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This is a satire of US government attitudes toward the Vietnam War. Country Joe MacDonald released it at the height of the war after he had been discharged from the US Navy for several years. He wrote it in about 30 minutes after it popped into his head.
The song attempts to put blame for the war upon the politicians and leaders of the US military and the industry that makes its money from war, but not upon those who had to fight the war... the soldiers. It expresses the thoughts of a person trapped in the military system and forced to go to war by something called "conscription." Conscription, or the "draft" as it was called, was a system that picked young people and forced them into the military and into the war. The only other choice was jail or an attempt to "dodge the draft" for religious, physical or mental reasons. It was very hard to get out of the draft because so many people were being killed in the war that they would take just about anyone. The song attempts to address the horror of going to war with a dark sarcastic form of humor called "GI humor." GI humor is a way people have of complaining about their situation so it will not get them in trouble and keep them from going insane in an insane environment: war.
This was the title song for Country Joe & the Fish's second album. When they performed it at Woodstock, they created one of the more memorable moments of the festival.
The song was usually preceded by the Fish Cheer: "Gimme an F... Gimme a U... Gimme a C... Gimme a K..." The album version of the Fish Cheer: "Gimme an F... Gimme an I... Gimme an S... Gimme an H..." At Woodstock, the Fish Cheer was uncensored.
The tune comes from a Ragtime song from around 1900. It was recorded at Arhollie Record's Studio in Berkely. Arhollie is a major Blues and folk music label in the US. (thanks, Morgan - Portland, OR)
One person who did not appreciate this song is Billy Joel, who saw the band perform it a Woodstock when he was 20 years old. Joel told Howard Stern: "This hippie comes on stage and starts going, '1-2-3, what are we fighting for,' and I'm thinking, 'this song sucks. It wasn't even about the lyric, it sucked as a song."
Mac Powell of Third Day
The Third Day frontman talks about some of the classic songs he wrote with the band, and what changed for his solo country album.
Susanna Hoffs - "Eternal Flame"
The Prince-penned "Manic Monday" was the first song The Bangles heard coming from a car radio, but "Eternal Flame" is closest to Susanna's heart, perhaps because she sang it in "various states of undress."