Listening to…..Country Joe & the Fish…

I go back quite a long way with Country Joe & the Fish, probably to 1968 when my mate Ian played me his brother’s copy of ‘Electric Music for the Mind & Body’.  I think that I was always a little bit nonplussed by the obvious tension between Joe McDonald’s more political/social songs and the band’s ability to hold their own playing the kind of acid-inflected Bay Area rock championed by the likes of Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead et al.  CJ&F appeared in both D.A. Pennebaker’s ‘Monterey Pop’ and the ‘Woodstock’ movie, but it was Joe’s solo rendition of ‘The Fish Cheer’ and ‘I feel like I’m fixin’ to die rag’ at Woodstock that perhaps had the greater impact and was a harbinger of things to come. 

 CJ&F had been together in one form or another since about 1965 when Joe McDonald & Barry Melton were active in the folk/jug band scene in the Berkeley area, adding extra musicians as they went along in a seemingly haphazard fashion.  After 3 EP’s for the Rag Baby label in Berkeley, the band signed to Vanguard, who were trying to break out of the folk ghetto they had helped to create with artists like Joan Baez, Judy Collins etc. 

The first Fish album from 1967 (‘Electric Music for…’) featured songs with lengthy instrumental passages or – in the case of ‘Section 43’ – were totally instrumental.  These got the band a lot of airplay on emerging FM ‘underground’ stations like KSAN in Berkeley but, looking back, it seems likely that Joe McDonald never really intended the band to become acid rockers.  He was essentially a front man with a lot to say and , shall we say, limited musical skills, so 12-minute versions of ‘Section 43’ with Barry Melton’s  vibrato-rich guitar to the fore were always likely to create tension in the end.

The band produced three more albums over the ensuing 18 months and these – frankly – were subject to the law of diminishing returns; ‘I Feel like I’m fixin’ to die’ was pretty good, but ‘Together’ and ‘Here I go again’ were less effective, though still with the odd gem (‘Donovan’s Reef’, for example.)

The original band split up late in 1968 and what I’m actually listening to are some live recordings from their ‘final gig’ at the Fillmore West.  These tracks formed part of a double album retrospective called ‘The Life and Times of…’  which I didn’t buy at the time because I had all the band’s studio albums and didn’t appreciate that Disc 2 was all live.

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So, it’s interesting to catch up with these (nearly) 40-year old recordings for the first time….and the times were certainly a-changin’ for the band; Joe’s ‘Superbird’, a song originally about the then-President, Lyndon Johnson had been updated to account for the fact that Richard Nixon was President-elect by this point.  ‘Tricky Dicky’ had already been the subject of Joe McDonald’s ire back in the coffee-house days and would remain in his sights for some time yet.  There’s a particularly good blues (‘Crystal Blues’) among these tracks and a new Barry Melton song – ‘Love Machine’ that would crop up again in 1969.

After this November 1968 gig, bassist Bruce Barthol jumped ship to England and  put together a short-lived band called Formerly Fat Harry.  The Fish carried on with Jack Casady (from Jefferson Airplane) filling in on bass, but by February 1969, increasing acrimony had taken its toll and after another ‘final’ Farewell Gig  at the Fillmore West, with famous friends like Steve Miller and Jerry Garcia sitting in on a huge ‘Donovan’s Reef’ jam, the original line-up disbanded. 

Interestingly, second on the bill at this Fillmore extravaganza were  a promsing new English blues-rock band called Led Zeppelin, but if the torch was passing on to a new wave of bands, Melton & McDonald had a few more last hurrahs in mind.  The first was a new Country Joe & the Fish album called ‘C.J. Fish’ which featured a completely new rhythm section behind Melton & McDonald.  If you were a fan of Barry Melton’s guitar playing, then this was an album to be savoured.  It sounded quite different to any of its predecessors, using a stripped-down format akin to RnB but with lots of reverb-fuelled guitar and echo-laden drumming.  It also felt very much like a Barry Melton album.

Joe McDonald’s last hurrah probably came at Woodstock the following August.  The ‘C.J. Fish’ band played there but it was Joe’s solo renditions that got all the attention.  Apart from a spurious late 70’s reunion album, ‘C.J.Fish’ was the final album from CJ&F and though Joe went on to some critical acclaim (especially in Europe) for a series of politically-orientated solo albums during the 70’s, neither he nor Melton have ever really been in the eye of the storm again like they were in the late 60’s.

A while back, I heard a recording made in a bar in Berkeley about 5 years ago of Joe & Barry performing as a duo and dragging out some of the old songs.  It’s quite listenable and both of them are drily humorous about ‘those fabulous 60’s’ but I still find myself wondering about  ‘Section 43’ and the band that might have been……

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