Welcome to Music you Should Know (But Probably Don’t). Today we cover those rascals of the Flower Power Generation, The Fugs! But first:
A Brief Note of Introduction
Because writing previews for shows gets boring after a while, I’ve decided to start myself a little side project. You see, brothers and sisters, there are scads of great artists out there who languish in undeserved obscurity. I aim to change that. In fact, I aim to climb the mountains and shout their names from on high! Until all the world knows them. Or at least the small chunk of the world that reads me.
Now, the bands that I’ll be covering here wound up outside of the mainstream for a variety of reasons. Maybe they were too weird for radio. Maybe they just didn’t get their demo tracks into the right hands. Or maybe they did and cheesed off the wrong producer. But what they all have in common is this: they are awesome, and you need to hear them.
So, without further ado, let’s meet:
When I talk about the music of the early sixties, odds are you probably think of mid-career Elvis or the dawn of Motown. After all, this was the sixties, but it wasn’t the Sixties. Peace, Love, and Dope were still a couple years off. So, daddy smoked a pipe, mommy mixed martinis, and junior tortured small animals in the backyard. Still, America wasn’t all bland, Pleasantville-style sameness. There was a counterculture, an underground if you will. And few bands exemplified that underground like the Fugs.
Formed in 1964 by New York poets Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders, the Fugs are tough to classify. So, we won’t.
Instead, we’ll talk about why they matter. And why is that, you ask? Well, for starters, there really wasn’t anybody like the Fugs when they formed. Sure, the Velvet Underground got together at about the same time the Fugs did, but they weren’t going to be big for another three years. And even then, Lou Reed and Co. still weren’t as raw or angry. You see, since they were both part of the Beat Generation, Kupferberg and Sanders had no interest in being a typical band. Instead, they wanted to bring the anarchic spirit of the beatniks to rock. And christening themselves the Fugs, after Norman Mailer’s euphemism for the f-word, they set out to do just that.
Being a counterculture group, the Fugs were willing to address subjects few other performers of the time were.
While sex in rock and roll was nothing new, the Fugs were among the first to deal with it directly. What do I mean by that? Well, put it this way. When they sang about sex, you knew they were singing about sex. I mean “Boobs-a-Lot” or “Wet Dream”, there ain’t a whole lot of ambiguity in them titles. In point of fact, a lot of their material is still too raunchy to play in public. Similarly, they were also more than willing to get political, especially once America decided to intervene in Vietnam. Really, throughout their career, the Fugs were stridently anti-war. Songs like “Kill for Peace” or “War Song” decried the horrors of war and the hypocrisy of US interventionism. Heck, in 1967 the Fugs went so far as to attempt to perform an exorcism on the Pentagon, all in the name of protest.
However, they weren’t all about sex and politics.
Don’t forget that these guys were poets. Even as they took on the rock star mantle, Kupferberg and Sanders never quit being poets. On any given Fugs album, crude songs about sex and drugs played alongside musical settings of Matthew Arnold’s or William Blake’s poetry. Really, this is very much in keeping with their beat origins. If you’ve ever read William S. Burroughs, for example, you’ll notice how sophisticated literary techniques tend to coexist with crude subject matter.
Many critics have pointed out over the years that the Fugs were as transcendental as they were hedonistic. These guys loved sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, but they also wanted mankind to lay aside its more destructive aspects. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if there’s any hypocrisy there.
A few words on their music.
It’s important to remember that while the rest of the Fugs were musicians, ringleaders Kupferberg and Sanders weren’t. About all they could really do was sing, and while Sanders actually had a decent voice, Kupferberg could barely carry a tune. Their production methods tended to be rough too. Not, say, “we recorded this in a public toilet” rough, but still pretty gnarly. This was especially true of their first few albums, but it never quite went away.
Nevertheless, their music is pretty interesting. Since the Fugs were fans of everybody from Charlie Parker to John Cage, elements of their music wound up in the band’s overall style. So, they could be deceptively sophisticated. Admittedly, though, most of their songs are pretty simple. You know, not a lot of chord variation, repetitive melodies, that kind of thing. But, these were also the same guys who composed a Gregorian chant extolling the virtues of Marijuana. Musically, the Fugs’s output was a lot like their themes: a mixture of the crude and the luminous.
Okay, you might ask, but where does that leave us?
Sure, they’re unique, but what does that mean to me? Well, I’m glad you asked. Think about it. Vulgar, angry lyrics. Spare, simple music that’s sort of rough around the edges. Limited, often DIY production. Sounds sort of like punk, doesn’t it? Punk from about twelve years before the Ramones codified the genre. Of course, calling the Fugs punks would be disingenuous at best. They were more like garage rockers with a satirical bent than anything else. And anyway, what they actually did was much more significant than just founding a genre.
Instead, what they really did was create an entire scene.
Specifically, the underground scene as we know it today. That’s right, the Fugs are probably the first underground band in history. More than that, they can be credited with originating the concept of alternative music. Since there was no way these guys could exist in the mainstream (good example: Atlantic Records dropped them in 1967 over “Wet Dream”), they had to operate on the fringes. As a result, the Fugs created space for music like punk to exist. Without them, a lot of the music we take for granted today wouldn’t have happened. No Joey Ramone, no Patti Smith, no P.J. Harvey, no Kurt Cobain, nada.
Today, people usually remember the Fugs for a handful of songs if they remember them at all.
Sadly, it’s not a surprising state of affairs. After all, once they created the space they did, other artists were quick to fill it up. Plus, many of these later artists, groups like the Velvet Underground or the Doors in particualr, proved somewhat easier to market. The grand result? The Fugs faded, eclipsed by the new talent.
Their politics didn’t help either. Since, big surprise, the Fugs’s opinions weren’t exactly popular outside the counterculture, the band received death threats frequently. In 1966, the NYPD raided Ed Sanders’s Peace Eye bookstore. He spent nearly a year in court fighting the cops over that one. The Fugs also turned down opportunities, such as an appearance on The Tonight Show, that would have given them wider exposure, because they knew the showrunners would censor them. And the cumulative effect?
The Fugs drifted apart in the early 70s.
While they reunited in 1985, and persist to this day, they never really regained traction. Tuli Kupferberg died in 2010, leaving Sanders the only original Fug still performing with the band. Kinda sad, huh?
But hey, even if the Fugs are just a shell of their former selves we can still enjoy the fruits of their labors. After all, even if the old pioneers aren’t around anymore, we can still enjoy walking the trails they blazed. Let’s just make sure we also remember their names when we do.
Until next time, keep listening everybody.