This December would have been the 75th birthday of the great Phil Ochs. If you’re anywhere near Liverpool this weekend then you should go to the tribute concert on Saturday. It’s at 81 Renshaw Street and tickets are only £3 – all profits in aid of C.A.L.M – a registered charity, which exists to prevent male suicide in the UK.
Phil Ochs ended his own life in 1976 and in 2013, male suicide accounted for 78% of all suicides and is the single biggest cause of death in men aged 20 – 45 in the UK.
I spoke to fellow Phil Ochs fan Huw from The Swapsies to find out more.
CG: How did you first become a fan of Phil Ochs?
H: I first heard about Phil through the Billy Bragg song ‘I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night’. I got the American Troubadour album soon after. I must have been around 17 or 18 and I just wasn’t ready for Phil then! It took me a fair few listens to really get into him, but once I did I was hooked. There was so much I didn’t understand, but I loved finding out.
CG: Phil was one of many singers who got their first break singing in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village in the early 60s. What is it about Phil that sets him apart from his contemporaries?
H: I wouldn’t dare try and persuade someone that they should like Phil’s music. Unlike someone such as Tim Hardin say (who Phil loved too), I can understand why Phil didn’t become massive. That said, Tim Hardin’s back catalogue is somewhat slight. Someone like Tom Paxton just seems too genial to me. [check out Paxton’s heart-breaking song for his friend Phil here] I just don’t trust Dylan (what seems like cool detachment to some just comes across as cop-out indifference to me).
Phil immersed himself in his times and let all the hubbub of 1960s America infect his songs. They are positively dripping with ideas, with passion, with poetry, with politics, with a kind of hard-earned feeling for the issues of the day that is most usually associated with love songs. His songs are about stuff. He defined a protest song as “a song that’s so specific it cannot be mistaken for bullshit.” I think that sums up my feelings towards all his songs, protest or otherwise.
CG: Early acoustic stuff vs. the more extravagant songs / arrangements on the later A&M albums. Discuss.
H: Phil had a pretty confrontational attitude to politics (pointing his ire at those to the left as well as the right) that remained pretty consistent. He never lost that anger, no matter how depressed he became. His attitude to music was far more open however. He spoke of creating a mixture of the poetry of Dylan with the musicality of The Beatles – and while he had moments of over-egging both the music and poetry at time, his willingness to experiment was incredible. His albums really are beautiful, and considering he is a singer best known for his protest music, that really is something special.
The jump from his totally acoustic third album to his harpsichord and strings laden fourth album is quite staggering. He could quite easily have just gone “rock” but instead found more interesting musical textures – from baroque to bar-room to electronica to lush classical to Kenyan-rumba to good old C/W – the range is staggering. And through it all he always sounds like Phil Ochs – the greatest protest singer that ever lived. I honestly think that listening to Phil’s LPs would really surprise people.
CG: What are your favourite Phil Ochs songs?
H: Man…so many! I can’t help but enjoy his finest protest songs – like Love Me I’m A Liberal, We Seek No Wider War and White Boots Marching In A Yellow Land, but I’m particularly drawn to his more personal stuff. There is always a little politics lurking somewhere in his songs, but songs like When I’m Gone, Rehearsals For Retirement and Songs of My Returning never fail to move me.
CG: What album would you recommend to the first-time listener?
Phil’s songs are so varied that recommended stuff is rather hard. My favourite album is Rehearsals For Retirement, but part of the beauty of that LP is the journey he took in getting there.
A great place to start is Phil Ochs In Concert. [CG: good choice, that’s the album that got me hooked] It’s a document of Phil at his best – alone on a stage with his acoustic guitar. His between song banter is disarmingly cute – especially considering the rather no-quarter nature of many of the songs that follows.
CG: So tell us more about the gig on Saturday.
I’m incredibly nervous and proud to be hosting a Phil Ochs tribute gig in Liverpool. It really is unusual to go out for the night and hear shitloads of Phil Ochs songs! I hope people will enjoy it regardless of whether they are Phil fans or not.
There are four of us singing – Andy Holland is a kind of 60’s influenced singer-songwriter, Morgan Brown is in several punk bands, I’m gonna be singing some of Phil’s less-political songs and Ash Centi has a really beautiful delicate touch. I think between us we cover much of what made Phil special – though not all of course.
The gig is in aid of CALM, a Liverpool based charity that raises awareness of mental health issues affecting young men. It’s a subject very close to my heart – not least because depression led to Phil’s suicide. Phil devoted his time to so many causes that I wouldn’t dream of doing such a gig unless it raised money for a cause such as this.
Further recommendations if you want to find out more about Phil Ochs:
- documentary film “There But For Fortune”
- book “Death of a Rebel” by Marc Eliot
- Sonny Ochs’s website (Phil’s sister)
- BUY THE ALBUMS!!
A little aside: The very first time someone (my dad actually) showed me this thing called “the world wide web”, the first thing I did was to type “Phil Ochs chords” into this thing called Netscape. Some considerable time later, this site came back and I printed out a load of stuff. For some reason, it pleases me very much to see that the site is still there!
Here’s a playlist of the songs Huw picked along with some of my favourites.