PHIL OCHS

OVERVIEW:
Phil began as a shining light of the NYC folk/protest scene, writing topical songs with greater passion and specificity than most of his peers. Though he never fully left that style behind, he eventually started to get more personal and bitter and sad – his later records are haunting documents of a man losing faith in his own preaching. Politics and history aside, he was just a damn good song-writer with a powerful voice, and he made a handful of great records that deserve more recognition today.

THE ALBUMS:

All The News That’s Fit To Sing
I Ain’t Marching Anymore
In Concert *
Pleasures Of The Harbor *
Tape From California *
Rehearsals For Retirement  *
Greatest Hits
Gunfight At Carnegie Hall
Then And Now

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ALL THE NEWS THAT’S FIT TO SING  (1964)

C

Phil’s debut is a solo acoustic Greenwich Village (mostly) protest record. Don’t expect anything much more than that. It’s insanely dated, in the same way that is Dylan’s “The Times Are A Changin'” album (though Dylan at least had a way more expressive voice than Phil at this point). There’s a lot of fast strumming and strained Guthrie-isms and topical songs about civil rights and anti-war. I’m sure it meant a lot to some people at the time – but Phil would get WAY better on his subsequent folk records. That being said, Phil has a more overtly liberal stance than Bobby – and he doesn’t really go for the obtuse metaphors or the oddball imagery here. So while that might make him less complex, it also makes him in many ways a BETTER protest singer. These songs are supposed to anger you and spur you on to change, and while they’re clearly timepieces, many of the points they raise stand to this day. Unfortunately, as a pop record this fails in most ways – Phil’s melodies, singing, guitar playing, and production would get far better in the years to come.

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I AIN’T MARCHING ANYMORE   (1965)

B+

It’s hard to say exactly what makes this album SO MUCH better than the debut. It’s yet another acoustic folk record, with a similar amount of preachy dated protest lyrics. And though Phil’s delivery hasn’t particularly changed, the production feels much better suited to his voice (which now sounds like a great expressive folk instrument – Phil’s singing would drastically improve with each successive early album). Ultimately, the songs are just far more melodic and engaging. Phil handles topical songs with more directness than Dylan – the closer “Here’s To The State of Mississippi” continuously repeats the refrain: “Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of.” Phil seems like he truly cares, and as a result his “ripped-from-the-headlines” songs are way more impassioned sounding than Dylan’s more half-hearted efforts, (and by the way – it’s basically impossible to discuss Phil without discussing Bob at this point). This album opens with what might be Phil’s best  ever folk song – the classic title track – which partners an epic protest lyric with a great melody that perfectly suits the man’s voice. Basically every other cut on here resonates  – it’s a super solid folk record, easily one of the best topical records of the 60s if not THE best. That being said, the limits of this sort of material remain – and while there are far more moments that transcend the headlines this time out, this is still very much a time-piece. It wouldn’t be until the next record that Phil fully emerged as a songwriter divorced from the newspaper.

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IN CONCERT   (1966)

A

This is a brilliant folk record – gorgeously sung, with powerful lyrics and haunting melodies. It’s not really a concert record – apparently much of it was performed in a studio, and the banter and applause grafted in from an actual live performance. In any case, these are definitely Phil’s strongest songs yet, and his voice has grown leaps and bounds. He sounds downright pretty now, with a lush tone and a controlled vibrato…but he still retains enough grit to halt him from leaping into some sort of James Taylor territory. So this is basically Dylan-esque music for people who can’t handle Dylan’s voice. For portions of this album, Phil is every bit the equal of acoustic Dylan. My absolute favorite is the allegorical “Ringing of Revolution,” a cinematic lyric about the last remaining bourgeoisie of an unnamed country about to be overrun by the revolutionaries outside their house. It’s scary, metaphorical, yet also very understandable – perhaps the hardest balance to create in song-writing.  To make matters better, Phil sings it with some of my favorite phrasing and vocal moves on any record. It’s just beautiful. Other politically oriented highlights include the catchy anti-blue satirical anthem “Cops Of The World” and the hilarious “Love Me I’m A Liberal,” which lampoons rich, do-nothing, secretly-racist leftists. Those three songs aren’t too topical that they end up dated today – and there are some others that aren’t topical at all! “When I’m Gone” and “There But For Fortune” are brilliant universal folk songs about death and fate. Every tune on here is well crafted and performed, and I dare-say it’s one of the absolute best of it’s kind.

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PLEASURES OF THE HARBOR   (1967)

A

Phil completely and utterly changed his sound, his writing style, his singing style, and his entire modus operandi for this stately baroque pop record full of lengthy poetic songs. No remnants of the old protest singer remain – the songs are often topical and critical, but in a far more abstract manner. The elaborate instrumentation on this record is quite shocking coming from a guy whose only prior ax was an acoustic guitar – everything from lush orchestral scoring, to ballroom pianos, to harpsichords, to musique concrete, to jazzy horns…The incredible ambition on display here immediately puts this album into a category of its own – and while things don’t always come off for Phil (the album has a tendency to sound overly serious and some songs just go on too long), this is clearly an essential 60s record that needs to be rediscovered and assessed on the same plane as any of the more accepted classics (“Pet Sounds,” “Forever Changes,” “Blonde on Blonde”). There are only 8 tracks on here, but every one of them has been carefully conceived, with each presenting a different arrangement concept. The opening track (“Cross My Heart”) is a 3 minute pop song that almost sounds bubble-gum – with it’s super catchy hooks, sweet singing, harpsichords and full band arrangement, it’s a total 180 from anything Phil had done before. “Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends” is the most famous tune – an upbeat ragtime-y piano driven number about a dark and serious subject (group-think and social apathy). It’s an AWESOME single. Every tune on here deserves mention and even analysis – “The Party” is a warped cocktail jazz epic satire with some bizarre imagery and a hilariously haunting refrain: “So my shoulders had to shrug, as I crawled beneath the rug and re-tuned my piano.” The title track is a huge sounding cinematic orchestral number with a very classical sounding melody. The album ends with it’s nuttiest track – ‘The Crucifixion,” which goes for broke with an avant-garde string arrangement and tape loops and psychedelic tricks galore – all spiraling on beneath what is probably the best ever Phil lyric (a lengthy abstract meditation on the way society abuses it’s heroes). The juxtaposition of the simple folk melody with the gigantic avant-arrangement doesn’t QUITE work – but like I said, this is way too unique and progressive a record to write off, and I think it’s a real showcase for Mr. Ochs as far more than just a “news reporter.” SPECIAL MENTION: The piano playing on this album is incredible!!!

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TAPE FROM CALIFORNIA   (1968)

A

Before hearing this album, I was very curious as to how Phil would follow up up a giant statement like “Pleasures Of The Harbor.” That record was a major stylistic departure, and also a big commercial failure….so would Ochs be pressured to return to his earlier folkie style? Find something totally new? Well, the answer is a little bit of everything. This is clearly a step back in ambition and scope for Phil the record maker, but certainly not one for Phil the song-writer as every track on here rules. Stylistically, it’s a bit of a mess – some of the songs do the acoustic topical thing, while some of ’em are lush pop tunes in the vein of the previous record (but sloppier), and some push into rock territory. I think this would probably sound a lot less dated than “Pleasures” to a lot of people – it has some relatively muscular arrangements and less 60s romanticism. The title track opens things up with by far Phil’s most rocking number yet, and immediately it’s obvious this was a more rugged and probably rushed recording than “Pleasures.” The playing is endearingly sloppy in that Dylan-y way – the rhythm part is super forceful and busy, but the band sounds like they just learned the song. In any case, it’s a killer tune with some truly powerful lyrics. Next up is a return to acoustic protest folk (with some horn and percussion embellishments): “White Boots Marching In A Yellow Land,” a great and beautifully performed anti-war song. The album has two lengthy acoustic numbers: “Joe Hill” is an old-timey ballad about a union man, and “When In Rome” a 13 minute insanely haunting allegorical number about (I think) the decadence of America and/or any society abusing power. There are some moments in the lyrics of that tune that resonate and scare me as much as anything by any songwriter ever. “The War Is Over” is one of Phil’s best pop songs, and merges a protest lyric with a perfectly creative pop arrangement and a melody suitable for a quirky 60s band like “The Turtles.” Now that I think about it….DAMN this record is impressive – “The Harder They Fall,” “Floods of Florence,” “Half A Century High” fill out the rest and are all killer tunes. Get it!

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REHEARSALS FOR RETIREMENT  (1969)

A

This may be the key Phil Ochs album. It’s certainly got the most history behind it – it was written after Phll came back from the infamous and disastrous Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 totally spent and disillusioned. He set out to write a series of protest songs, but came up instead with a set of more introspective tunes that represent a man at the brink of despair. It was despair over his country’s sad decline, despair over the death of his idealistic liberal dreams, despair over the downslide of his career and the changing of the music industry. The man was in pain, and this album showcases it real and raw. It’s dark, but also mesmerizing, and contains another flawless group of compositions. The style is similar to “Tape From California,” but more tonally consistent and even more scruffy. This is probably the most accessible Ochs record, which is ironic considering it’s easily the most upsetting. Once again, every track matters – but I must single out “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore” as probably my all-time favorite Ochs tune. The sadness and loneliness of the lyrics – the haunting abstraction of the refrain – the interplay of the band (love those piano parts!)…it’s just a classic tune. There’s a scary pop song about the evils of L.A. (“The World Began In Eden…”) and a gorgeous poetic ballad with an honest-to-god Dylan impression during one of the choruses (“The Doll House”). The exaggerated Dylan moment is so striking and bizarre – it comes off as incredibly bitter and was probably meant as a major criticism of Bob. Back to the songs…there’s a dark anti-cop anthem (“I Kill Therefore I Am”), a terrifying and tragic nautical tune about a missing ship (“The Scorpion Departs…”), and a tune about Phil’s recent experience in Chicago (“William Butler Yeats…”). Most disturbing, though, are the two songs that close out each side of the original record. “My Life” marries an utterly depressed lyric about aging and disillusionment to one of Phil’s best and brightest pop melodies. And the title track ends the record on a note of total surrender and pain, but it’s also achingly beautiful. The song is all the more upsetting in hindsight – Phil would take his own life five or six years after recording it. ANYWAY…while the lyrics on this record are generally depressed and caustic and weary, the music and performances are lovely – this isn’t a sleepy “I’m so sad, listen to my woes” folk record. It’s a powerful rock album by a truly original voice with a tragic word-view, and the tunes seem to have been wrenched out of him by recent experiences that are now legendary history. It’s a mesmerizing piece of work.

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GREATEST HITS   (1970)

B+

Sadly, this was Phil’s final studio album. It’s a fairly sharp left-turn from the previous two, with a handful of lushly produced country-pop songs and a more accessible lyrical approach. This is the most polished sounding Ochs record, with hardly a note out of place and on many of the tracks a big reverby production style. As a song-writer Phil is still firing on all cylinders, though the record is more relaxed and poppy than anything he’d released up to this point. It’s not particularly worse than his other platters – it’s just less austere, and doesn’t push for any comparable big statements. That’s not to say it’s without it’s share of old-style Ochs melancholia – “Jim Dean of Indiana” and “Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, And Me” could have easily fit on “Rehearsals” or “Pleasures.” The first is a sad ode to James Dean, from the perspective of the simple folks with whom he grew up. The second’s a harpsichord laden ballad about a group of friends living together and growing apart  – the tune oozes with regret and sorrow. The closer “No More Songs” has a big orchestrated arrangement coupled to a sea chanty-esque melody…but it’s impossible not to hear it as Phil’s final surrender, his laying down of his charms and ultimate kiss off to public life. As such, it’s one of his most heart-breaking tunes. The rest of the record mostly focuses on the pop-country style, and Phil’s voice is perfectly suited for these kinds of songs. I love the opener “One Way Ticket Home” (though I could do without the female back-up singers!), but the ultimate highlight and probably the best song on the entire record is “Chords of Fame.” Great melody, great vocal performance, great arrangement (Van Dyke Parks was a big part of this record, BTW). The album tends to get written off as a post-note to Ochs’ career, but that’s not at all the case – it’s an essential part of his discography. The awkward album title probably hasn’t helped the record’s rep (it’s a rebellious gesture to call your new full-length of all new originals “Greatest Hits,” but it’s also totally unhelpful from a promotional stand-point). The cover has Ochs’ dressed as Elvis on a red velvet stage – also not representative of the deeply felt singer-songwriter material inside the sleeve. A strong final record for Phil – but he was clearly one candle that got snuffed out WAY too soon, and I wish he could have made more!

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GUNFIGHT AT CARNEGIE HALL  (1975)

(no grade)

After “Greatest Hits,” Phil perpetrated one more act of protest upon his unwitting fans – he dressed up in a Nudie suit and went on tour playing 50s medleys as a tribute to his early heroes (Elvis, Buddy Holly). The concerts mixed the rock covers with some re-vamped versions of Ochs originals, though apparently his fans weren’t particularly enthused by what many speculated to be an act of performance art. This live album comes from Phil’s Carnegie hall performance in 1970 (it wasn’t released until 1975), and you get to hear him trying to explain his clothing and new style to his flummoxed audience. At one point somebody jokingly (mockingly?) yells “Strip!” The selected stage banter presents a bitter and reckless Ochs – at one point he even tells the crowd not to act musically bigoted. We hear him assure them that an Ochs playing Buddy Holly covers is every bit as much an Ochs as one playing “Changes” or “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” In any case, the performances themselves are fun and sloppy, though I’m not sure Phil was really the guy to be playing Elvis. He admits he’d lost his voice by the Elvis portion of the show, but nonetheless – it falls flat. His Buddy Holly medley works a bit better, though I find both extended medleys to be throwaways. The originals are not surprisingly the best part of the record. There’s a more upbeat version of ‘Pleasures of The Harbor” with rock instrumentation and band harmonizing during the chorus refrain. It’s just as good if not better than the album version. “Tape From California” is played with a grit and force. “Chords of Fame” is played pretty straight, but it’s an awesome song and obviously better suited to Phil’s voice than some of these covers. Anyway, the record is more an oddity and a footnote than anything else.

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THEN AND NOW  (1991)

(no grade)

This is an archival release of a 1968 Canadian concert. Phil had recently returned from the ’68 Democratic Convention, and he performs this set alone with his acoustic guitar and perhaps the most angry, weary, and disappointed tone I’ve ever heard on a record! His stage banter must have made audience members tremble with fear – at times he sounds like he’s preaching the end of the world as we know it up there. Which makes this an incredible document, and a definitive Ochs release. The acoustic versions of “Pleasures of The Harbor” songs work arguably better than the elaborate studio versions. Phil is just a great folk performer, and hearing the recent compositions stripped down like this totally brings out their brilliance – it’s probably the best way to hear ‘The Crucifixion.” This is an essential listen for fans of the man.

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