Monday, October 11, 2010

Phantom Drummer

I'm sure you all know the story of how Levon Helm left the Band in November 1965, and thus he wasn't around in 1967 when Bob Dylan laid down the Basement Tapes with the Band in Woodstock. The Band used a couple of interstitial drummers after Levon left, but when they repaired to Big Pink in Saugerties, New York, it was the core four of Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson who set up housekeeping there.

The accounts I've read have the Basement Tapes period starting around June 1967, and ending that October when Dylan went to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding. Levon Helm rejoined the Band that same month, which brings up a question: Who played drums on the Basement Tapes recording? On the album credits, Robertson and Manuel are both noted as having played some drums. That makes sense, since both those guys were kind of expendable: Garth Hudson could handle any keyboard parts that Manuel wasn't playing, and Dylan himself could spell Robertson on guitar.

And I can hear those shifts in the lineup in some of the Basement Tapes songs. "Apple Suckling Tree" doesn't seem to have any lead guitar, although it does have a bit of flashy drumming, which I assume would be Robbie's doing. Other songs, like "Tears of Rage," don't have any drums at all. (Once you start listening for these things, it's also obvious which songs the Band recorded later then slapped onto the LP, since Levon has a distinctive crackling drum sound, and he's also miles better than any of the other guys in the Band.)

But on "Odds and Ends," I clearly hear a piano (Manuel), organ (Hudson), a stinging lead guitar (Robertson) that seems way beyond Dylan's capability, bass (Danko), and vocals from Dylan, indicating this was recorded before Levon returned. And drums. So who was playing them? One of those instruments might have been added later, but overdubs don't really seem to be in the spirit of the Basement Tapes, do they? If anyone knows, please tell the author in the comments.

That album cover, by the way, was shot in the basement of a YMCA in Los Angeles.


  1. I'd bet that usually the drummer is Richard Manuel. Dylan could also play piano. This is based on nothing at all in the way of actual knowledge

    Richard Manuel even played drums on some Band songs. He's got a distinct style, even more falling-down-the-stairs than Levon, which is saying something.

  2. You know, I just this morning noticed that in the hand-scrawled credits on the back cover of Planet Waves, Richard is credited with playing "drums, piano," in that order. I'll have to go back and listen to see if I can tell a difference between his songs and Levon's.

    No, wait, it actually says "Richard Manual." Must be a different guy.

  3. If you trust Wikipedia and/or Sid Griffin, there's this list of credits:

  4. "...overdubs don't really seem to be in the spirit of the Basement Tapes, do they?"

    It's been pretty widely acknowledged that some of the Basement Tapes songs were overdubbed, including drum tracks, prior to release.
    (I can't find a single definitive source, but Google "basement tapes" and "overdubs" and check out what you find.)

  5. Piano could definitely have been Dylan. He's a pretty decent piano player. You can here it on Ballad of a Thin Man, half of The New Morning Album and a bunch of the demos from Another Self Portrait. The Drums to me sound like Richard. As far as I can tell, Richard was their default drummer at that time. If they recorded, either they didnt have a drummer or Richard played drums (exect the few times Robbie hopped on the kit).