My Life 45 by Phil Ochs

May 31, 2011

Phil Ochs is an unknown name among most of the current generation of music fans. During the mid-1960s, he was second only to Bob Dylan as a folk artist.

His music may be somewhat stuck in the sixties but it still deserves a listen today. He was an angry, take no prisoners protest singer who railed agains the U.S. government, war, and a number of other subjects that crossed his path.

His album releases were commercialyt successful but he never had a song reach the BILLBOARD MAGAZINE Pop Singles Chart. It was not for a lack of trying. “My Life” is representative of his music and while it may not have been suited for AM radio play, it deserved to make the charts. Many of his albums are worth seeking out.

Here’s To The State Of Richard Nixon 45 by Phil Ochs

April 10, 2011

Phil Ochs has been dead just about 35 years now. He committed suicide on April 9, 1976, at the age of 35.

During the mid to late 1960’s he was second only to Bob Dylan as a respected anti-war singer and for his unrelenting criticsm of the United States government. His take no prisoners nature would ultimately prevent him from achieving mass appeal.

His albums sold well, if not spectacularly. He never had a single release make the BILLBOARD MAGAZINE Pop 100 Singles Chart. He was a straight folk singer and the nature of his material prevented it from having massive, or to be more realistic very little, radio airplay.

“Here’s To The State Of Richard Nixon” was an example of one of his failed singles. It was a biting, bordering on vicious, attack on the President of The United States. It was also amusing. It could be said to have been tongue in cheek, except Ochs was very serious.

Today the music of Phil Ochs is frozen in time as the country and world have moved on. But if you want a look at one of the better musical poets of a generation ago, then this is a song for you.

There and Now: Live In Vancouver 1968 by Phil Ochs

May 29, 2009

There and Now: Live In Vancouver 1968 was the last Phil Ochs album that I purchased and will probably be my final one unless some rare material is unearthed.

The album was recorded March 13, 1969 and not 1968 as the album title states. It presents just Ochs and his acoustic guitar except for one track. The concert occurred after his personal trauma over attending the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, but before his depression and addictions began to erode his skills. As such it provides an excellent retrospective of his career and is in a way the greatest hits album that he never issued during his lifetime.

I think that Live In Vancouver is the best live document that he left behind. Just about every important song in his catalogue is included and when they are performed one after the other, his passion and talent shine brightly.

The album begins with a graceful rendition of “There But For Fortune.” It is quickly evident that his voice is in fine form. His persona and the type of songs that he sang and wrote often covered up the fact that he possessed one of the better voices in folk music history.

The second song is a stripped down version of “Outside Of a Small Circle of Friends.” Without the production and arrangements that provided a counterpoint to the vocals when it was originally issued on Pleasures Of The Harbor, it takes on a whole new meaning.

His musical adaptation of the Alfred Noyes poem, “The Highwayman,” is presented in all its seven minute glory. This epic song of love and death remains one of the classic folk songs of its era. It was preceded by another of his forays into literature with his musical interpretation of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “The Bells.”

At this point in his life Ochs was still unrelenting in concert. “I Kill Therefore I Am,” “The World Began In Eden and Ended In Los Angeles,” “The Doll House,” and “Where Were You In Chicago” find his personal agenda intact. This is no more apparent than the angry and painful eight minute presentation of “Crucifixion.”

“The concert ends with his “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” which was not intended as a retirement or final statement when it was released but serves that purpose here.

Phil Ochs has been dead for 33 years now and There and Now: Live In Vancouver 1968 is a fitting and haunting last will and testament from one of the masters of sixties folk movement.

Greatest Hits by Phil Ochs

May 29, 2009

Greatest Hits was a last gasp from Phil Ochs. Recorded is late 1969 and released in early 1970, it would be his final studio album. Depression, prescription drugs, alcohol, and a lack of faith would lead Ochs to commit suicide on April 9, 1976. His final hurrah would be an appearance at a concert in New York’s Central Park celebrating the end of the Vietnam War on May 11, 1975. Performing before a crowd of about 100,000 people he would sing a duet with Joan Baez on “There But For Fortune” before closing with his own song, “War Is Over.”

Phil Ochs would have an influential career but there would be no hit songs. Greatest Hits would be an album of new material. The cover would show Ochs dressed in a gold suit playing the star like Elvis Presley. Inside he would refer to 50 Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong, which again was a parody of the album Elvis’ Gold Records Volume 2: 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.

The backing musicians would read like a Who’s Who. Gene Parsons, Clarence White, Ry Cooder, Tom Scott, James Burton, Laurindo Almeida and many others would all contribute to this album. Old Brian Wilson cohort, Van Dyke Parks, would produce the affair. It all added up to a far different Phil Ochs release as he moved away from his folk roots and toward a country and rock sound.

Only one protest song is contained on the album. “Ten Cents A Coup” is a comedic skewering of Nixon and Agnew by way of praise and comparison.

“Jim Dean Of Indiana” was a tribute to James Dean but might as well have been a beautiful look into his own childhood which was a much simpler time both for him and the country. “Boy In Ohio” would follow the same lyrical path.

“Chords Of Fame” and “My Kingdom For A Car” would take his music in a country direction. Had he lived this may have been an interesting road for him to travel.

The final track was titled “No More Songs” and was like a door slamming on his career.

Phil Ochs legacy remains that of an uncompromising critic of the American establishment. Unlike Bob Dylan, he was never able to separate himself from his political agenda which would ultimately cost him his life. What is left behind is an often under appreciated catalogue of work that remains an important document of the mid to late sixties.

Rehearsals For Retirement by Phil Ochs

May 29, 2009

The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago marked the beginning of Phil Ochs personal deterioration. Despite his biting songs of protest and scathing attacks on the establishment, he always considered himself a patriot and retained hope that a better America would eventually emerge. That hope began to evaporate in the aftermath of the convention.

His musical reaction would be to release a bitter, dark, and deeply personal album. Rehearsals For Retirement also moved him ever closer to a rock ‘n’ roll sound and while he never completely crosses over it helps to salvage the mostly depressing nature of this release.

Given his future, the album cover is chilling. It portrays a tombstone with his name on it and while it was not meant to be about his own death, the connection is obvious. He only produced one more album of original material and would be dead within seven years. “My life has been a death to me” are lyrics from the song “My Life,” which is the last track on side one of the original vinyl release and they are like a door closing which can never be re-opened.

“Pretty Smart On My Part,” which leads off the album show the musical direction that Ochs was traveling and is the highlight of the release. His creative juices remain intact as he sings from the point of view of a right-wing activist who plans to kill the president among other things. The lyrics would become a part of his ongoing FBI file. The song would have a rockish feel in spite of the sparse arrangement. The bluntness of “I Kill Therefore I Am” is also made palatable by the fusion of folk lyrics and rock music.

Things begin to deteriorate on the second side of the album. “The World Began In Eden and Ended In Los Angeles” and “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore?” are a combined nine minutes of heartbreak, despair, lack of hope, and depression. Except for “Where Were You In Chicago?” the famous Ochs humor is mostly lacking and it is sorely missed as it made his unyielding message accessible and palatable both to his listeners and to himself.

Rehearsals For Retirement find Ochs poetry and ability to present a message intact. It was his loss of faith that makes the album a difficult listen. It remains an interesting re-action by Ochs as he rants against the society and events beyond his control in the late sixties. It is an album not for the weak at heart.

Tape From California by Phil Ochs

May 29, 2009

Phil Ochs returned in July of 1968 with his fifth album, Tape From California. It would be the last time that a totally healthy Ochs would enter the studio. The album would continue his turning away from a strict folk sound and find him experimenting with some classical influences and even a little rock ‘n’ roll. It would be the best and most consistent of his releases for the A&M Label.

The lyrics and their accompanying vocals continued his passionate approach. His writing is beautifully poetic in many places yet remained insightful, intelligent and straight forward. He continued to be the conscience of American society and a herald of its decay.

The track that draws immediate attention is the thirteen minute opus “When In Rome.” Here he re-writes and in many ways re-creates the history of The United States while comparing it to the decadence of The Roman Empire. He sings much of the song in the first person. It is a composition ambitious in its scope and dominates one side of the original vinyl release. While it may not be a song that you will want to listen too very often it is unforgettable and ultimately brilliant.

His most well known song from the album was “The War Is Over.” It was an unusual and oddly beautiful creation that criticized the Vietnam War from a unique perspective. It would become another favorite of the protest movement and would keep Ochs in the forefront of that movement which continued to grow as the war expanded.

The title song, “Tape From California,” would find him experimenting successfully with a rock sound. Later in his career he would begin to include more rock ‘n’ roll into his live performances. A counterpoint would be the gentle and in many ways autobiographical folk song, “Joe Hill.” Joan Baez would cut a famous version of this song but I prefer the purity of his original version. Of special note was the guitar playing by folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott on this track.

“The Harder They Fall” is one of the few songs by Phil Ochs that is a failure. He over reaches and his use of puns is just too cute.

Tape From California would find Phil Ochs successfully treading the middle ground between his first three folk albums and the over produced Pleasures Of The Harbor. It is probably the best representation of his musical vision during the middle period of his career.

Pleasures Of The Harbor by Phil Ochs

May 29, 2009

In March of 1966 Phil Ochs released his In Concert album. It has become a classic folk and protest recording. At the time it made him a leading voice of the anti-establishment movement in the United States. It was also his most commercially successful release as it reached the Billboard National charts at number 150. All of this added up to the Electra label dropping him from their roster of artists.

He quickly signed with A&M and in late October of 1967 released Pleasures Of The Harbor. This was a different sounding Phil Ochs as he strayed from a traditional folk presentation by adding strings and piano while incorporating elements of jazz and classical music. It was not the commercial breakout that he hoped for at the time but it was as an interesting fusion of musical styles on his part and today remains one of his most listenable efforts.

“Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends” would become one of his signature songs. Apathy, murder, and parody are all present but they are combined with a musical styling that runs counterpoint to the message. “The Party” has a similar intent as it criticizes the upper class but the song is played as if in a lounge and Ochs vocal is dead on.

“The Crucifixion” remains one of the most ambitious compositions of his career. It traces assassination from Christ to Kennedy. There is a beauty to the lyrics and music. If you want to hear a stripped down and superior version of the song just check our There and Now: Live In Vancouver where Ochs just accompanies himself on an acoustic guitar.

Several of the other songs are well constructed and contain superior lyrics, but suffer from overproduction. “Pleasures Of The Harbor” is a gentle song of searching by sailors who traveled from port to port. “Flower Lady” is about being invisible to people as they pass by.

Pleasures Of The Harbor is the most modern sounding album that Phil Ochs would produce. It also contains some of his most thoughtful and beautiful lyrics and, in many ways, is more personal than political. It is not the place to introduce yourself to his music but it is a nice stop along his musical journey of life.

In Concert by Phil Ochs

May 29, 2009

In Concert was the first album by Phil Ochs that I remember purchasing as a teenager. Little did I realize at the time that a number of tracks had been re-created in the studio due to the defective taping of the concerts that were supposed to be used for this release. Just how many tracks were recorded in the studio remains open to question decades later. Nevertheless the album has a live feel to it and his comments between songs are almost worth the price of admission on their own. “John Wayne Plays Lyndon Johnson. And Lyndon Johnson Plays God. I Play Bobby Dylan. A young Bobby Dylan.” And so it goes.

Despite the problems and questions, in many ways In Concert remains his defining album. His passion and commitment to the protest movement are self evident. Combined with his acoustic guitar virtuosity and soaring vocals, it all adds up to one of the best folk albums of the 1960’s.

Bob Dylan’s influence can be felt on some of the tracks. “Ringing Of Revolution” is a call to the faithful and remains an anthem of the protest movement. “(The Marines Have Landed On The Shores Of) Santa Domingo” finds Ochs branching out into the narrative form of song.

Most of the tracks find him doing what he does best. “Bracero” is his criticism of the wages and working conditions of immigrants. It can only be imagined what he would think about this issue today. “Love Me, I’m A Liberal” is another of his amusing but scathing attack songs. “Canons Of Christianity” criticizes the hypocrisy of the church. “There But For Fortune,” which was a hit for Joan Baez, is a song about comparisons and fate.

The oddest and most poignant composition on the album is “Changes,” which is a straight love song and is a rare occasion of Ochs showing a side of him removed from his political agenda. Given his body of work it remains a gentle look into his personal life.

The final track on the original album, “When I’m Gone,” could have been used on his tombstone. It is a call for activism and a chilling look into his personal future.

Given the state of the world today, Phil Ochs In Concert is worth a listen as it deals with topics that are still relevant. It not only remains one of the best statements of protest to emerge from the sixties but shows an artist trying to make a difference while creating some good music along the way which remains a rare combination.

I Ain’t Marching Anymore by Phil Ochs

May 28, 2009

1965 found Phil Ochs releasing his second album, I Ain’t Marching Anymore. Accompanied by only his own acoustic guitar, it showed a new maturity as it dealt with such topics as civil rights, labor struggles, and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Yet there was also a number of tracks that presented his sensitive side, which served as a nice glimpse into his private world of romanticism and sensitivity.

Overall this second album is a stronger release than All The News That’s Fit to Sing. The music is better and the lyrics have more bite. His vocals are also excellent as they have a clarity that was missing on his debut album. He had as well learned the use of phrasing to help put his message across.

Despite growing up in the Sixties and being a fan of Ochs, my favorite song is not one of his masterful protest or topical ones but rather his interpretation of the Alfred Noyes poem, “The Highwayman,” which he set to music. It’s a love song of longing and death, showing his brilliance at fusing his journalistic and musical visions. I mentioned in another review that I wish he could have traveled in this direction more often as it was unique, moving, interesting, and entertaining. The poignancy of this song and similar tracks made for a nice counterpoint to the unyielding nature of his political agenda.

Two of his most enduring political songs would grace this album. “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and “Draft Dodger Rag” became anthems of the Sixties anti-war movement. They would forever link Ochs to the radical left and place him outside of the musical mainstream. The first was the tale of a weary soldier, the second an amusing and bitter accusation of pro-war advocates who themselves refused to fight.

His most scathing song was “Here’s To The State Of Mississippi,” which criticized the lack of civil rights and the outright racism of the state. It remains a difficult listen today. Near the end of his life he would rework the song, retitling it “Here’s To The State Of Richard Nixon,” which proved that even during his last and unhealthy years he could still bite when necessary.

There were a couple other songs of note. “The Iron Lady” was an indictment of the death penalty. And “In The Heat Of The Summer” presents him at his passionate best.

I Ain’t Marching Anymore finds a healthy Phil Ochs at the top of his game. It would propel him to the forefront of the protest movement and remains a valuable look into the climate of the mid 1960’s.

All The News That’s Fit To Sing by Phil Ochs

May 28, 2009

If Phil Ochs had not died in 1976 at age 35 he would be pushing 70 today and would probably be a revered grand old master of the protest movement. Instead his memory and his music have gradually faded from the public’s awareness.

There was a period of time when Phil Ochs was an important and potent force in American music. He was considered second only to Bob Dylan as a writer of social commentary and anti-establishment songs. His compositions and his albums were brilliant, biting, often humorous, committed, and always unyielding as they intersected and weaved through the fabric of American society.

He was a classic folk singer for most of his career. A journalism major at Ohio State, he would fuse that love with music and create one of the more impressive catalogues of the 1960’s. While his music is at times dated, it is still worth exploring not only as an intimate look at the sixties but also for its consistent excellence.

Phil Ochs released his first album in 1964 at the age of 24. All The News That’s Fit To Sing would be a scathing commentary on war and the establishment, yet at times, would also show a love of America on his part.

“Talkin’ Vietnam” and “Talkin’ Cuban Crisis” are titles that are almost self explanatory. He employed the same type of talking blues approach that Bob Dylan used so effectively early in his career. “Ballad Of William Worthy’ was another song about Cuba which criticizes the arrest of an American who dared to travel there as it was illegal.

The best and most endearing song on the album is his hymn to America, “Power and The Glory,” It is a grand statement that is similar to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” I can’t help but think that if it had been written by almost any other artist it would have made a lasting impact upon the American consciousness.

There are a number of other songs that hold up well. “One More Parade” was written for the soldiers serving in Vietnam and looks toward peace. “Bound For Glory” is a worthy and moving tribute to Woody Guthrie. “The Thresher” was a poignant memorial to the American submarine by the same name that disappeared with all hands on board. “What’s This I Hear” is one of the best two minute statements on the subject of politics in existence.

One of his most creative songs was the musical adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “The Bells,” His guitar work is extraordinary and sets the mood for the song. He would adapt other classic poems to music and it would have been interesting to think what might have developed if he had followed this theme more extensively.

All The News That’s Fit To Sing has a purity about it. Except for a lonely harmonica on one track it is just the voice of Phil Ochs and his acoustic guitar supported by that of Danny Kalb who would go on to have a long career himself. The album remains a valuable and uncompromising look at the politics and music of the sixties.