Monday, August 1, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On #37 - Country Joe and The Fish - Electric Music For The Mind and Body (Vanguard Records)

More than other San Francisco group of the 1960’s Country Joe and The Fish extolled the virtues of LSD. They openly sang about taking it, but more importantly they managed to capture the overall gestalt of the experience in music and lyrics. CJ and the Fish were the first band to combine a light show with live music. They played at a drive-in movie theatre and had imagery projected on the screen (why didn’t that idea catch on?) They were politically radicalized. After all, the name Country Joe referred to Joe Stalin and The Fish was code for Mao. Joe had served in Vietnam and came about his politics honestly. When Electric Music For The Mind and Body came out in 1967 it was a clear shot across the bow of straight society. Something strange was going on in the bay area, and lots of young people across the country were hearing it.
Kicking off with “Flying High” there is no doubt what this band is all about. The protagonist is high on acid and trying to find a cool place - a theme that would preoccupy most hippies by the end of the decade. Next is “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine” which again accurately describes the prevalent mindset of the era telling of a cosmic gypsy woman who entices both the mind and body of the singer. Martha Lorraine is a composite of every alluring hippie woman who can seduce with an edge of danger. “Death Sound” is a cosmic blues that ponders mortality with some great heavily reverbed lead guitar by Barry “The Fish” Melton. “Porpoise Mouth” is kind of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex on LSD. One of the centerpieces of the album is “Section 43” a seven and a half minute raga instrumental that beautifully gets all the psychedelic modus operandi into one song. There are slow, then fast passages that swoosh in and out of the mix led by a shimmering organ and spine tingling guitar leads. The song really mimics a trip, taking the listener through joy, sorrow, death and ultimately ecstatic rebirth. Pretty heady stuff! “Super Bird” is a straight-up protest against then-president Lyndon Johnson. It is brave and outrageous - they call him out by name and claim they will send him back to his ranch and make him drop some acid - in exactly those words! No wonder the FBI and CIA were watching these guys!
Every song on this album is a bona-fide classic of 1960’s radicalism. This band was not fooling around with their desire to turn on the world and tear down the curtain that cloaked the paisley future awaiting those with courage to look it square in the face. Obviously this kind of intense commitment to a drug-fueled ideology was not going to last -it couldn’t - and this line-up of the band would only make it for two albums. By the time Joe got on stage at Woodstock two years later and led a confused youth movement through his anti-war anthem “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” the cracks in the tie-dye facade were starting to widen. However, if you want to hear the movement in its pure, nascent form, free of the self-conscious glare of Life Magazine, Electric Music is the album for you.
The other key track is “Bass Strings” a completely haunting description of an acid trip that again combines organ and guitar into a spooky swirl that ends with Joe whispering L…S…D… into the microphone as the song fades out. It is both creepy and beautiful at the same time - just like the drug. The album starts heading for the exit with another perfect instrumental called “The Masked Marauder” which again neatly captures the zeitgeist of the era. Electric Music For The Mind And Body closes with “Grace” an incredible seven-minute lysergic ballad for Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick, whom Joe was romantically involved with at the time. This song moves on rarified ground, which simply could not be confused for any other era. The lyrics are twisted, cosmic poetry while guitars wail and scrape in competition with wind chimes and hissing cymbals. It is a perfect encapsulation of the times. Joe tells us “every day is colored gold” and for this brief moment in time, it actually seems true.
- Paul Epstein

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