The latest song to be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF) is The Band’s roots-rock classic “This Wheel’s On Fire."
To highlight the induction, Joey Landreth (of the Bros. Landreth) has contributed a version of the song for the Hall of Fame’s Covered Classics series.
The enigmatic “This Wheel’s on Fire” was a key track on the hugely influential album Music from Big Pink, The Band’s debut album and co-written by Canadian bassist Rick Danko and Bob Dylan.
Seasoned graduates of Ronnie Hawkins’ school of hard knocks, The Band became Dylan’s backup group. With Dylan, they recorded “This Wheel’s On Fire” in the spring of 1967, in a rented house nicknamed Big Pink in West Saugerties, New York. The recording first came out on June 1975, on Dylan’s The Basement Tapes; and subsequently had its major label debut in 1968, with Danko singing lead, on Music from Big Pink.
The Band opened their first solo concert with “This Wheel’s On Fire,” and always kept it in their setlist, including their performance at The Hollywood Bowl, and on tour with Dylan.
The song has brought success to many performers, including Julie Driscoll, whose bluesy cover version reached No. 5 in the U.K. in 1968. In Canada, it made it to 13 on the RPM magazine chart. Other artists covered it in the late 1960s, including The Hollies and The Byrds, who featured the song on several live and studio albums. Later, Siouxsie and the Banshees had a U.K. hit with their alternative rock version in 1987. Dylan’s longer folk-rock effort appears on the bootlegged 1969 Great White Wonder album.
“This Wheel’s On Fire” was written while Dylan was recuperating from a motorcycle crash in 1966 in Woodstock, New York. Members of The Band rented the nearby Big Pink house and built a recording studio in the basement. As Danko remembered it, “We would come together every day and work, and Dylan would come over. He gave me the typewritten lyrics to ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’… Some music I’d written on the piano the day before just seemed to fit with Dylan’s lyrics. I worked on the phrasing and the melody. Then Dylan and I wrote the chorus together.”
The song’s tone is eerie, even confusing, but hypnotic. The unusual shape of the minor-key melody, with many repeated notes within a relatively small range, gives the effect of being semi-spoken, pushing the lyrics to centre stage. Various reviewers have pointed out that the line “This wheel’s on fire, rolling down the road” may refer to the chariot of fire in “King Lear,” or to the Biblical prophet Ezekiel’s vision. For others, the more obvious reference is to Dylan’s motorcycle accident. The phrase “notify my next of kin” as readily speaks to Dylan’s crash as it presages Danko’s premature death at age 55.
On Nov. 25, 1976, The Band performed the song one last time together at their famous final show, The Last Waltz. Rick Danko later played the song in his solo shows, as Dylan continued to do into the 2000s.
Canadians who’ve recorded the song include the legendary Ian and Sylvia, and Serena Ryder on her gold-selling 2006 album of covers, If Your Memory Serves You Well (itself another line from the song). Other performers who’ve recorded versions of “This Wheel’s on Fire” include Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello, Kylie Minogue, DJ Double D, and Guster. Onscreen, the song has been featured in the TV series Absolutely Fabulous and poet Allen Ginsberg’s biopic Howl. In print, its title was borrowed for This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band.