The Fugs were the band that out-freaked the Mothers of Invention, a crude, reckless exhibition of 1960s counterculture abandon that unexpectedly found a spot on the pop charts. Founded in New York City’s East Village in 1964 by bookstore owner Ed Sanders and poet Tuli Kupferberg, the Fugs were beatniks and satirists, an irreverent reaction to the decade’s social turbulence and often credited as the first underground band. Their satire would anticipate Frank Zappa’s Mothers, whose classic 1966 LP Freak Out! is a more accessible and successful demonstration of some of the Fugs’ intentions as advocates of social reform.
The Fugs’ 1966 album, Virgin Fugs (now available for the first time on CD), is, like the group itself, very much a specimen of its era. Its uncensored lyrics don’t exactly shock like they did at the time and the performances (which include members of the Holy Modal Rounders) are often frustratingly amateurish. Revisiting a Fugs album now is necessary only for historical and social perspectives, or to trace the lineage of those who would follow, whether it be Zappa, Ween, or Eminem. Much can be said about its role in opening up the free speech channels of pop music, but listening to Virgin Fugs solely for purposes of enjoyment is practically impossible. No matter how many drugs are ingested.
Virgin Fugs’ release proved to be one of the last gasps for progressive label ESP-Disk. Label founder Bernard Stollman compiled the record using unreleased songs from the Fugs’ debut, and released it without the band’s approval. His action directly contradicted ESP-Disk’s motto (“the artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk”); Sanders and Kupferberg attempted to sue Stollman, failed, and soon after signed to Reprise. According to Stollman’s paranoid liner notes, “the record industry was bootlegging [ESP-Disk’s] albums”, stealing their recipe like covert spies in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Since no legal protection was available at the time, ESP-Disk was forced to close its doors for good.
Even for the radical ‘60s, Virgin Fugs is an especially audacious artifact: it incorporates a William Blake painting into its cover art, sets the Ten Commandments to the stuff of a howling dog’s dreams, and turns some of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” into a chaotic, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”-esque ramble. It’s hard to describe the racket made by the Fugs, because it’s not exactly music—it’s more of a statement issued in howls, hollers, claps, and discordant glee. The Fugs are what happens when the freaks get their hands on some nursery rhymes, pervert them with sex, drugs, and irreverence, and run them through some folk and barbershop nightmares. The deluded voices that gather in motley congregation may have melodies and harmonies in mind, but the results are often well-intentioned nonsense. Virgin Fugs is passionate and primitive insanity.
Using toilet humor cribbed from lingering adolescent slumber parties, the songs straddle the fine line between nonsense and satire. In fact, they do a swell job of smearing it into illegible smudges, singing the praises of drugs (“New Amphetamine Shriek”), lamenting the ridiculous abundance of female companions (“My Bed Is Getting Crowded”), praising more drugs (“Hallucination Horrors”), and issuing a definitive mission statement comprised of—what else?—sex and drugs (“We’re the Fugs”). The group’s deprived lunacy does result in a seminal piece of social commentary: “C.I.A. Man”, a protest song that maintains its relevance today. Although its music sounds like a drunken search for clarity during a Rolling Stones acoustic recording session, “C.I.A. Man” cuts through with lyrics full of meaning and outrage, a vital ingredient that most of Virgin Fugs lacks: “Who can squash republics like bananas / If they do not like their social manners? / Who can train guerillas by the dozen / Send them out to kill their untrained cousins? / Fuckin’ A, man / C.I.A. man.”
If only Virgin Fugs was so consistently insightful. It can be funny, disturbing, and offensive (the bizarre “Coca Cola Douche” is a kind of combination of all three), but mostly it’s the uncomfortable sound of new expressions being entered into the lexicon of pop music. The Fugs “cover” Ginsberg (who wrote liner notes to their debut) in “I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Rot” because they could, not because they should. Virgin Fugs is all about attitude and defiance, about grabbing the mic when no one’s looking, about scaring mothers and testing politicians’ patience—all of which don’t necessarily make for lasting music. Bellowing out Ginsberg’s words, the Fugs sound like a Catholic priest reciting mass over a raucous backbeat. That’s probably an image they would have found piercingly symbolic and utterly hilarious.