This week in Deep Cuts, we look at The Band's "Yazoo Street Scandal" the song is steeped in lore and some confusion. First written and recorded in 1967 during the Dylan Basement Tape era, the song became an outtake on their first studio album, Music From Big Pink, before rearing its head on 1975's The Basement Tapes release.
"Yazoo" doesn't get the credit it deserves. First, it's one of the earliest indicators of The Band's changing style. With Dylan as a primary influence on The Band's songwriting, they shifted from one of the best blues bands to exploring new sonic possibilities, leading them to their concoction of roots rock.
Recording at A&R Studios in New York City in January 1968, writer Nick DeRiso sums up the song's theme well, "The Band explores a red-lit, gothic landscape — with Levon Helm serving as our vagabond tour guide." I can't go much further without noting Helm's performance. There are three beautiful vocalists in The Band, but only Helm could pull this number off. Robertson has explained that it was based on an actual Yazoo Street in a town in Arkansas, further cementing Helm as the right choice to sing the song. He sings with such ferocity, it's biting, it's sharp, he pushes his voice to the absolute limits, but somehow it's all very measured and controlled. Writer Barney Hoskyns describes it as his "best redneck-wildcat yelp."
The lyrics are full of urbanity, sleaze and allusion. Robertson later noted, “they don't have streets like that in Canada… let me make up a little story here about stuff going on in this kind of almost red light district”. The more you dig into the song, it sort of makes sense. It doesn't end up on Music From Big Pink; it's a foil. It would make more sense on a record like Northern Lights - Southern Cross. It also parallels The Band's track "The Well" from the seductress character and the point of view of a man on the brink of madness from the seduction.
On the musical arrangement, you have to start with Rick Danko. His bass is so active. A clear nod to some of his soul and R&B idols, the playing isn't busy or complex, but it's melodic and leads. Garth Hudson's organ is also a key element. The utter wall of sound provides the ultimate harmony to Helm's vocals. Richard Manuel sits behind the skins, and it's good that he is. His loose and chaotic style matches the tone of the song. It further embellishes the whole piece beautifully.
Overall, you can see Roberton's lyrical along with The Band's performative aspects that later rear their heads in some of The Band's greatest hits like the cinematic nature of "The Weight", the vocal prowess of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and the thematic core of "Ophelia." "Yazoo Street Scandal" laid the fundamental groundwork, but it's no slouch in The Band's canon.