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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.