Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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JOHN FRED AND HIS PLAYBOY BAND
Judy in Disguise With Glasses
(Paula LPS 2197)

John Fred, for those who manage never to listen to AM radio, is a kid from Louisiana who sold two-and-a-half million of a single called "Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)." The radio is the center of your life when youíre driving a lot--in the old days, many producers used to play their produce through a car radio speaker to make sure they had it right--and "Judy in Disguise" soon distinguished itself as a great car song.

It had the simple melody and the heavy beat, but it was good music over and above that--the instrumental work was very tight, the arrangement original with several good gimmicks (a heavy breath for punctuation and a short filter-distort at the close), and the lyrics, well, strange, not what is called rock poetry but not "yummyyummy-yummy igotloveinmytummy" either. Furthermore, it sounded like John Fred and his Playboy Band had a fine time making the record.

One does not expect a good album from a John Fred. Even the Box Tops, a Top-40 group that has never released a second-rate single, make terrible albums, and the Tommy Jameses are much worse.

On the cover of this album in its original release was a corny picture of the band. On the back were pictures of Johnís two previous LPs--John has been a star in Louisiana for some time--and some acknowledgements ("Sitar furnished by--Kenny Gill Music, Baton Rouge, La."). But it is a great record.

The album is now entitled Judy in Disguise and has a not-bad cartoon on the cover. Paula, which hadnít wanted to release "Judy" as a single because it was a little, well, er, far out, decided to play the freak for what it was worth. But the album didn't sell much. All those single sales were to the 12-year-old market. And in a couple of years, chances are that John Fred will be back in the South playing dances, or maybe in the administrative end of the music business.

Like many white singers from the South (Alex Chilton of the Box Tops, for instance), John Fredís bag is pop R&B. He is tuned to Memphis and to white singers like Eric Burdon and Stevie Winwood, the Eric and Stevie of "When I Was Young" and "Gimme Some Loviní." And just like them, he has ambitions. Obviously, he and his collaborator, sax player Andrew Bernard, listened carefully to the Beatles and decided to do some studio stuff of their own. Similar decisions have produced a lot of bad music in the past year.

But stuck down there in Shreveport, Fred and Bernard were principally entertainers who wanted to fool around a little. So when they use crowd noises in "Achenall Riot" they integrate them cleanly into the music. They write obscure lyrics but link them to things known and seen, so that "Agnes English," a Top Ten record in places like Dallas that reached 70 or so nationally, is obviously about a whorehouse. They employ a sitar and a girl chorus and part of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra but (out of pure caution, probably) never overdo it. Those three songs are the "experimental" ones. All were written by Fred and Bernard, who also contributed two more conventional songs(including an exceedingly catchy bopper-trap called "Up and Down," which should have been the follow-up and wasnít) and an arresting talk thing called "Sad Story." There is one song by Bernard and other group members (I suspect Bernard is the musical talent of the organization) and five by outsiders. The only one that doesn't work is "Out of Left Field," mostly because itís hard to redo Percy Sledge. Fred and Bernard produced the whole record.

Judy in Disguise is energetic, intelligent and refreshing. It is reminiscent in spirit of the Hollies, who in albums like Evolution combine first-rate musicianship with an utter disdain for the lugubrious. The Airplane and Stones have succumbed to excesses, but Fred and Bernard do not. Of course, they had much less to work with--the lyrics are high-pop in quality, and while the music is precise and well-realized, it is not brilliant. (The band is exceptionally tight live, but Fred is not a good performer, and his choice of material is unfortunate--he does other peopleís songs because he believes his young audiences wonít recognize his own.)

But for anyone who caught himself liking "Judy" or has a prejudice for happy music, the album is a worthwhile gamble. Just tell your friendly neighborhood dealer to write to Paula Records, 728 Texas Street, Shreveport, Louisiana. Heíll get it eventually.

Rolling Stone, July 6, 1968