Ochs was arguably the most melodic yet uncompromising socially conscious songwriter of his time. Not a small accomplishment given the level of sophisticated competition he was up against – from Bob Dylan to Arlo Guthrie and beyond. Although he never managed to score an evergreen hit song to carry him to the next level of fame and stardom, Phil Ochs did write some genuine classic songs and timeless melodic material. If any criticism could be laid at his doorstep, it would be an occasional restlessness in his melodic singing lines. Well, if you had as wonderful a voice as Phil had, you’d probably want to show it off too! What’s more – he had the literary chops (way better poet than Jim Morrison for sure!) AND a visionary idea of melding the folk tradition with a more sophisticated, “serious” (classical?) music tradition. His brilliant album Pleasures of the Harbor was a bold statement lyrically and musically. Was the decision to place his songs in a more mature, sophisticated kind of production a result of this idea to “beautify” the art to contrast the ugliness of the times?
When I was just getting out of high school I had the opportunity to see the reformed FUGS in Woodstock NY (close to where I lived). Over time I started adding Fugs records to my collection. The earlier albums were more raw and rock-n-roll oriented. When I found an import LP of “It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest” I was surprised at the somewhat overproduced nature of the material.
As John Fahey once pointed out - it is more commercially viable to write songs about the vague, sentimental side of American life (like happy train songs) than it is to write about the difficult topics like what fears people harbor that prevent them from speaking up when fellow humans are being mistreated or worse (A Small Circle of Friends)! Phil’s talents – as potent as they were – didn’t generate that one song to endear him to mainstream America. His audience was specialized and held him to a particular standard. Did this impose a limit to his appeal? He was good at being who he was. To be something else would be false. Maybe this partly explains the “Greatest Hits” album?
Between the release of Nuclear Furniture and his re-generating of the Jefferson Starship in the 1990s, Kantner wasted no time in re-assembling some Airplane alumni for a record as the KBC Band. And what is the very first song on side one of that album? A brave homage to Phil Ochs’ musician friend from Chile – Victor Jara – who was brutally murdered during the Pinochet overthrow in the early 70s.
So – for any of Paul Kantner’s critics who say he sold out with all those Jefferson Starship hits – it wasn’t Kantner who sold out. Those hit songs were good radio friendly songs and if they lured people into buying the albums with the message songs on them – MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! Maybe Kantner’s stuff wasn’t always melodic and catchy music – true enough. As a vehicle to get people to the Jefferson Starship shows, those hit songs were essential to the cause. And, at least until the 1990s, Kantner had enough clout with major record companies who were willing to put out his stuff with the less commercial material intact. In the continued era of “lowest common denominator music” such a feat is unthinkable. What major company would be willing to take that kind of calculated risk now? All that’s left is the steady corporate hummmmmmmmm of complacency and apathy. Or so it seems. I’m convinced Gil Scott-Heron was right – the revolution will NOT be televised. The corporate conglomerates would never allow that to happen.
Over the past bunch of years I’ve been checking out some new bands and new releases just to see if there is anything worth listening to. And, certainly from a musical standpoint, there is a LOT of great new music. Even if I’m missing where the protest music is hiding (does it exist at all??) – here are some musically worthwhile platters to take note of:
Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Randy Newman – Dark Matter
Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power in the Blood
Beck – Colors
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
The Above – There Is A Reason
Dany Laj and The Looks – Alive & Kicking
Terry Adams – Talk Thelonious
Heron Oblivion – The Chapel
Willa and Company – Better Days
Speaking of great singers - please do yourself a favor and snag a copy of this wonderful blues and soul singer's first release at the website above. Willa is a very talented singer and songwriter. Her songs have appeared on the blues charts since the summer and continue to generate well-deserved attention. Few new artists are taking American roots music forward like Willa is doing. Highly recommended for positive vibrations in rough waters ahead!
Thanks again for stopping by my little spot on the net. Take care and keep listening!