among their original albums, only "Stage Fright" and "Islands" count.
  • Vocal Tag Team: Danko, Manuel, Helm, and (occasionally) Robertson.
  • Woodstock: They were at both the 1969 and 1994 editions.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Occasionally. "We Can Talk" and "Chest Fever" are good examples.
  • You Have Failed Me: The Hawks splitting from Ronnie Hawkins happened because of a botched attempt at this by Hawkins. Rick Danko started bringing his girlfriend to shows, which violated Hawkins' stipulation that band members had to be free to mingle with audience members (particularly females) between sets. Hawkins fired Danko, but the other Hawks, who'd been pondering leaving Hawkins for a while, promptly quit when they heard the news.