Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Fugs - First Album (1965)




Arguably the first underground rock group of all time, the Fugs formed at the Peace Eye bookstore in New York's East Village in late 1964. The nucleus of the band throughout its many personnel changes was Peace Eye owner Ed Sanders and fellow poet Tuli Kupferberg. Sanders and Kupferberg had strong ties to the beat literary scene, but charged, in the manner of their friend Allen Ginsberg, full steam ahead into the maelstrom of '60s political involvement and psychedelia. Surrounded by an assortment of motley refugees from the New York folk and jug band scene (including Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders), some of whom could barely play their instruments, the group nonetheless was determined to play rock & roll their way -- which meant rife with political and social satire, as well as explicit profanity and sexual references, that were downright unheard of in 1965. 


Starting on the legendary avant-garde ESP label, the Fugs' debut was full of equal amounts of chaos and charm, but their songwriting and instrumental chops improved surprisingly quickly, resulting in a second album that was undoubtedly the most shocking and satirical recording ever to grace the Top 100 when it was released. After cutting an unreleased album for Atlantic, they moved on to Frank Sinatra's Reprise label, unleashing a few more albums of equally satirical material that were more instrumentally polished, but equally scathing lyrically. By breaking lyrical taboos of popular music, they helped pave the way for the even more innovative outrage of the Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Underground, and others. 

Breaking up around 1970, Sanders and Kupferberg continued to write prose and poetry, and sometimes wrote and performed music both on their own and as part of Fugs reunions. By the mid-'80s, Sanders and Kupferberg officially began touring and recording again as the Fugs, releasing the acclaimed CDs No More Slavery in 1985, Final CD, Pt. 1 in 2003, and Be Free! Final CD, Pt. 2, which was recorded between 2005 and 2009 and issued in 2010. The band’s re-formation also instigated the release of the box sets Electromagnetic Steamboat: The Reprise Recordings from Rhino Handmade and Don’t Stop! Don’t Stop! on Ace, which combined their first two albums with numerous unreleased tracks. However, the octogenarian Kupferberg's health declined in the late 2000s, particularly after he suffered two strokes in 2009. He died in Manhattan on July 12, 2010 at the age of 86, bringing the Fugs saga to a close.

The Fugs - First Album (1965)
A loping, ridiculous, and scabrous release, the Fugs' debut mashed everything from folk and beat poetry to rock and rhythm & blues -- all with a casual disregard for sounding note perfect, though not without definite goals in mind. Actually compiled from two separate sessions originally done for Folkways Records, and with slightly different lineups as a result, it's a short but utterly worthy release that pushed any number of 1964-era buttons at once (and could still tick off plenty of people). Sanders produced the sessions in collaboration with the legendary Harry Smith, who was able to sneak the collective onto Folkways' accounts by describing them as a "jug band," and it's not a far-off description. A number of songs sound like calm-enough folk-boom fare, at least on casual listening, though often with odd extra touches like weirdly muffled drums or out of nowhere whistles and chimes. Others, meanwhile, are just out there -- thus, the details of the perfect "Supergirl." Then there's "Boobs a Lot," the post-toke/acid lament "I Couldn't Get High," and the pie-in-the-face to acceptable standards of the time, "Slum Goddess." Throughout it all, the Fugs sound like they're having a perfectly fun time; the feeling is loose, ragged, but right, and while things may be sloppy around the edges, often that's totally intentional. Certainly little else could explain the random jamming and rhythmic chanting/shouting on "Swinburne Stomp." Good as the original album is, the CD version is what any serious fan needs to find, thanks to the inclusion of 11 bonus tracks. Some come from the original sessions, including the signature tune "We're the Fugs" and "The Ten Commandments," while others appear from various live jams. Then there's the self-explanatory "In the Middle of Their First Recording Session the Fugs Sign the Worst Contract Since Leadbelly's."

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