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Just Foks: A Firesign Chat


1977 - Just Folks ... A Firesign Chat: Butterfly FLY 001

From the RollingStone:

Despite the technical difficulties beyond their control that led to the cancellation of their contract with Columbia, the Firesign Theatre continue to broadcast radio messages from the future on their own label, Butterfly. Their latest report is a man-on-the-street documentary of post-Carter America, centered in Ducktown, where everybody seems to be stoned and drunk all the time, color televisions are the popular currency, it's hard to separate television from religion and the propaganda is painless and fast acting.

Still, there are problems. "Everybody knows that this is the midst of the disillusionment and heartbreak season," announces Ben Bland during his all-night matinee. "For the first sign of the seven danger signals of depression, drink as much as possible and take your television's advice; and y'know more TVs recommend an amazing new psychic breakthrough than any other, and that's confidence in the system."

Mixed in with the political satire is the usual assortment of Firesign radio madness, the most interesting of which is the "Rockaroll Memory Bank" commercial in which Eric Burdon explains, "Yes, they did take away our music, but now you can have it back." The parody of the Animals' "Inside-Looking Out" that closes the commercial is worth the price of the record. (RS 246)



 This is a very interesting record. It sounds a bit like "Dear Friends," impromptu and ad-libbed. It seems somewhat uneven though, with many bits where the guys seem to have just let the tape machine roll. Actually, this record has some good writing on it. "Just Folks" has more memorable one-liners than a lot of the other recordings, i.e. "A stiff idiot is the worst kind" and "If you sprinkle salt on an old person's hip, they fall right over" (and this is the basis for a lot of the "In Cold HTML" stories.)

"Just Folks" comes across a bit mellow, as if after 4 or 5 of the greatest recordings in history, the FST were taking a breather. This is part of what gives the recording it's disjointedness. Not that that's a bad thing. "Dear Friends" was disjointed because it was a series of radio skits. A lot of "Just Folks" could fit right in between tracks on "Dear Friends." Here, it's as if the FST said "let's take 'Dear Friends' on the road!"

The skits on "Just Folks" are strung together under the guise of reporters walking around "microphone in hand." It's an interesting change for the Firesign theatre. The "microphone in hand" style is one that they would use again (more on that later) where instead of creating the world we're listening to, they report on it. I suspect after years of pounding the vinyl and putting all that effort into the multi-layered surreal worlds, the Firesign had several "bits" lying around that they wanted to do something with, and one way to tie it all together into a recording is with "microphone in hand" where the reporter/observer walks the streets interviewing it's inhabitants. There's no deep surreal world here, where repeated listenings bring new enlightenment. It is, however, a sort of sequel to "Dear Friends" and if you go into it with that in mind, it's satisfying in that regard.

Now, it's all too easy for a fan to critisize someone else's work, but I think it's an honest evaluation. The inter-group relationships of the FST are as mysterious as their recordings and would do much to explain the recording atmosphere around each title.

As I've said before, there's no such thing as a bad FST recording. Each one has a lot to offer and is valued not only as a historical representation of comedy, but also as a snapshot in time of the Firesign Theatre as well.

And you'll come away with enough one-liners to keep you going for months!

Cristofer Morley

M. Crane:

"Just Folks" has recently assumed a place as one of my favorite FST recordings. Though similar to "Dear Friends" in many ways, I must disagree with Cristofer in one regard; that is, whether or not they are "creating the world we're listening to."

By the very nature of their art, the Firsign Theatre IS creating the world we hear. "Just Folks" is as deep and surreal as any of the stupendous works of the FST. Indeed, my "handle" in the FST online community is "Pastor Crosstalk," taken directly from "Just Folks," a result of my high regard of this recording.

The surreal worlds are there, they are just presented more quickly in, if you will, "shotgun" fashion. It is up to us to immerse ourselves in them... to perceive them or not... the choice is ours.

This album finds the Firesign at loose ends. Their contract at Columbia Records had expired and not been renewed. The Boys' '60s optimism was being squeezed out by '70s hedonism. Yet the four were still very much in peak form (as evidenced by their previous releases "In the Next World..." and Austin's "Roller Maidens From Outer Space") and had accumulated a backlog of strong material which, for one reason or another, hadn't been pieced into any albums. Thus, this records may be said to mark the beginning of the Firesign's "third phase," wherein they would release odds-and-ends material on small, indie labels ("Just Folks" on Butterfly, all else after it on Rhino).

Luckily, the material presented here had been kept around in their back pockets for a reason - much of it is hilarious. The unifying device used on the album is of a team of roving reporters conducting vox pops/man-on-the-street interviews with the denizens of Ducktown, USA (which is probably the next town over from Anytown, USA). It's not a particularly innovative linking tool, but this doesn't matter much as there is no greater theme to "Just Folks." The reporters merely act as a frame for individual sketches.

The most famous and probably most often performed live piece on the record is "Pass the Indian, Please," a recounting of the first encounter between the Native Americans and the Puritans. It's a fast, funny bit, performed in rapid-fire hand-off narraration between the four. It's clear they've performed it hundreds of times - the lines come at you like machine-gun fire. Other pieces are hit-or-miss. The strongest appear in the first half of the record, a special nod going to "A Stiff Idiot Is the Worst Kind!," which presents a church where the congregation is encouraged to heckle the pastor during his sermon. The second half fairly runs out of steam ("Ben Bland's All Day Matinee" and "Any More Rocket Fuel For You Hardhats?" are clever but overstay their welcome), only to be rescued by the fabulous "Pass the Indian, Please" which ends the record on a high note.

This may be the most obscure of Firesign records (whatever became of the Butterfly label?), but is certainly worth seeking out, if only to hear how Messrs. Ossman, Proctor, Austin, & Bergman cap off the '70s.

Phil Buchbinder

There are enough interesting comments made by the 3 previous reviewers for me to go over the same ground, so i'll just stick to adding a little backround on the recording, and agreeing or disagreeing in a few specific areas.

OF COURSE it's a sequel to "Dear Friends", although I don't think Firesign wanted the public to think of it that way. But it's a sequel because it IS more of their radio improv-oriented performances; it's just that this time hey attempted to contrive a "story" out of it by adding enough new Linking and Layering around what they consider some of their choicest archives. As Phil Buchbinder points out, they had no recording contract, and after surviving a few years of some bitter and discouraging experiences, thier "60's optimism was being squeezed out," as Phil B. says, "by 70's hedonism." In fact, it seemed there WAS no Firesign at the time, because this album started with a Phil-to-Phil phone call (Austin-to-Proctor, that is, not Buchbinder-to-Anybody). When Proctor picked up the phone, his response to the voice on the other end was, "What do YOU want?" -not out of hostility, but because, as Proctor explained, "I hadn't heard from him in over a year!" Austin's call was to say, "i think i have an idea for an album..." And with the inclusion of "Pass The Indian, Please" - their surviving 'production' recording from the early years, it seemed like an economical way to clean house and take one more stab at the same time.

It was an inventive idea, but the actual execution of it betrayed the lack of solidarity in Firesign at the time. The most obvious gap in credibility was between the radio parts and the overlays. Unfortunately for us listeners at the time, since we had no way of knowing how ambiguous the actual existence of the group was at the time we just thought all the Fire was going out of the Sign. Don't misunderstand me: i think there are some good moments - even sections - on the album, but that doesn't sound like a description of a Firesign Theatre album, more of a stand-up comic's album where you can name the tracks that work for you. Since Firesign's works are to be taken as single, cohesive experiences, it has to be measured in that light.

I found Phil Buchbinder's review very good reading, but i didn't find the album as "hilarious" as any of the other three critics. I agree with Cristofer that "there's no deep surreal world here", but i find that true of everything after "Bozos". There is surreal phrasing and some incidental surreal circumstances, but the stream-of-conciousness narratives seem to be an exclusive feature of the four-part odyssey that spans from "Electrician" to "Bozos". I disagree with Christofer that there's "no such thing as a bad FST recording" (i gave "The Case Of The Missing Shoe" a forced second listening just to give it one last chance).

One last point: I admit that i don't get the line "a stiff idiot is the worst kind". Any explanations?

They are still my great gurus, and i hang on (nearly) everything they say.