Classic Tracks: Country Joe & The Fish "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag"

Oct 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson


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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.”

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