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Guest Post: Robbie Robertson invented modern rock. Discuss.

[Whilst I continue to be on vacation, several people are taking up the slack by offering guest posts on a variety of topics. This is another piece from Chris Donaghue. – AC]

Robbie Robertson invented modern rock and roll.  He wouldn’t agree but I think you’ll see no one has had more impact.

Before Bob Dylan went electric, rock was still blues-based.  After Dylan’s third electric record, Blonde on Blonde, rock seemed based on electric Dylan. But the lead guitarist on that album was Robbie.  After Blonde on Blonde in ’66, rock and roll was the result of the gumbo that a half-Jew, half-Mohawk from Toronto brought to the stew.

Post-Blues Multiculturalism

Modern artists like Beck might play blues fests but they don’t play the blues.  The electric sound that Dylan and Robbie pioneered on Blonde on Blonde, (the first double album), and live with The Band was considered brash, over the top, and too far ahead of its time.  But rock exploded so much in 66 and 67, while The Band got more acoustic, that only a year later they sounded rootsy.  Now they might seem archaic.  But what was really happening was the creation of the future of popular melody based on a wider background of musical influences than either The Band or Dylan had on their own.

After Dylan’s motorcycle crash in ’66, he and The Band moved to Woodstock where they made The Basement Tapes. These recordings were never intended for release and as a result became the very first bootlegged record. It was originally titled The Great White Wonder, perhaps a reference to the fact that four of five of The Band hailed from the Great White Yonder. Normally Robbie and The Band are credited with inventing Americana with The Basement Tapes, but the one American in The Band, the drummer Levon Helm, had quit until right before the end of the recordings.  So Robbie and the pianist Richard Manuel played drums.  It was more than Americana or Canadiana; it was the development of modern popular melody.

On these recordings they explored many covers and originals by Dylan & The Band, in almost every style of popular song ever, (but mostly not the loud psychedelic rock they blasted out on LIVE 65). They explored the past to continue creating the future. Call it modern rock or alternative rock or what have you. But what happened was that after that world tour in 65/66, The Beatles made Revolver, Hendrix began a solo career and The Yardbirds became Led Zeppelin.  Basically, everyone went psychedelic like Blonde on Blonde.  But as a result of The Basement Tapes, Dylan made John Wesley Harding, considered the first back to basics album. But it wasn’t supposed to be.  Dylan asked Robbie for him and Garth Hudson to overdub parts on the whole album.  Robbie suggested he put it out as it was.  So the version of All Along The Watchtower that Hendrix experienced was arranged by Robbie by his absence.  But Robbie got to do a Hendrix inspired re-do on the live album After The Flood. And ironically, when Bob offered to play on The Band’s first album, they politely declined.

The Band released their first album on July 1, 1968, (Canada Day Dominion Day, no less). Music From Big Pink included three songs from The Basement Tapes, the first official release of any of those songs where they fused the future and the past. As a result of this rootsier sound, Clapton quit Cream, The Beatles released their The White Album in late ‘68 with its often acoustic-leaning sounds.  Then in ‘69 Zeppelin started making III, their most acoustic record. Neil Young joined the more acoustic sounding Crosby Stills and Nash, and The Stones started making Sticky Fingers, which included a more acoustic sound like on songs such as Wild Horses. People say that The Velvet Underground, or Bowie invented modern or alternative rock.  But they didn’t have the range of influences, or influence that Robbie did.  Robbie was electric in ’65 before The Velvets or The MC5.  Just listen to the “Judas” Like a Rolling Stone on LIVE 65.

Robbie had help from more people than Dylan.  Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, & Richard Manuel were a dream band for a writer/arranger.  There were three lead singers who could harmonize like a dream, a pianist, an organist who could fill in all the spaces like a string arrangement, or solo for longer than Robbie did.  And they had the world’s best singing drummer who made them sound Americana because his Arkansas was so thick.  But across seven albums Robbie only sang parts of 3 songs, and yet he was the sole lyricist.  The others wrote bits of music, but not lyrics, (the 2 Dylan co-writes are his lyrics that Danko & Manuel put to music).  They helped create modern rock and roll, but almost all of it was written by a guy who stood to the side and let the guys sitting down take centre stage and sing his songs like Stage Fright, (about Dylan or Robbie? Dunno, probably both, Danko sings it though.)  While Robbie stood to the side, he made music with his guitar and his mind that changed rock from a blues-based medium to an Esperanto of a medium that continues to morph into many shapes.  Most importantly the styles Robbie added to rock are not based on the same usual chord progressions as the blues.  Robbie set rock free, not Bob.

Influencer of the Influential

After their mid-sixties collaboration, Dylan went back to being a solo artist of the wandering minstrel kind, and Robbie set about inspiring others more than he confused them as Dylan did.  At the time the writing on the walls was literally ‘Clapton is god’, and The Beatles were kings.  But what they thought, was that Robbie and The Band were kings.  George Harrison called them ‘the best band on Earth.’  And Clapton said he went to visit them shortly after their first album to ask if he could join, but couldn’t work up the nerve because he felt unworthy.  And this is what Dylan had to say about the guitarist he made this revolution with: “Robbie Robertson is the only mathematical guitar genius to not offend my intestinal    sense of nervousness.”

Whatever that means.  And yet, even though Dylan wrote songs with other members of The Band, he never wrote one with Robbie.  I wonder if it would have been too many cooks?

From B.O.B. On

People always say that Dylan went electric at Newport in 65, but he’d already released his first electric record, and Like a Rolling Stone, the single from the second electric album was already a hit.  Rolling Stone and Newport he did with Mike Bloomfield on guitar, a blues purist from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  But for the next electric gigs, Dylan would use Robbie and everything changed.   After the LIVE 65 tour, rock and roll was based on this new sound.  And this new sound was the result of the guitar playing of Royal Jaime Robertson, who went by his nickname Robbie, but his dad called him Jim.

The multicultural background of a bi-racial Canadian in America is was what Robbie brought that no one else had.  The Band were originally from Toronto and then called The Hawks. Robbie joined on six-string bass at first, in ’59 at 16 (which means that at some point or another Robbie played bass, drums, guitar, and sang in The Band).  They weren’t just pre-Dylan, they were also influenced by other pre-blues music besides folk music, like the carny music of circus performers of the sort of traveling musicians The Band was.  You can hear that influence on Band songs like Life Is A Carnival.  But from Blonde on Blonde on, rock guitarists were influenced by Robbie Robertson.  Most people noticed Dylan, but guitar players noticed Robbie.

The Jimmy’s

Within a year of Robbie touring with Dylan in 65/66, some of the people copying songs played by Robbie were a couple of other Jims, Jimmi Hendrix and Jimmy Page.  Leonard Cohen said he swapped novels for albums after seeing that tour in Montreal. The last song The Beatles ever covered (and they played only covers in the early days), was Robbie`s The Weight, which they quoted in the live TV version of Hey Jude, and The Band’s first album had only been out for two months!  The first song Dylan ever recorded with The Band was Please Crawl Out Your Window, which Hendrix was covering almost immediately, and available on Live at The BBC.  He also covered The Band song Tears of Rage.  And Jimmi’s dad was from Vancouver but he was more multicultural than just being half Canadian, he was also métis like Robbie, being part Cherokee.  The song Jimmy Page was covering was Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine, with The Yardbirds, also within months of its’ release, and also available on their Live at the BBC.  This is probably the song that has the most guitar work by Robbie on B.O.B., and is the only song Dylan has ever allowed to be remixed, (a bit of a blast from the past of Robbie brought into the 21st C., done by Amy Winehouse’s producer Mick Ronson).  Another bit of 21st Century Robbie that Page also played on, is in the guitar summit movie, This Might Get Loud, made with Jack White and The Edge.  The last song the three play in the movie, which was a benefit to replace guitars damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was Robbie’s song The Weight.

Rolling Stone called The Weight the 41st-best song of all time.  And The Band’s first album Music From Big Pink, they rated #34.  They only rated Robbie 59th best guitarist ever, and The Band was rated the 50th most important rock artists of all time.  They rated Bob the second most important after the Beatles, but the essay accompanying the rating was written by Robbie, cause he can write too.  And Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters called Music From Big Pink “the second most influential record in the history of rock and roll,” after Sgt. Pepper’s, and said that it “affected Pink Floyd deeply, deeply, deeply.”

So Robbie could write, play guitar, change the world with Bob, usher in the electric era, and yet it was 28 years later before he really started singing. You might not call him the most influential artist of all time.  But he did originate what people call rock and roll today.  Not Elvis, or Bob, or any bluesman, but rather the guy who took all that, and his roots, and made something new that is the mode of modern rock like Beck & My Morning Jacket, The War on Drugs, The National, The Barr Brothers and more.  If you haven’t heard of any of them except Beck, it’s because aside from 65-69, the greats go largely unseen in their own times. I’ve often wondered why that era was so different, the baby boom had a lot to do with it, but I think it might have had something to do with the proliferation of something that Canada legalized recently? Peut etre.

A Multicultural Canadian Perspective

The different lyrical perspective that Robbie brought to the zeitgeist came from his many backgrounds, including marrying Une Quebecois, a French girl from Montreal.  This happened around the same time that his fellow Canadians started speaking out.  Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen were starting to make their voices heard at this time.  And though they all released music before The Band, they were already influenced by his guitar work with Dylan.  And these Canadian singer-songwriters had styles not beholden to the blues. They say there was a mid-sixties British Invasion, but the Canucks went unnoticed cause of their accents, and they let the one Yank in The Band sing most of the songs.  But all of these Canadians had multiple influences in their music, and on top of that, they brought the world forward with them because they had something to say.

These Canadians are lyrically saying something new, over top a musical motif that was no longer blues-based, but rather the result of Robbie’s multi-stylistic music.  His playing was expanding upon the folk tradition that was much more personal and at the same time more mythological than the call and response style of blues singers and their guitars.  Blues songs are about connections that the singers and the audience have already experienced, unlike the confessional style of folk singers.  All of these are things that Robbie brought together that changed rock and roll forever.  Dylan may have made rock songs about more than just girls, but Robbie brought even more to the table with Canadian & Native American, Jewish, American, & French-Canadian influences.  But Robbie wrote about girls too.  They say that an intellectual is someone who knows there are more interesting things than girls, but I say a genius is someone who knows that’s not true at all.  From so many different backgrounds came the future of rock and roll.

A Canadian Invasion

Robbie influenced the post 60’s sound of rock with his guitar playing as well as his songwriting.  It seemed that Dylan did both, but him going electric wasn’t really him.  He still played folk and blues-based music, he just did it through bigger amps.  Robbie brought the rock n roll, (and the Motown, and the carny and the jive).  The lyrical movement that he was a part of is also a poorly explored aspect of rock and roll.  This change he and the other Canucks were codifying was the result of the different perspective that Canadians had on the American culture they were starting to influence.  Just try imagining American music without these songs of place and belonging written by Canadians: Woodstock, Ohio, Alabama, First We Take Manhattan, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.  (Don’t blame Robbie for writing a song about Dixie, though you can if you want, it was all about music to him. Read his autobiography to hear him tell it. Though the lyrics to that song are hard to understand, the version from the Band’s farewell concert film The Last Waltz is the best singing-drumming performance of all time by the only singing drummer who could truly rock both at the same time).  And some of the guests in that film are pretty influential too: Muddy Waters, Neil, Joni, Bob, Clapton, a Stone, a Beatle, etc.

Aside from Dylan, The Band, Neil Young, Joni, and Lenny are considered to have been the creators of folk rock.  And Neil’s first band, Buffalo Springfield was three-fifths Canadian.  It’s funny how Robbie gets credited with being a part of creating folk-rock, or Americana, when really what was happening was that all these Canadians brought a musicality not defined by the blues. And the different cultural perspective of people from a country that didn’t bomb Vietnam brought rock out of its blues period.  As well, Canada was where The Underground Railroad ended, (people have been leaving the US for Canada in the name of freedom like the draft dodgers, & United Empire Loyalists, since the very beginning of the country, to this day).  Bob was a pioneer no doubt, but post-blues rock is mostly the result of some many-cultured Canadians, but it’s mostly the result of Robbie Robertson.

 Solo, Soundtracks & He Acts

They say you have your whole life to write your first record.  Well, Robbie’s came out in ‘87, 28 years after he began crafting what Rock & Roll would become.  In between The Last Waltz and his self-titled debut, Robbie was making soundtracks like Raging Bull for Martin Scorsese, who made The Last Waltz.  Robbie even acted in the film Carny with Jodie Foster, and Crossing Guard with Jack Nicholson.  And he was an executive at the film studio Dreamworks in the 90’s with David Geffen. So Robbie worked with the greats across many genres and mediums.  And Robbie might have been influenced lyrically by Dylan, but Dylan became what he would be musically because of Robbie, and so did everybody else.

Sonically Forward & Ancient, Again

When Robbie did finally put out a solo record where he sang, it contained all these elements and more.  It continued the tradition of being sonically groundbreaking, like he was in ’65; working with fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois, who Rolling Stone called, “The best producer to come out of the 80’s.”  Together Robbie and Danny made an album that fused bits of the past and kept pushing forward.  It included everything from fellow Canadian First Nations band The Bodeans, (whose young male singer sounds like a large old black woman – watch the video for Somewhere Down The Crazy River to see this strange dichotomy), to the biggest band in the world at the time: U2 (who would have Dylan on their next album).  And Dylan would make his next album with Lanois.  U2 played on two songs, co-writing the hit Sweet Fire of Love.  Peter Gabriel and Garth Hudson from The Band play keyboards.  And the song Broken Arrow is as peaceful as a song can be, and contains maybe the best of Robbie’s lyrics: “Do you feel what I feel? Can we make it so that’s part of the deal?”

But what did Robbie release first from his first solo album?  He, the guitarist who influenced everyone from Hendrix & Jimmy Page to lyricists like Leonard Cohen?  The first song that he released where he sang was Somewhere Down The Crazy River, a song where he talks as often as he sings, almost rapping but not quite.  And it was a huge hit for him, also appearing on the Greenpeace album Rainbow Warriors, (An ironic invert connection to The Band: Greenpeace was started in Canada by American draft dodgers and one Canadian).

Next Robbie made Storyville, an album influenced by New Orleans, the most multicultural of all American cities, where the French are called ‘cajun’ which is derived from Canadian, as the French there were Acadians from Canada, like Daniel Lanois. Then Robbie made Music For Native Americans, a blend of modern and ancient Native American music.  He took Native Americana into the future even more on his next album Contact From the Underworld of Red Boy, with songs like Peyote Healing. On that album, he worked and wrote with producer Marius de Vries, who had worked with Massive Attack.  And it was revealed in 2017 that Banksy is in Massive Attack.

Just another connection Robbie has to the greats from any medium in any era. His most recent album, 2011’s How To Become Clairvoyant, came full circle, including Eric Clapton, who finally got to be in a band with Robbie, & modern guitarists Trent Reznor, from Nine Inch Nails and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine, with songs about guitarists like BB King and Django Rheindhart like Tango for Jango. Tango being just another style Robbie added to the jumbalaya. And in 2017 Robbie was featured in the movie Rumble about Native American influences on rock and roll with other such Native American guitar greats like Link Wray.  And Robbie is still at it in his seventies, putting out his memoir, and first Greatest Hits, both called Testimony in 2016.  Read that book if you want to feel the 60’s, listen to the album if you want to understand where modern rock began.

To sum it up, Robbie Robertson invented modern rock and roll. So, I wonder, what will Robbie Robertson do next?  I’m guessing his Coda will be kick ass too.  If I were to guess, he might become Governor General of Canada and make Justin Trudeau’s claim that his relationship with First Nations people is the most important to him true, (his wife and Donnie T. might disagree).  But Justin Canada could do worse.  I can’t imagine a more modern person representing more about culture in the 21st C. than Robbie Robertson, (too bad he lives in Malibu where Neil Young’s house burnt down in Nov 2018 – be expecting a Global Warning song or two about that).

Because after all, Robbie’s real first name is actually Royal, and he is already a member of The Order of Canada.  So why not get the Mohawk who invented modern rock to sing God Save The Queen?  Because to quote the great Robbie Robertson, “Music should never be harmless.”

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38427 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

15 thoughts on “Guest Post: Robbie Robertson invented modern rock. Discuss.

  • Broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. But can he play music?

  • Great musician and songwriter, but come on….stop gilding the lily my friend. The Band was successful because of all the talent it had. Robbie was just one of the talents. As has been stated by other music journalists, most groups have one or maybe two talented members. Everyone in the Band had something special.

  • Yes, they all had something special, but only Robbie wrote lyrics, and only Robbie is on Blonde on Blonde. And how well did their solo albums, or Band albums without him do?

    • They were severely addicted by then (Garth excepted). The Band was successful because the sum was greater than the parts. Levon, Rick and Richard all were better singers. Garth was arguably a better musician. Robbie was a talented guy, but as I said earlier, he wasn’t Elvis Presley or the Beatles.

      • You are only talking about The Band. Robbie kept going past 1976. And they were better singers, but they didn’t write the lyrics. Where would they have been as singers without him? You would have never heard of them. Did you only read the first part of the essay?

        • I did read your essay. I just don’t agree with it. The historical facts are that Levon predated Robbie in the Hawks, and if Ronnie Hawkins hadn’t hired Robbie, would we ever have heard of him? The Band only existed because of the central role of Hawkins (playing what-ifs is so much fun) in brining them all together.

          • If Lavon (his real name), and The Hawk were so central, how come their solo albums didn’t get very far? You seem very stuck in the past. You could never be convinced because you already have your opinion locked down. Robbie kept going forward. Something most people wouldn’t notice. Check out his solo stuff, it’s really good.

  • I’m reading Testimony now and it’s probably one of the most compelling autobiographies/biographies that I’ve ever read. The interplay of his music, people he meets and his progression to being an influential guitarist is pretty clear and he writes about it in a fairly modest way.

    People have said it’s not a fair representation of his relationship with Levon Helm, Ronnie Hawkins or others, but we’re into a ‘his word against mine’ scenario and I like his style better.

    As to being the person that invented modern rock. No. You make a compelling argument, especially with your notes about the transition of style from blues to something very different, Mr. Cross. However, there are too many performers, writers, producers and others that can easily stake that claim and defend it quite well AND there were many people that trained Robbie Robertson how to play, write and even sing.

    The key here is that we acknowledge that he was a player and influenced many. And that’s still something to be extremely proud of!

  • Alan didn’t write this, so don’t blame him. My point is not that he did it singlehandedly. Quite the opposite, and not the he had more impact on songwriting today than, say, David Bowie. I am only saying that no one had more influence on songs going from being blues based, to being based on wider influences. Everyone else got the credit and he hid in plain sight, which is exactly how he wanted it. People in the limelight don’t really get very far. And Robbie aint done yet.

  • Finally! the truth has been revealed!

  • Chris, in response to your reply to Milner above, Levon’s real name was Mark. Lavon was his real middle name.

  • And Robbie’s real name was Royal, real being French for Royal. I just meant that Lavon was the real spelling. But please don’t think I am not giving Helm lots of credit. He really was the best singing drummer ever. But he sang exclusively Robbie’s words. People talk about how Robbie quit on them. But he just wanted to quit touring, not making music. They were supposed to get together the day after The Last Waltz to master their last album Islands. Only Robbie showed up. They quit on him. It might not have been the last album if they hadn’t been mad at a guy with a couple of young kids for not wanting to tour anymore. The Beatles made Revolver after they quit touring. Imagine if they had gone that way? It might have sounded like Robbie’s first album.
    As for the songwriting credit dispute, it would seem that they were undercredited as being arrangers. But songwriting credits are wierd and worded by lawyers not poets. They would only get credit if they made up something that the original writer played, not just what they played along with the original melody. But Robbie made them rock stars. However, he used to get credit for The Genetic Method, cause it was considered the intro to Chest Fever. But Garth Hudson is the only one playing that, so he got credit eventually. Robbie took a little too much songwriting credit, and they didn’t give him enough credit for thinking that stopping touring would keep them alive longer.

  • So, what Robbie will do next is have the documentary based on his autobiography, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & The Band, screened as the opening film of the 2019 Toronto International Film Fest.
    Congrats Robbie.


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