Country Joe & The Fish

TrackAlbum
Not So Sweet Martha LorraineElectric Music For The Mind And Body
Happiness Is A Porpoise MouthElectric Music For The Mind And Body
Section 43Electric Music For The Mind And Body
GraceElectric Music For The Mind And Body
Pat's SongI-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die
JanisI-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die
Rock And Soul MusicTogether
CetaceanTogether
Donovan's ReefHere We Are Again
She's A BirdC. J. Fish

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Contributor: Merric Davidson

Give me an F… Give me a U … Give me a C … …

Country Joe and the Fish – crazy name, crazy band. The drop-out darlings of the west coast psychedelic scene of the 60s for a short period. Some of their songs – the ones in this topperten – are up there with the greats of that fantastic era, but I also like their political songs, their soppy songs, even the dumb ones – and there are some.

Founded by “Country Joe” McDonald (guitar/vocals) and Barry “The Fish” Melton (guitar/vocals) who along with Bruce Barthol (bass), David Cohen (keyboards) and “Chicken” Hirsh (drums) constituted Country Joe and the Fish for the first three albums.

Country Joe & The Fish emerged in 1965 from two groups that Joe had formed: The Berkeley String Quartet and the Instant Action Jug Band. The back story is fascinating, Joe being one of the very few musicians in California who’d served in the US armed forces … and you can read an informative and comprehensive account of this important band here by Bruce Eder at AllMusic.

Eder writes: “One of the original and most popular of the San Francisco Bay Area psychedelic bands, they were also probably the most enigmatic, in terms of who they actually were, and had the longest and strangest gestation into becoming a rock band.”

Electric Music For The Mind And Body was recorded in February 1967 and released in May, just a couple of weeks before Sgt Pepper. Don’t know how I’m managing to do this but I’m limiting myself to just four from this great debut album, so it’s bye bye Flying High, Bass Strings, Masked Marauder…

The acid-drenched Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine, the second track on the LP, is also one of my most cherished singles (UK Fontana) and it opens this toppermost:

Now she’s the one who gives us all those magical things
And reads us stories out of the I Ching,
Then she passes out a whole new basket of rings
That when you put on your hand
Makes you one of the Angel Band…

On to track 4: I whistle symphonies of your face, and laugh for your hair so fine, in startled greens of playground grass, a child jumps rope to rhyme. Pretty soon the Summer of Love was going to be with us, and it starts here with Porpoise Mouthand all the earth is love.

Side one of Electric Music For The Mind And Body ends with – and there aren’t enough superlatives – the seven-minute epic, Section 43. Here it is being performed at the mind-bending 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and in fact I’m just playing it (for the tenth time today it seems) while writing this piece. It’s my life and I’ll do what I want.

Grace is another seven-minute special of psychedelic wonderment and it’s the final track on the album, a fitting tribute to Ms Slick of the Airplane: Warm wind to touch the trees colored blue and flash the moon to paint blue my heart, your silver streak flash across the tiny door of my eye.

Eder again: “Electric Music For The Mind And Body was embraced as a work of genius by those who heard it, a bold, powerful mix of blues, jazz, classical, folk, and rock elements, all with a mesmerizing psychedelic glow; listening to it was as close to a hallucinogenic experience as one could get through music in 1967, and if one moved in closer on the songs and the playing, one got to luxuriate in Cohen’s prodigious organ work, Melton’s, Cohen’s, and McDonald’s alternately lyrical and slashing guitars, McDonald’s pleasing light folk tenor, and the fluid rhythm section of Barthol and new drummer Gary “Chicken” Hirsh…”

Country Joe and the Fish were, of course, a political group as much as anything; anti-Vietnam war protests, bring your boy back home in a box, the infamous Fish Cheer – give me an F, give me a U, give me a C…, concerts for the Black Panthers, their comical jibe at the incumbent President in the song Superbird – it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a man insane, it’s my president, LBJ … and marijuana, always marijuana!

The Fish Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag, the opener on the very good second album, I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die, won’t quite make it to this topper-list of 10 songs but it is integral to the band and it is of vital significance to the times, and you can view it in all its magnificent glory in the main video clip on this post. “I don’t know how you expect to ever stop the war if you can’t sing any better than that. There’s about 300,000 of you fuckers out there…” Right ON Joe! What are we fighting for!!

I have to have the opening track of side two of I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die, the song Joe wrote for Janis: Into my life on waves of electrical sound and flashing light she came, into my life with the twist of a dial, the wave of her hand the warmth of her smile… He writes about his time with Janis Joplin on his website.

Pat’s Song is a crazy fish of a song. I know it’s a bit like bibs and bobs from the first album but never mind, it rocks my soul. Near misses from I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die: Thursday, Who Am I, Magoo (which is a kind of mini-Section 43 but with lyrics).

The songwriting duties are spread evenly across the third album, Together (1968), so it’s less of a Joe McDonald benefit. There are photos from Joe’s wedding on the outside and inside of the cover, and the album is dedicated to Bobby Hutton, Black Revolutionary 1950-1968. I have space for a couple of tracks. One of them is going to be the great live favourite, the exceptional opener on this album, “a little thing that we learned from Mr James Brown, the king of soul music…” Rock and Soul Music features briefly, but memorably, in Woodstock, sock-it-to-me, sock-it-to-me… your love is like a rainbow…

Bruce Barthol’s Cetacean starts off as a pretty instrumental which turns into an outtake of Hey Baby and ends with Open the door and love walks in, Close the door and you’re alone again. So, it’s a typical Fish track and one that sits nicely on this playlist.

Donovan’s Reef is a top song and natural choice from an otherwise disappointing fourth album, Here We Go Again (1969).

C.J. Fish was the next, and final, LP (until the short-lived 1977 Reunion) and a bit of a step up. The opening track on side two, Silver And Gold, is a definite contender for the last slot here but She’s A Bird is a beautiful song – And for one of her smiles I’d promise the mountains and the sea – and it beats out the other possibles, Mara and The Return Of Sweet Lorraine, for the final place on this toppermost. The band had changed line-up by now with three original members, Barthol, Cohen, Hirsh, having departed.

I was tempted to try and squeeze in the bizarre We’re The Crackers from the stoner 1971 acid-western Zachariah. It’s a bonkers film, (Country Joe and the Fish play a rock band of robbers called The Crackers) but this is a catchy little number. However, I’ve run out of topper-room, so I’ve bunged it on the end of the spotify playlist – and here’s a clip from this mad film to go with it. Good job boys!

OK so there is a fair bit of retread on those last three albums (prior to the band folding in 1970). They’re not all perfect but loving Country Joe & The Fish is about so much more than perfection, and my copies of the US Vanguard LPs are, and always will be, among my prized possessions. Also, the first two really hard to get EPs that were released prior to Electric Music can now be found on CD, along with a later EP, click here for track listing.

Country Joe McDonald went on to what would become a prolific protesting solo career, and his latest album, Time Flies By, was released in 2012. Barry Melton also pursued a solo and collaborative career and made a couple of records with The Dinosaurs. Bruce Barthol and David Cohen continued making music and recording with other illustrious names, as well as for themselves. Discographies for all can be found by following the links below.

Give me an F, give me an I, give me an S, give me an H – what’s that spell, what’s that spell, what’s that spell? …… Fishtastic!

 

Pete Frame Rock Family Tree on Country Joe and the Fish.

Country Joe and the Fish – The Website

Country Joe’s Place – official website

Barry Melton website

David Cohen’s website

Country Joe and the Fish biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #278

3 Comments

  1. Ian Ashleigh
    May 18, 2014

    Many thanks Merric. Country Joe & The Fish are a band I was always aware of but have never explored so this is my starter for ten as Bamber Gascoigne used to say.

  2. Peter Viney
    May 18, 2014

    Nice one, Merric. I think you’re right that The Fish Cheer is different – essential to any documentary on the period and its music, but not necessarily music you’d sit down to appreciate. Country Joe & The Fish have been on my mental “wants list” when I’m in used vinyl stores for years … I had friends who played them non-stop in 1970 (disreputable friends too, I guess!) and I have fond memories. You just never see the records, at least not in “playable” condition, though the “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die” single is easy to find. . Somehow I want the vinyl artifact, but after reading this, I think I’ll just order a CD or two.

  3. Ilkka Jauramo
    Jun 12, 2014

    I enjoyed this article mainly because my interest is the relation between popular culture and politics. Some of the newer groups with indie background here in Scandinavia are inventing the politics again. The issues are no more the war or civil rights but feminism, hbtq and growing nationalism.

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