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The Band before The Band: A counterculture tale of the underdog

At first glance, The Band is one of the worst names for a music group this side of Sixpence None the Richer. It seems good for creating confusion, coaxing cheap Abbott and Costello comedy routines out of old DJs, and ensuring that they couldn’t easily be booked. However, the backstory of how they arrived at that name reveals a depth that the surface obscures. In a true sense, the odd mix of anonymity and authority that the name affords makes it as perfect a fit for The Band as Sunday’s frozen pitch and a Thermos flask.

In 1957, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road was first published. Open any given modern copy, and you may well find Bob Dylan printed into the sleeve proclaiming, “It changed my life, like it changed everyone else’s.” The tale of catching culture on the wing is one that spawned a generation of beats, who followed in his footsteps and wavered a gingham-clad path across the breadth of a bulging continent. The Band consisted of Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson. And they could aptly be described as a pariah group of musicians equivalent to boxing journeymen.

Their bouts, however, were about coming together rather than settling differences. Covering all corners of North America, this band of brothers happened upon each other in a cultural march that could be fresh for the pages of On The Road itself. Levon Helm was from Arkansas, but he picked up Robbie Robertson in Ontario, Canada where musicians could ask for a higher price.  

Thereafter, many other members and names would come and go, and all the while The Band was steadily forming. By 1961, two years on from the pairing of Robertson and Helm, Rick Danko would come into the chopping-and-changing outfit on bass and Richard Manuel soon followed on piano. The cohesion between the players was instantly evident, but they lacked one important factor: someone who could read music. Enter Garth Hudson the last piece in the jigsaw.

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Hudson’s classically trained background and ability to read music earmarked them as the complete package and their sound would soon display that fact perfectly. At this point, however, they weren’t the band, they were Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks and they were squawking and hot but the sense of their own fatefulness had not yet set in. 

With dogeared top hats, bristling beards and a notable lack of patent leather, the name currently bestowed on them by Ronnie Hawkins was a self-evident misnomer. These were the original travelling musicians of counterculture, and the commercial ways of rockabilly was not quite fitting. Thus, by the time 1963 came around and music became more introspective than the raucous volley that Elvis Presley and the likes were offering up, and Hawkins was old hat for the progressive group. He parted ways and a definitive avenue soon presented itself. 

At this stage they were imperious but they weren’t quite commercial, thusly, they lingered in obscurity before the beat movement came to claim its own fitting underdogs in the most perfunctory sense. In 1965, after noodling about trying to carve out a niche and a name that would stick, The Band collided with Bob Dylan who was looking to pair folk with rock ‘n’ roll. These scruffy-looking fellows who once were dubbed the rock ‘n’ roll kings of Canada were the perfect foil for his new revolution. 

The ensuing tour was a sink-or-swim moment. As Robertson would later recall: “When I started playing with Bob, I didn’t know how so much vocal power could come out of this frail man. He was so thin. He was singing louder and stronger than James Brown. We were in a battlefield on that tour, and you had to fight back.” Being in that fight wasn’t easy for a band who had developed a regimented dancefloor-filling mentality, but it formed their future sound. 

In due time, after years of travelling the rough roads with Bob Dylan and the likes and eventually infusing their own music with a swirl of culture in transition, they had learnt their way to the top. And now they holed up in a big pink abode and set about culminating their journey. The album, Music from Big Pink, is the scintillating sound of all this experience, both in terms of the highs and hard knocks of a touring musician and the cacophonous howl of all the potholes and picnic spots on memory lane that ran contrary to Tin Pan Alley in a definitive counterculture underdog story. 

They were The Band and now they had an album and backstory that allowed them to claim that terrible name as their own. Their tale is one that sounds fabled – as was everything in the mystic meander of counterculture – but the proof of their journey was in the music that they produced. As Kerouac once wrote: “The only truth is music.”

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