Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube

My Playlist: Udo Lindenberg

Pioneer of Deutsch Rock is still going strong after more than 45 years

Udo Lindenberg is probably one of those artists most people either love or hate. While the rock musician, writer and painter has had his ups and downs over a more than 40-year career, to me he’s one of the leading contemporary German artists. Today, Lindenberg, an early pioneer of Deutsch Rock, released his 11th live album, MTV Unplugged 2: Live Vom Atlantik. His vast catalog also includes 36 studio records, as well as numerous compilations and box sets. With all of that, I felt a playlist feature was warranted.

Udo Gerhard Lindenberg was born on May 17, 1946 in the West German town of Gronau. Already as a child, he developed a good sense of rhythm and was drawn to playing the drums, initially banging on fuel barrels. As a 15-year-old, he started performing in bars in the town of Duesseldorf where he was doing an apprenticeship at a local hotel. After drifting for various years, Lindenberg went to the Northern German town of Hamburg in 1968 where his music career started to take off soon thereafter.

City Preachers 1970
City Preachers in 1970 (from left): Udo Lindenberg, Dagmar Krause, Jean-Jacques Kravetz, Inga Rumpf und Karl-Heinz Schott

First, he became the drummer of City Preachers, which are considered to be Germany’s first folk rock group. In 1969, he co-founded the German jazz rock formation Free Orbit. In October 1970, they released their first and I believe only album. It was in English and featured Lindenberg on drums and vocals. In the early ’70s, Lindenberg also worked with a few other bands, most notably jazz saxophone player Klaus Doldinger for the first record of his jazz fusion band Passport.

Lindenberg’s eponymous debut album, sung in English, appeared in August 1971. It failed to make an impact. The sophomore, Daumen Im Wind (Thumbs In The Wind) from 1972, was his first German language record. It didn’t sell well either, though the single Hoch Im Norden (All The Way Up North) gained some popularity, especially on Northern German radio stations. Lindenberg’s commercial breakthrough came in December 1973 with his third studio album Alles Klar Auf Der Andrea Doria (All Clear On Board Of Andrea Doria). The title refers to the Italian luxury passenger vessel that collided with another passenger ship in July 1956 on route to New York near the coast of Nantucket, Mass.

Udo Lindenberg & Alice Cooper
Udo Lindenberg and Alice Cooper in July 2018

For the remainder of the ’70s and during the ’80s, Lindenberg continued to release studio albums that were pretty successful in Germany, including four records that achieved Gold status. In 1980, he produced the comedy movie Panische Zeiten (Panic Times), in which he also co-starred. During the ’90s and early 2000s, his success on the music front started to wane. Since the mid-’90s, Lindenberg had also increasingly emerged as a painter. His first exhibition was in 1996 and several others followed over the years. In March 2008, Lindenberg at age 62 staged a major musical comeback with his 35th studio album Stark Wie Zwei (Strong Like Two). The record became his first no. 1 in Germany and also charted in Austria and Switzerland, peaking at no. 2 and no. 7, respectively.

In September 2011, Lindenberg scored his biggest music success to date with the live album MTV Unplugged – Live aus dem Hotel Atlantic, his first MTV special. It topped the German record charts and peaked at no. 6 in each Austria and Switzerland; with more than 1.1 million units sold, it also became Lindenberg’s best-seller. His most recent studio album Stärker als die Zeit (Stronger Than Time) from April 2016 continued his string of successful releases. Once again, the record topped the German charts, and climbed two no. 2 and no. 7 in Switzerland and Austria, respectively. Time for some music!

I’d like to start things off with the title track of Lindenberg’s breakthrough album Alles Klar Auf Der Andrea Doria. He wrote the lyrics and the music of the dixieland style tune. The album, which Lindenberg also co-produced, was the first to feature Panikorchester (Panic Orchestra). Founded in August 1973, the band has backed Lindenberg throughout the decades, though there have been numerous lineup changes over time.

Honky Tonky Show is a rocker from Lindenberg’s Ball Pompös, his fourth studio album from August 1974. The lyrics were written by Lindenberg, while the music is credited to him and pianist Gottfried Böttger, who at the time was a member of Panikorchester.

In April 1975, Udo Lindenberg released his fifth studio album Votan Wahnwitz, his first Gold record. Here’s Null-Rhesus Negativ (O Rhesus Negative). Lindenberg wrote both the music and lyrics of the song, which is a good example of his sense of humor. It describes the story of a man who runs into a vampire. When he reveals his blood type, the vampire tells him he doesn’t tolerate it. As a consolation, the guy then invites the vampire to a bar where they chat about life as a creature of the night.

Apart from writing his own music, Lindenberg also created German covers of various famous English songs. Sometimes he used the music and wrote new lyrics, such as for Penny Lane by The Beatles, which he turned into a song about Hamburg’s red light district known as Reeperbahn. In other cases, he developed German adaptations like for The Animals’ We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place (Verdammt Wir Müssen Raus Aus Dem Dreck) or the tune I’m highlighting here, Sympathie für den Teufel (Sympathy For The Devil), by The Rolling Stones. He included all of the aforementioned tunes on an album released in May 1978 called Lindenbergs Rock-Revue.

One of my favorite 70s Lindenberg records is his first live album Livehaftig, which appeared in May 1979. Here’s the great ballad Sie Ist 40 (She Is 40), which represents the reflective side of Lindenberg. The tune is about a 40-year-old woman who is stuck in an unhappy marriage, asks herself whether that’s all what’s in store for her and daydreams about living with a guy like James Dean. The lyrics were co-written by Lindenberg and German singer-songwriter Ulla Meinecke, with music by Lindenberg.

In January 1983, Lindenberg’s 16th studio album Odyssee appeared. It became popular largely because of the single Sonderzug Nach Pankow (Special Train To Pankow). Pankow refers to the borough in East Berlin where the government of the GDR (the former East Germany) was based. The song was Lindenberg’s appeal to GDR head Erich Honecker to allow him to perform in East Germany. Just like in the Soviet Union, Western rock music was banned in the GDR, since the socialist regime regarded it as subversive. The tune illustrates Lindenberg’s political side, which became very active during the ’80s. The music is based on U.S. swing classic Chattanooga Choo Choo.

Next I’d like to jump to Lindenberg’s above mentioned 2008 comeback album Stark Wie Zwei (Strong Like Two). One of the tunes on that record is Mein Ding (My Thing) with lyrics by Lindenberg and music by guitarist Jörg Sander and songwriter/musician Sandi Strmljan. Here’s the official video featuring cartoon drawings by Lindenberg.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is from Lindenberg’s new live album MTV Unplugged 2: Live Vom AtlantikNo More Mr. Nice Guy (So’n Ruf Musste Dir Dir Verdienen) featuring Alice Cooper. The album was compiled from three concerts Lindenberg conducted with prominent guests in July 2018 at Kampnagel, a performance venue in Hamburg. Cooper  co-wrote the song with Alice Cooper rhythm guitarist and keyboardist Michael Bruce for the band’s sixth studio album Billion Dollar Babies from February 1973. Apparently, Cooper and Lindenberg have known each other for 40 years. Here’s a cool video of the tune.

Over his career, Udo Lindenberg has sold more than 4.4 million records in Germany. His first MTV unplugged album accounts for approximately 1.1 million of these units, making it one of the best-selling records in Germany since 1975. The companion video album sold more than 200,000 copies and is also one of the most successful such releases in Germany. In addition, Lindenberg has received multiple awards for his artistic work and his social and political engagement. The latter includes the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesverdienstkreuz), the only federal decoration of Germany, for his efforts to advance peace and understanding between East and West.

Sources: Wikipedia, Udo Lindenberg website, YouTube