As the political and musical movements of the 1960s were heating up, a group formed among the poets of New York City’s Lower East Side that took on the American establishment. The Fugs, founded in 1964 by Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, predated seminal New York art-scene rockers the Velvet Underground and “epitomized a cultural transformation,” according to critic Scott Isler in Rolling Stone. The beatniks of the early 1960s were becoming the hippies of the era, and the beginnings of underground rock were taking hold. The Fugs were hedonists who performed songs with explicit lyrics, but they were also idealists. “For all their wallowing in earthly pleasures,” Isler wrote, “transcendence is what the Fugs are all about.”
Sanders and Kupferberg met after a poetry reading in 1964. Kupferberg, whom Sanders called “a beat hero” on the Fug’s website, had some of his poetry published in such anthologies as The Beat Scene. He also published several magazines, including Birth and Yeah, which he sold on the streets of downtown New York. Sanders published Kupferberg’s poetry in his literary journal. When Sanders proposed the two start a band, Kupferberg came up with the name the Fugs from Norman Mailer’s novel The Naked and the Dead.
The duo found inspiration in a variety of sources, including ancient Greek plays and the works of Aristotle, according to Sanders on the Fugs’ official website. The span of the duo’s inspirations ranged from the early twentieth-century art movement known as Dadaism, to the jazz-poetry of the Beats, to saxophonist Charlie Parker and musician John Cage, to the songs of the civil rights movement, and to their concept that there was “oodles of freedom guaranteed by the United States Constitution that was not being used,” Sanders wrote.
Sanders and Kupferberg began churning out songs for their new band. They recruited drummer Ken Weaver to join. Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel of the band the Holy Modal Rounders also joined the group. The Fugs played their first show in front of a packed house at the February of 1965 opening of Sanders’s new Peace Eye Bookstore on New York’s Lower East Side. Andy Warhol hung banners of his artworks on the walls, and members of New York’s literary community—including William Burroughs, George Plimpton, and James Michener—were among the attendees.
The group built a reputation by playing packed shows for opening parties in New York City, including one for Izzy Young’s Folklore Center. They performed several times at Diane Di Prima’s American Theater for Poetry and played a series of midnight concerts at the Bridge Theater on New York’s St. Mark’s Place. As their reputation grew, the Fugs entertained an increasingly famous audience that included actors Richard Burton, Kim Novak, and Peter OToole, writer Tennessee Williams, and composer Leonard Bernstein.
The Fugs began to record in early 1965, relegated at first to small, independent record companies that “didn’t mind four-letter words,” according to Isler. Their first release, The Village Fugs: Ballads and Songs of Contemporary Protest, Points of View and General Dissatisfaction, better known as The Fugs First Album, was compiled from some 23 songs recorded in two sessions in 1965. The Fugs played and sang primitive songs about drugs, sex, politics, and the “abyss,” according to Isler. The recording features Sanders singing the words of poets William Blake and Allen Ginsberg; Kupferberg contributed the tributes “Carpe Diem” and “Nothing.” Songs like “Slum Goddess” and “I Couldn’t Get High” appear as comic relief to the Fugs’ political and existential rock songs. In 1993, The Fugs First Album was reissued by the band as the first in a series of Fugs reissues.
In the fall of 1965 the Fugs left New York in their Volkswagen bus for their first tour across the country, part of an anti-Vietnam War protest. The lineup, consisting of Sanders, Kupferberg, Weber, and Weaver, played concerts with Ginsberg, Frank Zappa’s the Mothers of Invention, and Country Joe and the Fish, among other bands. By the time they returned to New York, The Village Fugs had been released by Folkways Records.
During sessions that took place just months after the First Album sessions, the Fugs recorded a noticeably more electrified selection of songs, including “Skin
For the Record …
Members include Cody Batty, drums, percussion; Tuli Kupferberg, vocals; Scott Petito, bass, keyboards; Ed Sanders, vocals; Steve Taylor, vocals, guitar.
Formed in New York, NY, c. 1964; released The Village Fugs (also known as The Fugs First Album), 1965; signed with Atlantic Records, 1966; fired from Atlantic, released The Fugs on Reprise, 1966; Sanders appeared on the cover of Life magazine, 1967; played sporadically throughout the 1970s and 1980s; re-formed with a new lineup, 1985.
Flowers,” “Group Grope,” and the bitter Vietnam protest song, “Kill for Peace.” The resulting second album, The Fugs, was released in 1966; Ginsberg wrote the album’s liner notes. The recording also included Kupferberg’s “Morning, Morning,” which was later recorded by Richie Havens. The group received a small thrill when The Fugs landed on the popular 100 album chart in 1966, at number 89.
The band, with its hedonistic habits and anti-establishment politics, fought to survive. The Peace Eye Bookstore was raided by police, and copies of Sanders’s magazine were confiscated and he was arrested. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Sanders won his case after a trial in 1967. The band signed a questionable contract with ESP Disk that guaranteed them an astonishingly low royalty rate. A vice president of Coca-Cola threatened to sue the band for an unflattering song about the soft drink. Onstage, the Fugs moved suggestively, used colorful language, and complained loudly about the war in Vietnam.
A four-month residency at the Astor Place Playhouse ended when it was reported by a New York newspaper that the band had “burned a flag” during a concert, and the local fire department intervened. It had not been mentioned that the flag they had burned had been a homemade “Lower East Side” flag and not the American flag. They were determined to “thrive and survive,” Sanders wrote on the group’s website. “We vowed to live from our art, to have fun and party continuously, and to get our brains on tape.” They made a bold decision not to alter a show attended by members of the New York District Attorney’s office. Only years later did the Fugs discover they were the subject of a thorough investigation by the United States government and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) kept files on them.
In 1966, the Fugs signed a deal with Atlantic Records. An Atlantic executive guaranteed no censorship and even encouraged controversy. In an unexpected turn, Atlantic abruptly canceled the Fugs’ contract, with rumors that it was feared the band’s controversy could threaten the impending sale of Atlantic to Warner Bros. Ironically, the Fugs soon signed a deal with Reprise, a Warner Bros, imprint. In early 1967, the Fugs became famous. Sanders was on the cover of Life magazine. The band was offered a spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, but they refused to appear unless they could perform “Kill for Peace.” The request was denied, and the band did not appear on the show. Sanders received several bomb threats and was even sent a fake bomb in the mail, with a message that criticized his major-label contract and marked him as a target.
The Fugs rode out the 1960s in grand style. They toured nationally and internationally and were at the center of Vietnam protests. In one event, the band staged an “exorcism” of the Pentagon building. The protest drew tens of thousands of supporters who stood face-to-face with lines of armed soldiers and slid daisies down the barrels of their rifles. Online at TheF-ugs.com, Sanders called 1968 “an American nightmare.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated that year and riots overwhelmed the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The band stayed with Reprise through the early 1970s, releasing a succession of albums that included Tenderness Junction and It Crawled into My Hand, Honest in 1968; Belle of Avenue A in 1969; and Golden Filth in 1970. The members of the Fugs explored various side projects throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, restricting participation in the band to performances of various reunion concerts. They re-formed in 1985 to record No More Slavery, an opera called Star Peace, and several live releases.
The group’s contemporary lineup came together in 1985 and includes vocalist and guitar player Steve Taylor, who is a professor of writing at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He also is a noted composer who performed with Allen Ginsberg for several years and wrote a string quartet to Ginsberg’s poem “White Shroud.” Drummer and percussionist Coby Batty has his own band in Richmond, Virginia. He has performed with such artists as Don Cherry, John Zorn, and Eugene Chadbourne, among others. Scott Petito, who plays bass and keyboards for the Fugs, is also a record producer who runs NRS recording studios near Woodstock, New York. He has overseen recordings by the Fugs and the Band, among others. Past members of the Fugs have also included John Anderson, Lee Crab-tree, Alan Jacobs, Pete Kearney, Danny Kootch, Mack Kramer, Charles Larkey, Vinnie Leary, Bob Mason, Kenny Pine, Peter Stampfel, Ken Weaver, Steve Weber, and Bill Wolf.
Over more than three decades, the Fugs’ lineup changed many times, with Sanders and Kupferberg remaining as the group’s core. After the Fugs’ 1960s heyday, Sanders continued as a poet, environmentalist, novelist, and publisher of the Woodstock Journal. He went on to invent such musical instruments as the “Talking Tie” and “Microlyre.” He has written such books as America, A History in Verse, Volume One (1900–1939) and The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg. Kupferberg continued writing poems and songs. He is a published author and has become a well-known political cartoonist for the Village Voice.
The Village Fugs (a.k.a. The Fugs First Album), Broadside/Folkways, 1965; reissued, ESP-Disk, 1966; reissued, Fugs Records, 1993.
The Fugs, ESP-Disk, 1966.
Virgin Fugs (bootleg), ESP-Disk, 1967.
Tenderness Junction, Reprise, 1968.
It Crawled into My Hand, Honest, Reprise, 1968.
Belle of Avenue A, Reprise, 1969.
Golden Filth (live at the Fillmore East), Reprise, 1970.
Refuse to Be Burnt Out (live reunion), Olufsen & New Rose, 1984.
No More Slavery, Olufsen & New Rose, 1985.
Star Peace (an opera), Olufsen & New Rose, 1986.
Songs from a Portable Forest, Gazelle, 1992.
The Real Woodstock Festival (two-CD set), Ace, 1995.
Larkin, Colin, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK Ltd., 1998.
Rolling Stone, November 25, 1993, p. 112.
“The Fugs,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=B3ubyxd7bjolk (November 29, 2001).
The Fugs Official Website, http://www.thefugs.com (November 29, 2001).
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