Country Joe & the Fish

How the Band Got Started

  Written by manager ED Denson in 1968

From talking to some of the bands who have formed recently, I get the impression that they saw everyone else making music and decided that it looked like a good way to live. There seem to be few doubts. By contrast, Country Joe and the Fish were an accident.

Late in 1965, the community of activists, hippies, drop-outs and artists, which is affectionately called the Underground, its time come at last, was throbbing with excitement. A year of increasingly successful demonstrations, marches, petitions and sit-ins had shown us that it was possible to do something to express ourselves.

The nucleus of Country Joe and the Fish was going through changes with supersonic evolution. One week we were a protest-songwriter's workshop, another we were a magazine, then picketing and marching, playing as a jug band, and for one brief moment during the year, we were a folk-rock band with electric guitar and washtub bass called Country Joe and the Fish.

How it happened was simplicity itself. At a rally for a radical candidate for Congress, we saw the Fugs put on what was then a really mind-blowing show — the audience was stunned, and we were overjoyed. Contacting them, we arranged for a concert on the Berkeley Campus presented by the Pretentious Folk Front.

These were the days before the San Francisco dance halls and everyone was glad of a chance to play anywhere, so we had our concert. That day we spent day-gloing our tee-shirts with peace symbols, and altering Barry's Beethoven sweatshirt to read Marx. The washtub was day-gloed psychedelic.

That concert was a roaring success, halfway between a happening and a performance. We led off with anti-war songs, mingled with the lyric pieces Joe was writing. We were not only the only anti-war band in the area, we were the only band in the area, and our daring was spectacular. We half expected to be arrested for singing our songs.

Allen sat crosslegged on the chemistry workbench we were using for a stage, chanting and reading his poems, and then the Fugs came on and finished off the evening, Not enough that their material with its vigorous vulgar outrageousness was literally making people jump from their seats, but their appearance was defiantly hippy, and to climax the evening smashing their instruments, their lead guitarist passed out and fell backwards off the stage while they threw shredded IBM cards at the audience.

That was our first public performance — an inchoate result of the spirit of the times, and we were delighted with it all. The band members made $20 each, the audience was visibly shocked as it left, the poster appeared in various underground movies later. Of course we had no plans to appear again; our plans had gone no further than the day of the concert. Next week we might be a boat sailing to Hawaii.

Slowly, like an awakening dreamer lost in time, the band formed during the first months of 1966. Parts of it were appearing as folk singers at The Jabberwock, and Joe slowly was building up a repertoire of songs while Barry, almost unknowingly, was finding the band. In May we cut our second record. In August the band broke up for a month while Joe and Barry hitchhiked to New York to find a manager, and when everyone reassembled in September, they were determined to become a rock band.

Inevitably, as the fall went on, we became involved in the San Francisco scene. There was little work in Berkeley, the Avalon and Fillmore were beginning to be exciting across the bay, political protest had died down and the Haight was blossoming. Our hair grew longer, clothes got shaggier, and we moved toward the hippie ethic as a way of expression, without anyone really noticing that we were changing. All the while the music became more conservative, with some experimental improvisation, beginning with a piece for the Sunrise, and finally emerging as Grace.

While the scene grew, was still fresh, not yet become a circus, or a source for quick money, and pregnant with the possibilities, we watched and wondered, struggling to find out what music was and what we could do to create it. Meanwhile we worked at the Fillmore and the Avalon.

But hip is an evangelistic movement, and we wanted to break away from the San Francisco audiences and play for other people, but how do it? There were no other ballrooms, and with no record we couldn't get a professional promoter to consider us. A friend suggested that we let her arrange a concert in Big Sur, which we would play for donations and use the money to spend a week down there with the trees and water.

Big Sur is special to people in the San Francisco scene. Some magic adheres to the name, for legendarily a line of folk heroes, — Joan Baez, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac — live there and with it is a center for creativity. Its rugged and inhospitable landscape with roaring cliffs, where the mountains reach the sea, damp chilling morning fogs and parching waterless days, seem to insure that whoever lives there is real. It's not easy.

That night was all confusion as we found ourselves immersed in other peoples' games and we couldn't play at the Hot Springs, or up the road, and finally we were set up on the front lawn of an art gallery with stars in the sky and the sea roaring beneath us. People poured from their houses hidden in the hills and stayed with us all night dancing on the highway, joining the music with flutes, tambourines, and drums. After hours of improvising the music had become self-contained, apart from all known music — it was just of that evening, and an anthropologist would have thought he had stumbled on a lost tribe had he come around the bend and seen the dancers and rock band playing by firelight.

New Year's Eve we headlined at the Avalon, our first time in San Francisco as the main band. Our record contract with Vanguard was signed and another phase of our lives was about to begin, unbeknownst to any of us.

Poster: Illustration by Lyons, lettering by Tom Weller


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