Volume I: Track 1 (New York City, NY)

New York City, NY

1. The Mamas & the Papas – California Dreamin’ (1965)

First published November 2016

Vol01Ep01 podcast:

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Summary in a tweet

1. No sun in NY upsets cheery band; make not cheery era-defining anthem. Affair muddies personal waters. 1 Mama left

Why is it worthy?

I understand eyebrows might be raised – New York City is the first stop in our odyssey and immediately I present a title that conjures up imagery of golden beaches, ocean waves, and free-spirited hedonism that occurs some 2,800 miles west of NYC. And yes, it may well be true that my selected track to have the privileged honour of opening US100 proceedings is possibly my favourite in the history of recorded music. “Abuse of power!” I hear you probably crying.

Well not quite. Dig into it lyrically, and California Dreamin’ is more appropriate for the beginning of our journey than If you were judging on title alone. Written in a New York City hotel room by band members John and Michelle Phillips, it is not about the joy and satisfaction of staying on the Golden State’s sandy shores – rather it is a lament of suffering at such a serious distance away from it. Add the fact that ‘Papa John’ Phillips crafted his own musical identity in New York’s trendy Greenwich Village, where the Mamas & the Papas were to ultimately meet and form, and my own original four week US tour from which the US100 spawned started here in NYC and ended over there in California – livin’ the very dreamin’ of the Mamas & the Papas – then I think you’ll find it is a highly pertinent track 1. Ok, perhaps that wasn’t exactly the prime motivation when we booked our flights, but like so much of US100, it is a little quirk that I have moulded and contorted in order to present as a neat and not-at-all-contrived package.

In any case, from a purely playlist production perspective, any good compilation needs a strong recognisable opener to call the listener’s attention. That familiar twingle twangle of the opening acoustic bar, immediately followed by the ultra-iconic-harmonic cry of All The Leaves Are Brown, has been placed where it has with the intention of directly teleporting your psyche into the US100 world.

What’s the story?

Left to right: Mama Cass, Papa Denny, Mama Michelle, Papa John
Left to right: Mama Cass, Papa Denny, Mama Michelle, Papa John

The most fun way to find out about how the Mamas & the Papas’ came to be is to listen to their autobiographical number, Creeque Alley, from 1967’s The Mamas & the Papas Deliver (See Further learning). This tune cheerfully recounts the pre-M&P days including ‘Papa John’ and ‘Mama Michelle’ Phillips, married in San Francisco when Michelle was just 18, relocating to New York City’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, where John’s rather conservative and traditionalist outfit, The Journeymen, were making strides among its burgeoning folk scene. Meanwhile ‘Mama Cass’ Elliot and ‘Papa Denny’ Doherty played as part of The Mugwumps, whose cheery vocal harmonies bear a much stronger resemblance to the famous ‘pied pipers of a self-aware generation’ Mamas & Papas sound that was to come. It was to be in ‘the Village’, epicentre of the folk revivalist movement and bohemianism that gripped so many musicians in 1960s America, that these two worlds collided and The Mamas & the Papas were born, something of an accidental conclusion to John’s attempts to expand upon The Journeymen’s membership and diversify its vocal range.

In 1965 the embryonic group returned to New York City, having been inspired by a creative bonding sojourn to the Virgin Islands (they supposedly blindfolded Michelle and had her throw a dart at the map of the world to dictate their destination). One theory is that it was upon this return to NYC, having grown used to tropical Caribbean climes, that John and Michelle penned California Dreamin’ – so consider the alternative history in which Michelle throws a dart at Siberia and they return relieved to be back in a temperate New York, delighted by the sight of leaves full stop and unconcerned as to their colouring. Armed with their first future hit, the group moved out west where, as Creeque Alley details, ‘California dreamin’ [became] a reality’, as red hot producer Lou Adler signed them to Dunhill Records and made them stars.

The story of The Mamas & the Papas is certainly more than just the story of a single hit however, with their place at the forefront of the 60s counterculture movement stretching beyond California Dreamin’. ‘Papa John’ and Adler were also co-organisers of the spectacular seminal Summer of Love launch pad that was the Monterey International Pop Festival of 1967 featuring some of the first major US performances from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and The Who, and said to provide the blueprint for the modern music rock festival – Woodstock has been described by some as merely being a mere east coast rip off of Monterey. The Mamas & the Papas, in one of their last public appearances of a tragically short career (the entire story from formation to break up covers less than five years), rounded off proceedings, singing California Dreamin’ (see Further learning) while also being joined on stage by John’s former band mate Scott McKenzie, who led the crowd with the almost-as-legendary counterculture anthem, San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair).

A particularly remarkable element to the story of The Mamas & the Papas’ artistic success is that it ran directly parallel with extraordinary personal turbulence between all four members. Originating with flirtations on the Virgin Islands, Denny Doherty’s relationship with ‘Mama Michelle’ exploded into a full blown affair when they moved to California, months prior to the release of California Dreamin’, allegedly on the night the name The Mamas & the Papas was first conceived. With Michelle still being married to John at the time and ‘Mama Cass’ desperately in love with ‘Papa Denny’, this ensured all four members of the band were intimately involved in the heartache to follow. Remarkably after exposure of the affair and the break-up of the shared house they all lived in, there came some level of reconcile and the writing of the song I Saw Her Again about the affair (a collaboration between Denny and the man whose wife he had been seeing), increasingly excessive drug abuse, further affairs (including between Michelle and Gene Clark of the Byrds), and the exclusion of Michelle from the band – until she forced herself back into contention, the band swiftly reinstating her at the expense of her replacement ‘Mama Jill’ Gibson.

How does it sound?

This is a song that comes with an overwhelming taste of burning nostalgia for somewhere you’ve never been – perhaps like being tied to a dentist’s chair while being force fed someone else’s high school photo albums. The power of the song is not so much in placing you in general 1960s America – rather, with its psychedelic connotations and heartfelt lyrics of longing, it is in placing you directly into the eminent crappiness of John Phillips’ specific New York day, automatically leading one to empathise with his wistful Californian ambitions. Although The Mamas & the Papas were purveyors of so called ‘sunshine pop’, with the general appeal lying in the pure joy they take from their art, this is far from the most positive indoctrination into our New York setting – the implication being that the NY metropolis is some kind of desolate cold wasteland where Californians go to die. Phillips’ lyrical scornful resentment of his Big Apple surroundings crops up in a few other places in The Mamas & the Papas canon: one of their last singles, the arm-wavingly brilliant Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon), written shortly after their California relocation, bemoans broken NY city infrastructure as well as poor weather conditions, opening with the line ‘I used to live in New York City / Everything there was dark and dirty / Outside my window was a steeple / With a clock that always said twelve thirty’.

The musical power of California Dreamin’ is matched by its symbolic resonance, meanwhile, with the instantly recognisable haunting nature of the song and the musical sophistication of its backing track owing a lot to the loosely defined disparate group of session musicians who played on the record, The Wrecking Crew, more famed for being Phil Spector’s go-to men and women for his own Wall of Sound. Ultimately this was a group of individuals responsible for providing a soundtrack to a generation without that generation even realising it. While this is not the entry that will explore their story, you will most definitely hear more from them over the course of US100.

Where are they now?

Considering Denny and Michelle’s affair was exposed prior to the production of their second studio album, The Mamas and the Papas (1966), it was fairly impressive that the band managed to keep it together to release two further albums, before officially breaking up at the start of 1969. There was one more 1971 album, People Like Us – due to each member being threatened by Dunhill Records with a $250,000 lawsuit if they failed to deliver it. John and Michelle divorced in 1970, John later teaming up with Denny once more on a ‘New Mamas and Papas’ collaboration in the 80s and 90s, along with Scott McKenzie and John’s daughter from his first marriage – confusingly named Mackenzie Phillips*. I hope you’re keeping up with all this.

michellePhillips-1
Michelle Phillips, pictured in 2016

Now only Michelle Phillips survives, having utilised the Hollywood contacts made at the height of The Mamas & the Papas celebrity to ensure a middling acting career (John and Michelle were good friends with, among others, Jack Nicholson, who can still be found sat next to Lou Adler at Los Angeles Lakers games). John and Michelle’s daughter Chynna went on to team up with the daughters of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson to form Wilson Phillips, a kind of mega-disappointment second generation super group that produced proto-Glee 12 year old girl Disneypop in the early 90s.

Cass Elliot made the best fist of a post-Mamas and Papas musical career, releasing five studio albums with mixed results before succumbing to an unfortunate personal history that involved substance abuse, health complications, and an eventual fatal heart attack in London in 1974. John Phillips died age 65 in California in 2001, and six years later Denny Doherty died in his native Canada. The briefest of Mamas, ‘Mama’ Jill Gibson, a former lover of Lou Adler and a photographer of the Moneterey Pop Festival, is now a full time artist and jeweller with her own studio. If you’re interested in work that ‘calls attention to a deep connection between the earth and women as nurturers and providers’, then she’s your girl.

* Significantly more disturbing than the complicated ‘love square’ of The Mamas & the Papas are the dark allegations made against John Phillips in September 2009 by Mackenzie, as she went on The Oprah Winfrey Show to accuse her father of, among other things, injecting her with cocaine, initiating a ten year incestuous relationship, and paying for her to have an abortion. While the allegations are disputed and were made posthumously, and have never been proved one way or the other, they nonetheless add a somewhat uncomfortable slant to ‘The Mamas & the Papas’ brand.

Further learning

Trivia:
Michelle Phillips made a guest appearance in a 1998 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, titled We’ll Always Have Paris, as a former love-interest of Jean-Luc Picard. Scoring 6.6 on IMDB, it is described by one reviewer as ‘one of the more forgettable episodes’.

Watch:

California Dreamin’ live at the Monterey Pop Festival, June 1967

Monterey Pop (1968)
A selection of live performances from the Monterey Pop Festival, as filmed by D.A. Pennebaker. Worth a watch partly for the cultural resonance, partly to see Mama Cass gazing in awe at Janis Joplin’s epic command of the stage, partly to see Jimi Hendrix straddle a burning guitar in a way that makes you blush, and partly to be fascinated by the fact that this momentous watershed moment in anti-establishment counterculture history features a crowd entirely sat on plastic white chairs.

The Mamas & Papas – California Dreaming
Information on this documentary – who made it, in what year, and what is it actually called – seems hard to come by. One thing I know is that is freely available on YouTube and provides a neat one hour encapsulation of The Mamas & the Papas tale in just the way I like my documentaries: no voiceover, narration, or elaborate graphics; just primary footage of interviews and performances, allowing us to hear the full story from their own perspective.

Read:
Exclusive: former member of The Mamas & the Papas, Jill Gibson, speaks to the US100

In the mid-to-late 1960s period in which The Mamas & the Papas found success, the band’s musical achievements were largely tempered by high levels of personal and emotional distress, as we detailed in our write up. One person able to offer a unique level of insight into this period of turmoil – as well as into the wider counterculture movement – is Jill Gibson. The singer was a photographer at the first ever rock festival in 1967, the Monterey Pop Festival, organised by ‘Papa John’ Phillips, and the band’s producer, Lou Adler; and she had previously been a member of the band for a period in 1966, temporarily replacing John’s wife, ‘Mama Michelle’ Phillips, following exposure of Michelle’s affair with bandmate ‘Papa Denny’ Doherty.

Now an artist and sculptor, we are delighted that Jill took some time to answer some of US100’s questions about her experiences.

Monterey Pop, the Rock Festival That Sparked It All, Returns – The New York Times, April 2017
“I remember John and Lou very straight-faced saying, ‘There will be absolutely no drugs … They should have all gotten Academy Awards.”
Michelle Phillips

Michelle and Lou Adler are among some of those quoted in this article that explores the world’s first rock festival ahead of a recreation for its 50th anniversary.

Listen:
Creeque Alley: The History Of The Mamas And The Papas (1991)
Spotify
YouTube
This compilation chronologically charts the cheerful Mamas and Papas sound, from the embryonic bands from which they spawned, through commercial success, and into post-M&P solo efforts, including John and Denny’s separate attempts at country pop. Highlights include I Saw Her Again, bizarre for its ludicrously upbeat vibes despite the context in which it was written (see ‘What’s the story?’), and the irreverent autobiographical Creeque Alley, offering numerous digs at Mama Cass’ weight and her affection for Denny Doherty and concluding that California Dreamin’ is at last ‘becomin’ a reality’.

The Journeymen – Capitol Collectors Series (1992)
Spotify
YouTube
An insight into the pure folky world that John Phillips inhabited before he became a Papa. If searching for them on Spotify, one should bear in mind that The Journeymen either took a dramatic change in direction over their career, or the name was never made a patented trademark: one can also find instrumental synth experimentation, lo fi hip hop, and raucous semi-offensive country rock recorded under the same name

The Flashbulb – California Dreaming (2005)
Spotify
YouTube
Overlooking forgettable efforts from Barry Manilow, The Beach Boys, and, erm, Wilson Philipps, today’s recommended cover comes courtesy of batshit bedroom breaks broadcaster Benn Jordan, more commonly known as The Flashbulb. Muted and haunting in tone, not wholly indicative of his usual enthralling schizophrenic-aggressive-Drum‘n’Bass-meets-classical-haunted-house style, it nonetheless gives you a flavour of The Flashbulb’s unique atmospheric approach to electronica while providing an entirely fresh take on this song – not least because the Kirlian Selections album on which it appears lists it as California Dreaming, abandoning the stylistic apostrophe entirely.

Spotify playlist: Monetery Pop 1967
Spotify
This is but a mere selection of the absurd level of quality that John Phillips helped to booked for Monterey, courtesy of user Klaus Tienaho. A worthwhile listen for the Hendrixian megastars, but also for those you might be less familiar with: while far from nobodies, the likes of The Association, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Buffalo Springfield (Neil Young’s first collaboration) are not quite household names yet offer plenty of delightful surprises.

Help me find:
Prizes for anyone who can source me a copy or stream of 2010’s Canadian television documentary Here I Am: Denny Doherty and The Mamas & the Papas.

US100 cross references:
Tracks 2-4

Mentioned in reference to:
– Bob Dylan meeting The Mamas & The Papas in Greenwich Village
– DA Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back and previous directing of Monterey Pop

Tracks 5-7
Mentioned in reference to:
– The Wrecking Crew playing on California Dreamin’ as well as being Phil Spector’s go-to session musicians
– Disturbing similarities between accusations levelled against John Phillips and Phil Spector by family members

Track 12
Mentioned in reference to:
– Contrast drawn between New York City (and other cities) and Washington, D.C. due to recognition of cultural and musical exports, and people’s interest in culturally immersing themselves in them

US100 interview

Exclusive: former member of The Mamas & the Papas, Jill Gibson, speaks to the US100

In the mid-to-late 1960s period in which The Mamas & the Papas found success, the band’s musical achievements were largely tempered by high levels of personal and emotional distress, as we detailed in our write up. One person able to offer a unique level of insight into this period of turmoil – as well as into the wider counterculture movement – is Jill Gibson. The singer was a photographer at the first ever rock festival in 1967, the Monterey Pop Festival, organised by ‘Papa John’ Phillips, and the band’s producer, Lou Adler; and she had previously been a member of the band for a period in 1966, temporarily replacing John’s wife, ‘Mama Michelle’ Phillips, following exposure of Michelle’s affair with bandmate ‘Papa Denny’ Doherty.

Now an artist and sculptor, we are delighted that Jill took some time to answer some of US100’s questions about her experiences.

US100 podcast

US100 podcast Vol01Ep01: California Dreamin’

“All the trees are brown.”
Chris Kelly

The US100 team land in New York City, with Jarek, Brent, and Chris immediately exploring the story of artists behind US100’s opening track, California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & The Papas. As will become US100 podcast tradition, Chris offers his own lyrical interpretation of the song’s meaning while Jarek examines the history behind the song and the fate of the artists who helped to record it. Meanwhile, Chris and Brent are delighted to receive their official US100 membership certificates.

Where did The Mamas & The Papas come from? Who slept with who and why? Why does the ‘New York’ track have ‘California’ in the title? What’s so important about the Virgin Islands? What is a Mugwump? Has Jarek had any joy sending out US100 membership certificates, and why does this very podcast recording make us less confident of one Mama/Papa accepting theirs?

If you like the songs you hear, don’t forget you can listen to the Spotify B Side.

Play through the embedded player above or on our Podcasts page; download for offline listening; find us on iTunes; or find us on all other major podcast platforms by searching ‘US100’.

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