Time to talk about the album that I’ve derived the most pure unalloyed pleasure from over the last few months. Have Moicy! is a 1976 release that I’ve been vaguely aware of for decades but only got to listen to for the first time in January, and if nothing else it’s certainly a candidate for the album having the most convoluted recording artist credit outside of the hip-hop genre: Michael Hurley and The Unholy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Fredericks & The Clamtones.
I first heard of Have Moicy! way back in the pre-internet 80s, when I was relying on only the weekly music press and one or two reference books for information and opinion about bands and records. By far the most authoritative and austerely self-important looking of these tomes was Robert Christgau’s massive and tightly packed Consumer Guide to the rock albums of the 1970s, in which the august New York critic had compiled his super-dense and often sardonically opaque reviews of more or less every major (and many many minor) release from the decade in question. Most of the reviews didn’t make much sense to me as a teenager, and still don’t now, but Christgau also helpfully graded every album on a scale from A+ to E-, which gave me some kind of starting point to work out whether he liked them or not. Not many albums in the book got a grading of A, and the top mark was vanishingly rare, so the records that achieved it tended to stick in my memory – the two original New York Dolls albums, Marquee Moon by Television, an Al Green album I think, and a few others, including (to return to the point) Have Moicy!, which Christgau describes as the best folk album of the rock era. A mere 25 years later after reading the review I got round to downloading the album after I noticed it was available from emusic.
Michael Hurley is an American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who’d been sporadically issuing collections of pleasantly laidback folky material since the early 60s. The Unholy Modal Rounders, led by Peter Stampfel, were an off-shoot of folk/psychedelia duo The Holy Modal Rounders, who shared some lineage with legendary proto-punks The Fugs and also at one point included respected playwright and actor Sam Shepard in their line-up. Jeffrey Fredericks was the leader of Vermont group The Clamtones, who played in a style that would probably be referred to as alt-country or Americana these days, and wrote (but didn’t release) many accomplished and irreverent songs in the early 70s. What these three pretty disparate acts had in common was that by 1975 they were all signed to, or in the orbit of, folk label Rounder, which meant that when somebody (possibly Stampfel and Robin Remaily of the Unholy Modal Rounders) had the idea of setting up some sessions to record the best songs of the three acts, with the combined musicians functioning as the backing band, Rounder was able to release the resulting recordings without getting entangled in too much red tape.
The sessions took place over two days and resulted in seventeen songs, thirteen of which ended up on the record: four each written by Hurley, Fredericks and the Rounders, with the thirteenth being a highly idiosyncratic cover of the pre-war jazz ballad Midnight In Paris. The finished album is riotously entertaining – the best term I can find to describe the music is “hillbilly”, in that there are prominent fiddles and banjos and quite a few references to all-night parties and campfires and women walking out on drunken husbands in the lyrics, but much of the joy of the thing is the way it lurches between styles as every new song comes up. The closest point of comparison in my collection is Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes, but there’s none of the earnest beardy respect for tradition that you sometimes get the whiff of from that collection. The wildest of the three main vocalists is Peter Stampfel, who sounds like he’s voicing a cartoon coyote and gets to sing the loosest and most obviously comical songs, such as the closing Hoodoo Bash, a description of a Mardi Gras style occult ceremony. Michael Hurley’s contributions are less manic and more radio-friendly, but still include the eyebrow raising Slurf Song, which seems largely concerned with the digestive processes of someone eating beans and spaghetti. Jeffrey Fredericks’s songs may be the real highlights: they’re bright and melodic with toughly funny and subversive lyrics. His Robbin’ Banks, a celebration of “bein’ illegal”, is my favourite from the album and seems to have lodged in my brain permanently with the occasionally embarrassing side-effect of making me burst out into song while walking to work. The musicianship is as organic and spontaneous sounding throughout as you’d expect given the brevity of the recording sessions, but it’s also surprisingly tight and disciplined. Either the groups did more rehearsing than they’re letting on, or they’re a lot more professional than their reputations might suggest. Anyway, a brilliant album. Should have got to it sooner.