Friday, 9 April 2010

Dancing down the drain

Phil Ochs didn't have much luck other than bad, and his life and work are inevitably overshadowed by his descent into mental illness and suicide in 1976.

One of the numerous protest singers that grew out of the nexus between folk and the civil rights movement in the early nineteen sixties, Ochs was at the forefront of the pack for a while with his direct and catchy songs, a close second to Bob Dylan in terms of commercial crossover appeal.

Whereas Dylan moved away from direct protest and issues songs fairly early on, however, preferring a more oblique approach, Ochs stayed angry his whole working life, a stance that gained him respect, but harmed any chance he had of making it really big, despite his very best efforts (Ochs was desperate for success, and his lack of it helped destroy him).

Och’s fourth album, ‘Pleasures Of The Harbor’ (1967), is a transitional LP in many respects, with Ochs moving away from the pure folk elements of his previous records in order to try and find a niche in the now all encompassing pop / rock firmament. To this end, his songs here are gentler and more reflective, not so inclined to slogans and rhetoric, and stylistically very diverse.

The album is far from a cynical stab at pop stardom, however, despite the presence of ‘Cross My Heart’, the nearest he ever got to sunshine pop, and some beautiful melodies. In truth, Ochs was probably incapable of making the move from cult folk artist to big rock star – he has too many ideas, too much to say and, ultimately, is too rooted in the folk idiom to be very commercial (his songs tend to be long and full of words; he tries unfashionable styles like Dixieland and modern Classical; he doesn’t write middle eights), and this LP was not a success.

So, for your ears: the aforementioned ‘Cross My Heart’ with its baroque keyboards and spiralling and uplifting melody and ‘The Crucifixion’ a long, brooding piece featuring an experimental electronic arrangement from United States Of America luminary Joseph Byrd, that compares JFK to Jesus Christ and made Robert Kennedy cry when he heard it.

Sadly, Ochs never achieved his aim to be ‘part Elvis Presley, part Che Guevera’ and the last few years of his life can only be described as a tragic waste of a talent, and a tragic waste of a man. But, if you listen closely to the title track to 'Pleasures Of The Harbor' there, just behind the slightly florid arrangement, you can still hear poor Phil breathing in and out, saving his breath until it’s time to sing again.

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