The Basement Vapes, Volume Five: From Beatle To Bowie, Bad Boy To Bad Girl—Won’t You Try Some, Buy Some?

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers delves into the fascinating history of an overlooked gem by the other Fab Four: Ron, Phil, George and David

When the world began worshipping the Beatles in the mid-1960s, the Beatles were worshipping girl groups like Ronnie Spector and her Ronettes and their records produced by Phil Spector. With this small bit of enthusiastic fan data in mind, please consider the saga of George Harrison’s strange and enduring composition “Try Some, Buy Some.”

In many ways the song was a byproduct of Harrison’s relationship with Spector and their work on All Things Must Pass—the sprawling three-album set that was Harrison’s first effort after the Beatles disbanded. Harrison wrote “Try Some, Buy Some” during those epic sessions in 1970, but for some reason he didn’t get around to recording it. Instead, the tune was flagged for Phil’s then-wife Ronnie Spector. 

Ronnie Spector, with that streetwise, beseeching, bad-girl/baby-doll voice. Ronnie Spector, the sultry star of iconic ’60s girl group the Ronettes, once famous for songs like “Be My Baby.” Ronnie Spector, who had been in reluctant semi-retirement alongside hubby Phil, who’d withdrawn from showbiz following the commercial failure of his lavish production of Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep — Mountain High” back in 1966. Ronnie Spector.

So, it was decreed that “Try Some, Buy Some” would be recorded by the amazing Ronnie Spector as part of a proposed comeback album. Per an agreement between Phil and Harrison, the latter would write some tunes for Ronnie, the former would co-produce the recording sessions with Harrison, and the album would be released on the Beatles’ Apple Records. Harrison and John Lennon were big fans of Ronnie and the Ronettes, and both Beatles were willing to sponsor the collaboration.

Ronnie’s performance was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London and featured several musicians who’d appeared on All Things Must Pass, including Harrison, Wrecking Crew session veteran Leon Russell, Beatles-buddy bassist Klaus Voorman, drummer Jim Gordon, keyboardist Gary Wright and Badfinger guitarist Pete Ham. Things didn’t go as planned, however, and the Apple supergroup only did a few tunes before the comeback project faltered, mostly due to Phil being way too drunk/wasted/erratic to produce an entire album showcasing Ronnie’s talents.   

Ronnie Spector “Try Some, Buy Some” (1971)

Still, “Try Some, Buy Some” was completed and released as a single in April 1971 with b-side “Tandoori Chicken.” Besides all the noteworthy musicians, Phil employed his trademark wall-of-sound to frame Ronnie’s unique, keening voice. His grand orchestral gestures included strings, woodwinds, brass, cymbals, mandolins and a choir—all arranged by Harrison’s right-hand maestro, John Barham. The track’s dense, mandolin-laden sound later served as an inspiration for Lennon’s own ambitious co-production with Phil on “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”

Musically, “Try Some, Buy Some” is a waltz with a descending melody that Harrison had composed on keyboard. Harrison usually wrote on guitar and actually needed help from Voorman just to play it on the piano. The song was one of Harrison’s devotional odes, extolling the virtues of his religious experience through an ironic, televangelist-like perspective. Ronnie was out of her element singing this hippie-rock confessional, and she didn’t relate to Harrison’s ponderous lyrics. In some later interviews, she claimed to have disliked the song and really didn’t understand his obtuse testimonial of values. 

With Harrison’s sacred meta-philosophies and Phil’s flamboyant sound production, the song was unlike most pop tunes of that era. For some, Ronnie was lost amidst the spiritual come-ons and sonic extravagance. So, despite the all-star effort and opulent production on a track written by a Beatle and released on Apple Records, the single was a commercial dud, much like Ike & Tina’s “River Deep — Mountain High.” 

By itself, Ronnie’s noble rendering of “Try Some, Buy Some” would’ve been a fascinating footnote in Beatles history, as well as another sad preamble to Phil’s horrible decline. But Harrison wasn’t quite finished with the song, choosing to include his own version on 1973 album Living In The Material World, his fourth solo LP, following 1968’s Wonderwall Music, 1969’s Electronic Sound and 1970’s All Things Must Pass, as well as 1971 all-star benefit album The Concert For Bangladesh, which he had spearheaded.  

When assembling his version of “Try Some, Buy Some,” Harrison made the odd decision to place his vocals atop the same instrumental tracks they’d used for Ronnie’s single—including Barham’s orchestral arrangements and Phil’s grand production. Choosing music that had been designed for Ronnie’s voice, Harrison was compelled to sing in a higher key less natural for him, straining his vocal approach. 

George Harrison “Try Some, Buy Some,” from Living In The Material World (1973)

When Living In The Material World came out, it went to the top of the charts and was Billboard’s number-one album for five weeks. But working with Phil had been untenable, and except for “Try Some, Buy Some,” Harrison produced the new LP by himself. As a result, this lone track featuring Phil’s co-production stood out from the rest of the record—feeling a bit disjointed and perhaps tacked on as an afterthought.  

The performance was a vortex of influences thrust between Harrison’s pleading vocals, Barham’s heady arrangements and Phil’s heavenly production. There was something majestic in this effort, and with Harrison singing the personal lyrics he had written, his vocals contained more authenticity. The song achieves a certain grandeur, and at the peak of its instrumental coda, celestial strings and brass swell and repeat while drummer Gordon rolls and fills in dramatic, Ringo-like fashion. 

Although Harrison had used the Spector-produced backing track, his record was still mixed differently—more atmospheric and less mandolin-heavy than Ronnie’s version. In a way, this odd confluence of sound and vision was probably Harrison’s last great Beatlesque moment, evoking the sense and sensibility of George Martin’s regal production work with the Fab Four.

Not everybody liked the song when Living In The Material World was released, but there were people who greatly admired it. British journalist Richard Williams described Phil’s contribution this way: “The record was nevertheless wholly magnificent … [Spector makes the strings and mandolins] sweep and soar in great blocks of sound, pirouetting around each other like a corps de ballet in slow motion. The closing portions of the orchestral arrangement are breathtaking, displaying a geometrical logic which makes use of suspended rhythms drawn out to screaming point.” 

Nevertheless, “Try Some, Buy Some” was neglected within Harrison’s catalog of hits and favorites. As far as we can tell, there were no cover versions of the tune for three decades until David Bowie recorded it for 2003’s Reality. Made two years after Harrison’s passing, Bowie’s version wasn’t created as homage to the recently deceased Beatle. Rather, it was simply because Bowie—like the Beatles—was a huge Ronnie Spector fan and also loved the old Apple single. Bowie had long favored the tune and originally planned to include it as part of the unrealized follow-up to his 1973 collection of covers, Pin-Ups.

David Bowie “Try Some, Buy Some,” from Reality (2003)

Bowie’s quavering vocal style splits the difference between Ronnie’s siren wail and Harrison’s straining plea, and while the instrumentation is pared down considerably, the arrangement is still loyal to both original versions. Discussing the song that year, Bowie said, “For me it was a Ronnie Spector song. It never really occurred to me that I was actually covering a George Harrison song … It’s rather fitting and quite lovely that it is an unwitting tribute to George.”

It’s interesting to note that “Try Some, Buy Some” would be the last cover tune that Bowie would ever put out on record. Otherwise, appreciation for this song has been slow going, but Ronnie finally did come around. In 1999, she claimed to love the tune and said that the single “was done to make me happy, and it did. It might not have been made for the right reasons, but it’s a good record.” Thankfully, Ronnie’s version of “Try Some, Buy Some” became available again on 2010’s Come And Get It: The Best Of Apple Records

Some of Ronnie’s ambivalence toward the song was probably because it just wasn’t a hit record. Perhaps that same fact impelled Harrison to take another crack at it on his own album. For Bowie, a music fan with highly eclectic tastes, the song’s lack of commercial success clearly mattered very little. 

In any case, we think we’ve got it figured out. Thanks to an inspired appropriation, somebody realized that since the music was the same, you could just combine Ronnie and Harrison’s versions of “Try Some, Buy Some” to create a perfectly smashing duet that never happened. With the two trading verses, singing the chorus together and blurring the line between love and spiritual devotion, the dynamic encounter creates a new whole, one far greater than its composite parts.

George Harrison & Ronnie Spector “Try Some, Buy Some” 

This was the solution that was staring them right in the face back in 1971. If Phil had just gotten Ronnie and Harrison to perform this divine tune together at the time, the collaboration between one Beatle and two Spectors would’ve garnered plenty of attention. It might’ve made great television, maybe even succeeding in the hallowed pop marketplace that they all seemed to value so much. Well, that’s our pitch anyway.

Won’t you try some, buy some?

The Basement Vapes, Volume Four: The Unbearable Whiteness Of Being Southern

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers has music, race and regional culture on his mind, and here he tries to reconcile this Southern discomfort

It was a simple discussion regarding a couple of songs that shared the same riff and were related from a perspective of content. My buddy Ben started it off with an essay extolling the virtues of Warren Zevon’s cynical anthem/takedown of Southern life and identity, “Play It All Night Long.” We certainly agreed that the rocking tune was artfully written and particularly bold. How could we not? In this 1980 song, Zevon’s protagonist inhabited the stereotypical persona of white Southern underclass in harsh, mocking terms not heard since Randy’s Newman’s Good Old Boys from six years prior.

But Ben is originally from Maine and I’ve always lived in Chicago, so thank goodness our friend John, who was born and raised in Texas, gave us some regional cover, agreeing and amplifying our critical appreciation of Zevon’s tightrope walk between empathy and disdain for Southern culture on the skids. Tracing a dead-end existence filled with incest, bovine disease, PTSD, despair and intoxication, the song’s refrain is further damning as it evokes the specter of Lynryd Skynryd, whose tragic plane crash had occurred just a few years earlier.

Warren Zevon “Play It All Night Long,” from Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School (1980)

Zevon (who resided in California at the time) bellowed the song’s refrain over a marching, infectious beat and David Lindley’s keening lap steel: “‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ play that dead band’s song/Turn those speakers up full blast, play it all night long.” Ouch. Why do so many roads lead to Skynyrd when discussing Southern character, and what exactly was being exhorted here? Did Zevon’s own chaotic existence give him artistic license to take aim at some hypothetical shit-kickers?

The Southern conundrum of identity endures in music, and I noticed a similar martial vibe plus commentary on a track recorded 20-odd years after Zevon’s effort on the Bottle Rockets’ self-titled debut. On the song “Wave That Flag,” Missouri-born Brian Henneman notices a four-wheel drive displaying the Confederate Stars And Bars and dutifully declares, “Wave that flag, hoss, wave it high/Do you know what it means, do you know why? Maybe being a rebel ain’t no big deal, but if somebody owned your ass, how would you feel?” Tough questions to be sure.

The Bottle Rockets “Wave That Flag,” from The Bottle Rockets (1993)

This wasn’t the mere confluence of a chord progression and Southern characters etched in a dramatic setting—the emerging theme (for me) addresses an ongoing dilemma for people coming to terms with who they are and where they come from. Realizing I had some homework to do, I grabbed my copy of Mark Kemp’s autobiographic confessional from 2004, Dixie Lullaby: A Story Of Music, Race And New Beginnings In A New South. In the book, Kemp breaks down his ambivalence, rejection and ultimate reconciliation with his North Carolina upbringing (and struggles with drugs and alcohol).

Kemp examines his Southern conundrum through a personal and musical inventory as well as interviewing musicians and others who grew up in the South around that time. His self-acceptance and insights were hard fought and well-researched, relating the questions and the clues he uncovered while mining the intersections of music, race and regional culture. Despite Kemp’s preference for the Allman Brothers Band, some answers dwelled within the inevitable Skynyrd mythology and were best understood through the storied dynamic between Skynryd’s Ronnie Van Zandt and Canadian Neil Young. With that, I can’t shift over fast enough to point out that Kemp wisely interviewed Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, who shed much light on that oft-told Skynyrd tale with his band’s epic double-disc from 2001, Southern Rock Opera.

Hood had the bona fides to comment on such things, as his father, David Hood, was bassist for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section—name-checked as “the Swampers” on Skynyrd’s 1974 hit, “Sweet Home Alabama.” The younger Hood grew up in north Alabama during the ’70s and displays more clarity than ambivalence, doing his level best to enlighten us with the stomping tune “Ronnie And Neil.” As that song details, a détente between Van Zandt and Young played out after Skynyrd’s musical rebuttal to Young’s blanket indictment of Southern racism on the songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” But it was an understanding that could only be reached after Van Zandt had written and sang, “I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”

Drive-By Truckers “Ronnie And Neil,” from Southern Rock Opera (2001)

So maybe Van Zandt wrote his way out of his own Southern conundrum with “Sweet Home Alabama,” as perhaps Henneman did with his song and Kemp with his book. Hood and the Truckers devoted the entire Southern Rock Opera to this end, and it’s an inspired meditation on growing up in the South with Skynyrd as just one major touchstone.

The track that really sums it up for me is Hood’s insightful narration “The Three Great Alabama Icons.” Recounting his own experience and understanding of Alabama history, Hood lays out a pragmatic blueprint of sports, politics and music by discussing the reputations of Bear Bryant, George Wallace and Van Zandt (who was from Florida). While dissecting the Skynryd/Young folklore once and for all, Hood acknowledges his own personal exodus and rapprochement with the South. Nodding to the popularity of winning football in Alabama and thoughtfully tracing the arc of Wallace’s career of as a politically driven segregationist, Hood preaches brilliantly for a greater understanding while pushing back at some perceived misconceptions and stereotypes. “Such is the duality of the Southern thing,” he intones.

Drive By Truckers “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” from Southern Rock Opera (2001)

So, I’m just pointing out some connective tissue between a few worthwhile artists exploring similar issues and themes of Southern identity in informed fashion—far more informed than I am. But I’m learning, too, and the discussion won’t be stopping anytime soon, even though the song remains the same.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers “Southern Accents,” from Southern Accents (1985)

Kemp also examines Southern Accents in his book, and who could resist letting Tom Petty weigh in on the subject of regional identification? Petty and the Heartbreakers were from Gainesville, Fla., you may remember, and their 1985 LP was originally intended as a concept album but didn’t quite turn out that way. Still, the dramatic title tune makes its point well enough with pathos, dignity and grace to spare. Don’t you think?

The Basement Vapes, Volume Three: “Freebird” + Sex Mob = Free Jazz?

Downtown NYC jazz ensemble Sex Mob proves this Skynyrd “Bird” can change. Lord knows MAGNET’s Mitch Myers is to blame.

With the recent passing of guitarist Ed King leaving a scant number of living members from the original Lynyrd Skynyrd gang, it’s hard not to reconsider the impressive evolution of the band’s famous anthem, “Freebird,” and its ultimate absorption into the greater lexicon of American culture.

Back in 2002, I commissioned my good friend Steven Bernstein to create an instrumental version of “Freebird” for an audio piece I was putting together for the All Things Considered program on National Public Radio. That story, which can be heard here, recounted a fictional, semi-poignant tale about the first dude to ironically shout out for the song “Freebird” at a totally unrelated musical event.

So, it was my good fortune that Bernstein enlisted his working group, Sex Mob, to create an extraordinary version of “Freebird,” which my NPR editor, the esteemed Bob Boilen, wove seamlessly into the fabric of my story, and brought it to life on the radio.

Anyhow, this instrumental version of “Freebird” deserves to take flight on its own. Besides the cultural significance of the song, the performance exists within a long-hallowed tradition of jazz artists interpreting pop standards, making it no different than Miles Davis covering “My Funny Valentine” or John Coltrane tackling “My Favorite Things.” Not only that, the Sex Mob version of “Freebird” is a textbook example of how avant-garde jazz can work. The performance may not be totally free jazz, but it sure comes close and is well worth checking out:

The group begins with a gentle incantation—a meditative coalescing of Bernstein’s slide trumpet, Briggan Krauss’ alto sax, Tony Scherr’s bass and Kenny Wolleson’s drums. A sly suggestion of the opening theme slowly emerges, there are some fluttering birdcalls, Scherr pushes things up a bit, and Bernstein finally restates the introductory theme. Then, at about 2:50, Krauss steps forward with his moving invocation of Ronnie Van Zandt’s most famous vocal line. Krauss and Bernstein joust playfully around the melody, both ragged but right and raising the intensity until they cut loose completely in homage to Skynyrd’s iconic three-guitar rave-up. They even include a peak-moment rhythmic stop/start/stop/start—taken (abstractly) from the original version. After the cumulative freak-out, the tune’s initial theme is revived and then gradually withdrawn, winding its way back into our collective unconscious—a one-time-only spontaneous expression of a great American standard, all preserved digitally for your consideration.

Sex Mob? They’re free as a bird now. How ‘bout you?

The Basement Vapes, Volume Two: “Witchi Tai To” (A Song For All Seasons)

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers packs his peyote and takes a trip through the history of “Witchi Tai To,” a minor-hit jazz-fusion song written by a little-known Native American sax player that remains relevant half a century later thanks to some almost-famous friends

It’s 1969, OK? And there’s something in the air. Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper had been part of the first ever jazz-rock fusion group, the Free Spirits, but the band broke up after guitarist Larry Coryell and drummer Bob Moses split to play with vibraphonist Gary Burton. Pepper and the other members morphed into an eclectic rock group called Everything Is Everything and released an album titled Everything Is Everything (Featuring Chris Hills). Despite Hills’ top billing, the album’s lasting contribution turned out to be the unique Pepper tune, “Witchi Tai To,” a hypnotic chant and haunting melody based on a tribal peyote ritual he had learned from his grandfather.

Pepper was of Kaw and Creek descent, and his novel song arrangement tapped into an older, divine sense of the spiritual self in relation to the physical world, which appealed to the burgeoning hippie culture of the late ’60s. This was the same era books like Carlos Castanada’s The Teachings Of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way Of Knowledge were becoming popular, and Castanada’s mythic encounters with the great and powerful mescalito gave peyote use an irrevocable modern mystique. Like, what’s cooler and more authentic than a sacred drug song?

For one brief moment, “Witchi Tai To” was a late-night underground FM-radio staple, turning the collective heads of the love generation including wayward rock musicians, L.A. studio rats, young jazzmen and moccasin-wearing folksingers, too. While Pepper’s tune ultimately became an improvisational anthem for jazz-world musicians of a certain age, it also caught the ears of semi-enlightened rockers partial to the grounded religious traditions of the American Indian. Since that era, “Witchi Tai To” (it’s also been released as “Witchi-Tai-To,” “Witchitai-To” and “Witchitaito”) has taken on a life of its own, even outliving Pepper, who rerecorded his classic composition on two more albums before dying at the age of 50 in 1992.

So, here are some vintage examples of the spirit song’s curious trajectory—it’s been recorded dozens of times, performed live even more, and there are plenty of inspiring versions still waiting to be uncovered.

And remember …

Witchi tai to, gimee rah/Hoe rah neeko, ho rah neeko/Hey ney, hey ney, no way/Witchi tai to, gimee rah/Hoe rah neeko, ho rah neeko/Hey ney, hey ney, no way/Water Spirit feelin’ springin’ round my head/Makes me feel glad that I’m not dead/Witchi tai to, gimee rah/Hoe rah neeko, ho rah neeko/Hey ney, hey ney, no way/Witchi tai to, gimee rah/Hoe rah neeko, ho rah neeko/Hey ney, hey ney, no way

Everything Is Everything, 1969
The original. One-hit wonder Everything Is Everything released its cosmic single on the Vanguard Apostolic imprint to a surprisingly positive response. With composer Pepper singing lead, the band laid down a soft, pulsing rock rhythm that gently opens up into a soaring melodic refrain. Chanting the simple verse over and over into infinity with ornamental flute, saxophone and bells, Pepper leads Hills, guitarist Chip Baker, organist Lee Reinoehl and drummers John Waller and Jim Zitro up to the next level of consciousness in just less than three minutes. The track was later used quite dramatically in the movie Sleepers. In any case, let the games begin.

Topo D. Bil, 1969
This stately version was the first single issued on the famous Charisma label in the U.K. It’s performed by “Legs” Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Band; label founder Tony Stratton-Smith claimed “Legs” wanted to record either this song or “Springtime For Hitler.” Luckily, Pepper’s prayerful tune won out over the Mel Brooks ditty. They used the pseudonym Topo D. Bil because the Bonzos were still under contract with United Artists. Supposedly, the track features Bonzos Roger Ruskin Spear and Dennis Cowan as well as loons like Keith Moon and even members of Yes. Whether it’s an odd parody or a sincere homage, this recording is undeniably anthemic and totally engaging. Kudus to Ed Ward for reviewing the single in Rolling Stone at the time, and dig the horns!

Harpers Bizarre, 1969
Future Warner Bros. staff producer Ted Templeman (Vans Morrison and Halen, Doobie Brothers) was a member of this accomplished sunshine-pop ensemble. The song was chosen for the album Harpers Bizarre 4, so somebody in there had to be hip. Signed to the W.B. and produced by Lenny Waronker (Randy Newman, Ry Cooder), the group already had some success with Paul Simon’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” and also performed the music in Paul Mazursky’s romantic dope comedy I Love You Alice B. Toklas, starring Peter Sellers. With slide guitar courtesy of Cooder, smooth group harmonies, swelling strings and bells buzzing gently throughout, this was almost certainly Waronker’s soft-psychedelic, subliminal triumph and likely designed specifically for headphone use. Try it—you can literally feel the water spirit spinning ’round your brain.

Brewer & Shipley, 1969
Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley were idealistic Midwesterners who lived in L.A. briefly to play music. Socially conscious folk/rock performers, the duo managed to make two solid records before finally abandoning the Hollywood wasteland. In 1969, sophomore album Weeds was released on the Kama Sutra label, produced by the formidable Nick Gravenites (Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield Blues Band) and featuring a smart lineup of quality musicians. True hippies, Brewer & Shipley sincerely related to the resurgent Native American scene, so playing this song just made sense to them. Simplifying the tune by using a riff similar to Lou Reed’s iconic “Sweet Jane,” they employ the tabla, multiple guitars, rich harmonies and a light rhythm section—transforming the chant into a mainstream sing-along without sacrificing Pepper’s uplifting intent. Of course, B&S became known for yet another dope anthem: “One Toke Over The Line.” Go figure.

Jim Pepper, 1971
Recorded in NYC in 1971, Pepper reclaimed his signature tune for his solo debut, Pepper’s Pow Wow. Only now he was playing with progressive peers and had received encouragement to explore his Native American roots from prescient jazz rebels like Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman. On the Embryo label with its inimitable die-cut cover, the album included notable jazz-rock drummer Billy Cobham, bassist Chuck Rainey and Pepper’s old buddy, guitarist Coryell. The opening chant is more overtly traditional this time, and the song stretches out over seven minutes, displaying its instrumental strength and emotional power. Pepper himself is in spiritual post-Coltrane blowing mode, while Coryell was wrestling with his own Jimi Hendrix fixation. Pepper’s sonic universe had clearly blossomed into an all-encompassing jazz/rock/world-music sound of great resonance, as evidenced by this performance.

Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson Quartet, 1973
By 1973, “Witchi Tai To” had evolved into a durable jazz standard where likeminded musicians might take a stab at the structure and content of Pepper’s mystic composition and come up with something evocative, beautiful and a little bit different. Hence the title track on this ECM album by the Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson Quartet. Half Swedish (pianist Stenson and bassist Palle Danielsson) and half Norwegian (saxophonist Garbarek and drummer Jon Christensen), the Scandinavian foursome embraced Pepper’s tune with knowing intuition. Garbarek played in a style similar to Pepper, and soon after this recording, American piano legend Keith Jarrett drafted Garbarek, Danielsson and Christensen for his own “European Quartet” and made five albums of comparable material. The Witchi Tai To LP remains a high-water mark in the ECM catalog, and the song is an obvious highlight.

Oregon, 1974 and 1978
Springing fully formed from the confines of the Paul Winter Consort, this quartet played a unique brand of improvisational jazz suffused with world music, which somehow made Oregon the perfect group to cover Pepper’s illuminative tune. Ralph Towner and the other Oregon guys liked “Witchi Tai To” so much that they recorded it at least three different times, and it became a staple for both Towner and Oregon in concert. The group’s 1974 performance from the Winter Light LP is a brief, reflective meditation featuring Towner on piano and the late Collin Walcott strumming the dulcimer. Four years later, the band tried it again on Out Of The Woods. This time, Oregon let things unwind, interacting for eight-and-a-half minutes with Walcott on sitar, Towner on acoustic guitar and piano, Paul McCandless on oboe and Glen Moore playing stand-up bass. Both versions are lovely.

Jim Pepper, 1983
One more time! Pepper reprises his most famous song alongside Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, drummer Hamid Drake, pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Lester McFarland and guitarist John Scofield. Pepper sounds inspired, and the other musicians rise to the occasion for this version, off Comin’ And Goin’. Recorded impeccably for the classy little Antilles label, this album was a culmination of Pepper’s earthly experience at that time. Perhaps not so many surprises here but still a refinement, passionately played and spiritually uplifting. What more can we say but, “Sing along if you know the words.”

Michael Stanley, 2006

Looks like we’re not only ones to notice Brewer & Shipley’s version of “Witchi Tai To” sounds a lot like the riff from “Sweet Jane.” Cleveland rock journeyman Michael Stanley combined the two tracks on 2006’s The Farrago Sessions with entertaining results. Both songs were anthems, written in the same era, and Stanley manages to make them sound as if they’ve been sung together forever. Just because, you know, those were different times.

The Basement Vapes, Volume One: A Loose Salute To The Early Musical Impact Of The Band

Photo © By Elliott Landy

As music lovers around the world celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Band’s landmark Music From Big Pink debut, MAGNET’s Mitch Myers digs a little deeper to introduce you to some lesser-known, sonically similar, mostly non-American artists from that time period

When the Band released its first two albums in 1968 and 1969, respectively, the impact was seismic. Four-fifths Canadian but living in upstate New York (i.e. Woodstock), the group emerged as an attractive aesthetic alternative when popular music had gotten much louder and more complex. A no-frills antidote to harder rock and psychedelic, studio-enhanced wizardry, the Band’s collective approach expressed a rustic, informal simplicity rife with archetypal storytelling and imagery of an earlier time in the Southern and Western regions of the United States. Reigning rock royals of the era took note, as Eric Clapton left Cream to pursue a more moderate, American roots-infused style. Other artists inspired by the “getting back to the country” vibe included George Harrison, Van Morrison and, even, Elton John. Of course, any acknowledgement of the Band’s influential sound would have to include some consideration of its collaborations with Bob Dylan—and his evolution via the group’s instrumentation into that classic “thin, wild mercury sound.”

Much of the Band’s influence can be perceived simply by watching Martin Scorsese’s brilliant 1978 document, The Last Waltz, but we here at MAGNET would like to dig a little bit deeper and go a shade off center. In the early ’70s, there were plenty of lesser-known groups bitten by the Band bug that made countrified, folk-derived rock music reflecting a fascination with early Americana, even if (and especially when) those groups hailed from England. These crafty U.K. ensembles swapped up old-timey combinations of keyboards, accordions, guitars, mandolins, drums and harmonicas, backing emotive singers telling soulful tales of the Old West as well as narrating new dilemmas, hard times, spiritual struggles and occasional triumphs.

So, for your consideration, here’s a conceptual playlist of quality Band-like tracks by often-forgotten, mostly British acts from the early ’70s. We hope you’ll be entertained by the musical connections as we see them. You’re encouraged to make your own.

Don Nix
“My Train Done Come And Gone,” from Living By The Days (1971)

For the sole American performance on our playlist, check this out. Hey, isn’t it just “The Weight”? No, Memphis-born Don Nix nicked that inimitable melody from an old Canadian folk tune that naturally demands comparison with Robbie Robertson’s finest hour. Nix’s penchant for Civil War garb notwithstanding, the man’s innate grasp of Southern-gospel/American-roots music mirrors the Band’s unified sound in a good way. Over the years, Nix fit right in with the company of Delaney & Bonnie, Leon Russell, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh and the like. Get the picture?

Heads, Hands & Feet
“Jack Daniels,” from Tracks (1972)
“Just Another Ambush,” from Old Soldiers Never Die (1973)
This versatile British country-rock band made four albums before throwing in the towel. Boasting three singers and the finger-busting guitar playing of Albert Lee, these guys flirted with commercial success but never could really figure out their ultimate sound. Be that as it may, with dusty allusions to a vintage-American mythology and Lee’s angular Robertson-inspired six-string playing, these two tracks are about as Band-like as they got back in the old U.K.

Brinsley Schwarz
“Range War” and “Silver Pistol,” from Silver Pistol (1972)
So much talent in one group that it just couldn’t last. Critics called this outstanding band “pub-rock” before it morphed into the Rumour and backed up Graham Parker. To be sure, the group had a warm, keyboard-based sound with scruffy songwriters Nick Lowe and Ian Gomm along with the sharp economical guitar style of Mr. Schwarz himself. The organ-driven “Range War” features Gomm singing lead, while “Silver Pistol” is Lowe’s sterling showcase. Clearly tracing the early musical and vocal blueprints laid out by the Band, the group’s third album was practically homage.

Juicy Lucy
“Prospector Dan” and “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live,” from Pieces (1972)

Yet still more vintage Old West preoccupations by journeymen musicians from the U.K.. Juicy Lucy was originally a bustling British blues-rock ensemble, but these guys had run out of gas by the time they patched together this album. Thank goodness for singer Paul Williams (no, not him) and his fondness of musical American folklore. His original “Prospector Dan” fits right in the Band’s oeuvre, while the cover of “How Can A Poor Man Stand These Times And Live” hopscotches right over Dylan to draw directly from Woody Guthrie. Sounds authentic.

Fleetwood Mac
“The Derelict,” from Penguin (1973)

Atypical for Fleetwood Mac—all eras. Post-Peter Green and pre-Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac’s Penguin featured a few stray vocal performances by former Savoy Brown singer Dave Walker. Known better for his own blues-rock credentials, Walker brings this heartfelt, down-home track to the table even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the album. It’s a thoroughly countrified performance complete with plunking banjo and wheezing harmonica, and it could’ve been found on a Band album from an alternate universe all those years ago.

Mott The Hoople
“The Original Mixed-Up Kid” and “Angel Of Eighth Avenue,” from Wildlife (1971)

After two hard-edged albums produced by genius/madman Guy Stevens, Ian Hunter and Mott The Hoople tried to make a much softer record and produced their third LP all on their own. Thanks to guitarist Mick Ralphs’ tasty country-rock leanings, Hunter’s Dylan-esque vocal manner and a distinctive two-keyboard attack, this is the Hoople at its most reflective, playing quasi-American roots music. Subdued and uneven—but not without its charms—Wildlife included these two Hunter-penned, Band-like classics. Mott would never sound so pastoral again.

Al Jones
“It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry,” from The Fairport Companion: Loose Chippings From The Fairport Convention Family Tree (1969)

Inspired English dudes getting together to bash out a Dylan tune and the track ends up sounding like it could be taken right off of The Basement Tapes? Al Jones was an unknown English singer tangentially associated with Fairport Convention, and his Dylan performance featuring bassist Ashley Hutchings has somehow survived mightily. Recorded in 1969 and first presented on obscure compilation 49 Greek Street, the durable track has been subsequently archived on several other British music anthologies. Not much else to say except watch out for A Tree With Roots: Fairport Convention & Friends And The Songs Of Bob Dylan, out next week.

Ronnie Lane
“Give Me A Penny,” from Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance (1974)

After leaving the Faces, bassist/singer Ronnie Lane began a wandering quest to find his true musical self. More like spiritual cousins than direct musical heirs, Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance embraced a shifting, informal rapport similar to the musical makeup of the Band. With fiddles, mandolins and accordions framing Lane’s po’-boy vocal approach, backing band Slim Chance gave Lane just the loose-limbed, boozy support required to flow from original songs to old show tunes and drinking-hall favorites. The Lane-penned “Give Me A Penny” is one lovely example.

“The Ballad Of Ned Kelly,” from Fotheringay (1970)

With echoes of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” floating in this song’s refrain, the U.K. band played its paean to the Australian Jesse James much like the true veterans of Woodstock. On this British folk/rock curveball, renowned singer Sandy Denny takes a back seat to her (Australian) husband, vocalist/guitarist Trevor Lucas. The group’s collective Band-like sound clearly benefits from extra-sharp guitar work by Jerry Donahue and the ace rhythm section of bassist Pat Donaldson and drummer Gerry Conway. Implicitly similar to Fairport Convention’s noted handling of Dylan material.

Elton John
“Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun,” from Tumbleweed Connection (1970)

Finally, there’s this memorable recording from young Elton John. He cited Music From Big Pink as a big influence on Tumbleweed Connection, and you can tell—from the sepia-toned album cover to brawny, rustic-themed tunes like “Country Comfort” and “Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun.” If Elton’s over-the-top vocal power still throws you off, just imagine “Well-Known Gun” being sung by Levon Helm. Now, is the tune more like “Up On Cripple Creek” or “Rag Mamma Rag”? The short answer will always be yes.

The Mekons
“It Makes No Difference,” from F.U.N ’90 EP (1990)

Full circle when the U.K.-formed Mekons played an earnest, compelling version of “It Makes No Difference,” a shrewdly chosen Robbie Robertson tune from the Band’s 1975 album, Northern Lights—Southern Cross. Guitarist/singer Tom Greenhalgh leads the way here for the Mekons, and his vulnerable vocal performance is as naked and direct as Rick Danko’s original effort. Simple, leisurely paced and sounding only slightly modern, the Mekons dutifully approached the music of the Band with utmost respect back in 1990.