PHIL OCHS American Troubadour (A&M)
One of the great unsung outlaw heroes of American singer/songwriter history, the late Phil Ochs embraced protest, psychedelia, rock n roll, country and world music before his suicide in 1976. Recording three albums for Elektra in the early 60s, he then moved to A&M, the source of this massive, reverential double CD retrospective, with scholarly sleevenotes from the pen of Long Ryder/Coal Porter Syd Griffin.
Whats so astonishing about the music of Phil Ochs, to a first time listener like myself, is how much, consciously or unconsciously, he has instigated or influenced what has come later. The frankly risible psychedelia-protest of the "Pleasures Of The Harbor" album, for example, appeared in the same month that Tim Buckley unleashed a slightly better implementation of the same blueprint on "Goodbye And Hello". All those harpsichords actually make these tracks sound disarmingly similar to what Spinal Tap, in full flower-power regalia, were doing at the time. Yet the same album also features the still-shocking "Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends", which sets a tale of attempted murder to a Bonzos-style comedy ragtime backing - the same kind of nice music/nasty words trick that The Smiths and The Auteurs would be playing decades later. Readers of The Independent may also raise a wry smile at the line "Smoking marijuana is more fun than drinking beer" - although many of Ochs preoccupations, such as Vietnam and Nixon, sound quaint thirty years later, not all of them have been wiped from societys agenda.
The remainder of the first CD charts an unsteady course between the sort of overwritten pretension that even makes the titles off-putting ("William Butler Yeates Visits Lincoln Park And Escapes Unscathed", "The Scorpion Departs And Never Returns") and pure, acoustic protest, for example "Joe Hill", which Joan Baez sang all 22 verses of at Woodstock, and a live recording of "Heres To The State Of Richard Nixon", the undoubted highlight of this package. Recalling the early live tracks from Dylans "Bootleg Series" archive box, not least in the "Hootenanny-style audience applause every time Ochs reaches the chorus of "Heres to the land youve torn out the heart of/Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of", the way he channels splenetic fury so eloquently makes it sound like the last newsreel report out of an America in terminal decline.
The second CD includes live settings of poems "that you might have suffered through in high school poetry class", Edgar Allen Poes "The Bells" and Alfred Noyces "The Highwayman", as well as vast tracts from the incongruously titled "Phil Ochs Greatest Hits" album. Having cultivated what Griffins sleevenotes describe as an Elvis-meets-Che persona, he recorded the album with maverick genius Van Dyke Parks handling production duties and a band that included James Burton, Clarence White and Ry Cooder. Sounding remarkably like a more vicious and barbed take on Gram Parsons still distant solo work, the highlights from these sessions included what, alongside the inevitable "There But For Fortune", has subsequently become Ochs signature tune, "Chords Of Fame" (recently covered by the mighty Teenage Fanclub) and the incredibly moving James Dean tribute "Jim Dean Of Indiana". Promoting the album on a tour which famously saw Ochs wearing a gold lamé suit and mixing his own songs with Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly numbers, the, er, confusing atmosphere of these shows was preserved on the aptly titled "Gunfight At Carnegie Hall".
And that, barring occasional recordings, including what was probably the first world beat single in the form of "Bwatue" - an American experimenting with African rhythms over a decade before "Graceland" - is substantially the legacy of Phil Ochs. Despite the unconscious echoes of his work in that of many other American singer songwriters, his own output has been largely ignored, perhaps the only artist to have matched his own incisive irie in the last twenty years being our own Billy Bragg. You probably dont need any more Phil Ochs than the two-and-a-half hours assembled here, but if you like Guthrie, early Dylan, Tim Buckley or Gram Parsons, I reckon youd find much to enjoy.