The Fugs – Fugs 4, Rounders Score – 1975 – ESP Disk

The Fugs - Fugs 4, Rounders Score - 1975 - ESP Disk

From its glorious abstract cover art painted by Jezebel, a chimpanzee from the Portland Zoo, to the feverish, outrageously anarchic songs on the record, this is a joy.
This album is a wild romp of sex, drugs, anti-war sentiment and glorious satire.

This is a compilation. The material was recorded in 1966 and this record was released in 1975. Six of the recordings on side one were previously unreleased. It is a Fugs record but Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel who play on this album were also the two members of the Holy Modal Rounders, hence the title.

The album opens with the totally silly and deliberately juvenile Boobs A Lot, a song that both satirizes a high school football jock’s boob obsession whilst simultaneously revelling in the same obsession. The song is infectious and amusing. It is a good opener.

The Fugs were great at pushing past what was considered decent and then at times pushing past what was considered indecent into the obscene. They didn’t take themselves too seriously even when they were being serious. They were hilarious, prurient, absurd, thought provoking and teetering on the edge of lunacy most of the time. It was great stuff.

My favourite tracks on this are C.I.A. Man, Defeated, Slum Goddess and the beautiful Morning, Morning (which Richie Havens covered on his Mixed Bag album). If you’ve seen Burn After Reading and sat through the credits you’ll have heard his harshly satirical song C.I.A. Man which features on this record, though in a much earlier recording. Kill for Peace is good too.

I can’t remember for certain where I bought this album but I think it was from my friend Cody who used to have a record stall at Gorman House Markets in Canberra. I could be wrong. I never realized how scarce it was until I thought I’d lost it moving house and tried to find a copy online. It wasn’t available anywhere. Eventually I found my copy. That was a relief. It’s a record that means a lot to me.

Peter La Farge – On the Warpath – 1965 – Folkways

Peter La Farge - On  the Warpath - 1965 - Folkways

I was initially aware of Peter La Farge from listening to Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan cover his songs and from reading about him in biographies on those two artists. The first recordings I heard of his were this album and As Long As the Grass Shall Grow which I bought when I was about 19 years old from Yesterday and Today Records, a shop that was in Parramatta which specialized in country records but also had some folk, blues and 60s psycedelia. They were both on one CD released by Bear Family Records.

There was a precision to Peter’s writing that I liked immediately, the songs were so well crafted. There was also something in his voice I could immediately relate to and that I have never heard before or since. Listening to Peter taught me a lot as a singer. I liked his rough hewn playing style too.

It took me about 18 years to get a copy of this on vinyl. Peter La Farge records aren’t exactly easy to find in Australia. In all my years of trawling through second hand record shops, op shops and specialty record stores I only ever found one album on of his on vinyl (a reissue of ‘Sings Women Blues’ on Verve) at Yesterday and Today Records back in the 90s and one album that had a track of his (As Long as the Grass Shall Grow on An Anthology of North American Indian and Eskimo Music, Folkways) at Discovery Records in Hornsby, again back in the 90s. In both of those instances I didn’t have the money to buy them at the time so I just looked at the covers and had a read of the song titles and wished I could afford them and in both instances I went back a couple of days later to buy them when I had the money but they were sold already. It’s funny when I can remember exactly where I saw records that I didn’t even get to buy.

Ebay has altered my record buying habits lately and I now mainly shop online. I found this album there. It took about three weeks to ship to me and I was so happy to see that the cover was in mint condition and that the record had hardly been played. This is probably my favourite album cover. The photograph by David Gahr and the design by Ronald Clyne is striking. It hits the right balance of anger, defiance and pride. Like all Folkways LPs it is cheaply manufactured but it is designed really well and it comes with a nice booklet packed with notes, lyrics and musical notation of the songs.

This was the final album from Peter La Farge. He made five albums in five years. His first was on CBS and the rest were on Folkways. They are all good. He was an actor, a playwright, a rodeo rider, artist and a Korean war veteran. He committed suicide in October 1965. He was 34 years old. He packed a lot into a short life.

If you want to hear his recordings, four of his albums are available from Smithsonian Folkways and if you want to find out more about Peter, film maker Sandra Hale Schulman has made a documentary about him,┬áThe Ballad of Peter La Farge and she’s written a biography Don’t Tell Me How I Looked Falling: The Ballad of Peter La Farge.

Harry Belafonte – The Midnight Special – 1962 – RCA

Harry Belafonte - The Midnight Special - RCA - 1962

On this album Harry Belafonte branched away from calypso to American folk songs and blues. It was recorded in Webster Hall, New York City in 1962. This was the first Belafonte album I bought. It is a great record. He’s such a perfectionist but the gloss doesn’t kill the feeling. Harry Belafonte possessed one of the purest sounding voices, it was sweet like honey, smooth and light but it had guts and soul too. The versions of Midnight Special and On Top of Old Smokey are still my favourite recordings of those songs. I got this album when I was still a teenager and it was a time when I was starting to search for where the music I liked came from. I was starting to look at the musical ancestry so to speak. More than anything this record really got me interested in folk music. It was like a signpost pointing in two directions. You could go back further from here to people like Leadbelly and forward to people like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.

One of the things this album is famous for is the appearance of a young Bob Dylan on harmonica. It was Dylan’s first professional recording gig. Apparently Dylan didn’t enjoy doing take after take after take and walked out after just one song (Midnight Special). Dylan was much more of a one or two take recording artist and it makes sense with the sounds that Dylan’s interested in. The point to remember here is that there is no right or wrong way to make art. There is the way that makes the most sense for the particular artist. For Harry Belafonte doing endless takes until he is satisfied works and for Dylan doing one or two takes and moving on to another song works. It’s interesting to note that on this record Dylan plays the harmonica with a lot more finesse than on his own recordings. Maybe it’s because he was holding it in his hands and wasn’t restricted by a harmonica holder but maybe it is because Dylan deliberately downplayed his own abilities on other recordings. Maybe it is a bit of both.

This album was pivotal in developing my appreciation of so much music. In that sense it was also pivotal in my development as a musician. I can’t stress enough how important it was to me. Great, great stuff.

Woody Guthrie – Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti – 1960 – Folkways

Woody Guthrie - Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti - 1960 - Folkways

This album was recorded in January 1947 but it wasn’t released until 1960. As far as “concept albums” go this is by far my favourite. Some credit the Beatles with inventing the concept album, some credit Frank Sinatra but really, no one invented the concept of the concept album. The idea of stringing together songs that relate to a theme of story and putting them together in one album is just a natural thing to do. Invented had nothing to do with it.

The album deals in forensic but passionate detail with the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists who were excecuted in 1927 for the murders of Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli during a robbery at a shoe factory in Massachusetts. The confession of Celestino Madeiros to the murders didn’t help their situation. They were excecuted anyway. Many saw their conviction and excecution as being a reaction to their political beliefs rather than a result of looking at the evidence.

I’m presuming that this record was originally meant to be released as an album of 78s. If you don’t already know, before long playing records were the standard way of buying music you could buy albums that consisted of several 78s all together. They were an album like a photo album but instead of pages there were sleeves that held the records. There were two songs per disc, one on one side and one on the other so if you had 5 records in an album you had 10 songs. The delay in the release of these songs is probably due to Woody Guthrie not being happy with them. Regardless of Woody’s thoughts I feel that it is his best work. It nearly brings me to tears whenever I listen to the story in these songs.

The last song on this album, Sacco’s Letter to Son, is performed by Woody’s close friend Pete Seeger. The music to that song is by Pete and the words are Sacco’s own. They are his goodbye to his son. Going from Woody’s harsh and cracked voice telling the story and ending on Pete’s beautifully high and sweet voice singing a final goodbye is perfect – “If nothing happens they will electrocute us tonight… be brave so as to comfort your mother… help the weak ones at your side / The weaker ones that cry for help, the persecuted and the victim / They are your friends, friends of yours and mine…”

Odetta – Odetta Sings Dylan – 1965 – RCA Victor

Odetta - Odetta Sings Dylan - 1955 - RCA Victor

One of my favourite records. No one sings Dylan like Odetta sings Dylan. That said, no one sings Dylan like Dylan sings Dylan neither. They are both great artists and great voices. Odetta trained as an opera singer but was sidetracked by folk music. She had a voice that was deep like a man’s though it remained very feminine. She was incredible. Like some of my other favourite records this features Bruce Langhorne’s guitar playing. I love his sound. Bruce lost several of his fingers due to an accident with a cherry bomb when he was a child but he could really play beautifully. When I was searching through records I’d often have a look at the liner notes and the personel who played on the record. Sometimes I’d buy a record just because of one of the players on it. One of the sadder things about how music is consumed these days is that people have lost contact with that side of it, the human side. If you just get an mp3 of a song without all that information it doesn’t exactly spur you on to think about who played the second guitar line or who was the engineer or who played the bass. By removing the human side of the record, by removing the understanding that it took time and effort to produce it removes the sense of value that is attached. It is a pity that music is being devalued in this way. But back to this record, the opening track, Baby I’m in the Mood for You locks in with a driving folky beat that really sets the mood for the entire album. It is a record that is so alive. I love it.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – Young Brigham – 1968 – Reprise

Ramblin' Jack Elliott - Young Brigham - 1968 - Reprise

This is one of my all time favourite records. 912 Greens is the best track. A spellbinding spoken narrative over folk ragtime guitar. The record also boasts a great version of the Rolling Stones’ Connection. Young Brigham was produced by Bruce Langhorne, one of my favourite guitarists. Langhorne also played tabla on If I were a Carpenter. I have a signed copy of Young Brigham. I’ve met Jack 3 times so far, just as a fan. The last time was in a carpark in Civic, Canberra. Me and Tom Woodward bumped into him and we talked for a bit about Peter La Farge and Townes Van Zandt. Jack told us that Peter La Farge was his best friend and that they used to go to the rodeos together. He also said that he believes Townes Van Zandt died because the medical staff treating him didn’t let him have any alcohol before going into surgery. Jack’s dad was a doctor and had told him that if an alcoholic goes into surgery they can die from the shock to the system if they aren’t given any alcohol. Jack asked us where we were headed with our guitars and we told him we were going busking. He asked if we ever had any trouble from the police when we went did that. We said we didn’t. The people Jack was with dragged him away because he was starting to, ah, ramble, as his name implies and they obviously wanted to get a move on though he obviously wanted to keep talking. His rambling stories are great to listen to though. Jack is a born storyteller.

Leonard Cohen – Songs of Love and Hate – 1971 – Columbia Records

Leonard Cohen - Songs of Love and Hate - 1971 - Columbia Records

I was about 16 when I first stuck the needle in the groove on this record and heard Avalanche and it was like, well, I’ve felt this before but no song has ever made me feel this. That was a great moment. It was the first time I’d heard Leonard Cohen. This was the first record of his that I owned. You’ve got to remember that growing up in the 80s there was no internet and not many people had CD players for a while (and CDs were really terrible back then anyway) so everything was either cassette, which was crap, or it was vinyl which was great, sort of… The sort of was because, you see, it cost a lot more to press a record than to make a compact disc so back then record stores mainly just had top 40 stuff and a just a few other things (not like now when you walk in and it’s pretty easy to find a lot of stuff you’re looking for) plus I was a teenager and didn’t have much disposable income. You could order stuff in but, hey, that cost money (plus 80s pressings of things tended to be pretty poor anyway compared to earlier pressings, the grooves didn’t seem as deep so they skipped a lot plus the cover art was normally not as well printed as earlier editions). So, I bought 95% of my records secondhand at record stores like Ashwoods on Pitt Street and at op shops like St Vincents. It meant that I’d read about someone’s work and think, hey, that sounds interesting, and then I’d search for their records (along with records by a whole lot of other bands I wanted to hear) and maybe 6 months, a year later I’d find some. I bought Songs of Love and Hate from North Rocks deaf and blind school markets for about 2 bucks. I didn’t know what to expect… It hit me quite hard… in a good way. A lot of my friends at high school thought he was crap and softly derided me for liking him though I showed my friend Paul Gregoire this record within a week of getting it and like me he’d never heard Leonard before and he understood it right away and had a very similar reaction. It was nice to know that someone understood. Those friends who derided me for liking Leonard Cohen soon were to sing his praises. I think the Natural Born Killers soundtrack plus Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah altered their thinking on the matter. Funny that.