Tuesday, 12 October 2010

It might have been a case of a noted singer-songwriter with newly developed reclusive habits getting together for a bit of a jam with the band who’d backed him on his recently-finished world tour but forty-something years later the fallout from the sessions is still being felt.

Reflection: After The Basement

Basement Tapes

Oh dear, I can hear them saying. Here he goes again, banging on about the Sixties.

Yes, well he is, and he does, but only because recent developments and purchases have him pondering how we got from over there to here. Actually, that's not one here, more a range of destinations to explore in a number of Reviews, Rear Views and such over the next few months.

It also fits in with the aftermath of the need to add a winery to The Wine Pages, which you wouldn't have thought was a major drama. In itself, it wasn't, but adding Bloodwood to the navigation menu would have spilled things onto a new line, and, probably some time down the track there'd be another new line up there. No, bite the bullet and redo the site.

That process took most of last week, and things on the new writing front went onto the back burner, so they need to be kick-started.

The redesigned Wine Pages also look a lot better than the old ones, so I'm in the process of redoing the sections of the site devoted to Music and Reading, but that's not something that'll be done in one hit. A gradual transfer may see those old sites phased out some time between now and the end of next year.

Which brings me back to the point of this particular rant, the beginnings of an examination of the ways we got from that halcyon era of the sixties to various other destinations scattered across the next forty years.

So what, I hear you ask, was it that prompted all this?

Well, for a start, I could point to new albums from Richard Thompson and Los Lobos, and could probably throw in Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy's Gift in there as well.

Someone on a mailing list posted a download link to five documentaries from Radio New Zealand that rekindled Hughesy's interest in what has been labelled the Canterbury Scene (in case you're wondering that's the Kentish rather than Kiwi Canterbury) so I've caught up with bands that I missed first time around.

On the reading front I've got Rob Young's Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music and a biography of Doug Sahm (Texas Tornado: The Times & Music of Doug Sahm).

All those things have their roots in the sixties, so it may be time to look back to see where we're starting from.

If you take a candid look at the charts from back then, of course, you'll note that the sixties weren't quite as magical and innovative as they're often made out to be. There's a lot of dreck there, a fair swag of schmaltz, quite a deal of schmuck and more than a dash of saccharine.

But, hidden away in quiet corners and scattered through the Top Forty there were a number of little gems and the odd major masterpiece. There are all sorts of names you could rattle off, apart from the predictable Beatles and Rolling Stones. To pick out a few at random, try The Kinks, the Small Faces, Procol Harum, the Bee Gees, the Beach Boys, Love, Spirit and the Grateful Dead.

Most significant in all that was the quantum leap from, say 1963's She Loves You to 1967s Strawberry Fields Forever. That's a huge amount of territory to cover in just four years, as is the transition from Surfin' USA to Good Vibrations and Pet Sounds.

Much of that experimentation was a case of people trying things out because they could, and in most cases they were trying these new blends of influences and elements for the first time. There were developments in recording technology that allowed them to try things that couldn't have been done before and the emergence of LPs as a format for recorded music meant that suddenly there were all sorts of things out there that weren't that easy to obtain before.

There were, of course, a number of things that killed off that era of experimentation. For a start, as the record companies figured out what was actually commercial, they weren't as keen to experiment. There was still the odd maverick big seller, of course, because people didn't always buy what they were supposed to, and had their interest piqued by things that the major labels had overlooked.

Once you'd done something once, of course, it was no longer either new or novel.

You could take a minor Dylan composition, render it into schoolboy French, record it with a Cajun accordion and have a minor hit with it, but it wasn't something that you could parlay into a long term carer.

That one was Fairport Convention's Si Tu Dois Partir, a good time rendition of Dylan's If You Gotta Go.

You could turn a well-known classical piece into a frantic guitar instrumental that required the right amount of sweat on the fingers, but when you followed it with something similar there was the risk of attracting derisive comments, some of them coming from people who'd heartily endorsed the first one.

That was guitarist Dave Edmunds' band Love Sculpture with Sabre Dance and Farandole.

And you could come up with any number of other examples of things that had been new and innovative and ended up as oh yeah, been there, done that and old hat.

But if there's one thing that changed much of the course of music as the sixties turned into the seventies it was the woodshedding sessions in upstate New York that became known as The Basement Tapes.

For the uninitiated, after Dylan crashed his motor bike under mysterious circumstances near Woodstock he disappeared from sight with his controversial electric backing band and the musicians convened in the basement if a house known as Big Pink.

There were four sets of recordings that came out of those sessions, and they had a significant influence on things that came out over the next few years.

First up, a selection of recordings from those sessions circulated around Dylan's music publishers and Artist and Repertoire departments of the major music companies. Dylan was picking up significant royalties from covers of his songs so it made sense to get some of his new material out into the marketplace.

That demo tape yielded, among other hits, Manfred Mann's The Mighty Quinn, The Byrds’ You Ain't Goin' Nowhere, Peter Paul & Mary's Too Much of Nothing and Julie Driscoll's This Wheel's On Fire (with, of course, the Brian Auger Trinity).

The tape itself, however, was a small subset of a much broader collection of covers and trad. arr. tracks that provided the basis of some of the earliest manifestations of the bootleg music industry.

After the Basement sessions, Dylan's next studio album, John Wesley Harding, a collection of material that hadn't appeared on those tapes, marked a pronounced change from what had gone before and it was followed by a different album that changed the musical directions of, among others George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Fairport Convention, producing, as a result, the Los Angeles band we know as Los Lobos.

The news that Dylan's backing band was working on the album we now know as Music From Big Pink wasn't something that produced bated breath anticipation, however. My mate Eric, for instance, dismissed the news with the comment that I'm not interested in Dylan's backing band, I'm interested in Dylan.

Ah, the rash innocence of youth.

The Basement sessions, while they provided some of the material that turned up on Big Pink, had an additional significance to the unit that became known as The Band. They also provide an interesting insight into the ongoing enigma that is Bob Dylan.

Looking at recent aspects of Dylanology, it's fairly obvious that Dylan is, in many ways, like many of his sixties fans, another member of the fraternity of Music Freaks. While people were looked at each reincarnation of Dylan as a seemingly separate entity - wannabe Woody Guthrie, voice of his generation protest anthem folkie, polka-dot shirted amphetamine Rimbaud clone - it seems that each was Dylan trying on a new shirt that seemed to fit at the time.

I suspect the real Dylan that lurked under the surface was someone with a deep and extensive knowledge of American music and a bower bird inclination to pick up bits and pieces from all over the place. That's probably a view that'd find supporters among certain members of the early sixties English folk fraternity, for example, and the man's tendency to dredge through, and allegedly make off with selections from, his acquaintances' record collections.

So the Dylan that turned up at the sessions that turned into The Basement Tapes arrived with a pot pourri of songs that would presumably be fun to play around with.

His collaborators on the sessions, the aggregation we later came to know as The Band, had their own story. An outfit that had gradually coalesced around rockabilly merchant Ronnie Hawkins before heading off believing they could make more money on their own, The Hawks were a bar band eking out a living playing blues and R&B in the sort of places where the wire mesh to protect those on stage from flying beer bottles was a handy safety precaution.

They'd recorded a bit, and the results can be sampled on Disk 1 of the Musical History box set. It's unremarkable stuff, largely written by Robbie Robertson, and includes The Stones I Throw, covered in Australia by Normie Rowe. On the other hand, being out on the road they weren't quite au fait with the latest musical trends, and must have wondered what hit them as they hit the road as Dylan's second set electric band. Drummer Levon Helm didn't last long and bolted back to comparative safety in Arkansas, and when Dylan crashed the sickle the rest of them, presumably on a retainer, ended up in Woodstock needing to do something to fill in the time while the boss was recuperating.

When the recuperative process extended to playing a bit of music they were fairly obvious collaborators.

Now with all this stuff, there's likely to be at least three versions of events, so if what I'm writing here doesn't coincide with something you've read elsewhere, don't dismiss it out of hand because what you've read elsewhere probably doesn't coincide with other, supposedly authoritative, stuff.

Anything to do with The Band comes in at least two versions - the conventional wisdom Robbie Robertson-sourced version, and the that's bullshit Levon Helm take on events - for starters, and Dylan's not what you might call the most reliable of raconteurs when his own past is concerned. Then there's the stuff like Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes which I'm going to manage to read all the way through sometime but haven't managed to do so on three or four previous attempts.

What's not in question is the diversity of stuff that turned up on what later became known as The Basement Tapes. I'm not talking about the highly edited commercial release of the same name, but the various permutations and combinations of recordings that have surfaced on the bootleg side of things and may or may not be complete.

Now it may seem like I'm attributing a little too much significance to what amounts to a bloke with a guitar rocking over to where a few of his mates live and saying Hey fellas, how about we have a bash at these? That's all these sessions seem to have been, but the bloke with the guitar was Dylan, and the mates happened to be a group of road-hardened musos who'd been playing together long enough to operate on the edge of instinct.

And what was recorded at the sessions didn't come out all at once. The earliest bootlegs, Great White Wonder and its assorted siblings, were bits and pieces affairs cobbled together from whatever the bootlegger could beg, borrow or steal from the material in circulation. That means for a start, that very few people actually heard the whole recorded body of songs.

So when you're talking about the influence the sessions had on the rest of the musical world it would be easy to get carried away. Most of the earliest material to emerge came from the Publishers' Demo, anyway, and you can't be really sure about sequencing and what was played when. Even if you could gain access to a complete and unabridged set of tapes (assuming such an animal exists) even putting them into a sequence would involve a fair amount of guess work, and there's no guarantee that all the contents of a particular tape represent a complete uninterrupted sequence of what went down in the Basement.

At least there's no way to be sure of that. I may be wrong, but I've always envisaged the Basement as a sort of rumpus room where the guys got together to hang out. More than likely that big old reel to reel recorder was also used to play music, so when it came time to hit the record button it may well have been a case of rewinding the tape you'd been listening to, grabbing whatever blank tape was lying around and hitting the Fast Forward button until you reached a blank bit of tape.

There are reputedly, for instance, a number of previously uncirculated reels in Garth Hudson's personal archives.

What emerges from the sessions can be fairly easily sorted into a couple of categories, There's the stuff that turned up on the official Basement Tapes release and the Publishers' Demo previously referred to, the likes of I Shall Be Released, Quinn The Eskimo, Tears of Rage and Too Much of Nothing.

Then there are a variety of fairly well-known covers, including the Hank Snow/Elvis Presley A Fool Such As I, the Byrds-covered Pete Seeger Bells of Rhymney, Ian & Sylvia's Four Strong Winds (later covered by Neil Young), and Hank Williams' You Win Again. They're not straight readings of those numbers, more a case of familiarity with the tune and the words and a let's have a go at this mentality.

There's also a large quantity of less well-known material, largely from the folk tradition but drawn from other sources as well, and this is where things start to get interesting, and possibly a little off the rails. Brendan Behan's Banks of the Royal Canal, a sea shanty Bonnie Ship the Diamond, and assorted folk club standards along with relative obscurities that are starting to hearken back towards what Greil Marcus and various others tend to describe as the Old Weird America, material that was presumably brought to the table by Bower Bird Bob.

Finally there's a fair bit of what can only be described as goofing off. Variations on Bo Diddley, a bit of Flight of the Bumblebee, a delightful little oddity called I'm Your Teenage Prayer and See You Later Allen Ginsberg, all of which may well have come about as the result of significant herbal stimulation.

You can look at all that stuff and start drawing all sorts of conclusions and many of them might well be wide of the mark. What's not in doubt, however, is the fact that the sessions brought together many of the elements that resulted in Music From Big Pink, and that's where (at least in my opinion) the influence on what came afterwards really starts to kick in.

For a start, under other circumstances the sessions might never have happened at all. One guesses that The Band were being paid a retainer to keep them on hand so that when Dylan resumed touring they'd resume the backing band role. Dylan, arguably had no such intention, and had Albert Grossman been aware of that there's every possibility that he'd have been saying sorry boys, back on the road.

It's quite likely the sessions were presented as evidence of an intention to resume touring at some unspecified point in time and a justification for keeping those retainer payments rolling in.

What is more important the sessions put Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and confreres in touch with a body of material they wouldn't have been likely to come across otherwise.

For Robertson, the street kid from Toronto who may well have ended up in prison if he hadn't started playing guitar, his dealings with Dylan resulted in all sorts of influences that subsequently came out in his song-writing. To Levon Helm, on the other hand, some of those elements would have been reminders of where he came from, pointers to a possible future direction, and you'd expect there were similar reactions from Messrs Danko, Manuel and Hudson.

More significantly, the Publishers' Demo provided the framework around which The Band assembled what became Music From Big Pink. That's not to downplay the original material on the album, but one suspects that they didn't have a whole lot of material to choose from. Three of the eleven tracks (Tears of Rage, This Wheel’s On Fire and I Shall Be Released) come from the Basement, and there's also the cover of Long Black Veil. The bonus tracks on the 2000 remaster include a couple of other Basement tracks, and, most significantly, the best known song on the whole album, The Weight, was recorded as an afterthought when they didn't have quite enough material to fill up the album.

Equally significantly, the Basement sessions required a different approach to making music. It wasn't a case of cranking it all the way up to eleven. No more Freight train roar. When the album emerged it set a genuine cat loose among the pigeons, and that's where the album's real significance lies, at least as far as Hughesy is concerned.

For a start, there was a shift of focus towards individual songs that signalled a new direction for people like Eric Clapton, who was looking for a way to extricate himself from the Jack Bruce vs Ginger Baker ego wars and the endless soloing that had become part and parcel of the Cream experience.

You can arguably see the influence of Big Pink in relative absence of extended guitar solos in the not-quite-delivering supergroup Blind Faith, then in the playing a bit of guitar behind Delaney and Bonnie gig that developed into the Delaney-produced first solo album and then provided the other players comprising the core of Derek & The Dominos. They needed Duane Allman to add the extra element to Layla, but it was the Big Pink factor that largely pointed Clapton in that direction.

You can hear further manifestations of that Big Pink factor in all sorts of other areas. The Richard Manuel/Garth Hudson piano/organ combination was replicated in, among others, Procol Harum, Spooky Tooth and Mott the Hoople, and there's a definite Band/Big Pink vibe through the early Elton John albums, maybe not quite a replica, but definitely coming out of an adjacent post code.

The focus on songs rather than albums also played its part in the emergence of the singer/songwriters in the early seventies, but, more significantly as far as Hughesy was concerned, the most significant manifestations of the Big Pink factor involved Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention and Los Lobos. That may seem like an odd combination, but here's how it panned out.

In the wake of the crash that killed Fairport drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson's girlfriend and left the survivors with significant mental and physical scars, they made a conscious decision that they wouldn't play the old repertoire when they returned to the stage, which meant that they were in urgent need of new material.

Under other circumstances they could have continued down the same path they'd set out on for Unhalfbricking, a couple of Dylan covers, originals from Sandy Denny and Thompson and some of the traditional material that was being unearthed by bassist Ashley Hutchings, but Big Pink effectively took the Dylan covers factor out of things.

The songs on the Publishers Demo, as redone by The Band were too distinctively American to fit in with the English-oriented material from other sources. At the same time, the timeless sound that characterized Big Pink, which had nothing in it that said Hey, this is 1968, the tightly arranged ensemble playing, the interplay of three fine but quite distinctive voices pointed towards a possible new direction.

So first Liege & Lief and then the Sandy Denny-less Full House were drawn entirely from the English folk tradition and the Dave Swarbrick/Richard Thompson compositions that were aimed to fit squarely inside the same territory. Once Sandy Denny left, there was an arguable Band influence in the vocal interplay between Thompson, Swarbrick and rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol, and within the communal dwelling that housed the Full House era Fairport, Music From Big Pink was, by all accounts, on almost continuous high rotation.

So how, you may wonder, did this reinterpretation of English traditional music translate into the Latin-infused rock of Los Lobos. Quite simple. David Hidalgo is quite definite. Hearing the Fairport take on the English tradition, Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas and friends realized that they could do something similar with their own Mexican traditions.

At the same time as Fairport were delving back into the musical past of the British Isles, the Old Weird America aspect of The Basement Tapes kicked in big time. Now, when you're talking old and weird, the Stateside thing only goes back a couple of centuries. It incorporates odds and ends that were brought to the mix from all sorts of other traditions, but you're still only really going back to the seventeenth century.

You want old and weird? Check out some of those odd local British rituals that date back to pre-Medieval days, an indeterminate past that offered a number of avenues to explore in the search for something interesting in a contemporary sense.

Arguably one of the best expressions of that exploration comes in the timeless Henry the Human Fly, the first Richard Thompson album (not available, I should add, on iTunes) with its Shaky Nancy, Poor Ditching Boy and invocations to leave the factory, leave the forge and dance to the new St George, but there were others. There were the electric instrumental explorations of the Morris dance tradition (Morris On) and the likes of Steeleye Span, the group formed by Fairport-defector Ashley Hutchings when he felt Thompson and Swarbrick were moving a bit too far from the tradition and any number of other examples that will doubtless come flooding back as I work my way through Rob Young's Electric Eden.

For anyone who's interested in sampling that side of things, I'd point straight towards that first Richard Thompson album, which might be a difficult listen in places but will repay repeated examination, the early Richard & Linda Thompson I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight or, more particularly, The All New Electric Muse - The Story of Folk into Rock. At $31,99, it's an expensive item, but sixty songs drawn from all over the British folk rock movement provides a fair starting point for those who are looking to explore some of these themes.