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The Fugs: proto-punk and the 60s sound that echoes today

This article is over 13 years, 11 months old
Ed Saunders of The Fugs spoke to Martin Smith about the music that helped change America
Issue 2115
The Fugs in the late 1960s
The Fugs in the late 1960s

“This is the era of the civil rights, sexual and consciousness expansion revolutions, and those are the banners under which The Fugs are going to present themselves to America.”

This was the opening declaration of the 1960s New York band The Fugs.

You may not have heard of them, but they were one of the most innovative bands of the late 1960s. They were musical rebels with a cause.

Ed Saunders, one of the founding members of the band and the man who helped put together the new four CD compilation of their music, told me their story.

“I wanted to call the band the Yodelling Socialists, but in the end we settled for the Fugs, a euphemism for ‘fuck’ used by Norman Mailer in his novel, The Naked and the Dead,” he said.

Beat poet Tuli Kupferberg and Ed founded the band in 1964. They were based in Ed’s Peace Eye Bookshop in Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The band’s influences were wide and varied. “We were into all kinds of stuff”, Ed recalls, “Greek plays, the poetry of the Beats, Charlie Parker’s seething sax, the songs of the civil rights movement, early Stax and most of all the burgeoning folk-rock scene.”

In 1965 the band released their first album – The Village Fugs on the legendary Folkways record label.

In the same year the Fugs headed on their first major tour. Each gig was in support of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

In San Francisco the band performed alongside the great beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Frank Zappa and Country Joe and the Fish.

They performed hundreds of gigs for the anti-Vietnam War movement with songs like “War Kills Babies” and the band’s proto-punk rallying cry “Kill For Peace”.

Tracks like “CIA Man” and “J Edgar Hoover is Paranoid” brought them to the attention of the FBI.

One FBI memorandum noted: “The Fugs… are considered to be beatniks and free thinkers, ie free love, free use of narcotics… it is recommended that this case be placed in a closed status since their recordings are not considered to be obscene.”

But that didn’t stop the FBI getting concert theatres, radio stations and TV companies to pull the band.

The band released The Fugs Second Album in 1966.

It began to rise up the US charts and hit number 86. Ed appeared on the front cover of Life Magazine – it was a story about the growing radical music and arts scene.

Johnny Carson even invited Ed onto his TV show.

Ed joyfully recalls. “I insisted on having the Fugs sing ‘Kill for Peace’ on national television as a protest against the war in Vietnam. They refused and I never appeared.

“However much we partied and shouted our poetry, we couldn’t get the Vietnam War out of our minds.”

Like it was just yesterday Ed recalls, “A demonstration was planned for October 1967 to surround the Pentagon in Washington DC.

“Someone came up with the idea of holding an exorcism of this mystical pentagonal citadel of napalm and incineration.

“I rented a flatbed truck and sound system. The band climbed on board and joined the protest march. We positioned ourselves just a few hundred feet from the Pentagon and performed as tens of thousands of people walked past. We chanted ‘OUT, DEMONS OUT’.

“We walked onto the lawn in front of the Pentagon where lines of armed soldiers with rifles thrust forward stood guarding the entranceway. We were carrying dozens of white daises, we shoved some stems into their rifle barrels – that image was broadcast around the world.”

As the decade wore on the US state became more violent. Tuli and Ed took part in the protest outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago in August 1968. They were there when police bashed in the heads of hundreds of protestors.

Ed proudly remembers, “I stood on that demonstration chanting along with everyone else, ‘the whole world is watching, the whole world is watching’.”

Today, Tuli is 85 years young and Ed is a youthful 69. But their zeal for musical experimentation continues, and the band will be releasing a new album in the autumn.

Ed is still writing and performing his poetry. And his political anger remains as sharp as ever, “Even from a young age I was something you’re not meant to be in the US – a socialist.

I think it is time for another big surge like the late 1960s. I want to see an end to world poverty, health care for all and an end to war.”

The Fugs Don’t Stop! Don’t Stop four CD box set is out now on Ace Records. Go to »

Ed Saunders
Ed Saunders


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