I’m not sure what was going through the minds of Country Joe McDonald and Barry “The Fish” Melton when they decided to form a band during the mid-1960s, but the result was one of the more unusual and ultimately influential bands of their era. Today many remember Country Joe and The Fish for their ringing fish cheer with 400,000 people at Woodstock and forget about their outstanding body of work.
McDonald and Melton would be the band’s constants, but the best known configuration also included drummer Gary “Chicken” Hirsh, keyboardist David Cohen, and bassist Dave Barthol. Their four albums together, 1967-1969, were some of the better, if somewhat forgotten, albums of the late 1960s.
Their debut album, Electric Music For The Body And Mind, may not have been the first psychedelic rock album but it set the standard for much of what would follow. Their fusion of rock, country, folk, and blues was unique, as were the constant tempo changes and chord sequencing. Add in a not always serious attitude, after all they named the band after Joseph Stalin who was called Country Joe during the 1940s, and you have one of the more unique and interesting albums in rock history.
The sound tended to center around Melton’s expert lead guitar, a tiny organ sound, and McDonald’s humorous, biting, and incisive lyrics. Their music bordered on the weird and unusual without crossing the line. “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine” was a good example of their sound as hidden beneath the music was one of the more unusual anti-romantic love songs on record.
They would become known for their political commentary and anti-Vietnam War stance, of which “Super Bird” was an early example. It was basically a trashing of the Johnson administration complete with Marvel Comics superhero imagery. They just don’t create them like that anymore.
There were a number of other memorable tracks. “Death Sound Blues,” as the name implies, incorporated blues elements and featured a searing guitar solo that proved Melton was one of the best kept guitar secrets of the late 1960s. “Bass Strings” was a musical drug experience that traveled from the concert stage to the desert to the sea shore. “Section 43” was a tightly structured instrumental that allowed all the band members to shine. “Grace,” a tribute to Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, was a trip in and of itself complete with some early guitar reverb.
Electric Music For The Body And Mind may sound a little dated today, but there can be no denying its influence and place in the American psychedelic music movement. It’s still good for a listen now and then. So turn on the black lights, hunker down, and have at it.
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