The following reviews appeared in (and alongside) the same issue of Creem as “Rock-a-Hula Clarified.”
The lyrics are good, the saxophone rocks, John sings up a storm, and “Power to the People” would be a better record, and thus more politically effective, if there weren’t anyone but John singing the chorus, or if they just dropped it altogether and let the title carry the weight. This elitist contradiction peeking out of the impulses of mass culture is called politics. Right on, John.
The Band have done their best to obscure the fact that they are one of the toughest hard rock organizations in the country. Occasionally, especially on stage, they slip up a bit and the secret gets out, but their albums make it easy to forget “Slippin’ and Slidin”‘ or the way they do “Look Out Cleveland” or “Wheels on Fire” or “Chest Fever” live. Or to forget “Baby Don’t You Do It,” an old Marvin Gaye number they use to close out the evening once in a while.
The Band plays Motown because one of their other secrets is that Motown is one of the main elements of their music; not just of their rhythm section, but of, dare I say it, their roots. It’s not all moldy MacGruder primers and cornbelts, after all. The Band has a lot more Motown in its music than, say, Rare Earth or one of those groups, and I don’t mean Motor City Killer High Energy, but Motown—Berry Gordy. A lot of the singing on Music From Big Pink comes from “Heatwave” just as some of it comes from Hank Williams; Levi Stubbs is there along with Bob Dylan (“Levi Stubbs is black Dylan,” said Phil Spector…). Rick Danko is not just a Canadian country boy, although because he is that he can sing the Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” as if it was a country song.
Danko at his best sounds like a Motown session man, and I doubt if there is anything in the world that sounds better than a Motown session man playing bass, unless it’s a Motown session man playing guitar on “I Want You Back.” The bass on Motown records can be ornamental and captivating—Paul McCartney has learned from that—or deep, compelling, and aggressive—and Danko has taken his lessons at that school.
It is worth remembering that this is not a recent development, or a facile borrowing. The men in the Band have been around, after all, playing the music as long as some of us have been listening to it. And their beginnings neatly coincide (more or less) with the beginnings of Motown. (The Beatles pre-date Motown. John and Paul started getting it on together about the time of “Heartbreak Hotel.” The Stones are a bit post-Motown. The old Hawks and the early Creedence Clearwater—Blue Velvets, I think—are right in the middle.)
When I first saw Danko play, with Dylan in the late fall of ’65, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I’d come to see Dylan, and he was great, but it was a true effort to pay attention. Danko’s body translated his musical lines into physical motion. “He looked like he could swing Coit Tower,” Ralph Gleason wrote of that show, and he couldn’t have said it better.
When Dylan and the Hawks made their tour of England in the spring of 1966 they recorded their music just about every night, and now, five years later, tapes of those performances have begun to surface on occasional FM stations. The music played by that band was far less Motown—or country, or anything—than the music played by the Band, because it was more aggressive, glamorous, and loud. Dylan was not singing Motown in those days. He told a Detroit interviewer he liked The Motown groups but he was speechless at the suggestion he share the stage with the Supremes.
His music and that of the Hawks was frenzied stuff, extreme, pushing and breaking the limits, and the music of the Band, and Motown, is more restrained, and most importantly, controlled. Such control usually proscribes the moments of pure triumph each member of the Hawks (not to mention Dylan, who was not dealing in moments) achieved in those performances. As the Band, their recorded hard rock—“Jemima Surrender,” “Look Out Cleveland”—tends toward the predictable, which doesn’t simply mean that you can follow the rhythmic progression of the song, but that the good moments, when they come, pretty much fit into your pattern of expectations and never overwhelm you with a clout that cannot be encompassed by memory or anticipation. Those moments are the thrill of the music, and everyone has his own—you know they’re there, you wait for them, you get ready for them, and they’re always more powerful than you remembered. Only “Chest Fever,” of all the Band’s hard rock album cuts, has that power of permanent renewal that the best music needs. The rest of their hard rock is—and I hate to say it—stiff. It never cuts loose. “What you’re missing is the best Blam Blam,” as Spector put it.
Part of the problem comes down to Robbie Robertson, as a guitarist. With Ronnie Hawkins, with Dylan and with the Band on stage, he’s achieved wild moments where he walked the edge of musical disaster and ended up the creator of rock that dared itself to go out of control. It’s there on the live single of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and on Ronnie Hawkins’ “Who Do You Love,” which is available again on Roulette. These moments of risk are missing from all of the Band’s official recordings. That’s not to denigrate what he’s done on record, but what he’s done is a long way from what he can do, and he may be leaving out what is most valuable of all.
“Baby Don’t You Do It” is hard rock and it makes even “The Shape I’m In” sound fragile. It was recorded as a practice tape when the Band was trying out a new studio. It might have been a single, but it runs about five minutes, and perhaps after using it on stage the Band got tired of it, or thought it was too good to cut short, or felt odd about releasing a Holland-Dozier-Holland song in a bid for the charts. An FM station in LA broke a tape of it on the radio some time ago and then withdrew it after an official request and the promise of official release. But it never was released.
Even people like me, who think Stage Fright is hot stuff and play it all the time, still feel that something’s missing. As Dave Marsh said when he reviewed the LP in Creem, Stage Fright needs just one cut to shake things up. “The Shape I’m In,” good as it is, isn’t it. “Baby Don’t You Do It” is.
What the Band do with Gaye’s song is what most white rock and roll groups have always done with black material: they hold to the original arrangement, amplify the beat, and make it louder and more raucous (that Little Richard material is an exception to this process goes without saying). They delight in the technology of two or three electric guitars, an electric organ, super-miked drums. Technology is the white man’s cultural heritage, as well as his burden, and at least rock and roll musicians occasionally know what to do with it; they can relate to technology as black artists sometimes cannot. They don’t worry about “worrying” a line into an elusive rendering of “soul”; they just sing as hard as they can. They hit everything hard and if the Band caught this same spirit on stage they might knock over a microphone.
Robertson is all over the music. Helm plays as if he has four hands. Danko is almost impossible to find in the clattering noise, but he’s there like fuel injection on a Corvette. While Hudson lets loose the mighty screech of rock and roll, Manuel holds on to the song with sounds like one-finger piano. “My biggest mistake was lovin’ you too much—” BLAM BLAM “And letting you know—” BLAM BLAM.
Gaye’s performance is good, I suppose, but after the Band’s version it’s a bit difficult to hear. It’s thin, it’s careful, a piece out of the “Ain’t That Peculiar” groove, genre music, defined by a careful play on the expectations of an audience that has already shown it will buy something that sounds like it. Motown makes music incrementally, after all. The Band’s performance is every man at his limit, perhaps without even knowing it until they hear the playback and shake their heads in wonder that they can really play like that. It is stunning and powerful partly because it is so unlike any record of theirs we have ever heard, but it is strong on its own terms and it would sound as good if it were the Stones following up “Honky Tonk Women”.
Gaye sings against a polite soul chorus, and you get the idea that she really won’t do it, break his heart, because after all she and many of her sisters are right there on the record singing with him. The Band enlists their whole arsenal of voices, each man coming in at his own pace and shouting for all he’s worth, “Oh, baby don’t do it, don’t break my heart, pleeeeeze don’t do it,” marching across the battlefield of broken dreams like an army of men ready to give it all for love. The Band push the song and they top themselves on every chorus, in the way that the guitar solo on “Whole Lotta Shakin'” is even better than Jerry Lee’s piano even though you’d expect it not to be, simply because the guitarist had the nerve to try and top the star. They wail on until they reach that point where the song should end, and suddenly Robertson takes over and plays as if he’s trying to drive straight out of the music. They cut him off and slam it to a close.
The Band plays the best hard rock in the world when they want to. Now, why don’t they release this and give us a chance to believe it?
Creem, June 1971