Country Joe and The Fish – Electric Music for the Mind and Body – Classic Music Review
This wasn’t working out, so I called my dad.
“You told me I’d love Country Joe. I’ve listened to this album three times and I’m beginning to despise him.”
“Well, for one thing . . . he meows.”
“He meows. On every fucking song, like ‘meow, ’bout country ways.'”
“Come on, he wasn’t that bad.”
“And his band sucks, too. Where did they get that organist—from Question Mark and the Mysterians? And Fish can’t play a blues scale to save his life. It’s awful.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, but what do you want me to do about it?”
“Give me some tips, pointers—send me a special mandala or something—I’ve got a review to write and I want to find at least one redeeming quality in this piece of shit.”
“Hmm. Maybe you need to get in the mood.”
“Score some weed.”
“And how do I do that? I haven’t acquainted myself with many drug dealers in Paris.”
“Come on, you have to have some dope smokers at work.”
“Dad, I’m the fucking boss! I can’t ask my staff to score me some weed!”
“Oh yeah, I forgot about that. Well, go hang out near the Sorbonne and follow your nose.”
“You’re a big help.”
“Get some candles, some Indian cloth, a portable light show . . . ”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that.”
My partner overheard the conversation and said, “I know where we can get some marijuana.”
“You’re kidding. How would you know?” She works for an accounting firm, for fuck’s sake. I don’t want to know about any accounting firms filled with potheads.
“Javi.” That’s her brother in Madrid, a major Kinks fan and a rock ‘n’ roll aficionado. “He can get it somewhere around Retiro Park and I can have him mail me some.”
I briefly considered the likelihood of the gendarmes having pot-sniffing dogs to check packages mailed within the Euro Zone and gave her a thumbs-up. While I waited for the grass to arrive, I started prepping for Moby Grape.
Javi sent us two fat joints wrapped in about a pound of tissue paper. “We’ll do this together,” I told her. “It’ll be fun!”
“I’ve never smoked marijuana,” she blushed.
“It’s been a while for me, but one thing’s for sure: we’ll have to wait until the pâtisseries have closed or we’ll gain a couple of kilos in one night.”
On the night in question, we filled the apartment with cheap-ass votive candles and burned jasmine incense sticks to set the mood, then sat cross-legged on the rug facing each other and shared a joint while listening to Electric Music for the Mind and Body. The experience did not improve my opinion, but we did giggle a lot at the silliness coming out of the speakers. My partner cheated (bless her heart) and surprised me with a pair of eclairs for the evening (one chocolate, one caramel). As we ate we moaned with every bite, very much like we do when fucking.
That triggered us to spend the rest of the night fucking in earnest and forget all about those country ways. Now I have to write this review . . . straight. I’m saving the other joint for Big Brother and the Holding Company or The Incredible String Band.
If you go to the various review sites or Amazon, you’ll read comments like this about Electric Music for the Mind and Body (spelling and punctuation errors uncorrected):
This record is the “Rosetta Stone” for psychedelic music. If you want to hear the real deal; this is it. Nothing has ever been it’s equal in this genera. The music, blends blues, folk, and rock, in ways only dreamed of. Not even the Jefferson Airplane could match it’s complex mix of old and “Never Heard of Before”. “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine” stands as a testement to where a love song can actually go, without really being a love song at all. The dense yet rich “Death Sound” is just plain creepy. “Super Bird” slaps “then” President Johnson right square in the jaw with some biting satire. And, “Grace” is a “TRIP” in every sence of the word. The sounds and words played hear are like a time capsule of it’s time. Truly one of the GREAT albums from an entire decade of truly great music. Enter the “Electric Music for the Mind and Body” and be prepared to be forever changed…..for the better. (Amazon reviewer)
Their full-length debut is their most joyous and cohesive statement and one of the most important and enduring documents of the psychedelic era, the band’s swirl of distorted guitar and organ at its most inventive. In contrast to Jefferson Airplane, who were at their best working within conventional song structures, and the Grateful Dead, who hadn’t quite yet figured out how to transpose their music to the recording studio, Country Joe & the Fish delivered a fully formed, uncompromising, and yet utterly accessible — in fact, often delightfully witty — body of psychedelic music the first time out. Ranging in mood from good-timey to downright apocalyptic, it embraced all of the facets of the band’s music, which were startling in their diversity: soaring guitar and keyboard excursions (“Flying High,” “Section 43,” “Bass Strings,” “The Masked Marauder”), the group’s folk roots (“Sad and Lonely Times”), McDonald’s personal ode to Grace Slick (“Grace”), and their in-your-face politics (“Superbird”). Hardly any band since the Beatles had ever come up with such a perfect and perfectly bold introduction to who and what they were, and the results — given the prodigious talents and wide-ranging orientation of this group — might’ve scared off most major record labels. Additionally, this is one of the best-performed records of its period, most of it so bracing and exciting that one gets some of the intensity of a live performance. The CD reissue also has the virtue of being one of the best analog-to-digital transfers ever issued on one of Vanguard Records’ classic albums, with startlingly vivid stereo separation and a close, intimate sound. (Bruce Eder, AllMusic)
Electric Music is perhaps the greatest psychedelic album of all time. Different aspects of the psychedelic experience (except those of the brown acid variety) are represented here from the crazed chaotic energy of “Superbird”, the deeply meditative (or stoned) “Bass Strings”, the soulfully flowing “Section 43”, to the sheer fun of this album. During a psychedelic experience, one is often able to percieve or rather hear colors in music. Electric music is replete with them and examples can be found on the organ solo of “Love” to Barry Melton’s guitar solo on “The Masked Marauder”. The mix of different tones on this album has been seldom paralled especially in the digital ninties. Chicken Hirsh’s resonant tom tom drums, Bruce Barthol’s rich bass, David Cohen milky organ and Barry Melton’s guitar provide a nice rich timbre palete throughout the album particular evident on the instrumentals “Section 43” and “The! Masked Marauder”. Barry Melton’s vocals on “Love” sound like Satchmo on acid and add to the fun of this masterpiece. Country Joe once told me that the songs were arranged so that you would forget the tune you just hear before the one you were hearing. He also said that the band “tested” the album out themselves. Now if that’s not quality control I don’t know what is. An analog masterpiece for those curious to know what music sounded like before the digital age. A high recommend. (Amazon reviewer)
I have now given the opposition equal time. I’ve listened to this album in stereo and mono, in vinyl and digital versions, under the influence and not. It stinks. The musicianship is piss-poor. The lyrics are filled with period clichés and gibberish. The vocals are uniformly weak and rare attempts at harmony fail miserably. “Bracing?” Like sitting on a porcupine. “Exciting?” Only because the grating noises make it impossible to sleep. “Delightfully witty?” Perhaps to aging hippies and third-graders. “Soaring guitar?” From a guy who can’t fucking play? “Prodigious talents?” How many talents does it take to reach prodigious? If it’s more than one, fuhgeddaboudit.
It’s not all bad, but bad enough. Here’s the blow-by-blow:
“Flying High”: Of course they had to open with a drug song, and the drug song opens with a dreadful attempt at blues guitar. Look. I’m average at piano and flute, but I’m a really bad guitar player. I can make a lot of noise but that’s about it. Therefore, when I respond to a lead solo by saying, “Shit! I can do better than that!” you know that I’ve set the bar as low as it can go. Country Joe’s vocal is classically laconic, hip and laid-all-the-way back, appropriate for lyrics that are full of that irritating attitude of hippie musicians that what they’re laying down can only be understood by those who are cool, hip and out-of-sight. Period clichés include (but are not limited to) “cats,” “diggin’,” and “trip” (used as a double entendre). The story is about how Country Joe gets caught in the rain in L. A. (Spock, what are the odds?) with his “axe” and is picked up by two “cats” in a Cadillac. One’s wearing a bowler hat, the other a fez, primarily to make the song sound weird and exotic. They drive in silence and Country Joe serenades the strange duo with his “harp.” Finally the Good Samaritans either get bored or sick of Country Joe’s harmonica and they drop him off at LAX and give him twenty bucks to fly home to the Bay Area. I confirmed with my dad that $19 fares did exist back then on a now-defunct airline called PSA. I’m so relieved to know that Country Joe had enough left over for a few Baby Ruths and Butterfingers.
“Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine”: This was the big single from the album, opening with a terribly cheesy organ in bad need of tuning. Barry Melton complements the mood with cliche counterpoint blues-like licks and Country Joe delivers a wink-wink vocal as he runs through a set of lyrics about a girl who thinks all the answers can be found in books and memorizes that data so she can pose as the source of infinite wisdom. The lyrics are easily the best on the album, flowing naturally and euphonically:
The joy of life she dresses in black
With celestial secrets engraved in her back
And her face keeps flashing that she’s got the knack,
But you know when you look into her eyes
All she’s learned she’s had to memorize
And the only way you’ll ever get her high
Is to let her do her thing and then watch you die,
Sweet Lorraine, ah, sweet Lorraine.
Of course, there’s the implication that you had to get high to prove you were cool, but the hippies possessed tremendous cognitive dissonance, and the “love everybody” tagline pretty much meant “love everybody but the straights.” I do have to say here that Chicken Hirsh does a very solid job on the drums, almost enough to allow you to tune out that horrid organ and equally horrid guitar.
“Death Sound” (aka “Death Sound Blues”): The title pretty much says it all. These guys had absolutely no fucking business attempting blues, but the form was a popular album-filler choice of several San Francisco bands. Whoever played that tambourine should have been imprisoned for life.
“Porpoise Mouth” (aka “Happiness Is a Porpoise Mouth”): Is one of the keys on the organ stuck? The Fish shift from blues to black light with this incredibly stiff waltz made worse by stoner poetry. What’s odd is that the lyrics don’t mention a waltz, but a polka: “The maple plants patterns in the sky/Its leaves to kiss the wind/While scores of glittering bugs and flies/Dance polkas on her limbs.” Hey, a polka would sound pretty good right about now! Is Myron Floren in the house? I howled with raucous laughter at the sexual innuendo in the closing verse:
Reeds and brass, the marching drums
Make a joyous sound
Trees bend low with nuts and plums
Then fall to find the ground.
I hunger for your porpoise mouth
And stand erect for love.
The sun burns up the winter sky
And all the earth is love.
If a guy walked into my bedroom and said, “I hunger for your porpoise mouth and stand erect for love,” I’d call the police.
“Section 43”: Before hearing this song I had no idea that the actual length of eternity is seven minutes and twenty-three seconds. This is a slow-tempo instrumental piece in five movements with barely perceptible movement. The first section establishes the main theme, if you can call it that. The second section is the least offensive and might have been better if a.) SOMEONE HAD PULLED THE PLUG ON THAT FUCKING ORGAN and b.) they’d realized their guitars were out of tune—a fact you can hear very clearly at the end of the passage. The third section repeats the main theme as if it were actually worth repeating and you’ll all be relieved to know that Country Joe did not leave his harp in the back seat of that Cadillac in L. A., for he serenades us with it here. The harmonica neither fits the tone or mood of the piece, so I’m assuming they used it because it was too hard to learn the saxophone. When the other instruments fade and we’re left with the organ and harmonica for a few seconds, the effect is truly ear-splitting and likely harmful to dogs. Barry Melton then opens the fourth section with a clunky guitar that signals to the band that it’s time to get dissonant for a few seconds (as if they weren’t already) and then the FUCKING ORGAN TAKES CENTER STAGE, which I suppose blew a lot of minds back in the day, assuming they weren’t already blown. The final section returns to the main theme (arrgh!) and fades relatively nicely over arpeggiated guitar chords. If this was “Section 43” I certainly hope that there are no sections 1-42 lying about, waiting for Country Joe and The Fish to become relevant again in the music trade.
“Superbird”: This is the song about President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was rightfully unpopular for wasting tens of thousands of lives in a completely pointless display of Texas machismo and for burning enough cash to send the American economy into the crapper for the next decade. This is also the song that the Amazon reviewer called “biting satire,” and I would suggest that he might want to brush up on Jonathan Swift or watch a few episodes of Monty Python to recalibrate his definition of satire. The song is a missed punch that attempts to capitalize on the fact that there was a Lady Bird and a Lynda Bird in the Johnson family. Country Joe’s big threat to Lyndon is found in the final line of the chorus: “Gonna send you back to Texas, make you work on your ranch.” I’m sure LBJ was trembling in his cowboy boots. To his credit, Country Joe would produce better satiric poetry on the next album with “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.”
“Sad and Lonely Times”: This laid-back swaying country tune seems to be more their style, and even Barry Melton has a passable turn on the lead guitar. The Fish get clever with a dual vocal split between channels where each vocalist sings complementary lyrics. Unfortunately, neither vocalist manages to hit the notes consistently, creating a series of harmonies that are very similar to what you’d hear during the sing-along at the end of a long party when everybody’s drunk and nobody gives a fuck.
“Love”: As in “Summer of Love, The,” I suppose. After a canned false start, Barry Melton proves that he can’t sing either.
“Bass Strings”: This is one of those slow—and I mean SLOW—drippy hippie numbers that call up images of rooms filled with red light, smoke and people sprawled all over the floor, like you see on the cover of Traffic’s Mr. Fantasy. Structurally it’s completely uninteresting and not much more than a 12-bar blues where the bars last for eons. Country Joe emits a few more meows and generally sounds like he should be on the floor with the rest. “Perfect for those special moments of catatonia” would be a good tagline. The lyrics, however, are precious and priceless, a glimpse into a culture long ago, far away, gone with the wind and all that stuff:
Hey partner, won’t you pass that reefer round,
My world is spinnin’, yeah, just got to slow it down.
Oh, yes you know I’ve sure got to slow it down.
Get so high this time that you know
I’ll never come down, I’ll never come down.
I believe I’ll go out to the seashore, let the waves wash my mind,
Open up my head now just to see what I can find.
Oh, yes you know I’m gonna see what I can find,
Just one more trip now, you know I’ll stay high
All the time, all the time.
Yes, I’ll go out to the desert just to try and find my past.
Truth lives all around me, but it’s just beyond my grasp.
Oh, yes you know it’s just beyond my grasp.
I’ll let the sand and the stars and the wind
Carry me back, oh carry me back.
The “L. S. D.” repetition is whispered so the pigs wouldn’t hear it.
“Masked Marauder”: This is weird: despite the dominance of that third-hand organ, I actually enjoy this piece. Bruce Barthol steps up and shows serious facility with the bass, and Hirsh is spot-on with the drums. The vocal interlude where Country Joe la-las through a pretty little melody is his best and most consistent vocal on the album. He even gets another turn on the harmonica and creates a sweet reverie that makes you think of sunny days near a gently-flowing river.
“Grace”: The alleged masterpiece of the album is Country Joe’s ode to Grace Slick, another one of those very SLOW meditative pieces that give you a glimpse into eternity. The first verse calls up memories of Monty Python’s “Silly Noises” sketch with what I suppose is the sound of rain falling or diamonds falling or rain falling on diamonds, since that’s what’s happening in the lyrics. The repeated couplet is amateurish in the extreme, as Country Joe garbles English syntax for no discernible reason:
Cold rain to splash water diamonds colored green and
Flash the sun to paint green her hair.
He then repeats the line, “Your silver streak flash” three times through a delayed echo and some kind of flanger or phaser, then closes the verse by repeating the line “Across the tiny door of my eye.” The second verse brings us more silly noises. The couplet in this verse is “Warm wind to touch the trees colored blue and/Flash the moon to paint blue my heart.” Isn’t “language torture” a felony in California? By now the constant shimmering of cymbals is getting positively annoying. The third verse is identical to the other two, only varying in the couplet, “Soft skin to spend the every day colored gold and/Flash the sea to paint gold our love.” Wow, man.
Trying to piece this all together, I conclude that when you combine diamonds and water, it turns a woman’s hair green, that warm winds turn trees blue and trigger a sympathetic vibration in the human heart that turns it blue as well, and that the purpose of soft skin is to spend an entire day colored gold so you can flash your naked body to the sea and paint your partner gold so you can make love. Makes sense to me!
In looking for a way to end this sorry review, I originally thought I’d just say that Electric Music for the Mind and Body is the classic “you had to be there” album and leave it at that. I wrote the first draft that way, but it felt incomplete. I called on my partner to help me, and after a drink, a cigarette and some oral sex (enjoyed simultaneously, of course), I was finally able to articulate the missing something.
Imagine you’re part of an archaeological team of the future digging through the rubble of what was once called Haight-Ashbury. Miraculously, you find a sealed copy of Electric Music for the Mind and Body, consult your technological-historical database, use your starship’s replicator to replicate a turntable and begin to study the music. You and your learned colleagues then gather together to speculate as to what made it possible for these primitive people in ancient times to develop the stamina needed to put up with such awful music. Digging deeper into the pit, the team finds evidence of hemp seeds, desiccated fragments of hallucinogenic mushrooms and a faded text titled The Psychedelic Experience. After reading a few sentences, you no longer need to speculate: you have your answer.
Original Hypothesis: You had to be there.
Modified Hypotheses: You had to be there and be stoned out of your fucking mind.