Unlike bluegrass, where one can point to Bill Monroe’s “Mule Skinner Blues” (1940) as the discrete start of a new musical genre, progressive rock’s emergence was gradual. With Revolver and “Eight Miles High” the boundaries of pop music were expanded; 1967 would see the arrival of free-form or fusionist jam tracks likes Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive,” Buffalo Springield’s “Bluebird” (the hard to find long version), and Jefferson Airplane’s 24 minute epic “Spare Chaynge” (pared down to its last 9-1/2 minutes for After Bathing at Baxter’s).
Fifty years ago this month Country Joe & The Fish entered the studio in San Francisco to record their first LP. The last track of side one may be the most proto-prog recording of the ’60s. “Section 43” reminds us that prog rock got its biggest push from the counter-culture’s psychedelia and acid rock. Whereas the aforementioned jam pieces are largely improvisational, this multi-part mini-epic displays as much attention to form as freak out.
Now, I have a confession to make. I had never heard “Section 43” until a few weeks ago. In 1967 I was a first-grader, and the greatest rock band in the world was The Monkees. When I later watched the Woodstock documentary I associated Country Joe with the Vietnam war gallows humor of “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag.” I didn’t look into the band further. It wasn’t until I watched Jack O’Donnell’s documentary on the Summer of Love, Revolution, that I caught the music on the soundtrack and went on a quest to know who performed it. Thankfully, the person who posted a print of the film on YouTube was ready with the answer.
Watching the film I thought I might be hearing some previously uncovered Floyd track. The Farfisa organ and bass line put me in mind of Rick Wright and Roger Waters. Upon learning it was Country Joe & The Fish my mind was blown — and impressed.
The piece follows a verse-chorus-verse-verse-chorus structure. The choruses build tension waltzing slowly through minor and dissonant chords. The first and third verses showcase interplay between Barry “The Fish” Melton’s Gibson SG and David Bennett Cohen’s keyboard. The middle verses are bisected by what Richie Unterberger calls “an unexpected, almost circus-like atonal passage.” Up to that jarring break our ears are treated to a bracing harmonica solo from bassist Bruce Barthol, as salient on that instrument as with the heavy strings, while Gary “Chicken” Hirsh’s cymbals crash and tom-tom’s dance all around.
But it’s Melton’s note-bending, Near Eastern inflection on the second guitar solo that’s the highlight of this track. Country Joe McDonald? Why, he wrote the thing, and his ringing hollow-bodied Gibson keeps the whole contraption aloft.
The band opened with “Section 43” on the final morning of the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, an event memorable for Pete Townshend smashing his guitar and Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his. But Rolling Stone rated “Section 43” among the 15 greatest musical moments captured on film. Not so much for the shots of the band themselves (though Melton’s army jacket and blue jean combo would be a look emulated on school buses for years to come). It was the yawning, scratching youth summoned from slumber by Country Joe’s yell, and stumbling to the stage front that were the real stars of the clip.
Barthol’s harmonica solo isn’t present in this version. Country Joe blows the last dying notes on the harp as the camera cuts to the tapping feet of a sleepy and spacey young woman, too tired or too high or perhaps too deeply moved to clap, but whose bleary-eyed, Mona Lisa smile tells us that we have might have just passed a key signpost on the road to Proghalla.