After calling it a day with seventies’ supergroup The Band, and an interim period spent scoring soundtracks for Martin Scorsese films, guitarist Robbie Robertson has teamed up with Daniel Lanois, Peter Gabriel and U2 to create an impeccable first solo outing. Mark Prendergast lends the album an appreciative ear.
I was only a teenager when I first saw 'Easy Rider' but the image of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper speeding across the California desert to a rousing rural-sounding rock music has stayed in my mind to this day. It was an early shot in the film and the first to establish the essence of freedom-chasing that was the heart of the 1960s youth culture. Later I learned that the music was by The Band and the song specifically titled 'The Weight'. Written by Robbie Robertson, it conjures up vistas in the mind about America that few songsmiths have touched on, let alone matched. The Band became super-heroes, appeared on the cover of Time in 1969, played Woodstock, had 4% of the American population turn up for their 1974 tour with Bob Dylan, and then gracefully retired on Thanksgiving Day 1976 in San Francisco. With Martin Scorsese behind the lens and legends such as Van Morrison, Muddy Waters and Dylan guesting, 'The Last Waltz' became a watershed event, closing an era and highlighting Robertson and his mates as a superlative act that no-one could follow.
But the myths never seem to fade. Every new generation of Dylan freaks read of his 'electric' period and how The Band were involved. Plus, of course, The Basement Tapes, recorded with a recuperating Dylan in Woodstock in 1967 but not released until 1975. Most people knew how good Robertson was as a songwriter, how inventive he was as a guitarist, and that the other Band members were itching for a reunion and still playing their socks off around America. But what was Robertson up to?
Well, he and Scorsese became very close buddies, due to simultaneous marital problems and creative ties. Feeling a bit used up-by rock'n'roll, Robertson wanted a film career and an involvement with Scorsese's work. Since 'The Last Waltz', Robertson has been involved musically in three of Scorsese's films: 'Raging Bull' (1980), 'The King Of Comedy' (1983) and 'The Colour Of Money' (1986). His one proper acting part came up in 1979 in Robert Kaylor's 'Carny', which Robertson co-wrote, scored and produced. But other wheels were turning. Gary Gersh at Geffen Records had wanted Robertson to make an album in his own right for years. Robbie was loathe to put down anything "medium" and didn't feel right about it. Then one day in 1983, while having a drink with a friend in Rome, he realised that he had to return and do what he was best at.
Jaime Robbie Robertson is half-Iroquois Indian and was born in Toronto 44 years ago. His first solo album, Robbie Robertson, has taken three years to make and involved seven different studios, three countries and luminous names like U2, Peter Gabriel and Daniel Lanois. It was a very difficult project, the perfectionist Robertson running up a cost of nearly one million dollars in its creation. In Autumn '84 Robertson spent $50,000 on pre-production work and travelling East, and to Europe, to vet possible producers. With his headquarters at The Village Recorder in Los Angeles, and a control room full of instruments, speakers and tape recorders, Robertson eventually commenced work in June '86 with Daniel Lanois, his chosen producer. Session musicians were brought in from Canada, New Orleans and France, and things took off with Lanois experimenting wildly with sounds and amassing plenty of alternate takes on tape. Then, as the electricity was flowing, Lanois had to return to Dublin for more work on U2's Joshua Tree album. Robertson was simultaneously doing the soundtrack for Scorsese's film, 'The Colour Of Money'. He is fond of relating the nerve-wracking business of trying to record in LA while Eric Clapton's on the phone from London demanding lyrics from him for a tune that Scorsese must have in his film; then racing to New York to finish off the actual instrumental soundtrack parts for Scorsese with Gil Evans, and then onto Dublin and straight into a winter hurricane and floods, with nothing prepared for the historic union with U2 except two tapes of a horn tune of Evans' left over from the New York session and a tom-tom/guitar theme inspired by Mahalia Jackson. Then getting to Rathfanham where U2's Adam Clayton lives, and, after a fairly sleepless night of lyric searching, waking up and going straight into a band session with Bono shouting 'Let's go' and Robertson thinking 'Oh God! Let's go where?!'... The stuff of legend - and that's not talking about the successive Peter Gabriel sessions in Bath, the endless re-mixing and rerecording, the very real fear at Geffen Records that things were running out of control, and the magical Bearsville (Woodstock) sessions where Bob Clearmountain pulled the stars out of heaven.
Robbie Robertson is big stuff. Not the kind of thing that flies off the current video/pop conveyor belt of sanitised corporate sounds every week - but something with soul, emotion, passion, and the very life-blood of the American ethnic conscience. Robertson's statement is truly by and for the American Indian, the outsider, the great "shadowland" and "mythology" of his heritage and that of the North American continent.
Though released in November 1987, it has taken me quite a time to assimilate the album's enormous vision and breadth of musical and lyrical terrain. Let's start with Side One: four tracks of thorough cohesiveness that add up to one of the most potent sides to a rock album ever.
'Fallen Angel' begins with an ominous rhythmic thunder sound, low and warbling - a wonderful piece of sonic manipulation by Lanois. Manu Katche's circular percussion and drumming weave around before Robertson begins his ascending tribute to former band vocalist Richard Manuel (who tragically committed suicide during the album's recording). Within the boundless keyboards and treatments one can detect a funky root, but the overwhelming emotional punch is provided by Peter Gabriel's brilliant vocal harmonies which rise and rise as if about to spread wings and touch the spirit of the dead man. The song levels out to a kind of satisfied atmospheric finale, with all kinds of keyboard and percussive sounds splashing against each other.
David Bottrill, Peter Gabriel's personal engineer, talks about 'Fallen Angel':
"This was already written and recorded in Los Angeles but Peter added some background vocals and keyboards to it. The main feature of this track is his stacked background vocals. This was a case of multitracking his voice. It took a day to do that and it was a standard recording. The Yamaha CP80 piano sound of Peter's was chorused through a very old Roland effects pedal, and we got a wonderfully warm sound from it. We also fed it through a Delta Lab DL2 harmoniser/delay. One thing that is important was how the treatments were recorded directly with the piano. It was a trick of Daniel's, the printing of effects with the acoustic sound. The piano would be wired to the mixing desk and through the chorus unit. One side would be straight, plus we would use the auxiliary sound and put it through the DL2, therefore re-routing the effects. The end result would be a stereo acoustic set and a stereo effects set."
'Fallen Angel' is followed by the angry whiplashing rocker 'Showdown At Big Sky'. Bill Dillon and Robertson play some awesome ricocheting guitar breaks, Manu Katche's drumming is flawless, the BoDeans supply some gritty backing vocals, and the ever-present Lanois sings and plays a bit of percussion. Its mix by Bob Clearmountain in Bearsville, Woodstock, was a hard one to get right for Robertson wanted a very cohesive dynamic in the sound. The main thrust of this track is the almost demented lyrics which plead for us to beware of nuclear bombs, the arms race, and those who would start a war "right before your eyes".
A sort of Gunfight At The OK Corral writ large as Star Wars, this stormy cut sets the right tone for the third song 'Broken Arrow', the album's finest achievement and a contemporary songwriting masterpiece. It commences with a suitably tapping ritualistic drum sound and some great bass by Abraham Laboriel. Given that Robertson wasn't the singer with The Band, his vocal on this track is perfect: husky, beseeching, and full of that lived-in feeling. The swirling sound and strident balladry of 'Broken Arrow' comes straight out of Robertson's Indian blood and the childhood days of being mesmerised by the Indians of The Six Nations Indian Reservation near Lake Erie. Robertson crystallises a communication with a culture that is shrouded in mystery with the words:
Who else is gonna bring you
A broken arrow?
Who else is gonna bring you
A bottle of rain?
There he goes moving across the water
There he goes turning my whole world around.
As he sings, his guitars fall beautifully off the words like sparkling jewels, almost like aural tears. A very mystical song, its restrained and dignified organisation spring up at you like a totem pole rising from a distant landscape. Daniel Lanois' production is kinetically true to the spirit of the piece while his tom-tom percussion and backing vocal perfectly imbue a primitive backdrop. Peter Gabriel was responsible for the keyboards and drum programming. David Bottrill, who used to work in Grant Avenue studios in Canada with the Lanois brothers before teaming up with Gabriel two and a half years back for So, takes up the story:
"Peter is an old friend of Robbie's. The connection was even stronger when Daniel was producing U2. Robbie had come to Ireland, in early 1987, to do two songs with them: 'Testimony' and 'Sweet Fire Of Love'. From there he went straight to Bath, to Peter's old studio (Gabriel has since built a new one in Wiltshire). He had some material with him. We went straight into 'Broken Arrow'. It was already written but it involved Peter to help out on the Linn drum programming. He also contributed the Prophet 5 keyboard parts and some piano. The song was not recorded at all before Robbie got there, so it's true to say that 'Broken Arrow' had its origins and birth in Bath with Peter. Robbie was very level-headed with no false pretentions, and one knows easily where one stands. The team on 'Broken Arrow' was myself, Peter, Danny and Robbie - that was it. The drums, bass and guitar sounds were put down in Los Angeles after the three or four weeks spent in England. The tambourine sound came from a Linn II drum machine, detuned quite far down. Peter's sound came from a Delta Lab DL2. We went for control room recording, because there is great communication that way when building a track. What we were looking for was great performances and not technical stuff. There was no reverb a lot of the time. There was a lot of acoustic drum, which came from an old hairy drum - an ethnic drum which Peter has. Nowadays, there's a great trend towards control room recording and this was done that way; set up the mics and away we go."
Bottrill concedes, like some people, that there is a distinct Gabriel influence on the record. "Well, So was fairly close in time to it, therefore its sound would have had a bearing on Robbie's album. It was also Daniel - the interaction between the three. Also, a lot of the players are the same."
Gabriel, Lanois, Manu Katche, Tony Levin and Larry Klein do appear on both records, but they are two distinct items with full personalities of their own. 'Broken Arrrow' fades out to let us into the final track of Side One: the towering 'Sweet Fire Of Love' with U2. This was the instant jam that Robertson was bowled over by as he pulled scraps of lyrics from his pockets and simultaneously finished off a song on the phone with Eric Clapton, for the Martin Scorsese film. Nothing here could be compared to So, for this is a meeting of spirits in a whirlpool of great rock noise. Coming at you with Edge's characteristic ratcheting electric guitar, the song is taken up by a thumping beat courtesy of the archetypal Larry Mullen Jnr/Adam Clayton rhythm machine. With Bono singing higher than normal and Robertson growling low, it becomes a heroic dual call-and-response epic in true U2 style to the power of love over evil. There are some fine milky guitar stretches by Edge, some tough powerhouse guitar breaks by Robertson himself, but the finale beats all when both guitarists head for Jimi Hendrix land and all its glorious feedback sounds.
"... the overwhelming emotional punch is provided by Peter Gabriel's brilliant vocal harmonies..."
Producer Daniel Lanois: "I think there is a naive spirit to this record, which is something that is not easy to get when you've been in the business as long as Robbie has. His passion is right up and that's as it should be when you're producing work. He's a strong writer and I think the album has a spirit to it that listeners will really enjoy."
With a first side of such intensity, it's hard to imagine that you've only heard 4/9ths of the record. In fact, few complete albums can match the range of great quality music found on Side One of this. If there is a weakness here, it's that Side Two as a unit is not as strong as Side One, but it's sure loaded with intensity.
'American Roulette' is a helter-skelter, fast lane homage to James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe that cleverly evokes the get-rich-get-famous-quick American materialistic dream and the dubiousness of believing it through some tense soloing between Robertson and Tony Levin (on Chapman Stick bass). The song features ex-Band man Garth Hudson on keyboards (he's also on 'Fallen Angel'), the BoDeans and Maria McKee of Lone Justice on backing vocals. The animated blonde girl singer hit the record in its final stages, during the summer of '87 in Woodstock, and was subjected to an agreeable but punishing work-out with Robertson that turned out great on the track.
'Somewhere Down The Crazy' river is next, a prosaic almost novella in song that floats along on a carousel dance rhythm (courtesy of Katche/Levin) and tilts from reggae to waltz and back again. Robertson talks and sings in a tone that smoulders in all those urban jazz elements of the States, nose blues, the 'noir' tradition of American writing, the deep south. From the compacted lyrical images - 'stranger in strange land', 'too hot to sleep', 'fields empty, abandoned '59 Chevy', 'the Voodoo stuff don't do nothing for me' etc - one could make a deduction that it's a white man carelessly stumbling into a Negro time-warp out of the everglades, but it could be any number of things - Mexico, the Mardi Gras, black magic, a dream - it's that dense. This is the diamond cut of Side Two, featuring Robertson at his most lyrically lucid and some neat omnichord guitar playing by Daniel Lanois.
The next track, 'Hell's Half Acre', begins as a scrunching rocker and boogies its way through riff and verse in an unspectacular fashion. Lyrically, it tells the story of an American Indian who gets drafted and is mentally and spiritually deformed by his experiences of Vietnam. With all good intentions and good sound moral principles, the song nevertheless founders on its poor musical undertow. Robertson was never meant to couch his words in straight ahead guitar rock. Daniel Lanois is conspicuous by his absence from this track.
'Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight' brings the record back to well above par by its use of spatial instrumentation and reverberant sound that enhances and complements the lyrics. A song about a wanted man and his inevitable death. It could be a gangland shooting or a police manhunt finale but, whichever, Robertson is clearly identified with the victim. 'Can't tell the tears from the rain' he half-sings, half-cries. Bill Dillon, Manu Katche and Tony Levin are here again as on 'Hell's Half Acre' but Lanois reappears with tasteful percussion and guitar. Rick Danko, another old Band mate, adds some background vocals. All in all a satisfying song, full of atmosphere and musical variety.
The last track 'Testimony' is in many ways disappointing. A bulging, gut-hanging rock blow-out with U2 that never really gets off the ground. 'Testimony' is characterised by Gil Evan's horn section and Edge's click rhythm guitar riff. The awkward lyrics only really work on the main verse:
Bear witness, I'm wailing like the wind
Come bear witness, the half-breed rides again
In these hands, I've held the broken dream
In my soul I'm howling at the moon.
Like 'Sweet Fire Of Love', this track was worked on in Peter Gabriel's old studio near Bath, as engineer Dave Bottrill explains: "We did work on these. We spent a lot of the time editing the Irish material. There were lots of raw tapes of Irish tracks - two or three of each! They were very long arrangements that needed to be broken down. They were really live jams that were modified and improved."
So there you have it, a very strong record and a splendid comeback for one of American rock's legendary survivors. The quality of 'Fallen Angel', 'Broken Arrow', 'Sweet Fire Of Love' and 'Somewhere Down The Crazy River' is definitely better than anything Robbie Robertson did with The Band. How many new groups could architect even one of these songs? How many other '60s rockers could better their past glories? Just for attention to detail alone Robertson deserves a prize, but there is so much more to the music, so very much more...