PHIL ODGERS & JOHN KETTLE – Far Rockaway (Vinyl Star Records VSRCD015)

Far RockawayGreenwich Village in the 1960s was a focus of art, literature and music but many names are now fading from memory; Fred Neill, Dave van Ronk, Eric Anderson and, perhaps most notably, Phil Ochs. Ochs was a major figure but died tragically young leaving a legacy of songs. Phil Odgers had long harboured the idea of recording an album of Ochs’ songs, a project given impetus by lockdown, and has now united with John Kettle supported by Phil Jones to release Far Rockaway, named after the area of Queens where the Ochs family lived. The album cover is an homage to Ochs’ first LP, All The News That’s Fit To Sing.

The album echoes the prevailing style of the early 60s with John adding second guitar, bouzouki and bass and modern recording techniques enhancing the sound while remaining faithful to the originals. The opening track, ‘The Thresher’, is emblematic of Ochs’ writing. It tells the story of the USA’s first nuclear submarine which sank with all hands during sea trials and while it stands as a eulogy for the dead you can also read it as a sly dig at American militarism.

‘Hunger And Cold’ is in the mould of Woody Guthrie addressing social politics while ‘Changes’ is in the lyrical style of the era. Of course, there’s a sting in its tail. ‘The Men Behind The Guns’ needs no explanation except to say that it makes a similar point to ‘The Old Barbed Wire’ although rather more graphically. ‘There But For Fortune’ is Ochs’ greatest hit thanks to Joan Baez – Phil Odgers gives it a particular drive, in stark contrast to Baez’s sweet take and Ochs’ more reflective version.

Swill recorded ‘Flower Lady’ on his Ghosts Of Rock And Roll album, where it was one of the standout tracks, and I have a sneaky preference for that version which almost eclipses Ochs’ own reading. This take runs it a close second. ‘The Passing Of My Life’ is back to politics of war while ‘If I Knew’ feels like a modern re-working of a traditional riddle song. ‘A Year To Go By’ is a philosophical song, a pointed meditation on aging. With the benefit of hindsight, ‘Chords Of Fame’ sounds autobiographical, with Ochs giving advice to himself. Finally, ‘Bound For Glory’ is a tribute to the life of Woody Guthrie and one of Ochs’ best songs. Knowing something about the early days of The Men They Couldn’t Hang, I feel that Swill sees something of himself here, although he hasn’t yet reached glory.

Far Rockaway is a fine album in its own right, straightforward and honest, but it can also open a window onto the music of Phil Ochs – or maybe even a door.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘There But For Fortune’ – live: