Sunday, March 13, 2011

The legacy of the Mamas and the Papas

Forty five years ago this month, the Mamas and the Papas cracked Billboard's top five singles chart for their first time with "California Dreamin'." Who?


Let's go to Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia, published in 1969:

The Mamas and the Papas were the royal family of American rock -- not because their music keeps growing and progressing to plateau after plateau of greatness (it doesn't), but because they were the first, with the Spoonful, of the
big American groups, the first, that is, since the Beatles. Besides, they look regal. John Phillips, tall and stately, looks like Everyking, Cass Elliot, majestic earth mother, like Everyqueen, and Michelle and Denny the essence of princehood and princesshood. They came to us, that dreary winter of 1965-66, singing that all the leaves were brown and the sky was greay and that it was a good time to dream of California. Until then, everything new and interesting and commercially successful (all those things can go hand in hand) was English and had been since 1964 and the Beatles. Now, with the Mamas and the Papas, the spotlight that had been fixed so firmly on Liverpool and London suddenly swiveled over to America (and caught the Spoonful's Daydream as well). America had had Dylan, of course, but not a group scene with any sort of style, and nothing like those first three singles the Mamas and the Papas brought out in less than a year.

Those first three hits were "California Dreamin'," Monday Monday" and "I Saw Her Again Last Night." March 5, 1966 was the week "California Dreamin'" went top five, a supergroup was announced and a new scene was created. Sonny & Cher were the closest visual equivalent. And while Cher would become a fashion trend setter throughout her career (including up to today), the Mamas and the Papas popularized a look that was less likely to be featured in (or on the cover of) Vogue but was adopted by a huge cross-section of the United States, the jeans and the bare feet, the flowers, the emerging flowing gowns. In her book California Dreamin', Michelle Phillips explained:

And we did look so good; as we got richer, the clothes got prettier -- never anything but loose and beautiful, but certainly silkier and ever more colorful and stylish.
However fancy our clothes, John forbade us to wear makeup or mess with our hair because it would be bad for our contemporary hippie image. He felt very strongly about that. Certainly we wanted to wear makeup, but if I had put on mascara, Cass would have put on lashes, and if I had teased my hair, then she would have put on a hairpiece, so John just told me I wasn't to put any makeup on or try any tricks with my hair. It was the right decision. We were ahead of the trend, and anyway, our clothes made up for any lack of makeup. Toni from Profile de Monde in Beverly Hills made sure of that. Mia Farrow, always full of great ideas, had put us on to Toni, who just swept us up and gave us fabulous Damascus brocades; beautiful silks in scarlet, gold, silver, blue, and green; harem pants, bell-bottoms, long coats, capes, jackets. Toni knew just what would look good onstage: Our clothes were the best you could get.

And they brought musical excitement back to the US, hitting the top forty charts 12 times (we're including "Dancing Bear" which hit 36 on Cashbox but didn't go top 40 on Billboard) in the years 1966, 1967 and 1968. Though male - female duos had hit number one before (such as Sonny & Cher), no gender integrated group had until "Monday Monday" began its three week stay at the top of the Billboard singles chart the week of May 7, 1966. The group was music, image, the whole package. Everything clicked. Some worked out by luck, some worked out by determination, but all four shaped the group that was almost known as The Magic Cyrcle.

John wanted that name. Cass and Michelle hated it. The band argued about the name while watching a talk show on TV whose guests included the Hell's Angels. As the motorcycle enthusiast onscreen began referring to women as "mamas," Cass insisted that's what she and Michelle were, The Mamas. Michelle backed her up and John decided they'd be The Papas and the Mamas until Cass adamantly informed him that you didn't say "Papas and Mamas," you said, "Mamas and Papas."

In her book What Falls Away, Mia Farrow places the group within its proper context, "Sounds of Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen floated over the Malibu cliffs and mingled with wind chimes, and scents of sandalwood and marijuana." Their sixties chart run was spread out over four studio albums -- all of which were produced by Lou Adler who explained the naming of the debut album (If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears) to John Gilliland for KRLA's The Pop Chronicles, "The title of the first album is exactly the way I felt when I first saw them. I couldn't believe it. To see four people like that put together."

The first album was the material the group had worked on while living on the Virgin Islands (John and Michelle Phillips documented the band's roots and history in the top five hit "Creeque Alley") and resulted in two huge hits ("California Dreamin'" and "Monday Monday") plus radio favorite "Go Where You Wanna Go" which would later become a hit for The Fifth Dimension. The second album was recorded during a turbulent period. Michelle, married to John at the time, would be fired from the group due to the affair she had with Gene Clark (while John was conducting several affairs of his own) and the group would attempt a few concerts with a replacement that did not go well leading the group to invite Michelle back. The self-titled second album went top five on Billboard and Cashbox but the debut album had hit number one on Billboard and number two on Cashbox. The laid back album spawned three hit singles: "I Saw Her Again Last Night" "Look Through My Window" and "Words Of Love" and probably made more of an impression on Graham Nash -- who dropped by to watch John, Michelle, Cass and Denny record "Dancing Bear" (dropped by largely to check out Michelle, see his recollections in Harvey Kubernik's Canyon Of Dreams) -- and would quickly be fixed up musically, by Cass, with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. The third album, Deliver, lived up to its name and returned the group to the top of the albums chart (this time hitting number one on Cashbox and number two on Billboard) the group's second biggest charting hit, "Dedicated To The One I Love" (number two) and "Creeque Alley."

The music and the attitude set the group apart. On the latter, Donovan writes in his book The Autobiography of Donovan The Hurdy Gurdy Man:

Well do I remember sitting with the lady of the canyon herself, Joni Mitchell, watching the animated film The Wind in the Willows with Cass cheering along with Toad in his new car, his bug eyes rolling at the thought of driving down the highways, not a care in the world. Cass pointed out that Toad was us musos. "Only wanted to see what was on the other side of the hill, m'lud. Honest. I didn't mean any harm, and the keys were in the car." Oh, Cass, how right you were.

They were a complete musical experience and they were a team, a group of four dependent upon each members. As already noted, John and Michelle wrote "Creeque Alley." The album also featured their "Free Advice" and "String Man." The first album had featured their "California Dreamin'" and "Hey Girl" and the second had Michelle and John's collaboration "Trip, Stumble and Fall." In addition, the first album featured John and Denny's "Got A Feeling" and the second John and Denny's "I Saw Her Again Last Night." All three albums featured cover songs. But things were starting to change and John was becoming more in control or more controlling.

The Papas and the Mamas would be the band's break up album. It would feature a (hit) cover of the classic "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" and also some of the Shirley Temple tune "The Right Somebody To Love." John would team with Denny to write "For the Love of Ivy" and with Lou Adler to write "Meditation Mama (Transcendental Woman Travels)." But for many, it was John's album. That wasn't necessarily seen as a good thing.

Asked by Jerry Hopksins (Rolling Stone, October 26, 1968) what songs by the Mamas and the Papas she liked, Cass responded, "'No Salt on Her Tail,' 'Look Through My Window,' 'Monday, Monday,' 'Go Where You Want To Go,' 'Got a Feeling.' Notice I haven't mentioned any songs from the last album. I wonder what that is? Maybe because that album was such an arduous task. We spent one whole month on one song, just the vocals for 'The Love of Ivy' took one whole month. I did my [debut solo] album in three weeks, a total of ten days in the studio. Live with the band, not prerecorded tracks sitting there with earphones."

Denny would tell Matthew Greenwald (for the book Go Where You Wanna Go), "Well, John's got the studio up in his house, and he's happy, Cass and I are just showing up whenever. This is after Monterey, and John and Michelle are back together and they're going to have a baby and 'everything's wonderful.' But she's still out f**kin' around on him, and he's trying to get her in line. He'd drag her around to all the rooms in the house and say, 'This is the nursery! This is your bedroom!' It didn't help, and it didn't work. The whole fourth album to me was, 'Let's just get it done . . .'" Instead of going to a recording studio, the band was not recording in an illegal (not up to code) studio built in John and Michelle's Bel Air home that had formerly belonged to the movie star Jeanette MacDonald. To enter the studio, you went through the cedar closet to what was formerly the attack. Cass wasn't impressed with the album, Denny wasn't impressed. And Michelle?

In her book, Michelle recalls that they could have gone on an adventure to Crete with Mia Farrow but, "Instead, in our own studio at the Bel Air House, we made the Papas and the Mamas album, and I hardly remember anything about it except that it wasn't very good. Tom Wilkes, who had art-directed the Monterey Pop Festival, designed a fine album cover with a very interesting interchange of faces, but it wasn't a big seller because we really hadn't the material or energy to write or sing it well. What a waste of cedar closet." In the 2004 foreword to the boxed set Complete Anthology, Michelle writes, "Despite the glorious music, I had always thought of the group as a bubble that had to burst sometime, and it did in early 1968. Frankly, we had run out of material and had had enough of all the togetherness. What was essential for: 1, the drama; 2, songs written about the drama; and 3, the willingness to stay when we all wanted to move on, was all gone. Cass and I both had babies, John wanted to produce and Denny wanted to go back to the islands or something. It was over."

But the real waste may have been the refusal to reconsider the album or, for that matter, the failure to realize how praised The Papas and the Mamas was in real time. Reviewing the album in real time, Samuel R. Delaney (Crawdaddy) concluded his lengthy rave with this:

Practically all the songs are about either the garden or the fire outside, in some way or other. Or they define a way for getting from one to the other. It gives the album power and relevance. The Papas and the Mamas is the most exciting and musically intelligent work of a group who have exhibited some of the most exciting potential in the past three years. I don't have to tell you to go out and buy this one. You will.

That was it for the band and the sixties. To avoid the lawsuits from their label, they'd get back together for People Like Us in 1971. Most saw it as going through the motions and you can tie that in with The Papas and the Mamas. Again, John Phillips wanted control (this is the only Mamas and Papas album Lou Adler didn't produce) and all but one track was written by John ("I Wanna Be A Star" was written by Michelle and John). There are some nice moments such as "I Wanna Be A Star," "Snowqueen of Texas" and "Blueberries for Breakfast" but it lacks an overall vision. The Papas and the Mamas had a very dark vision.

the mamas and the papas

And as far as albums go, it is the group's masterpiece. Writing of Cass, Peter S. Taback (Jewish Women's Archives) declared of the group, "During their three-year reign at the top of popular music charts, the Mamas and the Papas melded folk and psychedelic styles in a quartet whose half-dozen remembered songs still evoke a time prior to the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention when hippie ideologies of communal living and relaxed standards of dress and demeanor had not yet divided the recording industry or the nation along fierce political lines." The dualities Delaney noted in his review run through the entire album and capture the year (1968) in all of its turmoil. Garden and fire, light and dark, it runs through the album clashing against one another and sometimes, such as with "Safe In My Garden," battling itself in a single track.

The Shirley Temple song ("The Right Somebody To Love") opens both sides of the album, just Michelle singing all by herself. A lone and innocent voice quickly replaced by the lapping sounds of "Safe In My Garden" when it first shows up and then by the crashing sounds of "Gemini Childe" when it shows up the second time.

If you're asking, "Huh?" . . . Well, you're not alone. Sample dialogue.

Jim: No, no. Wikipedia has the track list --

C.I.: I don't care what the hell that crappy little website says and if you're going to question my knowledge of the Mamas and the Papas, we're going to have a very long writing edition.

Of course, Jim did question. Not only does the Wikipedia entry not list "The Right Somebody To Love" in two places, it's not that way on the CD. "Get the boxed set," C.I. snapped leaving the room. When she returns, Jim will tell her that the track listing is the same on The Mamas and the Papas Complete Anthology (a four-disc set of everything the group recorded -- as well as a few solo tracks from all four members). "I didn't ask you what the list was," she'll declare popping on side two of the vinyl version of The Papas and the Mamas and, sure enough, right before "Gemini Childe," you get twenty or so seconds of "The Right Somebody To Love." Popping in the second CD of the anthology, we see that it also includes those 20 seconds (they start when you play the track"Gemini Childe").

So, in other words, this album is so unappreciated that when it was released on CD, it didn't even include all the tracks. The whole concept was tossed aside by cheapness and lack of concern. The album was issued by MCA on a single compact disc and if you go to iTunes or Amazon and download the album you get that version. Here's how you check if you have the full album or not, if "Gemini Childe" is not four and a half minutes long, you don't. Four and a half minutes and it starts with "The Right Somebody To Love." Four minutes and seven seconds and it doesn't.

So if you download this, for example, you are not getting the full album.

Some might be okay with it. The album lacks the chart jumping hits of previous releases. "Twelve Thirty" appears on the album was a hit single before the album was released (number 20 Billboard, number 16 Cashbox), "Safe In My Garden" only made it onto Billboard's chart (number 43), "For The Love Of Ivy" makes it to numbers 12 (Billboard) and 10 (Cashbox) and the album's big hit, "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (12 on Billboard, 10 on Cashbox).

If this album had been a huge hit and the band had stayed together (even for just one more album), who knows what direction they might have gone in? This was the group's most ambitious album. And it's rave reviews in real time are largely forgotten and it can be released on CD and then as a download without all of the tracks and no one objects.

But the group left its mark. Both with the music and with the attitude. For instance, there might not be a Fleetwood Mac -- not the incarnation that was most successful and a worldwide success. See, it was 45 years ago that Stevie Nicks met Lindsey Buckingham. What does that have to do with the Mamas and the Papas?

For one thing, both groups were a mixture of men and women. Nicks and Buckingham would become a duo and then team up with the British Mac (Christine McVie, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood) to create a supergroup. But do we know how Stevie met Lindsey back in 1966?

The Nicks family had moved again, from the Los Angeles area (where Stevie attended Arcadia High School) to San Francisco Bay area (where Stevie attended Menlo-Atherton High School). On a Wednesday, Stevie attended a function where a young man, away from the others, sat at a piano, playing a song. Knowing the song, Stevie walked over and sang "California Dreamin'" with him. That's how the two met in 1966.

The Mamas and the Papas created a legacy with their music, with their style and with their attitude. On that last one, it may be best captured in Joan Didion's reflections on the music business (The White Album):

First we wanted sushi for twenty, steamed clams, vegetable vindaloo and many rum drinks with gardenias for our hair. First we wanted a table for twelve, fourteen at the most, although there might be six more, or eight more, or eleven more: there would never be one or two more, because music people did not travel in groups of "one" or "two." John and Michelle Phillips, on their way to the hospital for the birth of their daughter Chynna, had the limo detour into Hollywood in order to pick up a friend, Ann Marshall. This incident, which I often embroider in my mind to include an imaginary second detour, to the Luau for gardenias, exactly describes the music business to me.

Note: In Didion's book, she spells Ann Marshall's first name "Anne." We have corrected it in the excerpt above.
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