A second hand, mono copy of the original version of this album is currently selling for £100 on “rarevinyl.com”, which describes this album as one of the very first psychedelic albums to come out of San Francisco. As far as fame goes, Country Joe MacDonald and Loudon Wainwright III have a lot in common. Whereas the New York singer-songwriter is best known for his comedy single, “Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road”, this West coast rock band is best known for “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”, which he sung at Woodstock. Neither song is typical.
Joseph Allen (“Country Joe”) McDonald was born in Washington D.C. in 1942, but his family soon moved to Los Angeles, where he was conductor of his school marching band. In 1959, he signed up for the U.S. Navy and spent three years stationed in Japan. After busking on the streets of Berkeley, in 1965, he met Barry Melton and they formed Country Joe and The Fish. Soon afterwards, Country Joe wrote “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” for an anti-Vietnam war play. It was preceded by “The Fish Cheer”, which involved him shouting out “Gimme an F” at which point the audience would respond with “F”. He would proceed to spell out “F-I-S-H” and then launch into the main song. Later, the word “FISH” was replaced by the word “FUCK”. The song was first released in a talking magazine in 1965 and subsequently re-recorded for the album of the same name, released in November 1967. The song was written in 20 minutes and is one of the best anti-war songs of its kind, with a chorus that goes “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam.. And it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates. Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why. Whoopie! We’re all gonna die.” As Country Joe MacDonald explained, the song doesn’t point the finger of blame onto soldiers, but to political leaders and, to some extent, parents with the killer verse “Come on fathers, and don’t hesitate to send your sons off before it’s too late and you can be the first ones in your block to have your boy come home in a box.”
On the second day of the Woodstock festival in 1969, Country Joe McDonald played two acoustic songs, and received a very cool reception. “I asked my tour manager if he thought it would be OK if I went back on and did the cheer and he said yeah. So I went ‘Give me an F!’, and they all yelled ‘F!'”
Many years later Country Joe MacDonald said that to include “The Fuck Cheer” in the “Woodstock” film was “a revolutionary moment for the Anglo-Saxon English speaking Western world that the movie was so popular and mainstreamed the word ‘fuck’. All those grunge rockers and rappers should give me a little royalty for knocking down the door.”
In 2003 Country Joe McDonald was sued for copyright infringement over his use of the musical phrase that accompanies “One, two, three, what are we fighting for?”. Babette Ory, daughter of Kid Ory, claimed that her father had co-written the musical phrase on “Muskrat Ramble” in 1926. The court, however, upheld Country Joe McDonald’s defence, stating that Babette Ory and her father had been aware of the original version of the song for over 30 years without bringing the suit (this delay is sometimes referred to as a “laches” defence, a word derived from the French word laschesse, meaning dilatory). Babette Ory was ordered to pay Country Joe McDonald $395,000 for attorney fees and had to sell her copyrights to do so. To my ears, the melodies are identical.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself, because “Electric Music For The Mind And Body” was recorded in February 1967 and released in May 1967. It was the first of five albums that they released between February 1967 and May 1970. When the album was released, none of the following albums had been released: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles, Big Brother And The Holding Company’s eponymous debut album, “Smiley Smile” by The Beach Boys, “Safe As Milk” by Captain Beefheart, “Forever Changes” by Love, “After Bathing At Baxters” by Jefferson Airplane, “Buffalo Springfield Again” by Buffalo Springfield, “Axis: Bold As Love” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. As such, it represents the genesis of a sound that has become synonymous with West Coast music in 1967. The two influences that I can hear are The Doors eponymous debut and The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, although their magnificent fourth album “Volume 3 A Child’s Guide To Good And Evil” wasn’t released until 1968. As well as being a great album, it was hugely inflential on bands such as Moby Grape, Jefferson Airplane, The Electric Prunes, The Seeds and The Chocolate Watchband.
The sound of the album is pure psychedelic San Francisco rock. Bob Dylan’s backing band at the Newport Folk festival in 1965 included Mike Bloomfield on electric guitar and Al Kooper on keyboards and their sound is replicated throughout the album. There are unapologetic references to drug use. Country Joe McDonald sings “Hey partner, won’t you pass that reefer round” in “Bass Strings”. In “Superbird”, he suggests that President Lyndon B. Johnson retire to his Texas ranch where he is “gonna make him eat flowers, make him drop some acid”. “Love” simply starts with Country Joe McDonald shouting out “marijuana” before proceeding to tell his girl that he’s got something that she ought to try – he’s got love.
“Section 43” lasts for over 7 minutes (in an album of 44 minutes) and is almost impossible to describe, being a simulation of an acid trip with swirling organ, wild harmonica playing and maniacal drumming, all intersected with random sounds, pieced together to create a psychedelic masterpiece.
“Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine” is slightly less frantic than some of the other, wilder tracks but is equally impressive. Barry Melton’s guitar fills create what amounts to a five-minute extended improvised guitar solo as Country Joe sings an incredible song whose opening lines (“She hides in an attic concealed on a shelf behind volumes of literature based on herself“) set the scene for a story about a narcissistic girl who can’t wait for the singer to die so that she can tell all his friends about how she tried to save him. The intricate rhyming scheme of the four-verse song, combined with a changing rhythm make this a compelling standout track.
Country Joe McDonald explained the influences in the record. “R’n’B from my teenage years and C&W; cool West Coast jazz… some semi-classical stuff. I was a big fan of John Fahey and he probably influenced ‘Section 43’. All the songs were written by me on my guitar with harmonica.” When describing the sound, he said “I liked the music full of holes, as opposed to a wash of sound.” I know he understands his music better than I do, but I hear a wash of sound permeating every song on this brilliant album.
5 thoughts on “Electric Music For The Mind And Body by Country Joe And The Fish”
If you’ve not heard it, I recommend the episode of the Mojo Playlist podcast with Robyn Hitchcock who ‘brought in’ this very album to discuss
Don t know if you’ve heard it, but I recommend the episode of the Mojo Playlist podcast with Robyn Hitchcock as the guest who ‘brought in’ this very album to discuss
Wow. Thanks. I shall certainly give that a listen.