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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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.

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