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The Wages of the Mamas & the Papas' Love
John Phillips & co.'s road map of the twists & turns of romance
Welcome to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’ Most of the upcoming essay was written by hand on park benches in Central Park and Riverside Park while I was away on vacation in New York being inspired by the whirl of city life—what Neil Diamond coined “a Beautiful Noise”—all around me. As always when I’m in New York, I took in some of musical wonders of the city, including visiting the site of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, checking out a plaque in Greenwich Village marking where the great jazz guitarist Jim Hall resided for half a century, listening to a jazz quartet for an over an hour in Washington Square Park, taking in the treasures of Harlem’s National Jazz Museum and enjoying a very late night at Small’s in the Village.
I hope you enjoy my thoughts on the Mamas & the Papas’ second album—in my opinion, their crowning achievement.
Earlier this month, I wrote about a great Quincy Jones big-band album from 1963 and two overlooked giants in country-music: Don Gibson and Mickey Newbury. Coming in early April will be a look at Cannonball Adderley’s formidable 1967 album, 74 Miles Away, a key document in the birth of jazz fusion.
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The Mamas & the Papas’ second album—titled simply The Mamas & The Papas—was originally to be called Crashon Screamon All Fall Down. The cover, a shot capturing a posed moment from what could have been a very sixties Californian Sunday picnic features, counterclockwise from the bottom left-hand corner: John Phillips, Denny Doherty, Cass Elliot and Jill Gibson, who replaced Michelle Phillips after she was fired from the group in June 1966. Two months later, Gibson was gone, Michelle Phillips was back and the album, shorn of its phantasmagorical title, with a new cover that both oozes tiredness and swagger, was in stories in September. Arguably their greatest album-length statement, the music must take a brief back seat to untangle the almost soap opera-like web of events surrounding its creation.
But, even before that, give a listen to their 1967 hit, ‘Creeque Alley,’ the tale of their founding set to song.
In short, the group emerged from the folk scene of 1965 bohemian New York: John and Michelle Phillips along with Denny Doherty from the New Journeymen, and Cass Elliot from Doherty’s previous group, the Mugwumps. For the spring and summer of that year, the four decamped to the Virgin Islands to put a sound together, moving from John Phillips’ preferred folk sound to Doherty and Elliot’s favoured rock and pop.
After the four returned to New York, singer Barry McGuire was a vital conduit to the group grabbing the ear of Lou Adler of Dunhill Records in California. They got a record deal and the Mamas & the Papas were born. Success came almost instantaneously. Their debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, with a provocative cover of the four sitting in a bathtub, topped the Billboard album charts and spawned two iconic pieces of California pop: ‘California Dreamin’’ and ‘Monday, Monday.’ True to the spirit of the time, in which the need for product was ceaseless, the group quickly got to work recording a follow-up and it’s here that our soap opera begins.
As the album was being recorded, Michelle Phillips was in the middle of an affair with Gene Clark of the Byrds. When John Phillips found out, the knives came out and on June 28, 1966, Michelle Phillips was fired by the rest of the group. In was Jill Gibson, a singer, songwriter, photographer and artist, best-known for her work with long-time boyfriend Jan Berry of Jan & Dean which connected her to Lou Adler, and ultimately, to the Mamas & the Papas. The recording sessions resumed and Gibson also appeared with the group live. It soon became clear that, for whatever reason, the fit just wasn’t right and Michelle Phillips was back and Gibson was gone (interestingly enough, Gibson was one of the primary photographers of the landmark Monterey International Pop Festival in which Adler and both Phillips were driving forces). With Phillips returning, some of Gibson’s contributions were erased and the resulting album, titled simply The Mamas & the Papas, scrubs away most of the messy circumstances surrounding its creation.
It has never been officially determined which songs include Gibson and which include Michelle Phillips. The best guess is that it’s Gibson on ‘Trip, Stumble and Fall,’ ‘Dancing Bear,’ ‘Strange Young Girls,’ ‘I Can’t Wait,’ ‘Even If I Could’ and ‘That Kind of Girl,’ and Phillips on ‘No Salt on Her Tail,’ ‘Words of Love,’ ‘My Heart Stood Still,’ ‘Dancing in the Street,’ ‘I Saw Her Again’ and ‘Once Was a Time I Thought.’
If John Phillips was reluctant to embrace the pop sounds of the sixties, his quick ascension as the guiding force of the Mamas & the Papas endows his spot as one of the creators, along with Brian Wilson, of a California sound of the mind: vibrant, colourful and full of promise, a west-coast paradise of surf, sand and sunshine built on painstaking harmony and anchored by key members of the Wrecking Crew: guitarist Tommy Tedesco, keyboardist Larry Knetchel, bassist Joe Osborn and drummer Hal Blaine plus guitarist Eric Hord, known as “The Doctor”.
That’s not to say that the music of the Mamas & the Papas is light as a feather, a fantastical, fairy-tale rendering of Laurel Canyon that with the hindsight of a half-century and then some, would seem ridiculously naive. Indeed, in one way or another, it seems to anticipate the emerging dark underbelly of the sixties, especially when considering the fractious nature of the relationships within the band: Elliot’s unrequited love for Doherty, his dalliance with Michelle Phillips and the stubborn stand John Phillips took before eventually making Elliot a permanent member of the group.
The second track of The Mamas & The Papas, ‘Trip, Stumble & Fall,’ can possibly be read as a warning of the dangers ahead with Charles Manson and Altamont unknowingly waiting in the wings. The lyrics in the first bridge, though, suggest, as was sometimes the case with songs of John Phillips, who wrote virtually all of the group’s material, that the trouble is actually just the wrong type of woman (the eerie ‘Strange Young Girls’ is far less ambiguous about the dark side of the sixties). Whatever reading you may wish to attach to the song, Elliot’s belting out of a few bars of scatting in the lead-in to the second bridge makes clear that her voice was the Mamas & the Papas’ most accomplished. She brought the sass and the brass, just give a listen to her singing Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ ‘Dancing in the Street.’
‘Words of Love,’ one of two hits off the album, is a dynamic feature for the singer. Elliot absolutely digs into every line, bringing an exaggerated phrasing apropos of the song’s Roaring Twenties atmosphere, complete with Larry Knechtel’s roadhouse piano as well as Michelle Phillips’ unforgettable “No!!!!” in the middle of the first verse, offering, with Elliot, two portraits of Flapper-Girl chic. It also brings a counterweight to John Phillips’ sometimes disheartening takes on romance. ‘That Kind of Girl,’ for example, almost equals the Rolling Stones for tuneful songs that gender-wise come off off-key. Yet here, Phillips warns against pick-up artistry—cheeseball lines, empty gestures and emptier words—in favour of genuine romance.
‘Words of Love’ is preceded on The Mamas & the Papas by the baroque artistry of ‘Dancing Bear,’ complete with a woodwind trio of flute, bassoon and oboe and a classical structure that ends in a spine-tingling round—first Elliot and (likely) Jill Gibson, then Doherty and finally, a chorus of John Phillipses. The imagery in the song is whimsical, hallucinogenic and dreamlike, and a magnificent feature for Doherty, whose rich Maritime voice invests the proper wonder in Phillips’ words. Taken as a whole, it stands as one of Phillips’ finest musical moments. There was more than just a whiff of genius in him.
‘I Saw Her Again’ makes that certain. Co-written to some degree with Doherty, Phillips builds a song that directly addresses Doherty’s affair with Michelle Phillips. The words are infused with anguish but the production is simply glorious. The short intro, with the Mamas & the Papas quickly layering a bright chord over a bed of strings and Hal Blaine’s cymbals, is absolutely soaring and the feeling never lets go. Phillips throws everything into the song with a brilliant vocal arrangement full of counterpoint, layering and double-time runs that demonstrates the strengths of the group’s four voices: John Phillips and Elliot riding on top of ensemble passages, Doherty’s ringing and exuberant singing of “she’ll never leave me”—impossibly bright and uber-romantic and Michelle Phillips adding depth to the harmonies. It all may seem at odds with a song that deals with an illicit affair, but the suggestion here may just be that some unmet need is being fulfilled and perhaps happily so even while acknowledging the very real emotions and failings behind the song’s creation.
It’s a realization of the varied emotions at play in romance, neither sentimental nor cynical, just realistic and relatable. ‘No Salt on Her Tail,’ which includes an uncredited Ray Manzarek on organ before the Doors hit it big, laments a partner who is destined to fly away. ‘Even If I Could,’ with an especially memorable coda and a varied structure for its verses, is a poetic lament of the inevitability of karma in a relationship where one partner harms the other. ‘I Can’t Wait,’ in which John Phillips and Elliot trade sharp barbs of glee anticipating the moment when they each will lower the boom on their unsuspecting partner suggests nothing less than that romantic relationships are exercises in mutually assured destruction.
The closer to The Mamas & The Papas, ‘Once Was a Time I Thought,’ takes all that has been said about love to bring to the listener a closing benediction. A jazzy tongue twister that immediately brings to mind the vocalese group (Dave) Lambert, (Jon) Hendricks & (Annie) Ross, the song offers a graceful note to close the album, a ray of sun after a dark night. It stands as The Mamas & the Papas greatest gift to us all.
Once was a time I thought that love could be sold or brought
And everything fell in place for me
The fashion of passion, I rationed with caution
Because of the notion, the potion of passion
Had never been passed to me
But now with you by my side
I find that I feel so satisfied
Somebody must have lied to me.
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