Before the anarchic social satire and the infamous “Fish Cheer” (reimagined with an entirely different four-letter word at Woodstock), and before San Francisco’s countercultural scene truly found itself, Country Joe & The Fish’s debut album crystallized everything the burgeoning West Coast scene had to offer in May 1967. At a time when contemporaries like Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were still evolving from their folk-rock roots, Joe and co had a vision – and it might not have been entirely narcotics-free. Electric Music For The Mind And Bodyset its stall out in the title: Get ready, synapses. This’ll jump-start your induction into the psychedelic 60s.
As calling cards go, it doesn’t get much better than the opening track, “Flying High” road trips equate with mind trips soundtracked by Barry Melton’s fragmented guitar lines, which somehow bolster a solid groove while taking a crooked route through Joe’s tale of thumbing a ride to the airport. “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine,” meanwhile, is a blues lament in spirit, David Cohen’s organ stabs stalking the song as if seeking to gobble all the psychotropics at the top of its heroine’s bookshelf.
Insouciant to the point of seeming utterly unbothered by success, Country Joe & The Fish were far more switched on than dropped out. While contemporaries like Moby Grape always sounded on the verge of collapse, The Fish’s inherent gift for songwriting ensured that their catchy hooks and wry lyrics bound everything together, finding an audience whose lives their music reflected in song. As far as psychedelic rock goes, some would push it further while others would burn themselves out with its sonic possibilities. But none would so acutely capture the countercultural way of life as Country Joe & The Fish did with Electric Music For The Mind And Body.
Country Joe talks about writing songs for Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, being “too radical for San Francisco,” and how the crowd-pleasing “Fish Cheer” became the infamous “Fuck Cheer.”
David Fricke and Robert Christgau give their run down of the most important and influential albums released in this year, “records that define the power, joy and legacy of 1967.” From Country Joe and the Fish, to The Doors, Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, and beyond.
Joe McDonald speaks to London’s prestigious V&A museum about his iconic Woodstock solo performance, and why “all those grunge rockers and rappers” owe him “a little royalty” for bringing swearing into the mainstream.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
“Love” - A fake false start nods to the group’s anarchic sense of humor; Joe’s vocals strain at the thought of just how much love he’s struggling to contain (and is that a deliberate nod to then girlfriend Janis Joplin in the singing style?). It’s a short, bluesy track that fades out far too quickly, but then The Fish were never ones to outstay their welcome. Still, we’d kill for more of the shard-like guitar that Barry Melton throws out at the end.
“Bass Strings” - Haunting organ, echoey guitar fills like interlopers from another dimension, and Joe McDonald’s fragile falsetto: “Bass Strings” is the comedown – if, indeed, you can ever come down. Wash your mind in the sea, dry out in the desert… do anything you need to, but the eerily whispered closing refrain – “L.S.D. L.S.D. L.S.D.” – leaves a disconcerting sense that this won’t be easy…
“Super Bird” - Though a far more political group than Electric Music For The Mind And Bodymade it seem, this sneering comment on Lyndon B Johnson – under whose presidency the Vietnam War still raged – was a superhero theme tune turned countercultural rave-up. “Yeah, gonna make him eat flowers/Yeah, make him drop acid.” Better than bombs, that’s for sure.
“Grace” - Arguably the most sonically ambitious moment on the album, we find McDonald’s vocals switching between speakers (in the stereo mix, at least), wrapped in a soundscape woven from wind chimes, plaintive guitar, and tempestuous percussion. Written in tribute to Jefferson Airplane’s fearless frontwoman, Grace Slick, “Grace” closes the album on a fittingly ethereal note.
DID YOU KNOW?
- The band initially thought to call themselves Country Mao And The Fish…
- … But decided that a reference to Russian dictator Joseph Stalin would be better.
- The band’s most famous song, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag,” was originally written for Electric Music For The Mind And Body, but held over for its follow-up, I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die.
- The group appeared as The Crackers in Zacharia, a 1971 movie billed as “the first electric western,” also staring a young Don Johnson.
- The “Fuck Cheer” was so controversial that The Fish’s Ed Sullivan Show appearance was cancelled; the group were allowed to keep the fee they’d already been paid, so long as they agreed to never perform on the show.
Listen to Electric Music For The Mind And Body in its entirety on your preferred streaming platform or purchase on wax below.
Words: Jason Draper