Phil Odgers and John Kettle “Far Rockaway – The Songs of Phil Ochs”

Vinyl Star Records, 2024

Two stalwarts of the UK folk scene pay homage to one of America’s finest songsmiths of the sixties protest movement.

artwork for Phil 'Swill' Odgers & John Kettle album "Far Rockaway" - The Songs of Phil OchsLike so many releases of recent years the seeds to this project by Phil ‘Swill’ Odgers, singer and songwriter for the folk-punk band, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and John Kettle, guitarist and songwriter for the folk-rock band Merry Hell, were sewn during the long isolated days of lockdown. As with so many of his contemporaries Odgers chose to pass the time by playing live home gigs over the internet performing numbers from own catalogue along with an eclectic mix of covers including songs by Phil Ochs. Having previously included an Ochs track on his solo album ‘Ghosts Of Rock And Roll’ he had long harboured the idea of recording a whole album of songs by the iconic sixties protest singer and had little difficulty in convincing Kettle to join him on the project which started with Odgers sending recorded guitar and vocal tracks to kettle who would embellish and arrange using a mix of guitar, bass and bouzouki.

The album’s title ‘Far Rockaway’, comes from the neighbourhood on the eastern part of the Rockaway peninsula in the New York City borough of Queens where Ochs took his own life on April 9th, 1976, aged just 35, and contains eleven tracks ranging from the politically themed topics of the day, to his more personal and introspective songs. From the carefully chosen material, along with the iconography of the album cover to emulate Ochs’ debut release ‘All The News That Fit To Sing’ the reverence in which the duo hold the legendary sixties songsmith is palpable, and an indication that the priority here may lie as much in introducing a new generation to the artistry of Ochs, rather than self-serving. That thought is cemented by the care taken with the arrangement of each track, careful not to stray to far from the original while still trying to offer something new rather than just retread ground already covered by others. This approach is seen to best effect on Ochs’ earlier works which were recorded with just guitar and vocal, allowing Kettle plenty of scope to embellish the sound without diverting or interfering with either the focus or structure of the song. Opening number ‘The Thresher’, originally from Ochs’ debut album which tells the tale of the sinking, in April 1963, of the USS nuclear-powered submarine , is a perfect example, with its busier and more expansive arrangement, including a fine guitar solo from Kettle, along with the extra vocal harmonies all helping to reinforce one of Ochs’ finest narratives. Similar comments apply to the second track ‘Changes’, a love song that depicts some of his most exquisite poetry, Odgers vocals, as they are throughout the album, bear an uncanny similarity to that of Ochs, so much that at times it’s easy to forget whose voice you are listening to, which can be a little unnerving.

The album is less successful on tracks taken from Ochs’ later albums where the production shifted from the plaintive and stark to the full-blown experimental, exploring genres as diverse as baroque, to rock and roll, classical to country and Dixieland jazz. Here Kettle is left with little option but to try and minimise the arrangement, albeit to diminished returns, especially on ‘Flower Lady’, that now sounds too simplistic, and too bright, losing the sense of utter loneliness embodied in the songs title character, not to mention 1 minute 30 seconds in running time. ‘Chords Of Fame’, also seems bereft of its original identity, with its juxtaposition of uptempo country swagger supplied by members of The Byrds and James Burton, against a dark tale of the dangers of cult of personality, now sounding somewhat sluggish and melancholic.

Where this album truly succeeds is when it uncovers some of Ochs’ lesser-known numbers, songs originally only available through the ‘Broadside Tapes’ that Ochs’ recorded in the early sixties before his career had gained any traction. Here again the production was stark with a relatively blank canvas, that allows kettle more scope to develop the accompaniment resulting in ‘The Passing Of Life’ becoming emboldened, and ‘If I Knew’ now resonating with a greater depth and gravitas. ‘A Year To Go By’, however, is a strange choice with its rather simplistic childlike narrative betraying a writer still mastering his craft and fails to show Ochs’ in the best light.

The album closes as it started with a track that first appeared on Ochs’ debut album, and one of his best-loved. Written originally as an ode to his hero Woody Guthrie ‘Bound For Glory’, is an iconic protest song of which Odgers delivers a vocal performance full of passion and pride. And in truth with ‘Far Rockaway’, there is a lot to be proud about, delivering eleven carefully chosen songs and breathing new life into them for a new generation to discover and enjoy. Is it a complete success? Probably not, but its successes way outnumbered its failings, and any liberties taken are minimal, and more than justified for turning the spotlight on the work and legacy of one of the finest artists/songwriters of his generation, whose sagacious lyrical observations still carry a profound relevancy within today’s troubled world.


About Graeme Tait 125 Articles
Hi. I'm Graeme, a child of the sixties, eldest of three, born into a Forces family. Keen guitar player since my teens, (amateur level only), I have a wide, eclectic taste in music and an album collection that exceeds 5.000. Currently reside in the beautiful city of Lincoln.
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