The Fugs

fugs_picFrom East Greenwich Village, NYC

The Fugs were the quintessential satirical/political group of the Sixties, the foremost parodists of the Establishment and defenders of the counterculture. Their obscene, agit-prop vignettes updated a tradition that dated from Chuck Berry’s early hits and predated Frank Zappa’s operettas. Their use and abuse of cacophony and collage was way ahead of their time. In 1966, the year they recorded Virgin Forest, nobody else was even thinking of using the studio to create what was pure sonic folly.

The Fugs are probably the greatest among the great rock bands that have been forgotten by succeeding generations. A case in point is Virgin Forest, the first collage piece in the history of popular music, one of music’s most creative expressions, and almost totally unknown. The Fugs were also the first politicized group in the history of rock, also perhaps the greatest, the standard bearers of punk-rock. The sarcasm of their songs and the nonconformist mode in which they played them inspired Frank Zappa. Their free style compositions, although sometimes chaotic, anticipated progressive rock. Their specialty was the satire that reintroduced the political vaudeville of Brecht/Weill in the era of peace marches, sit-ins, and Bob Dylan. Few musicians were as original as the Fugs, at a time when the charts were dominated by the Beatles and the Monkees.

Anarchist, beatnik and bohemian, the Fugs represented “the other” America, the America that didn’t watch the Ed Sullivan Show, didn’t bother with the charts and didn’t go crazy at the sight of the dandy pop star. The America that got drunk and took drugs, lived at the edge of the “American Dream”, read libertarian libelous pamphlets and planned escapes from reality, the same folks that one day would be known as “punk.”

The Fugs put to music the demystification of capitalism and the removal of social taboos. They attacked the 45, the charts, the image of the bourgeois singer, manufactured stars like Presley and the Beatles, entertainment marketing and the entire anomalous machine of musical consumerism. They hurled themselves against secular taboos to create an alternative music regulated by alternative codes. In short, they laid the foundations for the genesis of rock and alternative rock for the remainder of the century.

The Fugs were first to suggest the equivalence between agit-prop and rock. Rock music, which up until then had kept its distance from politics, took a decisive turn to the left.

The forest of sounds in Virgin Forest, a collage of breathtaking, primitive, wildly cacophonous music is the artistic testament of the Fugs. Its anarchical structure is one of the fundamental artistic conquests of the 60s.

The Fugs were formed at the end of 1964 by two seasoned members of the intelligentsia: 43- year-old journalist Tuli Kupferberg and 32-year-old poet, movie maker, bookseller and editor Ed Sanders, who had served a year in jail for pacifism, where he penned “Poem from Jail.” A self-declared “body-rock singing group,” the Fugs circulated among beatniks and folk singers. Their music, a series of manifestos that proclaimed their intention to carry out a total offensive on mainstream culture, was even too methodical.

Their shows often featured other folk and country musicians, abundant in Greenwich Village, in particular Pete Stampfel and Steve Weber of the Holy Modal Rounders and drummer Ken Weaver, a poet and former boxer, who was booted out by the Air Force for drugs.

Their rather unsophisticated sound comprised whatever element they eyed: exotic instruments, street choruses, maniacal screams. Their shows were cocktails of political rhetoric, provocation, and folk music. They celebrated the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Free Speech Movement; they smashed instruments; they indulged in alcohol, drugs and sex on stage; they performed cabaret sketches in costume. Their repertoire was inspired mainly by folk nursery rhymes, by jug bands, and perhaps by Broadway musicals, but augmented by improbable solos and tortured harmonies.

Their corrosive lyrics, the soul of their craft, mocked the American way of life and all its contradictions – the hypocrisy of government, the sexual repression, the consumerism, the persecution of drug users, Vietnam.

Their shows were more than political vaudeville routines; they often degenerated into savage, obscene leftist happenings. Their provocative, sacrilegious and offensive humor had more precedents in comedy than in music. Woody Guthrie had been a sort of Gandhi, and Dylan was a messianic prophet. The Fugs were the vulgar jesters of the absurd and the grotesque. Their transgressive acts gave them enough fame to justify recording an album, entitled Village Fugs (Folkways, 1965), reprinted as First Album (ESP, Jan 1966), that contains the songs most requested at their concerts, in particular the satire on bourgeois respectability Supergirl. Slum Goddess and Boobs A Lot are pieces in which anything can happen, because what counts is to play for the sake of playing. Carpe Diem and Nothing are existential songs worthy of the theater of the absurd.

For those reprehensible musical manifestations, the trenchant guerrilla fighters of Greenwich Village were banished by all respectable folk clubs, but took comfort in cheering many alternative assemblies.

Fugs (ESP, march 1966), reissued as Second Album (Fantasy, 1994), featuring Sanders, Kupferberg, Weaver, brilliant keyboardist Lee Crabtree, Vinny Leary on guitar, Pete Kearney on guitar, and Jon Anderson on bass. is not just a collection of jokes. Its musical aspect is not to be considered secondary, much as the paintings of Andy Warhol are not to be considered just provocations, but also works of art.

Besides the desecrating irony of the commercial epic Kill For Peace and the epileptic comedy of Frenzy – a parody worthy of the rhythm and blues of the 50s – Virgin Forest dominates the collection of samples and styles, bounded by the demonic merry-go-round Dirty Old Man and the quasi-mantra Morning Morning. Virgin Forest, this long piece of equatorial mythology, recorded at reduced speed, is a natural forest of sound experiments, with whistles, falling pottery, door bells, sirens, tampered tapes, natural sounds, speeded-up voices, African drums, wild screams, blows to the keyboards, litanies of castrated muezzin, Mediterranean chords, charming flutes, exotic atmosphere, chirps, distortion, and a choral apotheosis of Gregorian chant, all rendered at a thousand rpm. It is the first example of collage.

Fully conscious of their own pioneering spirit, the Fugs hoisted the psychedelic flag with New Amphetamine Shriek, one of Stampfel’s acid-folk gems, and Hallucination Horror, both on Virgin Fugs (ESP, 1967 – Eclipse, 2005), which also includes the pungent satire Coca Cola Douche and two small masterpieces of political music hall: CIA Man and Saran Wrap. Although each caustic lyric in this album is creatively put to free music, overall the album lacks the ambitious piece, the so-called masterpiece.

At the height of their popularity, October 21, 1967, the Fugs participated in a sit-in in front of the Pentagon during which they tried to exorcise the evil spirits who infested the building.

In 1968 the Fugs – minus Stampfel and Weber who had resumed their folk careers – practically began a second career, more musical and less political. The structure of It Crawled Into My Hands (Reprise, 1968) brings to mind the collections of Zappa’s heretical aphorisms. The same ability to string songs together, and the same theory of the collage, precede the reduction of the musical universe into infinitesimal parts, while Dylan’s influence encourages the human parade to go backwards in time, from Robinson Crusoe to Ramses II, who inspires the album.

Crystal Liaison heightened by a horn section, jingle-jangle background, a heavy metal guitar solo and a church choir, shows a great deal of sophistication. The yodeling Ramses II is structured as one of their incoherent pub ballads, but with a sound full and strong, a string section and a honkytonk piano. The funeral march Wide Wide River sets interlocking samples of gospel, country, bass, and a drunken brawl as the background for a political meeting. The rest is no less eclectic and meticulous: the operetta Burial Waltz, the bluegrass anti-fascist ballad Johnny Pissoff, and the cool-jazz piece Claude Pelieu, a micro-concert for clarinet, flute, baritone and chorus. The Native American tribal dance When The Mode Of The Music Changes, somehow mixes a big band arrangement with a string section and female background vocals. The fertile inventiveness of Sanders and Weaver gets even looser in minuscule intervals: a ten-second Gregorian chant, a collective exorcism, a marching band riff, a prayer with church organ, a mantra for Japanese percussion, and even a three second piece, the shortest in the history of music. With these experiments the Fugs add a musical dimension to their political theater of farce, realizing for the first time on a large scale the program originally sketched out in Virgin Forest.

Tenderness Junction (Reprise, 1968) is immersed in the progressive mood of the moment. Although still faithful to the tradition of the political anthem, with Timothy Leary’s Turn On Tune In Drop Out, and to the Beat generation, with Allen Ginsberg’s Hare Krishna, the Fugs update their musical language for the thriving psychedelic culture on the other coast. There are stirring blues ballads (Knock Knock), dreamy acid fantasies a la David Crosby (The Garden Is Open), and extravagant classical arrangements (Dover Beach). Between the lines Sanders paints another of his lopsided choral ballads (Wet Dream) and another amusing parody (War Song). The grand finale is the apocryphal Aphrodite`s Mass in five movements, complete with pagan motets, Hare Krishna processions, Gregorian chants, and orgasm moans.

At the end of 1968, while on a European tour in a rickety Volkswagen, they didn’t hesitate to head toward Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, only to be stopped at the border.

Bell Of Avenue A (Reprise, 1969), their most musical album, is also their swan song. It’s an album of simple folk ballads for voice and guitar (Bell Of Avenue A), satirical gags (Chicago), absurd Alpine digressions (Yodeling Yippie), a nostalgic sing-along hippie celebration (Flower Children), nursery rhymes, psychedelic solos, and hard riffs. It’s the summary of five years spent together, and also a sad farewell, but without the sardonic mode of the past.

As the glorious underground season came to an end, the new ideologized movement made it clear that it had little patience for its putative fathers. Rock music was undergoing a radical revolution of sound that made the style of the Fugs outmoded. The Fugs could have abandoned their naive folk roots and banked on their inexhaustible creativity alone, instead they accepted the verdict of time.

After the band dissolved Kupferberg went to work in the theater, while Sanders recorded a couple of deviant albums, Truckshop (Reprise, 1971) and Beer Cans On The Moon (Reprise, 1972), worthy sequels to the style of Bell Of Avenue A. In 1973, he went back to writing.

The Fugs played and recorded occasionally. In 1994, after an exhibition with Allen Ginsberg, Sanders (54) and Kupferberg (71) officially dissolved the Fugs.  Sanders (62) and Tuli (79) reformed the Fugs and released Final CD – Part 1(Artemis, 2003) to entertain the George W Bush generation with a new set of shameful satires and musical terrorism.

Tuli Kupferberg died in July 2010 at 86.

~ Information courtesy Pierro Scarrufi

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Tracks played on Psychedelicized…

From the 1966 album The Fugs (re-released in 1994 as The Fugs Second Album)
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  • Doin’ All Right

From the 1968 album Tenderness Junction

  • The Garden is Open
  • Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

From the 1968 album It Crawled into My Hand, Honest

  • Crystal Liaison

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