Country Joe & the Fish

A History

by Bill Belmont

Country Joe and the Fish came about as part political device, part necessity, and part entertainment. In the Fall of 1965, the remnants of the FSM (Free Speech Movement) on the Berkeley Campus were organizing a series of demonstrations against the war in Vietnam at the Oakland Induction Center. Drawing on the experience of the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war organizers always provided entertainment either before or after the march -- to hold people's attention. This was the era of the Folk revival starting to turn into the San Francisco Rock Scene and "bands" were starting to appear all over the place. Joe McDonald had been editing a magazine he had founded, "Rag Baby," and, as the story goes, ran out of material. He got the idea of doing a talking issue and through various devices and favors wound up having an EP pressed; it was an extended-play disc with four songs on it: two by a group which included Joe, guitarist Barry Melton, singer Mike Beardslee, washboard player Carl Schrager and bassist Richard Saunders and called "Country Joe and the Fish" and two songs by another local folk singer, Peter Krug. This disc is considered to be the first self-produced recording to be used by a band as a form of promotion. It contained the original recorded version of the so-called anthem of the sixties "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag" and Joe's satire of President Lyndon Johnson, "Superbird".

After a brief period of performing as a folk duo under the name Country Joe and the Fish, Joe and Barry earnestly put together a rock band under the same name. The new lineup consisted of Paul Armstrong on bass, tambourine and other percussion instruments, Bruce Barthol on bass, David Cohen on guitar and keyboards, and John Francis Gunning on drums.

The origin of the name appears to have come from the band's manager, ED Denson, who coined the phrase drawing from Mao's saying about "the fish who swim in the sea of the people;" the Country Joe part refers to Joseph Stalin, whose nickname during World War II was "Country Joe."

The band worked regularly in Berkeley at The Jabberwock coffee house on Telegraph, and became familiar faces at the two San Francisco ballrooms, the Avalon and The Fillmore Auditorium. They also had a penchant for self-promotion and printed up posters and calendars using the style of the times. Tom Weller, "artist in residence," created these images. ED, who also wrote for the weekly Berkeley Barb, concocted with Joe the idea of letting the audience know what was happening at all times; so they took out a 52 week 1/4 page ad in the Barb informing their audience where they were going to be in the coming week -- even if it was in Canada. The band's popularity was further enhanced by the release in the summer of that year of a second EP -- called the "white EP" -- which contained three songs: "Bass Strings," "Section 43" and "(Thing Called) Love." "Bass Strings" became one of the most popular songs played on the new up-and-coming radio format then simply called "progressive" radio. Billboard magazine in 1967 referred to the Country Joe EP as "unique," and the airplay it received brought them to the attention of New York City in general and the music business in particular.

The band had signed a recording contract with Vanguard Records in December of '66 and, having recorded it at Sierra Sound in Berkeley, were unaware of and more or less free from the watchful eyes of a record company. Paul Armstrong left the group to complete a two-year alternative service as a conscientious objector to the draft, and John Francis Gunning was replaced on drums by "Chicken" Hirsh. Sam Charters, noted blues writer, producer and poet, was in charge of the record which was entitled Electric Music For The Mind and Body. It was to have contained Joe's most topical song "Fixin' to Die Rag" but it was left off at the urging of the Vanguard's president Maynard Solomon who felt that it would become a "thorn in their side and prevent the band from getting any single play on the radio." An unusual move by the company that staged the Weavers' reunion concert at Carnegie hall during the height of anti-left sentiment in the United States. "Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine," released as the band's first 45, only made it to #98 on Billboard's "Top 100," but became a staple of American college radio. It, along with "Masked Marauder" and the other instrumental added to the album "Section 43," were notable in that they were instrumentals and were not only played on the radio, but played in performance as well. This was unusual in an era of short three-minute singles. Radio and the way music was performed was changing and the band was helping to change it.

Electric Music and the follow-up LP, I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die, remained on Billboard's album charts around #32 for about two years, while the group increasingly toured the "ballroom" circuit and colleges around America. They appeared at and in the film of the Monterey Pop Festival and the film Revolution. In the summer of 1967, they were offered a series of gigs on the East Coast. They accepted and took with them a "light show," that curious by-product of the ballroom scene. It consisted of rear-screen projections of images, slides and liquids, containing colors swirled in water and oil producing paisley patterns on a screen suspended behind the band and creating a uniquely "psychedelic" experience. The New York City show, at the Cafe Au Go-Go was the first time a light show had been brought to New York. By 1968 they had released a third album Together and were touring successfully around the world. They toured Europe in the fall of 1968 and recorded a fourth LP, Here We Are Again, in the late spring of 1969. The "we" of Country Joe and the Fish had changed: Bruce Barthol had departed the band prior to the recording, and David Cohen and "Chicken" Hirsh left the band about halfway through the album. Along with the ever-present Joe and Barry are performances by bassists Mark Ryan, Jack Casady of the Jefferson Airplane and Peter Albin of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Big Brother's drummer David Getz and keyboardist Mark Kapner. Both LPs contained novel approaches to music -- the first, "Rock and Soul Music" Joe's paean to James Brown and the second, a dry, cutting, almost minstrel-show-like song about Harlem, "The Harlem Song." The second broke new ground in its use of horns and strings as "sweetening," a common device in standard pop, but until this record, not used at all in new "progressive" rock. Ironically two records released later that year -- The Doors' 45, "Touch Me," and the Rolling Stones' LP Let It Bleed, also made use of horns and strings.

An event at the end of the summer of 1969, the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York, became a milestone that forever changed the band's career and to a certain extent the direction it then took. After much haggling due to last minute cancellations, Country Joe and Fish were scheduled to play the festival. As is now common knowledge, the roads were clogged, the weather was terrible and due to the estimated 500,000 souls in attendance, it was almost impossible for the artists to get to the site, let alone appear at their intended time. The first show day, Friday, found most performers either trapped at their hotel in a surrounding village, or trying to get to the stage area. Joe, who had come down to see what was going on, happened to be onstage at the exact moment Richie Havens was finishing his set. A guitar was found, a set was organized and after four or five songs, he decided to "do the Rag," which he had intended to perform with the band later in the festival. Now, as a piece of background, it is necessary to add that as an introduction to the "Rag" on the second LP, the band shouts in high school cheerleader fashion, "Gimmie an F, gimmie an I ..." then "What's that spell? What's that spell?" etc. and the audience yells "FISH." All very innocent; but in the Summer of 1968, at the Shaefer Summer Festival in Woilman Rink in New York's Central Park before about 10,000 people inside and about 10,000 people outside the fence, drummer Chicken Hirsh suggested altering the cheer to "gimmie an F-U-C-K". Some writers have claimed that this act was one of true defiance, outrage toward the system and statement of how youth felt at the time; no one, so far as we know ever asked "why" the Cheer was changed -- it just was and it stuck. Also at Central Park that night were a number of executives from the Ed Sullivan Show; they had asked the band to appear near Christmas time that year. The following week they signed the contract, and sent in the agreed upon performance payment in full with a request: please don't appear on the show -- keep the money. They were also never invited back to the Shaefer Beer Festival. Back at Woodstock, when Joe yelled "Gimme an F!" at the end of the cheer the sound of all these people yelling "fuck" was astounding or better yet, hard to believe; it was as if a rather large cross-section of America's youth was telling the world "get stuffed." Things were never the same, in more ways than one.

The film of the Woodstock Festival was prepared for release in the spring of 1970, and almost coincided with The Fish's last LP for Vanguard C. J. Fish which was produced by Tom Wilson. This incarnation of the band featured Joe and Barry, along with Mark Kapner on keyboards, Doug Metzler on bass and Greg Dewey on drums. They appeared in and performed music for underground cult film Zachariah where Joe is the leader of a band of outlaws in the old west, carrying amplifiers on their horses and calling themselves "The Crackers."

When Woodstock, the movie hit the theaters, "Fixin' To Die Rag" was in the middle of the film, with its lyrics spelled out, highlighted with a bouncing ball, including the "Cheer" and copious remarks about how many people seemed to be in the audience. So what a recording, some airplay and countless performance could not do, the film did instantly. It brought the band's anti-war message and the "get stuffed," we-don't-like-what-you're-doing-ness of the "Cheer" into movie theaters all over the world. In short, all of a sudden 5 years after its debut at a demonstration in Oakland it became an anthem.

Shortly after, Joe and Barry embarked on solo careers and have only occasionally reunited to perform as Country Joe and the Fish over the years. Though relatively short-lived, Country Joe and the Fish proved to have a major influence on a whole generation of singer-songwriters and bands, notably due to their insistence on mixing music with politics, satire, and irreverence in an unprecedented way.


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