To most baby boomers, the one stellar moment in the career of Country Joe & the Fish would have to be singer/songwriter Country Joe McDonald's deliverance of the "Fish Cheer" at Woodstock. That cheer – and the rollicking anti-war song which accompanied it, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die-Rag" – is arguably the San Fran band's defining moment: sledgehammer satire, built over an old Kid Ory jazz track and delivered with a vicious glee that the South Park boys would surely recognize. If the band had done nothing more than that single track, their place as 60's counter-cultural icons would've been assured.
But these longhaired goofbutts had at least one more great song in 'em, though you and I (and you and I) might disagree as to what that was. We could probably reach a consensus, though, that it wasn't "Marijuana," a live waste of track space that basically consists of the boys woozily singin' "I sure do liketa get stoned" to an appreciative wasted concert audience . . . or "Sing Sing Sing," a weak attempt at a hippie love song which sounds like somp'n the Association would've tossed onto the compost heap… or the meandering psychedelic tribute to Grace Slick. Too bad all three of these duds are included on the newly released ten-song Vanguard Visionaries Country Joe & the Fish retrospective.
Face it, as beloved as these bozos were in their day, they sure could be erratic when it came to their recorded output. Whether indulging in a tediously serious anti-war drone ("An Untitled Protest") to counteract their Viet rag's jaunty snark or frittering away album space on a wordless waltz-tempo psychedelic instrumental ("The Masked Marauder"), this band could really try its fans' patience. Just when you're about to give up on Joe & the Fish, though, they pull out a second great period protest song (the aptly garagey "Superbird (Tricky Dick),") or a thoroughly respectable blues track centered on band co-founder Barry Melton's straight-ahead 'lectric guitar licks – and you're ready to give 'em another chance. If at times (and perhaps I'm indulging in some label specific bias here), CJ&tF sound more like a folkie's idea of a rock band than an actual rockingly cohesive unit, this ragtag bunch could still produce some engaging electric music.
To my ears, the band's best moments after "Rag" come in two of singer Joe McDonald's tributes to individual women: "Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine," a Dylanesque track about a self-absorbed mystical lady that's held together by keyboardist David Cohen's neatly cheesy organ fingering, and "Janis," a rueful waltz-tempo paean to Janis Joplin with a dulcet chorus and doleful harmonica background. As heartfelt a lost love song as ever came out of the San Francisco Scene, it shows that this still-active part-time political rabble-rouser could be a pretty sweet folk-rock popper when he put his mind to it. (I'm thinkin' Lou Reed, another rocker with more than his share of erratic LPs to his name, mentally replayed this track a lot when he was working on songs for the VU's fourth album.) While it may've been their biggest audience moment, CJ&tF were still worth more than a simple four-letter cheer.