THE MAMAS &
“Love can never be exactly like we want
it to be”
- 1966: If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears
- 1966: The Mamas & The Papas
- 1967: Deliver
- 1968: The Papas & The Mamas
- 1971: People Like Us
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Lineup: John Philips, Dennis Doherty, Michelle Philips,
Cass Elliot. All vocals.
You may wonder why I preferred to put the lineup first this time, and didn’t
leave it at the end of the introduction, like I do on most other pages.
Well, reason number one is that this is my page and I’ll do whatever I
want with it, and reason number two is that it’s really hard to speak of
the Mamas & Papas without going into detail over these guys’ and girls’
twisted, complicated, and, in the long run, rather unhappy fates.
Yes, before we all had a chance to smack the Seventies’ greatest “family
scandal” with Fleetwood Mac, we had the Sixties’ greatest family scandal
with the Mamas and Papas. These days, too many bands are unjustly accused
of being ‘that old hippie shite’; people who throw around these accusations
are usually of the hardcore / heavy metal variety, but quite often it’s
just a rotten tendency to knock off any kind of ‘idealism’ among the more
cynically attuned people. However, when we actually consider the “hippieness”
of all those Sixties’ American bands, not too many of them turn out to
have been devoted followers of the hippie ideology. The Jefferson Airplane?
More in the political sphere than in the social one. The Grateful Dead?
Normal downhome guys with a light touch of acid. The Doors? These never
even had anything to do with the hippie ideology.
No, the band that could really be considered as the quintessential hippie
outfit were the Mamas & Papas, of course. With their lightweight, naive,
peaceful music, unpretentious, lovable attitudes and “unserious”
lifestyles, they really symbolized the mid-Sixties; it wasn’t even the
happiness of Crosby, Stills & Nash, who were way too serious
in their philosophical approach towards the whole shenanigan. Not to mention
that by the time CSN came along, the Mamas & Papas were all but gone,
and basically CSN only managed to capture a tiny bit of the ‘golden era’.
But the Mamas & Papas were at the core of that ‘golden era’, its main
messengers from 1966 to 1968, and will always be remembered as such.
It is, however, quite ironic that these same messengers of peace and love
came to such a tragic and bitter demise – over a long and tedious story
of unsuccessful, broken and betrayed relations with each other. The whole
story, in fact, began with a break-up: in order to associate with Michelle,
John Philips had to divorce himself from his wife and leave his two children.
From then on, it was romance after romance and cross-romance after cross-romance
until by 1968, the band members simply couldn’t bear to see each other,
and their forced reunion album of 1971 even had to be recorded without
the band members actually meeting in the studio. So much for love and happiness
In the midst of all this symbolism, ideology and clashing personal philosophies,
though, what we often forget is that the Mamas & Papas made some music,
too – some damn good music, in fact. The main strength of the band resided
in John Philips, of course, who was actually a prime songwriter, and most
of the band’s hits, including such immortal ones as ‘California Dreamin’
and ‘Monday Monday’, were penned by John. But write a song is one thing,
and arrange it is another one, and in that respect, the Mamas & Papas
had next to no equals on the entire Californian scene as well – few bands
at the time had even a single female vocalist, let alone two; and even
the more notorious female vocalists of the day, notably Grace Slick and
Janis Joplin, could boast enough power and conviction, but could never
boast enough discipline. And the Mamas & Papas had that discipline
in spades. Even some of their weakest material, melody-wise, can still
be saved by these amazing cascades of gorgeous vocals, with complex, unpredictable
harmonies and hooks all over the place.
Not that the guys’ voices were weak – John’s and Dennis’ tones complemented
each other just fine. But good as they are, and good as Michelle’s gentle
squeak is, special mention should still be made of Mama Cass’ thunderous
delivery. If Grace Slick could throw thunderbolts of rage and Janis Joplin
could pour down lightning bolts of hysteria and madness, then Mama Cass’
contribution was that of a ‘powerful irony’ – nobody boasted a vocal
tone that mighty, easily the most majestic and frightening voice of the
Sixties. (Legend has it that Cass’ voice initially lacked some extra notes
and she was admitted into the band only after she was accidentally knocked
unconscious by a lead pipe, which resulted in those extra notes appearing!).
Too bad she never had a chance to display all of her possibilities on the
Mamas’ albums – there are only a few cases when Mama Cass is given the
lead, but each and every one of those is treasurable. And her untimely
death in 1974, of heart failure, was nothing short of a tragedy.
In all, the Mamas & Papas are certainly a band with lots of
historical baggage to them, and trying to separate them from this baggage
would be unsuccessful and ultimately incorrect. But baggage or no baggage,
when you put on a Mamas & Papas record, what you are listening to isn’t
just a document of the epoch – it is, at best, a glorious record of magnificent
pop songs, and at worst, a professional, dedicated record with thought-out
melodies and pleasant singing. So just try to look beyond all the cliches
and mythologies and respect – or love – the band for their pure talent,
which they certainly had a lot of.
Listenability: 3/5. The
later albums drag the quality level down with corniness and genericness,
but overall, the Mamas & Papas will hardly offend your taste.
Resonance: 3/5. Unless you present
a “hippie case extraordinary”, you’ll hardly want to identify
with these guys & gals on every second occasion, but how can one resist
the emotional punch of ‘California Dreaming’?
Originality: 1/5. Not in this
department – although, to be frank, the band’s harmonies were quite exceptional.
Adequacy: 3/5. The “hippie
guru” position sometimes lets ’em down.
Diversity: 1/5. They never needed
Overall: 2.2 = D
on the rating scale.
Honestly speaking, on some of these songs I still can’t believe
Best song: CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’
Track listing: 1) Monday Monday;
2) Straight Shooter; 3) Got A Feeling; 4) I Call
Your Name; 5) Do You Wanna Dance; 6) Go Where
You Wanna Go; 7) California Dreamin’;
8) Spanish Harlem; 9) Somebody Groovy; 10) Hey Girl; 11) You Baby; 12)
The “In” Crowd.
Lately I’ve been trying to imagine something. I’ve been trying to imagine
how a song like “California Dreamin'” would have sounded like
if sung by just one guy/gal with an acoustic guitar. And eventually
I cam to the conclusion that it wouldn’t have sounded interesting at all.
Basic folksy chord progression, a stable, simple vocal melody that never
shifts – where the heck is the chorus? – away from its one-line pattern.
Boring, to cut a long story short. Boring and unremarkable.
But the vocal harmonies aren’t there just for the sake of adding pretty
decorations. They form a conversation – a male-female one – that makes
the final result lively and agitated where it would have been stiff and
cramped. Normally one tends to view “backing vocals” as exactly
just that, backing vocals; here, every time I get convinced to sing along,
I find myself trying to keep up with all the singers until I’m panting
as a racehorse, and it does not enter my mind that I could just follow
John and Dennis (or Michelle and Mama Cass, for that matter). That
is the song’s melody and the song’s backbone, and that is the complex,
jaw-droppingly beautiful and elegant sonic construction that makes the
band – if only for a short while – the first-rate artists they could be.
It’s also a little funny how we normally tend to view the Mamas & Papas
as this kind of happy life-loving wife-sharing smell-that-flower American
hippies when there is really just one truly “happy” song on the
entire album (there would be a couple more on the next album, though),
and some are actually downright morose. Isn’t “California Dreamin'”
a tragic song, in terms of mood at least? For me, it’s always been
the perfect autumnal song, and not just because of the ‘all the leaves
are brown, and the sky is gray’ line; no, the music is so autumnal
and, well, depressed, if not depressing. The last perfect touch
is, of course, the flute solo: not guitar, not piano, not harmonica, but
that desperately wailing flute. Remember the flute was the trademark instrument
of Ray Thomas, and Ray Thomas used to be in that band called The Moody
Blues, and ‘California Dreamin’ is one song I really wish the Moody
Blues could have covered one day.
‘Monday Monday’, the other big hit off the album, is more deceptive – the
grief and melancholy shine through the lyrics more than anything else –
but still, neither the harmonies, which are more Catholic church than a
Phil Spector studio, nor John Phillips’ thin, fragile, sad vocal performance
could be called “life-asserting”. There’s a perfect balance reached
here as they stay equally distant from empty-headed optimism and suicidal
depression, a fine line that would be crossed by so many people to one
of either sides. Not the MPs, though. They wouldn’t. That’s part of their
charm – of their mystery, if you wish. You can take your ‘Monday Monday’
and adjust it according to your wishes; they wouldn’t object.
Tender love song or bitter tragedy, it’s your choice.
These two compositions predictably open the two sides of the album, but
there’s so much more, actually. The diversity is there, although it isn’t
staggering. The band is well aware of its strong sides and isn’t doing
much in order to improve on the weak ones. They can, for instance, take
a dynamic pop-rock song such as the Beatles’ ‘I Call Your Name’, throw
away the dynamics and rocking power, and turn it into something sissy,
squishy, and – in a certain sense – Vegas-ey (in spots, it’s almost eerily
similar to Mama Cass’ later triumph on ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’). But
if that were the beginning and end of our reaction, that’d mean not noticing
how cleverly they go through several different time signatures, or how
they distribute the lines over to all of the members in an almost theatrical
way, or how, in spots, it’s the female backing vocals that perform most
of the creative job, when it’s so much more exciting to follow the intricate
alternation of “doo-doo-doo – AAAAAH – doo-doo – AAAH – doo-doo-doo”
than the basic ‘don’t you know I can’t take it’ lines which we all know
by heart already.
Likewise, if you’re looking forward to having a great time at the prom,
‘Do You Wanna Dance’ should rather be listened to in the Beach Boys version.
But for a great evening of bourgeois romance, it’s the Mamas & Papas
version that’s the most recommendable (and chances are that this is actually
going to be the least banal element of your evening, so be a good boy and
woo your special one over with the right stuff instead of Phil Collins).
Special honours should go to whoever was in charge of the orchestration,
which complements the vocals so perfectly and actually carries a distinct,
memorable melody rather than just being there “for the mush of it”.
You could argue that the band is not at its best when they’re doing harsher,
bluesier numbers, like the Phillips-penned ‘Straight Shooter’ and ‘Somebody
Groovy’. Could be; but then the Mamas & Papas did have a tougher
side to themselves, and, although they were nowhere near unique in that
department, the inclusion of numbers like these helps the album rather
than takes away from it. Besides, once again, it’s a gas to hear them spice
up these simple blues structures with their usual call-and-response vocal
sessions. It’s interesting that if on ‘Straight Shooter’ all four seem
to be singing at the same time, ‘Somebody Groovy’ is a prime showcase for
the girls, while John and Dennis are merely adding the necessary ‘yeah’
and ‘aaah!’ in all the right spots. If anything, it’s a prime indication
that the Mamas were really a far tougher element of the band than its Papas.
(Insert the obligatory joke about how Mama Cass could probably knock the
life out of both of them with a single punch, and how it was a smart move
to have Michelle lying on top of them in the tub on the album sleeve
because if it were Mama they’d possibly never get out of that tub alive).
The “toughest” song on the album, by the way, is predictably
the one that’s closest to a Mama Cass solo number: Billy Page’s “The
‘In’ Crowd”, which she sings with an inner fire and power unsurpassed
by anyone in that decade bar Janis, and with far more subtle sarcasm than
Janis ever had. It’s so different in style from everything else that it
was probably a smart move to let it hang as an ‘appendix’ of sorts at the
tail end of the album, and an even smarter move to let the album fizzle
out on that note rather than on the ultra-sentimental ‘You Baby’
(that‘s the one totally happy song on the entire album and, maybe
not surprisingly, my least favourite of the twelve – also possibly because
it looks like they’re consciously emulating the Beach Boys and no one in
his/her right minds should ever want to emulate the Beach Boys, especially
if your normal singing style depends on a completely different approach
to vocal harmony).
But the one song in which the depth of this album, and the depth of the
band in general, comes through the best is unquestionably ‘Go Where You
Wanna Go’ (the band’s first single, actually, which, for some reason, failed
to chart – maybe I’m overrating the obviousness of its hooks?). There’s
a blaring contradiction in the lyrics: “go where you wanna go, do
what you wanna do with whoever you do it with” goes the chorus and
then Michelle chimes in with the “you don’t understand that a girl
like me can love just one man” retort. (Liar liar pants on fire).
Musically, it’s supported by a general sense of exuberance and wildness
during the chorus – the orchestra sweeps and swoops, the harmonies fly
in all sides, the anthemic feel is almost unbearable – and a feeling of
burning despair during the verses, especially on the minor key “three
thousand miles” section. Here you have your generic hippie generalisation
– and all the real life problems that go along with it.
A terrific album, saddled only by the fact that John Phillips was never
the kind of guy who could toss off unforgettable pop gems in his sleep
(even if the story behind ‘Monday Monday’ is that he wrote it on order
in, like, one day, which I still find hard to believe). As a result, there’s
only three great original compositions on here, although there’s something
to admire in every other song as well. But it shouldn’t take you more than
one listen, I think, to arrive at the conclusion that this band should
be appreciated through entire albums rather than best-of packages, just
because there’s so much more smartness, creativity, diversity, and stereotype-deconstruction
involved than could be guessed from one of these packages.
A live temple to the spirit of vocal harmony.
Best song: I SAW HER AGAIN LAST NIGHT
Track listing: 1) No Salt On Her Tail; 2) Trip Stumble &
Fall; 3) Dancing Bear; 4) Words Of Love; 5)
My Heart Stood Still; 6) Dancing In The Street;
7) I Saw Her Again Last Night; 8) Strange
Young Girls; 9) I Can’t Wait; 10) Even If I Could; 11) That Kind Of Girl;
12) Once Was A Time I Thought.
At this very moment, on this very page, I feel tempted and tempted again
that 1966 was the year of the M’s and P’s. The Beatles only released
one great album in 1966, and so did the Rolling Stones, and so did Bob
Dylan (well, Dylan’s was a double one, but it was stretched out,
wasn’t it?), and neither the Strokes nor the Hives nor the Vines released
anything at all, much to the chagrin of those who can’t imagine
life without their idols. But the Mamas? Two albums, each one a
deserved pop classic!
Granted, the second album sort of goes over everybody’s head, usually.
People know ‘California Dreamin’ and ‘Monday Monday’ and then people who
know more than other people also know ‘Creeque Alley’ and this self-titled
thing falls in between and gets lost. (Not to mention badly confused with
the vice versa titling of their so-so 1968 album). But that’s what you
get when you can’t come up with a suitable whopper hit follow-up. (‘I Saw
Her Again’, after all, never could hope to equal the status of ‘California’).
Or maybe won’t come up. Because, given the fact that my tongue just
won’t curl into a position suitable for pronouncing the word “filler”,
I have a good reason to doubt that John Phillips, taking songwriter credits
for all but two of the songs on here, was “spent” on big hooks.
The emphasis, I think, was different: the emphasis was on taking the band’s
main specialty – sophisticated vocal harmonies – and taking it as far as
it could possibly go. Maybe Pet Sounds was an influence, too, but
did they really need an extra shove to take their art to the top?
Methinks not. Naturally, then, the more sophisticated you get, the less
“immediately commercial” are your results. Besides, both of the
hits, well, particularly ‘California Dreamin’, had this anthemic quality
to them, while The Mamas & The Papas is a set that radiates
pure pop: classy, gracious, and resplendent, but hardly too meaningful
or insightful. Some might call it a triumph of form over substance – but
who cares? Who should care? This is pop! Pay too much attention
to substance and you might want to start analyzing the lyrics – and believe
you me, you don’t want to analyze a bunch of petty in-between bickerings
and spontaneously misogynistic comments disguised as “lyrics”.
Not when the music they’re set to is so much better, at any rate. I want
this album to be happy. And it wants to be happy itself.
Besides, all that talk about form and substance is complete bollocks anyway.
A song like ‘I Saw Her Again Last Night’ is pure perfection as both form
and substance. No matter how much I’ve heard, it’s hard for me to
come up with a song that exudes more primaeval joy and better communicates
the idea of pure mirth than this one. The careful buildup – the
hooks start rolling on before the main harmonies kick in, and when they
do kick in it’s like you’re being thrown into 3-D out of your 2-D
environment; the clever use of orchestration, which sort of flows out of
the vocal harmonies as a natural instrumental response; the “stuttering”
‘I saw her… I saw her again…’ in the final verse, adding to the general
sense of chaotic exhilaration; and this would have all made up for a great
tune even without the ultimately coolest touch – Michelle and Mama Cass’
terrific cello imitation in the middle-eight section (in comparison to
which the Who’s meek mumbling of ‘cello cello cello’ on ‘A Quick One’ from
the same year looks positively miserable). It may not have been their biggest
hit, but it’s one of their finest tunes all the same.
And it’s just one song. The entire album is a triumph of that approach,
and a triumph needs a triumphant beginning – which is why I pardon them
for making me suspect, for a few seconds, that they were going to cover
‘Like A Rolling Stone’ without giving credit to the Bobster. Because that’s
what the intro to ‘No Salt On Her Tail’ sounds like, drum pattern, organ
riff and all. That’s just for a few moments, though, after which John Phillips,
the orchestra, and the girls come on in a stately, head-spinning performance.
Without the harmonies, the song would be just a monotonous mid-tempo folk-rocker;
with the harmonies, it’s a never ending chase of one band member
after another, making me go ‘aaaah!’ each time they change key and go into
the even more frantic middle-eight. Did I just say the album lacked anthemic
moments? Well, ‘No Salt’ isn’t exactly an anthem, but it does give the
Apart from ‘I Saw Her Again’, the one song the average listener might be
familiar with off this album is ‘Words Of Love’, mainly because it’s the
biggest showcase for Mama Cass on the album (plus, it goes off at a music
hall pace, always very appropriate for pop charts). It’s a great performance
for sure, but really atypical of the album, with Mama’s vocals overshadowing
the rather simple harmonies; not that I mind, of course, because it’s always
such a gas to hear Mama doing her job, and, like I said, you don’t get
the chance too often. In fact, Mamas is, like, the only album in
the catalog where Cass gets two lead vocals – which might have something
to do with Michelle temporarily quitting the band in mid-1966 and Mama
temporarily assuming somebody else’s functions – anyway, this and also
the cover of ‘Dancing In The Street’, probably the only cover of
said song that’s seriously been done justice to; I would surely take Mama’s
version over the Jagger/Bowie showcase, for instance.
The only other cover – ‘My Heart Stood Still’ – is practically a perfect
example of how to build a performance from zero up to emotional catharsis;
with almost mathematical precision they keep piling up, first guitars and
harpsichords, then quiet female harmonies, then a rhythm section, then
male harmonies, then brass, then strings, then bring it up to the final
desperate chord, and wham, it’s over and it hasn’t even been two minutes
yet, which confirms me in my suspicion of it being a music-theory-related
experiment rather than an inspired performance, but that’s hardly bad either.
For even more experiments with vocal powers you’ll also need to hear ‘Once
Was A Time I Thought’ (a one-minute snippet of something I could only call
There is also a couple of weird, unpredictable song models on here that
aren’t necessarily great but are certainly worth a raised eye (or two if
you’re not a Cyclops). ‘Dancing Bear’ is a mystical folksy shuffle preceded
by a long, melancholic intro of interweaving flute/recorder/bassoon patterns,
mostly sung by Doherty in a gentle falsetto, and, strangely enough, reminding
me of Simon’s ‘El Condor Pasa’, even if that one wouldn’t have been released
until four years later. Well, melodically it’s probably closer to Donovan,
but some of the chords, along with the penchant for pipes and the deep,
“spiritual” production, are so striking that I couldn’t bring
myself to not mentioning it. And ‘Strange Young Girls’ is the closest
they ever got to capturing the spirit of the traditional European religious
song, I think – Michelle’s parts on that one absolutely transcend the borders
The one possible flaw of the record is that it’s way too “soft”,
even for the M’s and P’s and their level: flaw, because ‘That Kind Of Girl’,
the only thing on the album that could pass for a “rocker”, shows
they had plenty of potential for tightening the screws a bit (there’s even
a Frisco-type psychedelic guitar solo in there that sounds as authentic
as anything on any Jefferson Airplane record). But then again, maybe too
many “rockers” would have spoilt the cake and taken away the
lush baroqueness of the album, which, after all, was their Pet
Sounds, wasn’t it? Sometimes I actually think that it might only have
taken a set of slightly more “profound” lyrics (maybe John Phillips
should have collaborated with his psychoanalitic?) for The Mamas &
The Papas to be generally considered on equal stature with that masterpiece.
Then I come back to my senses, pronounce serious words like “broadness”,
“depth”, and “artistic vision”, and sort of give up
But who knows – maybe one day I’ll come back to it again. I’d sure love
Blistering harmonies on a typical California-happy record; some songwriting
lows are here too, though.
Best song: DEDICATED TO THE ONE I LOVE
Track listing: 1) Dedicated To The One
I Love; 2) My Girl; 3) Creeque Alley;
4) Sing For Your Supper; 5) Twist And Shout;
6) Free Advice; 7) Look Through My Window; 8) Boys & Girls Together;
9) String Man; 10) Frustration; 11) Did You
Ever Want To Cry; 12) John’s Music Box.
The Mamas & Papas’ third album was their last to enjoy any serious
commercial success (and pre-heralded the exhaustive compilation with the
ominous title Farewell To The First Golden Era), and while it’s
hardly their best, it was my first serious Mamas & Papas experience,
so I still share some tenderness for the little piece o’ plastic, more
so than any others reviewed on the page. Objectively speaking, though,
it pretty much follows the formula set on the band’s previous releases,
and third time around the formula was already getting a little thin. From
the very first listen it becomes rather obvious that the blistering first
side of the record, containing not a single weak cut, pretty much contrasts
with the lacklustre, not too inspiring second side, and it certainly can’t
be a coincidence that the first side is mostly based on covers, with just
two original compositions, while the second side is entirely composed by
the band’s one and only significant songwriter, John Phillips.
Now I don’t really have anything serious against John; after all,
how could one really dismiss the songwriting abilities of the reverend
author of ‘If You’re Going To San Francisco’? Would be a total blasphemy;
few other people symbolized the innocent, peace-lovin’, ‘normal’ hippie
side as well as poor Mr Phillips. But come on now, did you ever
sit through the blandness of his cuts on the second side? And yes, I know
that ‘Look Through My Window’ is often considered as a definite pop classic,
but to me, it’s easily one of the least interesting tracks on the record.
Basically, it’s just a sappy, sentimental, disproportionately orchestrated
ballad with a good, but not spectacular use of vocal harmonies, and I don’t
even speak of any discernible instrumental melody here – there’s
none. Likewise, I don’t care much for the instrumental ‘Frustration’: hey,
I didn’t pay my money to actually hear dem Papas play a rudimentary harpsichord
tune basing on just about a couple of chords throughout. It’s a total embarrassment,
like, dude, absolutely. Likewise, what the hell is that ‘John’s Musical
Box’ snippet that closes the album? Sounds like a musical box, indeed;
but I’d be far more pleased to get myself a real musical box in my house
instead than having the band provide me with one. Likewise, I find Michelle
Phillips’ vocal spot, the funny story ‘String Man’, painfully weak – the
way the song stretches out to its multiple harmony climaxes is entertaining,
but I don’t suppose the song will do anything for me, as it’s neither catchy
nor emotionally resonant nor even interesting from a general, er, historico-cultural
point of view.
So there’s just but two songs on the second side that I find really enthralling.
The first one is the subtle, spooky ‘Boys And Girls Together’: from the
opening creaky bassline and to the ridiculous, pompous Latin-style brass
interludes in the chorus, the song is a solid tour de force, building up
on a luxurious, heartwarming vocal duet, plus the dumb lyrics about ‘boys
& girls – you know they’re birds of a feather’ have their hidden charm.
Maybe I’m an idiot (I’ve always suspected that). As an idiot, I also like
‘Did You Ever Want To Cry’, a sad, melancholic, pretty and pretty unpretentious
ballad that’s probably the only reminiscence of the world’s troubles and
worries on this otherwise happy, romance-and-love-drenched collection.
The banjo sounds pretty cool there, too – as if it were plucked by a five-year
old who accidentally mistook it for a sitar. In other words, highly unprofessional
(the Papas, in fact, were some of the worst instrumental players that ever
came out of sunny California, and that really means something –
Californian bands aren’t usually known for a lot of professionalism), but
quite captivating in all of their ingenious simplicity. Naive and beautiful,
just as it should be with all the beautiful people.
Now the first side is what really makes the grade – it’s almost painful
to see the album start on such a high note and then slowly roll downhill.
‘Creeque Alley’ is the most notorious song from here, which is more due
to its historical significance: in just a few minutes’ running time it
manages to present an account of all the band’s history up to the present
time, and in pretty good details, too, not to mention their sense of humour
(‘and nobody’s getting fat except Mama Cass’ – a hint at both Cass
Elliot’s weight and her relative commercial/artistic success in the pre-Mamas
days). Musically, the song is fairly simple – just your basic strummed
acoustic guitars with some harmonica embellishments, plus a cutesy flute
solo – but it’s the clever harmony twists and twirls that make it so enjoyable,
with male/female voices constantly coming in and getting out of the picture,
creating a kind of ‘objective band picture’. ‘Free Advice’ is also fun,
with the fat trombone sound contrasting with the gentle flute and the band’s
harmonies leading the song to a series of happy, joyful climaxes: upbeat,
punchy and certainly ear-pleasing.
Even better, though, are the covers: there are four of them, and each one’s
a gem. The best one is the album opener – their version of the Shirelles’
(if I’m not mistaken) ‘Dedicated To The One I Love’, with both of the girls
making this routine soul ‘classic’ their own; but they don’t embarrass
themselves on Smokey Robinson’s ‘My Girl’, either – I still can’t decide
whether I prefer their version or the contemporary Rolling Stones’ performance,
but I guess each is in a class of its own, so there’s just no need to compare.
The Mamas, of course, make their version tons more sappy and sweet than
Jagger could ever hope to with his nearly tongue-in-cheek delivery, but
whether that’s good or bad is definitely a matter of your personal taste,
not mine or his or hers or the stupid little dog’s. Their delivery of ‘Twist
And Shout’, though, is the dang funniest I’d ever heard – if the very name
of the song brings Beatles reminiscences on your mind, shake ’em away baby
(twist and shout): John and Denny start the song with the sweetest, most
tender tone you ever heard, and strip it down from a raunchy sexual rocker
into something that could only be described as a gentle love ballad. Yep,
you heard right: not many people have got the talent to transform a rocker
into a ballad. The Mamas & The Papas definitely had such a knack, and
should be acclaimed for that. Finally, Mama Cass shines brilliantly on
the jazzy ‘Sing For Your Supper’, a tune that showcases the unstoppable
grandeur and fascination of her vocals better than almost anything on here,
and in a perfect world this, not the stupid ‘let’s put it on record and
see what happens’ approach of ‘John’s Musical Box’, should be the most
suitable album closer.
Then again, maybe my judgement is a bit too harsh on what could perhaps
be the only hippie-produced record of 1967 that managed to evade
falling into the perilous traps of psychedelic experimentation, instead
concentrating on ‘eternal musical values’. In that respect, Deliver,
whatever might be said, has dated to a far, far lesser extent than quite
a few lauded efforts from same year. Simply fresh, exciting, harmony-drenched
luvvly hippiesque pop that’s guaranteed to make you smile against your
will, much like Mr Stevie Wonder. Yup, a bit more refined songwriting couldn’t
hurt, but I’ll take it even as it is. With a Coke, please.
A particularly intricate and complex approach to harmonizing here
– unfortunately, it doesn’t stand up for excellent results.
Best song: MIDNIGHT VOYAGE
Track listing: 1) The Right Somebody To Love; 2) Safe
In My Garden; 3) Meditation Mama (Transcendental
Women Travels); 4) For The Love Of Ivy;
5) Dream A Little Dream Of Me; 6) Mansions; 7) Gemini Childe; 8) Nothing’s
Too Good For My Little Girl; 9) Too Late; 10) Twelve Thirty; 11) Rooms;
12) Midnight Voyage.
The band’s last album before the break-up finds the Mamas and the Papas
on a downward slide – but rather than being a complete disaster, this is
just somewhat disappointing. And I really mean it: the record actually
contains more than jumps out at the listener upon first subjection. Did
that make sense? Definitely not. Okay, scrap that false introduction, and
proceed to the real review.
This is a good record, and that’s more than a fair remark about a record
with not even a single instantly memorable tune. After the giant hooks
of stuff like ‘California Dreamin’ or ‘Dedicated To…’, The Papas &
The Mamas produce a sour impression indeed. The band seems to have
undergone a radical change of attitude: while their earlier output was
more or less cheerful and bouncy, you know, in a real poppy and upbeat
kind of way, these songs are moody, atmospheric and even introspective,
in a certain way. The melodies get slower and smoother; the vocals get
smoother, too, with both the solo voices and group harmonies built
up in a relaxative, mantraic way – with no bottoms and peaks, that is.
This, in turn, seriously influences the memorability department: songs
where nothing sticks out aren’t exactly my definition of ultra-catchiness.
In all, the first couple of listens were very painful – hey, we’re all
supposed to love this band because of their upbeat cheerful stuff, and
this is nothing of the kind! What the heck?
Later on, though, the melodies begin to shine through, and with them, the
realisation that some of these songs are actually quite solidly written
and performed. Yes, the sound is smooth, but much too often, there are
delicate, intricate twists in the harmonies that you don’t discern at once,
and hoopla, all of a sudden there’s a kind of witty subtlety that completely
redeems the song. A typical example is the lead-in number, ‘Safe In My
Garden’ (actually, the lead-in number is a stupid two-verse poem, but that’s
just me nitpicking on myself); contrary to what many might think, this
isn’t just a soft mid-tempo orchestrated ballad, this is a brilliant, complex,
wonderfully harmonized and ideally structured chant. Unlike ‘Meditation
Mama’, which is just as stupid as its title suggests: floating around at
the same pace, it has none of the previous song’s vocal intricacies and
could have been recorded in five minutes. Pure atmosphere – pretty atmosphere,
but eminently forgettable. This is the problem, then – to separate the
fruit from the chaff, a task that’s extremely hard and actually requires
more than three listens. That much I know.
Let’s see now, what do we have next? ‘For The Love Of Ivy’ is one of my
personal favourites on here, another magnificent chant that comes as close
to a hook-filled song as possible. The coda to the song is particularly
impressive – the band members all chant the title in different keys, producing
a brilliant symphony of overdubbed vocals. The cover of the jazzy standard
‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’ is very nice, too, and many consider it the
main highlight of the record; but it’s actually a bit too generic to be
the real highlight – I mean, I love that number, and it is indeed
the most attractive ditty on first listen, but you really don’t need the
Mamas & Papas to present you with that kind of stuff.
After that one, it’s the John Phillips show all the way, with songs seriously
differing in quality but all united by that ‘meditation’ scent. I have
to suppose John was pretty high when he wrote all those songs, because
the best way to inhale them is when you’re half-comatose or something.
Loosen up, let your jaw hang low, shut off your brain, and stuff like ‘Mansions’
will probably turn you on. Me, I’d better take the cool ‘Gemini Childe’,
the most hard-rocking track on the album (the only hard-rocking track,
in fact, because there ain’t no single trace of distortion of any kind
anywhere else on the record). I really love the way the song easily flows
from minor hard-rock piece to a moody piano ballad and back. And then,
of course, there’s the gorgeous ‘Midnight Voyage’, with Michelle’s (I assume
it’s Michelle?) best vocal on the whole album; though also jazzy, it doesn’t
rely on formula like ‘Dream A Little Dream’ does, and so scores extra points
I still give the record an overall rating of 10, because the vast amount
of filler prevents it from climbing any higher; however, I am hesitant
about calling this the final verdict, because two listens ago I wouldn’t
have rated it any more than an 8. In any case, this is a good listen for
any California pop fan, but be forewarned: this is really not an easy record
to sink into, because you gotta have a really good ear for witty, subtle
harmonies. I consider myself as having a good ear, for instance, and yet
it took me ages to realize the album’s potential; and perhaps repeated
listenings will bring out more? Who knows? Unfortunately, the world wasn’t
particularly amused by this new twist back in 1968, and the record only
made it to #15 in the charts, the absolute lowest that the Mamas &
Papas had scored up to that point. Of course, maybe it was more due to
objective factors (the hippy age was dwindling, and California flower pop
was beginning to lose its cool among trend-imbibing listeners), in which
case any M&P record could have flopped, even if it were packed
with monster hooks from top to bottom; but the fact remains that the album
sold less and the Mamas & Papas disbanded a little bit later. Coincidence?
I think not.
Shucks. Pretty routine pop for a band that used to be something more
than pretty routine pop.
Best song: BLUEBERRIES FOR BREAKFAST
Track listing: 1) People Like Us;
2) Pacific Coast Highway; 3) Snowqueen Of Texas;
4) Shooting Star; 5) Step Out; 6) Lady Genevieve; 7) No Dough; 8) European
Blueboy; 9) Pearl; 10) I Wanna Be A Star;
11) Grasshopper; 12) Blueberries For Breakfast.
The existence of this record, recorded and released in a hurry almost
three years after the band broke up, is perfectly justified. The Mamas
& Papas had some nasty contractual obligations to meet. Not that the
record company got its due – this was the band’s poorest-selling album,
and I can easily see why. This sounds nothing like the classic Mamas
and not even like the classic Papas. On the front cover, they’re all smiling
and happy and exuberant, but once you take a peep inside, you’ll see that
the record is actually quite confused, and that the band really did not
understand what the hell they were still doing all assembled together in
one place. The album title is cool, of course, and can be read as two completely
different sentences, depending on the meaning of the word ‘like’. However,
I’m slightly in doubt as to whether People Like Us = People Are
Fond Of Us, as nobody could really be fond of such a record, and John Phillips
and company couldn’t have thought otherwise. I’d much rather think People
Like Us = People Similar To Us. Because, indeed, the album is recorded
by people similar to the Mamas & Papas, but these are not really
the Mamas & Papas we’ve grown to like.
Okay, the lengthy introduction aside, let me just tell you why on earth
this album blows so much. First of all, there ain’t a single instantaneous
classic on here. The hooks do seem to come out from time to time, but they’re
rather slow on the move and have to be tickled, like bears in their lairs,
in order to come out and grab you (nasty allegory, that one, but it should
work). The songs were all written by John, and that’s the main problem:
his songwriting sure wasn’t at a peak at the moment. Most of the material
is represented by third-rate sappy ballads with derivative, hard-to-find
melodies, ultimately generic lyrics and bland, unimpressive instrumentation.
Now this problem could have been resolved – after all, the band were known
to compensate every known weakness with immaculate vocal harmonies. But
see, this is exactly where the second problem lurks. The second problem
is that these vocal harmonies STINK! And first of all – where the hell
is Mama Cass? She doesn’t seem to get even a single lead vocal on
here, being relegated entirely to vocal harmonies, and as such, the record
lacks the strength and gargantuan energy of their classic releases. I have
nothing against Michelle, of course, her tiny angelic voice is lovely and
soothing, but there’s only so much lovely and soothing angelic female vocalization
I can take on any selected record. And twelve tracks are, obviously, a
bit too many.
So this is what you’ll get: interminable streams of sap squeezing out of
the rotten melody trunks. On first listen I thought I hated the album;
with fists, teeth and nose clenched firmly, I did endure three or four
more listens, which enlightened my position a bit, but nothing will ever
make me think of People Like Us as a good Mamas & Papas record
because, obviously, a bad Mamas & Papas record will NEVER AGAIN have
the potential to become a good Mamas & Papas record! This doesn’t really
depend on the number of times you listen to it.
A quick runthrough over the good stuff, now. Presumably out of a desperate
feel for balance, the band (or should I say John Phillips?) have included
a couple funny pop rockers, which accidentally happen to be the most tolerable
out of everything on here. ‘Pacific Coast Highway’ is okay, I guess, an
unsubstantial, lightweight, but pleasant ditty graced by occasional saxophones
and wah-wah guitars (and no, it’s not a big band thingie, don’t
you worry). Even better is ‘Blueberries For Breakfast’, perhaps the closest
thing to a potential classic on here – with its memorable refrain and funny,
childishly naive lyrics, this countryish tune is by far the only one which
managed to imprint itself in my memory. Not that I have a bad memory, mind
you – it’s just that it’s poorly suited for all the loads of crap John
Phillips ever wanted to put out.
Out of the ballads, I could only pick up a pair, as well (the others are
far too slippery to be picked up, you gotta understand that). ‘Snowqueen
Of Texas’ has some of the dumbest retro-hippie lyrics I’ve ever seen, but
these dumbest retro-hippie lyrics happen to be tied to one of the catchiest
refrains on this record. Yup, this doesn’t say much, but dammit, I’m trying
to take an objective approach, can’t you see? ‘I’m on my knees, your Majesty,
save a cold kiss for me’. In Texas, yeah right. But there’s just something
very, very nice about these little naggin’, itchy guitars and the little
bell tinkles and the tenderness in Michelle’s voice as she describes Her
Majesty to us. And the other ‘highlight’ is ‘Step Out’, an unbearably oversaccharine
tune that makes Paul McCartney’s ‘My Love’ sound like Ozzy Osbourne in
comparison, but at least John sings the song well, and this is the only
moment on record when the band succeeds in recapturing some of the past
majesty, with some intricate, wonderfully crafted vocal harmonies. Basically,
Everything else on here ranges from passable schlocky pop, like the pathetic,
synths-drenched title track, or the sleazy dance number ‘Lady Genevieve’,
to terrible, most banal hogwash, like the rags-to-riches story of ‘I Wanna
Be A Star’ where Michelle impersonates a beginning actress and her dialogue
with her director and overdoes the trick so grossly that I wanna cry out
loud. What’s with those lyrics, anyway? ‘Mr producer/Don’t seduce her/Until
you’ve heard her sing’. I mean, after he’s heard her sing he probably
can seduce her all right. No problem, Mac.
Oh yeah, ‘European Blueboy’ sucks, too; whatever made them induce stupid
Latin influences into their work? They blow! They all blow! Holy criminy,
I won’t really discuss the rest of the songs as I really don’t remember
them. Whatever for? Please stay away from this album. The Mamas & Papas
were never meant to be a generic Seventies’ pop band, which is just
the way they present themselves on here. Their hippieism and their harmonies
and their candour belonged to the Sixties and there they still stay. Luckily,
they realised it too, and didn’t essay another comeback until it was too
late, as Mama Cass tragically died three years later of a heart attack.
Not that they really needed Mama Cass for this record, but still…