Country Joe & The Fish, 1967, clockwise from front: Joe McDonald, David Cohen, Gary "Chicken" Hirsch, Barry Melton and Bruce Barthol
In the public mind, the most famous version of Country Joe McDonald’s Vietnam War protest song, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-to-Die Rag,” is the one in the film Woodstock. Asked by festival promoters to kill some time between sets that afternoon in August 1969, McDonald picked up an acoustic guitar that was lying backstage and went out and played a solo set, closing with the already-famous obscene variation on “The Fish Cheer” (“Gimme an F…”) and then going into his anthem. The song galvanized a large swath of the massive crowd and, when the movie came out in the spring of 1970, became one of the most-loved parts of that epic film as a follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along.
But the reason it was already well-known by the time of the Woodstock festival is that the song had already appeared as the lead track on Country Joe & The Fish’s second album (titled I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die) in November 1967, so it was already ingrained in the counterculture. The song itself dates back a couple of years before that, when McDonald was playing folk music around Berkeley, Calif., as part of the Berkeley String Quartet and a loose aggregation called the Instant Action Jug Band.
Engineer Ed Friedner in the 1960s
“I wrote ‘Fixin’-to-Die Rag’ in the summer of 1965 after I had been discharged from the U.S. Navy for several years,” McDonald wrote in 2000. “It just popped into my head one day and I finished it in 30 minutes. I did not have a conscious purpose in mind, although I had been working on another song about the Vietnam War called ‘Who Am I?’ for several days, so I had the war on my mind. [‘Fixin’-to-Die’] attempts to put blame for the war upon the politicians and leaders of the U.S. military and upon the industry that makes its money from war—but not upon those who had to fight the war, the soldiers. The song attempts to address the horror of going to war, with a dark, sarcastic form of humor called ‘GI humor.’”
McDonald’s song—the melody of which he adapted in part from a 1920s tune by Kid Ory called “Muskrat Ramble”—is filled with wry commentary and sarcasm: It calls for draftees to “put down your books and pick up a gun/We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun”; for Wall Street to get into the act because “there’s plenty good money to be made/Supplying the Army with the tools of the trade”; and, most darkly of all, for parents to “pack your boys off to Vietnam” and “be the first one on your block/To have your boy come home in a box.”
The famous chorus goes: “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?/Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam/And it’s five, six, seven, open up the Pearly Gates/Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why/Whoopee! We’re all gonna die.”
In late September 1965, McDonald and a group of his folkie friends, dubbed “Country Joe & The Fish,” recorded a jug band–style version of “Fixin’-to-Die” and another of McDonald’s political numbers—“Superbird,” a stinging indictment of President Lyndon Johnson—in the Berkeley living room of Chris Strachwitz (soon to become the founder of rootsy Arhoolie Records). The two songs—and another two by Peter Krug—were released on an EP called Songs of Opposition, which was sold locally and also distributed free at political rallies. Shortly after this, McDonald and his guitar-playing buddy Barry Melton (who had been on the EP) plugged in, turned on and formed an electric band called Country Joe & The Fish, which quickly became one of the top psychedelic groups of the era. Their 1967 debut album for Vanguard, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, recorded at Berkeley’s Sierra Sound Studios, was arguably the strongest of the first wave of psychedelic albums to come out of the San Francisco scene. Blues and folk producer (and scholar) Sam Charters, who had been instrumental in the blues revival of the late ’50s and early ’60s, supervised the recording. “It was the first rock record I’d ever done,” he said recently.
Though “Fixin’-to-Die” was part of the band’s live repertoire, it didn’t fit in with the acid-soaked material on their first album. Instead, it became the cornerstone of their sophomore LP, which was cut in New York at Vanguard Records’ studios in New York City during the summer of 1967. Charters again produced (he ended up doing the first four Fish albums), and it was engineered by Vanguard staffer Ed Friedner, who had helped design and build the studio on West 23rd Street in Manhattan during 1964.
Friedner, who started in Vanguard’s art department in 1959 after a stint on Madison Avenue, slowly gravitated to the recording side of Vanguard’s operation over a few years and soon was recording folk and classical albums and became the label’s chief engineer.
“Vanguard Studios on 23rd Street was a church originally,” he recalls in a recent conversation. “When Vanguard bought the space, it was a 100-foot-long room with a concrete floor and church windows. The control room end was where the organ loft was, slightly elevated. But we took stuff apart and broke it down and closed all the windows up. We needed floating walls because we had to separate the control room from the main hall.
“On the end of the room we built a control room and next to it a fairly large isolation booth, and then we had another booth out in the hall,” he continues. “This was a very live room, and we had a huge, very thick drape that we could pull across the room and break it in half. When we did pop sessions, we would cut the room in half and put carpet on the floors. The ceiling was pretty high—maybe 30 feet. But there was also this overhang around the perimeter and we made a drum booth under that. It was a fantastic hall for classical—which is a lot of what we did at Vanguard—and if we had to do strings or horn overdubs on a pop record, we’d just open the curtain and we got this fantastic string sound. Other record companies would come in to do strings there.”
The control room was equipped with a custom console built by Friedner. “It was a 16-input, 4-out with Langevin 5116 and 5117 preamps, and EQs patched to each input,” he says. “We had racks of Pultecs, Cinema Engineering graphic EQs, LA-2As and LA-3As, and other pieces. All the Langevin pre’s and line amps were tube slide-in amps in trays, and we used Cinema sliders for faders. We were able to mix four outputs to the Scully 8-track and use individual sliders patched direct to the 8-track, so we had fader control on all mics. I also built an 8-input, 4-output monitor system that allowed us to send any one of the eight Scully tracks to any or all of the four outputs, and each of those outputs went through Dyna 60 power amps to JBL S7 speakers.” The studio had EMT plate reverbs but also mono and stereo live chambers in another part of the building. By 1968, when Friedner and Charters teamed up to make Fish’s next album, Together, the studio had installed a 24-input Neve console—the first in an American studio.
Why would the band record in New York at all? Charters notes, “There were very limited recording facilities in San Francisco in 1967. We had used the little Berkeley studio [for the first Fish album] because there really wasn’t anything better. But Vanguard soon realized it was actually cheaper to pay for bands to use their empty [N.Y.] studio than it was to pay recording costs in someone else’s studio. And the bands could stay at the Chelsea Hotel [a few doors down from Vanguard’s studio].” The Chelsea was a colorful place in those days, between the rock bands that came through town and various artists, writers and actors who lived there for days, weeks or months at a time.
Tracking for the Fish’s album was done live, without lead vocals (unless it was one of McDonald’s quieter, acoustic-based ballads), with gobos separating the players in the big room. “You have no idea how loud they played,” Friedner says. “If you walked in front of an amp while they were tuning, your trousers would shake, there was so much sound pressure. Barry had these two Fender Twins, but I’d only mike one of them.”
Friedner admits that he was “green” when it came to recording rock ’n’ roll drums or such heavily amplified guitars, and “it took some experimentation to find the right mics. When we first started, we were using some mics on the drums we shouldn’t have used.” Eventually, he settled on a combination of Neumann U67s, KM56s and an assortment of high-quality dynamic mics. In fact, the studio’s large stash of 67s proved best on nearly all of the instruments, as well as vocals. Bruce Barthol’s bass was recorded direct. With just eight tracks to work with, Friedner would usually put the kick drum and electric bass on one track, premixed stereo drums on two others, guitars and keyboards mixed to two more, lead vocals on another, and then he had two tracks for bouncing background vocals and sound effects. (This album has a bunch.)
One reason “Fixin’-to-Die” had not appeared on the first album is because the band could never quite work out the right arrangement for what was essentially a jug tune, and that dilemma carried over to the second album’s sessions. David Cohen recalls, “We spent three or four hours trying to arrange the song, trying to figure out how to make the song work for a rock band. We were frustrated. So we took a break, and I started to play a ragtime version of it on a piano, just fooling around. Sam Charters jumps up, and says, ‘That’s it!’ and everyone got all excited. So we decided to do it like a ragtime song. Then, one of the instruments that was sitting around the studio was this electric calliope, so Joe got the idea, ‘Let’s put that on it!’” Cohen doesn’t recall the make of the small electric calliope, but says it was painted to look like a traditional circus model. It came from a local instrument rental company, and Charters says it had caught his eye in a catalog “because I knew about calliopes from early New Orleans jazz history.”
Four of the five members of the band sing a verse each on the song (in order): McDonald, Melton, Barthol and Cohen. The whole band sang the chorus and contributed to the fast-paced old-time backgrounds (“psychedelic, psychedelic, psychedelic”) and played kazoo punctuation. “We’d always had a slice of vaudeville in us,” Barthol says with a chuckle. “I have a basically good feeling about those sessions. I remember having fun recording ‘Fixin’-to-Die’ because we were getting pretty good at that point, and the recording was less daunting and there’s all that weird fun stuff on it—like the background vocals—and I got to use some fuzz bass on it.”
Friedner then capped the song by using some potent machine gun and bombing sounds taken from sound effects records. Later, “The Fish Cheer” (which was “F-I…,” not “F-U…” in those days) was added to the opening of the track, but it’s not technically part of “Fixin’-to-Die.”
When the album came out in the fall of ’67, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” was an immediate hit on free-form rock radio stations that were just coming into vogue in select cities around that time. Regular AM radio—which still ruled the roost most places—wouldn’t touch it, of course, and Friedner laughs when he says, “It was the first time I ever got hate mail for something I engineered. My name was on the jacket and some people wrote to me at Vanguard saying, ‘How could you record this crap?’” The song also became a favorite in Vietnam among some of the troops, who appreciated its dark humor. The album as a whole was quite successful, staying on the Billboard charts for many weeks.
McDonald was sued in the early 2000s by the daughter of “Muskrat Ramble” co-author Kid Ory for copyright infringement, but the courts ruled in McDonald’s favor. The song has appeared in many dramatic films and documentaries, and has also been re-written dozens of times by others to comment on more recent wars and political situations. And though Country Joe & The Fish were about so much more than that one political statement, that song, above all else, seems to have defined their place in music history. For me, however, they’ll always be one of the great acid bands.