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Readers’ Poll: The Band’s 10 Greatest Songs

Your picks include ‘Chest Fever,’ ‘Ophelia’ and ‘The Weight’

The Band

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

On July 1st, 1968, a new record hit shelves called Music From Big Pink. The group was simply called the Band. Music industry insiders knew the musicians from their tours backing Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, but nobody could have guessed the impact they would have. The simple, back-porch vibe of the music was radically different than everything else that was popular at the time. Eric Clapton later said it was one of his motivations for breaking up Cream, and the Beatles even tried to capture this magic with their ill-fated Let It Be sessions the following year.

The Band were together for just eight years, but during that time, they released a stunning amount of classic songs. We asked our readers to vote on their favorite ones. Click through to see the results. 

By ANDY GREENE

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10. ‘The Shape I’m In’

The Band were not in great shape when they started work on Stage Fright in the summer of 1970. They'd just finished up one of the greatest two-year runs in rock history, but fame was beginning to take its toll. Many members of the group were drinking very heavily and taking hard drugs, particularly keyboardist Richard Manuel; he was a hopeless alcoholic and was making it very difficult for the Band to carry on normally.

When Robbie Robertson wrote the lyrics for "The Shape I'm In," he was thinking about Manuel. "Out of nine lives, I spent seven," he wrote. "Now, how in the world do you get to heaven?" Appropriately, Manuel handled lead vocals on the track, though few people realized he was singing about his own demons. 

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9. ‘I Shall Be Released’

The Band were under contract to Bob Dylan when his motorcycle crash prematurely ended his 1966 world tour. He didn't want to stop making music, so the group moved near his home in Woodstock and began recording new tracks in the basement of a soon-to-be-famous house with a bright coat of pink paint. They began with cover songs, but soon delved into Dylan originals.

One of the more memorable tracks was "I Shall Be Released," the sad cry of a man trapped in prison. When the Band recorded Music From Big Pink the following year, they covered the song, and Richard Manuel gave the best vocal delivery of his career. He sang the song for the rest of his life, and as he delved deeper into alcoholism and depression, the lyrics took on a sad new meaning. 

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8. ‘Chest Fever’

Organist Garth Hudson was the oldest member of the Band and the most musically experienced one. The amazing organ intro to "Chest Fever" on Music From Big Pink was his first showcase moment. "It's kind of a hard love song," said Robbie Robertson. "But it's a reversal on that old rock & roll thing where they're always telling the girl, 'He's a rebel, he'll never be any good.' This time, it's the other way around." The song was a constant highlight of the Band's live show, and Levon Helm played it at countless Midnight Rambles during the final years of his life. 

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7. ‘Ophelia’

The Band took a four-year break from releasing original material before the release of 1975's Northern Lights – Southern Cross. The album was somewhat of a let-down, though there were some very strong moments like "Ophelia." Inspired by Hamlet's ill-fated lady-friend, the song features some of the best vocals of Levon Helm's career. Near the end of his life, when he had difficulty singing lead at the Midnight Rambles, he always dug deep and found the strength to belt this one out. 

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6. ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’

The Band faced a lot of pressure to top Music From Big Pink, but in September 1969, they released another absolutely perfect album with The Band. It wraps up with "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" the sad lament of a farmer facing a nightmare of a year. "It was the harvest time of year, when Woodstock was very impressive," said Robbie Robertson. "Everything turned red and orange and it just made you realize that this was the culmination of the year for so many people. That's when it all came down, whether the year worked or not."

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5. ‘Acadian Driftwood’

The Band had three of the greatest singers in rock history. There's no better single song that spotlights the voices of Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel than "Acadian Driftwood," another standout track from Northern Lights – Southern Cross. The Robertson-penned lyrics are about the Expulsion of the Acadians during the French and Indian War. It's a relatively odd subject for a pop song (and he got his facts a little off), but it didn't matter. The song is absolutely beautiful and features stellar fiddle work by Byron Berline. 

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4. ‘Up on Cripple Creek’

"Up on Cripple Creek" is one of the Band's most beloved songs and it reached Number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 – but at first, the group didn't see the genius of the simple song. "It took a long time to seep into us," said Levon Helm. "It was like it had to simmer with everybody awhile. We cut it two or three times, but nobody really liked it. It wasn't quite fun. But we fooled around with it, and finally one night, we just got ahold of it, doubled up a couple of chorus parts and harmony parts, and that was it." The story tells the tale of a trucker who falls in love with a woman named Bessie and can't decide whether or not to stay with her. 

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3. ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’

Before Robbie Robertson wrote the Civil War ballad "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," he went to the library to study up on the conflict. It was over 100 years in the past at that point, but passions still burned bright and the Canadian was determined to present a balanced take on the conflict. "I asked Robbie, 'How did that come out of you?'" their former road manager Jonathan Taplin told Rolling Stone in 1978. "And he just said that from being with Levon so long in his life and being in that place at that time. . . It was so inside him that he wanted to write that song at Levon, to let him know how much those things meant to him."

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2. ‘It Makes No Difference’

Rick Danko had the ability to convey incredible heartache and pain in his vocals. Nowhere is this more apparent than on "It Makes No Difference," a sad tribute to a former lover. "I thought about the song in terms of saying that time heals all wounds," Robbie Robertson said. "Except in some cases, and this was one of those cases."

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1. ‘The Weight’

Rock fans have spent decades analyzing the lyrics of "The Weight," trying to decode the true meaning of the 1968 classic, but there is no satisfying answer. On the surface, it's about a guy who arrives at the biblical town of Nazareth and meets a bunch of bizarre people like Crazy Chester, Fanny and Carmen. Continuing with the biblical theme, he also meets the devil, Miss Moses and Luke, who is waiting on Judgment Day. Robbie Robertson has said the lyrics were inspired by the surreal movies of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and aren't meant to be taken that seriously.

Still, the track is one of the greatest sing-along songs ever and its reputation only grows with age. It also caused great tension between former members of the Band in later years because Levon Helm claimed the Band wrote it as a group and he wanted a split of the publishing. He refused to sing it for years, but he finally relented during the last few years of his Midnight Rambles and it closed out many of those very special nights. 

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