Country Joe & The Fish Biography

Formed in Berkeley, California, USA, in 1965, this imaginative quintet began life as the Instant Action Jug Band. Former folk singer Country Joe McDonald (1 January 1942, El Monte, California, USA) established the band with guitarist Barry Melton (b. 1947, Brooklyn, New York, USA), the only musicians to remain in the line-up throughout its turbulent history. Part of a politically active family, McDonald immersed himself in the activism centred on Berkeley, and his group’s earliest recording, ‘I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag’ (1965), was a virulent attack on the Vietnam war. The following year an expanded line-up, McDonald, Melton, David Cohen (guitar/keyboards), Paul Armstrong (bass) and John Francis Gunning (drums) embraced electricity with a privately pressed EP. By 1967 Armstrong and Gunning had been replaced, respectively, by Bruce Barthol and Gary ‘Chicken’ Hirsh. This reshaped quintet was responsible for Electric Music For The Mind And Body, one of the 60s’ ‘west coast’ era’s most striking releases. Although politics were still prevalent on the Lyndon B. Johnson-baiting ‘Superbird’, this excellent collection also included shimmering instrumentals (‘Section 43’), drug songs (‘Bass Strings’) and unflinching romanticism (‘Happiness Is A Porpoise Mouth’).

The band’s debut was followed quickly by I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die, which not only featured a new version of that early composition, but also contained a poignant tribute to singer Janis Joplin. The controversial and outspoken McDonald instigated the famous ‘fish cheer’ which, more often than not, resulted in thousands of deliriously stoned fans spelling out not F.I.S.H. but F.U.C.K. with carefree abandon. Beset by internal problems, the band’s disappointing third album, Together, marked the end of this innovative line-up. 1969’s Here We Are Again was completed by various musicians, including Peter Albin and Dave Getz from Big Brother And The Holding Company, and although piecemeal, included the haunting country-tinged ‘Here I Go Again’ (later a hit for the 60s model, Twiggy). Mark Kapner (keyboards), Doug Metzner (bass) and Greg Dewey (drums - formerly of Mad River), joined McDonald and Melton in the summer of 1969. The new line-up was responsible for the band’s final album, C.J. Fish, on which glimpses of the former fire were present.

The ‘classic’ line-up, which appeared on the band’s first three albums, was briefly reunited between 1976 and 1977 but the resultant release, Reunion, was a disappointment. McDonald aside, Barry Melton has enjoyed the highest profile, recording several albums under his own name and performing with the San Francisco ‘supergroup’, the Dinosaurs. McDonald continues to delight old folkies and hippies and is always a popular attraction at outdoor festivals.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.