By Richie Unterberger

The 1966 LP In Concert was a breakthrough album for Phil Ochs on a few levels. It was the first Ochs recording to make the charts, and if its peak of #149 in Billboard seems modest, that was no mean feat for an album of uncompromisingly left-wing topical songs on a small independent label. It also documented Ochs's artistic growth as a sharp-eyed sociopolitical commentator, a composer of strong melodies, and a singer skilled at projecting both warmth and commitment, for the first time occasionally branching out beyond politics into purely personal concerns. Ochs continued to expand his artistic horizons on subsequent albums both lyrically and musically, especially when he added electric instrumentation and orchestration to his acoustic folk base. In Concert nonetheless remains arguably his strongest and most popular collection of songs.

    Unusually for a concert album of that or any time, the record consisted entirely of songs that had not yet been issued in studio versions. "Phil was an artist that didn't like to repeat himself," explains his manager of the time, Arthur Gorson. "He never was one to recycle. He always thought he was as current as the newspaper of the day. He always wanted to have new things out. So the idea of making a new album live would be to attempt as much as possible to include topical songs that were of the moment. He had a passion to do that. Plus, he had a lot of great material. He was writing songs, maybe three a week that were worth keeping. He was just bursting."

    The planning of a concert album coincided with Ochs and Gorson's preparations for a January 7, 1966 show at New York's Carnegie Hall, one of the most prestigious of possible venues for showcasing an emerging young artist. "We had been planning it for a while," Arthur confirms. "It was when we decided that we would go into business together and I would manage him. There's a legendary story of us sneaking into the stage of Carnegie Hall and saying someday this would be ours. But that's a true story. Part of our effort was to expose Phil to a bigger audience. Promoters like Harold Leventhal were very kind to Phil, but they would never think of him as being bigger than [New York's] Town Hall, which was a much smaller venue."

    Yet, as Arthur adds, "We figured we knew enough people to sell out Carnegie Hall among Phil's fans. That was one of our first goals. The costs of putting on the concert were not that high. We took our first money and put down a deposit and bought some ads, ticket sales started coming in, and enough sales came in to buy more ads. We promoted everything we could out of it, and kept selling ads even after it sold out. Carnegie Hall, I think at the time, had 2700 seats; we might have sold 3000."

    Yet though the Carnegie Hall show was recorded by Elektra Records, In Concert is not exactly a document of the performance. In fact, it's not exactly a live album, as much as it sounds like one. As Gorson remembers of the tapes made at Carnegie Hall, "most of it was unusable, because Phil had terrible voice problems. They weren't the best or the clearest performances in terms of a recorded memory of the concert. So I think that very, very little was used."

    Nor did the event excite positive local press coverage, Robert Shelton opening his lukewarm New York Times review with the statement, "The next time Phil Ochs performs at Carnegie Hall, he will probably do better." Similarly, the Village Voice's J.R. Goddard felt "it seemed only a rehearsal for a Carnegie evening yet to come," finding that "his performance in the formalized setting of Carnegie left me near paralyzed with boredom." Goddard confirmed, incidentally, that Ochs performed at least a couple songs not found in any form on In Concert. One, "Draft Dodger Rag," was one of the most popular compositions on his second album, I Ain't Marching Anymore; the other, "Joe Hill," would not appear on disc until Phil's 1968 LP Tape From California.

    Ochs tried to cut live material again shortly afterward at Boston's Jordan Hall, continues Gorson, as "we had a much more controlled situation in terms of recording, and I think we were able to use snippets of Jordan Hall. Again Phil had voice problems and some occasional emotional problems; we didn't have enough to do an album, but we had more of the basis of an album. We ended up using a lot of the audience interchange with Phil from both concerts in terms of his haranguing the audience and all that stuff. It was the performances that were clearly shaky, because of his nervousness and vocal problems."

    Ultimately, much of the album was recorded without an audience at Judson Hall, right across the street from Carnegie Hall. "We were in a real bind, because Elektra had a considerable investment at the time in the live recording at Carnegie Hall and then up in Boston," says Arthur. "We had persuaded Elektra and [label president] Jac Holzman, who very willingly came along once they saw that Carnegie Hall had momentum and was gonna sell out, and we were making something bigger of Phil's career. So they weren't gonna can the album. We huddled, like in a crisis meeting, to figure out what we would do with these tapes. It had urgency, 'cause Phil was due to have an album out. Judson Hall was a small hall, and for recording live, it had a lovely acoustic sound. It was mainly for small classical chamber orchestras, or cello concerts, and things like that. So it could approximate as closely as possible the Boston recordings."

    As Gorson points out, nowhere on the LP did it say the recording had been done at Carnegie Hall. A note on the back stated that "this album was recorded at concerts given by Phil Ochs in Boston and New York in the winter of 1965-66," though Joel Brodsky's photo on the back cover, according to Arthur, "is the same picture that was on the Carnegie Hall poster and ad campaign." As he also acknowledges, "It also doesn't say 'recorded at Carnegie Hall' because Carnegie Hall would have charged a lot more money in royalty to use their name."

    While many of the songs attacked American imperialism, religious hypocrisy, and spineless liberals, the two that got the most attention were the ones that found Ochs moving into more personal and romantic territory. The haunting "There But For Fortune" had already been covered by Joan Baez on a 1965 single that made it to #50 in the US and all the way to #8 in the UK. Gorson, however, sees "Changes" in particular "as a major turn for Phil, 'cause Phil was so totally immersed in being the singing newspaper guy. When 'Changes' came to him, it was an epiphany. It was like a religious experience for him, because he wrote something that was beautiful and heartfelt, not driven by the newspapers, and driven by candid love and emotion. It was a precursor of other songs he would want to write and do. I think 'Changes' is probably the most important song on the album in terms of a new direction, and a showing of his insides. It's a gorgeous song." It also generated a number of cover versions (including 1966 renditions by Gordon Lightfoot and Phil's friends Jim & Jean) as, in Gorson's estimation, "it was not a hard song to record. It was not dangerous or anything. But Phil's version of it is always my favorite, 'cause it's so heartfelt and beautiful."

    More potentially damaging to the album's sales than any of its lyrics, however, were eight poems by Mao Tse-Tung, printed on the back cover at Ochs's instigation. In Gorson's view, "The purpose wasn't to be a Maoist or to show that he was some kind of red flag-waving Communist, but to show that there was beauty everywhere, even in the words of someone who would be described as an enemy of our country. The essential point was to blur the image of a villain, and soften it with art. To Elektra's credit, they did not override us, they did not fight us. They allowed those liner notes to go on, at what at the time seemed like great cost."

    It might have made chains and distributors reluctant to carry it, but "if anything, in the end, it probably strengthened Elektra's credibility in the artistic community, and didn't terribly hurt the sales. Phil was on the cusp of the moment in the anti-war movement, and it had a built-in core audience that was waiting for it. He had reached so many new people, and there was such a demand to hear new songs." – Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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