In the 1960’s, artists like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan brought musical and cultural change on an unprecedented scale.
Yet fifty years ago in 1967, psychedelic music became the norm and the marker of this counter-culture. Only two of those artists mentioned put their foot in this genre, releasing psychedelic music both good and forgettable.
Meanwhile, on July 29, 1966, in the midst of a frenetic world tour, Bob Dylan was in a motorcycle crash that left him severely injured. The tour was cancelled and Dylan, along with his backing group the Hawks, holed themselves up at a secluded house in Woodstock, New York (nicknamed “Big Pink”) while he recovered.
Less than a year later, around the same time Sgt. Pepper was being recorded, Dylan and the Hawks, later to be called The Band, switched on a tape recorder in the basement of Big Pink and started laughing, cutting loose, and diving headfirst into traditional American music.
In between recording folk, blues, and country standards from the 1930s and 1940s, Dylan would record some of his own songs. The inherent genius was that to a new listener, the quality of Dylan’s originals could easily be mistaken for standards. The songs probably had not been heard by the public in decades.
The resulting hours of tape have been dubbed “The Basement Tapes” and while they wouldn’t officially be (partially) released until 1975, they are decidedly the opposite of the lush psychedelia of the time. But the few months recording would also prove to be the most prolific time of either Dylan’s or The Band’s careers, and would dictate the direction of popular music for the next few years.
Songs like, “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “I Shall Be Released” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” would be covered by The Byrds, Melissa Etheridge and Siouxie and the Banshees, just to name a handful. Goof-off songs like “See Ya Later Allen Ginsberg” and “Million Dollar Bash” showed Dylan at the jokiest he would ever be during his whole career. One outtake, “I’m Not There (1956)” would retain a cult following, be the title of an unconventional Dylan biopic, and be indicative of the loose, sometimes stream-of-consciousness style playing that permeated those sessions.
While psychedelia and the Summer of Love would more or less die by the end of 1967, Dylan and The Band’s unabashed return to roots and Americana informed the rest of the music that closed out the decade. The Band’s own debut, “Music From Big Pink” (1968) contained many of The Basement Tapes’ songs, and had a huge impact on many musicians, including Eric Clapton who admitted in interviews that if he could join any group it would be The Band.
The Rolling Stones would revisit the blues to acclaim with “Beggars Banquet” (1968) and even The Beatles,’ “Let it Be” (1970) was originally titled, “Get Back” as a reference to getting back to their skiffle and rock and roll roots. Paul McCartney even wanted his band to record one of the Basement Tapes songs “Please Mrs. Henry” for the album.
Meanwhile, a number of Dylan’s unused lyrics from the time were recently commissioned by several musicians to be set to music. The artists have acknowledged not only the songs, but the spirit of these uniquely American recordings in their own music: Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford and Jim James, just to name a few contributors.
More than anything, “The Basement Tapes” represented a synthesis of the old with the new. The past was brought to the forefront, and the emotional depths of songs long forgotten were mined for riches.