Phil Ochs In Concert

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Phil Ochs In Concert – Elektra, March 1966 in Mono and Stereo. Recorded in the studio and at concerts at New York and Boston in the winter of 65/66. Originally issued with eight poems by Mao Tse-Tung printed on the sleeve – “Is this the enemy?” Re-issued on CD in 1995 with sleeve notes by Danny Goldberg. Re-issued again in 2010 with sleeve notes by Richie Unterberger.

“This album was recorded at concerts given by Phil Ochs in Boston and New York in winter of 1965-66. The concerts were presented by Arthur Gorson”.
The venues were Carnegie Hall, New York and Jordan Hall, Boston.
(It seems Phil’s nerves got the better of him on the nights that the live recordings were made. To make up for his poor singing the songs were re-recorded in a studio.)

• Produced by Mark Abramson and Jac Holzman
• Engineering – David B. Jones
• Cover photo – Dan Kramer
• Liner photo – Joel Brodsky
• Cover design – William S. Harvey
• Poems by Mao Tse-Tung

“You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow”

In 1965 The Beatles released Rubber Soul, inspiring Brian Wilson to up the ante and come up with a suitable response. In 1966 his Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was joined in the charts by The Byrds’ 5th Dimension, Dylan’s 4-sided Blonde on Blonde and, the record that Wilson would never recover from, The Beatles Revolver. Phil spoke of the “promise” of 1965 – but it was the music of 1966 that defined that generation. It was in the midst of all this that Phil Ochs In Concert was released.
For all the musical revolution going on around him it was only Phil’s record that was truly revolutionary. For all the sonic invention, introspective lyricism, far-out arrangements and critical and popular acclaim of his peers it was Phil who was really tapping in to something deeper, beyond aural invention and into something that really meant something. That Phil was doing it alone (both figuratively and literally) may help explain why Phil would forever be known as an also-ran of a decade’s music. Up against his psychedelic peers Phil Ochs In Concert appears positively luddite, but that only serves to highlight something new and exciting that would forever set Phil apart – a clarity of vision (a clarity of politics even) that his peers couldn’t even begin to match. For their obvious musical successes, that same success (the success that Phil so yearned for but never reached) distanced The Beatles, Dylan and Wilson from the very real things that Phil was very much at the heart of – progressive politics, a newly politicised counterculture and the anti-Vietnam movement. While Dylan and the Beatles revelled in isolationism and mysticism and Wilson stuck in a teenage rut, Phil was deep in the heart of the battle, with songs that reflected all that he saw around him. While The Beatles awkwardly toyed with the idea of being anti-war and Dylan and Wilson countercultural heroes only in absentia, Phil was there, right there – and Phil Ochs In Concert is the album that best reflects his vision, his politics and, praise the lord, his sense of humour.

*

Despite the good intentions of his previous albums, they were more concerned with social issues than with politics per se. While In Concert also contains Phil’s more personal songs (Changes and When I’m Gone) his political opinions are front and centre and, in the case of the sleeve, on the back too. What kind of singer, a singer dreaming of mainstream acceptance and stardom even, sticks a load of poems by Mao Tse-Tung on the back of their album?! Seriously? Phil argued that it would be in the nation’s interest “if we understood him better” and that “many people are not aware that this man is more sensitive than Lyndon Johnson”. Phil’s then manager Arthur Gorson perhaps explained it better, stating that “the purpose wasn’t to be a Maoist or to show that he was some kind of flag-waving Communist, but to show there was beauty everywhere, even in the words of someone who would be described as the enemy of our country. The essential point was to blur the image of a villain and soften it with art”.

One of the things I admire most about Phil was his willingness to explain himself, to make his intentions clear, to hell with the cool and aloof. And yet on his LP sleeve those Mao poems just sit there, blandly pretty, but not really doing anything. Phil’s non-committal “Is this the enemy?” barely helps. In the sleeve notes of his first album Phil admitted that he could never be as moral as his songs. This distancing of the creative self and the personal self is a troubling one – but what it allows is something that is massively important in considering how Phil’s music had changed since his first two records and the direction he would take in the future. Phil was an artist. Sure he wanted change (as desperately as ever) and his songs retained a topicality that has been too readily ignored, but all the same he was into creating beauty. The idea resonates, one that Phil almost certainly didn’t intend, that if a monster like Mao could do it, then someone as sensitive as Phil sure as hell could.
So where does all this leave the “clarity” that I wrote of earlier? The fact was that Phil was adamant that beautiful art (in Phil case songwriting) and revolutionary politics could sit snugly side by side. In fact that beauty was something worth fighting for. One of Phil’s great battles was in retaining his sense of being an American whilst also being a revolutionary. He was quick to point out that if he were to sing the songs he were singing in Mao’s China “I would be killed”. Is it irony that he feared he would be killed in his own country too? What this all adds up to – Phil’s songwriting, his inclusion of Mao poems, his belief in the beauty of art, his patriotism – is a sense of confidence and unwillingness to compromise. It is these things that are at the heart of Phil Ochs In Concert and help make it, to my ears at least, Phil’s first great record.

*

Phil Ochs Greatest Hits wasn’t the first of Phil’s albums with a lie for a title. Phil Ochs In Concert was, as this is in reality “Phil Ochs in the studio again with audience reaction stuck over the top”. It has been done rather well though, so well that you almost certainly wouldn’t know if you weren’t told. Admittedly this is very similar to the kind of compromise that one would imagine Phil not being terribly keen on, it is actually more like the best of both words – careful renditions of Phil’s songs with a far looser, les uptight and more comfortable feel than his previous albums – with added stage banter!
Perhaps even more than the songs themselves it is this banter that really makes this album special. It’s one thing to be presented with a song so powerful as Santo Domingo, it’s quite another to have it introduced in such a wonderfully funny and biting fashion;
There’s been a drastic change in American foreign policy in recent months. Take the Dominican Republic. Which we did. [applause]. A little while ago, killing a few people here and there. Mostly there. Saving the day for freedom and Democracy in the Western hemisphere once again folks. I was over there in the Dominican Republic, entertaining the troops. I won’t say which troops. Over there with a USO group including Walter Lippmann and Soupie Sales. I played there in a small coffee house called The Sniper. And this was my most unpopular song. With the poetic-symbolic title of The Marines Have Landed On The Shores Of Santo Domingo…
What’s not to love? From the Henny Youngman referencing opening gag (“Take my wife…please!”) to the self-deprecating overly prosaic title via the silly teaming of Lippmann (a political commentator and journalist of some repute) and Sales (a kids TV presenter) it’s a total joy. If anyone ever accesses Phil of being po-faced, play them this.
The rest of the album really is Phil is take-no-prisoners mode. From a joyous introduction-free (though perhaps one requiring some explanation of context 40 years later) homage to freedom of speech via the treatment of migrant workers, a dead-eyed cinematic account of a fictional revolution, a finger-pointing attack on hawks and hawkish-advocates, a tirade against Christianity (so soon after singing of Christ-as-hero in his previous album), a couple of songs attacking American foreign policy, an attack on that safest of political opinion – liberalism, each songs takes aim and hits its target in a way that so many of Phil’s earlier songs somehow failed to do.
In the midst of all this are three other songs, not quite apolitical, but defiantly different. And one of them in arguably Phil’s greatest song.
Can you tell yet how much I love this album?!

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