Posts Tagged ‘John Phillips’

The Mamas & the Papas’ debut album, “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears“, is being reissued on vinyl in all of its porcelain greatness, with the original cover photo, which was censored at the time for showing a toilet. The 12-song 1966 LP, a pop-rock favourite, showcases the impeccable harmonies of Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty, John Phillips and Michelle Phillips. The reissue arrives January 29th, 2021, via Geffen/UMe.

If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears” reached No#1 on the Billboard album chart within months of release and spent more than 100 weeks there. The Lou Adler-produced gem opens with the “Monday, Monday” and includes “California Dreamin’,” which reached No#4.

The Mamas & the Papas signed in 1965 and disbanded shortly after their performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where “Monday, Monday” was first performed live. In between, the foursome embarked on what has become a storied career during their brief time together. Contributing to their status as pop culture icons were memorable performances on The Ed Sullivan Show, including the John Phillips penned “Monday, Monday,” their interpretation of Lennon & McCartney’s “I Call Your Name” and “California Dreamin’,” co-written by John and Michelle Phillips.

From the reissue announcement: The album features a mix of originals and covers that captivated fans and critics alike. First released on February 28, 1966, If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears opens with the chart-topping ode to the first day of the work week, followed by the upbeat, bass-heavy rocker “Straight Shooter.” On “Got A Feelin’,” co-written by Denny Doherty and John Phillips, a ticking clock underscores the melancholy vibe that someone is cheating; the aptly titled “Go Where You Wanna Go” (given the LP’s controversial cover), “Somebody Groovy” and “Hey Girl” round out the original compositions with the musical and lyrical flair that defined their style.

The Mamas & the Papas also brought their easy-listening harmonies to Leiber & Stoller’s “Spanish Harlem” and Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance,” while gently rocking to the Turtles’ “You Baby.” Cass Elliot’s rollicking cover of Billy Page’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” closes the album.

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Numerous autobiographical songs have been written since the dawn of rock, but few have told the story of a band’s formation as vividly and colourfully as The Mamas and the Papas“Creeque Alley.” Released as a single in late April 1967, it climbed to No5 on the Billboard Hot 100; it also appeared on the quartet’s third album, “Deliver”

The song, credited to the group’s husband-and-wife co-founders John and Michelle Phillips, chronicles the events leading up to the 1965 creation of the Mamas and the Papas, which also included Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty. The lyrics are stocked with names and places, some of which may have been (and still are) unfamiliar to fans of the group. 

First, there’s the song’s title. “Creeque Alley” (pronounced creaky) is a real place, one of a series of alleys (actually named Creeque’s Alley and owned by the Creeque family) on the docks on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. The soon-to-be members of the Mamas and the Papas spent time there shortly before changing their musical direction and taking on their new name. There they were still performing folk music, at a club called Sparky’s Waterfront Saloon, and basically trying to make ends meet and figure out their futures.

The song’s story line only makes passing reference to the Mamas and the Papas’ time on the island though, and never mentions Creeque Alley by name. It starts in the years leading up to the seemingly preordained coalescence of the four singers. The first line, “John and Mitchy were getting’ kind of itchy just to leave the folk music behind,” refers to John and Michelle Phillips activities as folk singers in the early ’60s. John Phillips, then 26, had been singing with a folk group called the Journeymen when he met 17-year-old Michelle Gilliam during a tour stop in San Francisco. They fell in love and, after John divorced his first wife, married on December. 31st, 1962, moving to New York where they began writing songs together while Michelle did modelling work to earn some cash.

By late 1964, with the rock scene exploding, John and Michelle had become, like many others, “itchy” to move away from folk. It wasn’t all that easy, they quickly discovered, and the couple, along with Doherty formed the New Journeymen in the meantime.  In the meantime, other similarly inclined folk artists were coming into one another’s orbits. First, there were “Zal and Denny, workin’ for a penny, tryin’ to get a fish on a line,” which refers to Zal Yanovsky and Dennis (known as Denny) Doherty. Both Canadians, they’d been working together in a folk trio called the Halifax Three in their home country.

In a coffeehouse Sebastian sat” brings into the picture John Sebastian, the New York City-born singer-songwriter who at the time was part of the Even Dozen Jug Band and would soon form one of the most beloved American rock bands of the era. And then there were “McGuinn and McGuire, just a gettin’ higher in L.A., you know where that’s at.” McGuinn, of course, was Jim later Roger McGuinn, whose group the Byrds would vault to the top of the charts with their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” in the late spring of ’65, while McGuire was Barry, whose rendition of P.F. Sloan’s protest song “Eve of Destruction” struck a nerve that summer, also catapulting to the No1 position.

The first verse leaves off with a name-drop of the fourth member of the Mamas and the Papas: “And no one’s gettin’ fat except Mama Cass.” Cass Elliot (born Ellen Naomi Cohen), originally from Baltimore, she also had a background in folk music when she came to the attention of the other folkies in the song. She’d sung in a trio called the Big 3 with Tim Rose and Cass’ husband, James Hendricks, but like the others she saw the proverbial writing on the wall and wanted to expand her range of music. The “gettin’ fat” remark has a double meaning, however: not only was Elliot physically large but she was the only future M&P member who was making a decent living with her music, singing jazz in the Washington, D.C., area.

The second verse begins with a couple of mutual compliments: “Zally said, ‘Denny, you know there aren’t many who can sing a song the way that you do, let’s go south.’ Denny said, ‘Zally, golly, don’t you think that I wish I could play guitar like you?’” And so they headed south from Canada, soon finding themselves at a popular club in New York’s Greenwich Village: “Zal, Denny and John Sebastian sat (at the Night Owl), and after every number they’d pass the hat.” (More trivia: The Night Owl would become the home base of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Sebastian and Yanovsky’s group, and much later on would be the site of the famed New York record store Bleecker Bob’s.

Meanwhile, McGuinn and McGuire were “still a-gettin’ higher in L.A.” and Mama Cass was still “gettin’ fat,” but no one had yet found their destinies. Verse three gives us some more background on Cass’ run-up to joining the group. She was planning to attend college at Swarthmore, the song says, but instead hitchhiked to New York to see if she could make it in the music world. She wanted to attend Goucher College near her hometown of Baltimore. But John Phillips needed a rhyme so he used sophomore and Swarthmore.) Upon her arrival in NYC, she met Denny Doherty and fell in love with him. “Called John and Zal and that was the Mugwumps” adds the next piece to the puzzle: The Mugwumps were a folk quintet formed in 1964 featuring Elliot, Doherty, Sebastian, Yanovsky and Hendricks. (The John here refers to Sebastian, not Phillips. The Mugwumps recorded enough material to be compiled into an album in 1967, which did not feature Sebastian, but the group was short-lived as its members were also “itchy to leave the folk music behind.”

The next verse ties up the loose ends and takes us to the point where everyone is on the verge of fame: “Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful; Michelle, John and Denny getting’ very tuneful; McGuinn and McGuire just a-catchin’ fire in L.A., you know where that’s at.” And there you have it: the various figures peel away from folk and move into what was then called folk-rock: Sebastian and Yanovsky teamed with bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler in the Lovin’ Spoonful; the Phillipses, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty became the Mamas and the Papas; McGuinn led the Byrds for several years; and McGuire had a chart-topping hit as a solo artist. In fact, says a previous verse, “McGuinn and McGuire couldn’t get no higher and that’s what they were aimin’ at.” “And everybody’s gettin’ fat except Mama Cass,” goes the final line in that verse, inferring that success had arrived.

But there’s some unfinished business, that matter of the time spent at Creeque Alley. The last chorus/verse informs us that it wasn’t overnight success for the Mamas and the Papas by any means. It’s here, at the end of the song, that the scene shifts to the Virgin Islands. The singers, still called the New Journeymen and minus Cass at first (as the song said, they “knew she’d come eventually”) are cash-poor and borrowing on their American Express cards. They’re “broke, busted, disgusted,” but thanks to some help from a fellow named Hugh Duffy, who owned a boarding house in Creeque’s Alley, the four young singers who would soon be known worldwide were able to start thinking about their future: “Duffy’s good vibrations and our imaginations can’t go on indefinitely,” they sing toward the end of “Creeque Alley” So the four returned briefly to New York, then all headed out to Southern California to see if they could catch a break. “And California Dreaming is becoming a reality” is the final line of the song. We all know what that one means.

There was a melancholy guitar, and then the vocals came in: “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.” That was the beginning of the song “California Dreamin” the song that introduced most people to the Mamas and the Papas at the end of 1965. It was a lovely thing, filled with musical uplift and emotional longing. It was kind of like folk music—or what people that year were calling “folk-rock”—and a little bit like earlier L.A. soft-pop, with a tinge of pre-rock harmony groups. But it was original: the Bud Shank flute solo, the assertive drums of Hal Blaine, the responsive female vocals echoing the lead singer like sirens bidding him west. “I’d be safe and warm,” the singer thinks, “if I was in L.A.”

What the Mamas and the Papas did, like the Beach Boys, was create an idea about the West Coast as a state of mind. It wasn’t so much what the songs said; it was more about the pastel sound, the sense of openness and wistfulness. The music was a beckoning, the promise of a place where everyone was high and free. The cultural impact of this oddly configured quartet was tremendous. You can easily imagine what producer Lou Adler thought when he first auditioned them, saw the physical incongruity of these two guys and two girls, heard the intricate, delicate harmonies and John Phillips‘ batch of original songs: who are these people? Where does something like this come from?

Later, Adler wondered about the group’s tangled history, so John Phillips and his wife, Michelle, wrote a song about it, “Creeque Alley” , to map out how they and the other Papa and Mama, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot, crossed paths and came together. The first line explains that the Phillipses were “gettin’ kinda itchy just to leave the folk music behind,” so you might begin there, at the peak of the folk-revival boomlet of the early 1960s. All four members of the group were part of that scene, as you can hear on the compilation ‘The Magic Circle—Before They Were the Mamas & the Papas’. John, after being a part of the bland pop group the Smoothies (they’d had a couple of nondescript singles on Decca), formed a folk trio called the Journeymen, made a few albums for Capitol, and appeared on the TV show Hootenanny! Around the same time, ’63-ish, Denny Doherty was in a similar group, the Halifax Three, on Epic, cutting the usual folkie stuff as well as novelty material in the vein of the Chad Mitchell Trio. And Cass Elliot was in the Big 3, who cut two albums on the small FM label. Then John met Michelle, and she became a member of the New Journeymen with Phillips and Marshall Brickman, a trio that was in every possible way a copy of Peter, Paul and Mary.

For a while, Doherty and Elliot were in a proto-folk-rock-group, the Mugwumps, who cut a batch of sides, including the Coasters’ Searchin and the Fiestas’  So Fine . The Mugwumps‘ guitarist, Zal Yanovsky, and another Greenwich Village pal, John Sebastian, started the Lovin’ Spoonful; Phillips heard what they were up to, figured out pretty quickly that the whole New Journeymen experiment was doomed (they’d done a demo of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” that was hopelessly square compared to the Byrds‘ version), and that he should catch the folk-rock train. If that looks like a simple marketplace calculation, it probably was. Like Paul Simon, Phillips was savvy enough to jump on whatever was current, and so as Simon went from knocking out formula pop demos to becoming an earnest young troubadour, Phillips realized the smart creative investment was in rock, or at least rock-ish, futures.

He recruited Denny, and the rest of the story—how Cass got on board—you can follow in “Creeque Alley.” It’s one thing to understand, pragmatically, that a shift in direction was well advised. It’s another to put the plan into operation. So it was lucky that the new group knew Barry McGuire, who had been a singer in the New Christy Minstrels and was now out in California cutting records with producer Lou Adler for Dunhill Records, including P.F. Sloan’s Eve Of Destruction . The quartet got an audience with Adler, who was dazzled, and they sang background vocals on the second McGuire album, This Precious Time. One of the tracks cut for that album was Phillips’s “California Dreamin’,” which Sloan says in his memoir was in embryonic form. He takes credit for whipping the song into shape by incorporating a guitar lick from the Ventures’ Walk, Don’t Run, and for playing the song’s famous introduction. The backing group on the session included bassist Joe Osborn, keyboard player Larry Knechtel, and drummer Hal Blaine. In Blaine’s book, Michelle admits “Our group had never sung with anything but an acoustic guitar until that fateful day in 1965 when we came together in Studio 3 at Western Recorders. There, the Mamas and the Papas‘ ‘sound’ was created with the distinctive beat that Hal Blaine already made himself famous for.”

That “sound” was the key. Sloan writes, “We needed to find a mic that worked magic for their voices, and the perfect echo and reverb for them. Without it, their voices didn’t seem to fly.” You can hear it on the first Mamas and Papas single, Go Where You Wanna Go, which inexplicably failed to catch on when it was released on Dunhill (another group, the 5th Dimension, did better with it), on their “California Dreamin’,” which used the same backing track as the one on McGuire’s LP version, but with overdubbed M&P lead vocals, on the follow-up smash single “Monday, Monday” and the collection of songs on their debut album, “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears ” .

It wasn’t an approach that came out of nowhere: groups like the Seekers, the Silkie, and the We Five were blending male and female voices on folkish material, and you can hear a precedent for the Mamas and Papas in the two-girls-one-boy diaphanous teen pop of the Fleetwoods (Come Softly to Me, Mr. Blue; they made an album called ‘Folk Rock in ’65’), and in the records Phil Spector made with the Teddy Bears (To Know Him Is to Love Him).

But this was ingeniously wrapped up and redesigned; it sounded “now.” Adler knew how to make pop records; he’d been doing it since the late ’50s with Jan & Dean, and then with Johnny Rivers, and he knew the best players in L.A. But this was more than just a richly textured, professionally executed sound. The “eyes” part of your eyes and ears mattered a lot; they didn’t look like any other singing group, and photos of them, most taken by Guy Webster, were studies in contrasts, angles and circles: Michelle sprawled across the other three in a bathtub on the front cover of the debut album, Denny and Michelle looking like a couple on the back, John hovering sideways above them, Cass off to the side, separated from the other three by liner notes and credits.


For a while, Michelle was fooling around with Denny (the guys cowrote I Saw Her Again about that situation), whom Cass was enamored with, and if all that weren’t enough, Michelle started seeing Gene Clark from the Byrds (Gene supposedly wrote She Don’t Care About Time about her), and for a while was exiled from the group. She was replaced by Jill Gibson, who was going out with Adler (and had been dating Jan Berry from Jan & Dean, . Gibson was announced as the new Mama, and started to record the second album with the group, then called ‘Crashon Screamon All Fall Down’ (there’s an album cover with that title and Jill’s photo floating around).

Meanwhile, John was writing a number of songs about women who were romantically reckless and the men who were dumb enough to fall for their bewitchery, addressing either the girl or the guy from a position of someone who’s wised-up and/or bitter. So it was almost cruel to bring Michelle back into the group and have her sing (there’s some question about whether some of the tracks still have Jill’s vocals on them) on songs like No Salt On Her Tail (“No cage to make her stay”), the Michelle co-written Trip Stumble and Fall (“You’ve never been burned but everybody’s somebody’s fool”), I Can’t Wait (“Can’t wait to hear you say that you love me and you’ll change your ways”), “Even If I Could” (“Now you know just why I cried when she lied”) and That Kind of Girl (“She’s freaking out somewhere and you think it’s unfair/Well don’t be so square”). Even the jaunty, old-timey hit Words of Love was pretty cynical:

The album that ended up being called just The Mamas and the Papas also includes the mysterious Strange Young Girls , a snapshot of the L.A.—L.S.D. scene that’s one of the first pop songs to explicitly mention tripping on acid, Despite (because of?) the turmoil going on during its inception and recording, it’s the best of the group’s original four LPs, and along with Pet Sounds, the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension, and Love’s debut album (and some might add The Monkees , it’s on the shortlist of albums that capture the sound of Southern California in 1966, the year before the center of the West Coast music scene moved up the coast around 400 miles to the Bay Area, a gravitational shift that John Phillips and Lou Adler had a major role in accelerating when they decided to throw a big celebration of pop music in Monterey, California, in June 1967.

In ’67, the Mamas and the Papas were pop royalty. John’s songs, especially his first two hits, were being covered across the spectrum, for which the group was a financial godsend,  And they continued to have hit singles, all included on their third album, Deliver released in February of ’67: “Creeque Alley.” The song about the history of the group was on the charts as the Monterey International Pop Festival came together, and so was a song that Phillips wrote and produced for one of his former Journeymen, Scott McKenzie, the beatifically oh-so-groovy San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair): “All across the nation,” McKenzie marveled, “such a strange vibration, people in motion.”  Adler and Phillips formed an all-star advisory board to invite artists to play the Monterey fest, and the lineup included proven hit-makers (Simon & Garfunkel, the Byrds, Johnny Rivers). The committee also reached out to a newer cluster of bands from San Francisco (Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead…), soul titan Otis Redding, and, making their U.S. debuts, the Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Mamas and the Papas, naturally, would be the headliners, closing out the last night. Well, that idea made sense, because who was bigger than they were? . By the time the Mamas and Papas‘ set time arrived on Sunday, audiences had seen Janis Joplin with Big Brother (there’s a famous shot in the movie Monterey Pop showing Cass in the audience, open-mouthed with admiration), Otis with Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the Who in full instrument-smashing glory, Jefferson Airplane. Oh, and the Mamas and the Papas had to follow the Jimi Hendrix Experience, after Hendrix molested his guitar and set it on fire.

Michelle, in the Monterey chronicle A Perfect Haze by Harvey Kubernick and Kenneth Kubernick: “We had not rehearsed or performed together in three months. It was very awkward. And, of course, we did the concert, and I knew things were not going well, or great, but the mood of the audience was so good and happy that they bent for us. I know when I came offstage I just cried and cried for two hours.” It’s not that awful, really. A bit of a sonic shambles, and the band interaction feels strained. Probably because of the lack of pre-show prep time, the set is nearly entirely songs from the debut album, plus McKenzie doing his love-and-flowers serenade, and a concluding with “Dancing In The Street” (which mostly serves to underline how odd it is for a music festival in 1967 not to have any actual Motown artists). When they leave the stage, it’s like they’re waving goodbye.

They still had a couple of masterworks in them, Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon), and Safe in My Garden, both on the spotty final (for a while) album The Papas and the Mamas (also on that one, Cass singing the Depression-er “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” . But anyone could see that the original foursome was doomed. Everyone scattered for the usual post-breakup round of projects: John Phillips‘ album on ‘Dunhill’ is very good,  Cass had some fizzy pop hits, and made an LP with Dave Mason, but never found the right musical formula before her death in 1974 . Denny’s first solo album came and went without causing any kind of stir.

However unremarkable the postscript of the Mamas and Papas‘ career was, and unseemly the gossip about John Phillips‘ personal life . You play their records, and they’re still transporting. Like “Twelve Thirty.” It starts, “I used to live in New York City/Everything there was dark and dirty.” It’s like a bookend to “California Dreamin’,” a flashback to how the journey started. The music is streaked with sunlight, but there’s an undercurrent of sadness. In the end, it all comes apart.