Published January 2019

New York City, NY

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

Geography

Perhaps it seems a little counterintuitive to kick off our opening New York City section with a title that places you immediately on the opposite side of the United States. Maybe you’re already questioning whether I have the necessary geographical knowledge to deliver this project. But the lyrics of California Dreamin’ are in fact borne out of a chilly New York stroll, in which a stop at St Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue was required to warm the cockles of its protagonists. The song was written later that evening in Greenwich Village’s Earle Hotel.

Maybe the question ought to be whether we aren’t establishing an overly negative tone for our stay in New York, considering the whole song is about wanting to get away from there. As the lyrics contrast between the author’s fantasies of the Golden State on the one hand and the reality of being stuck on the cold and cramped streets of NYC on a winter’s day on the other,it could be considered an irony that its success enabled the group to actually relocate to California, at a time when many in the industry were similarly switching from east to west.

Honourable geographical shout out to the US Virgin Islands which plays a surprisingly prominent role in the Mamas & the Papas tale.

Affinity

I can’t place the first time I heard the song or the immediate impact it had. I’d have been exposed to it in childhood, my parents record collection tending to accommodate 1960s bohemian tastes, but seemingly it was left parked at the back of my subconscious somewhere, not to emerge until many years later when a chance hearing made me sit up and pay attention.

Suddenly there was something utterly compelling about its haunting call-and-response style. Was a forgotten yet significant childhood memory being re-invoked? Was I relating to a lyrical desperation to escape to somewhere warm and distant? I’m still not quite sure – but my mind quickly fast tracked it from forgotten relic to all time favourite, to the extent that California Dreamin’ is my immediate go to response to ‘any requests?’

Origin

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

In 1963 John and Michelle Phillips were not yet one half of the Mamas & the Papas. The couple had been married a year, an 18 year old Michelle having met John while he toured San Francisco with his vocal harmony trio, the Journeymen. Their extramarital affair had led to John divorcing his first wife before Michelle followed him back to New York – and but for some short sighted packing on her part, this legendary counterculture anthem may never had been written.

A young and perhaps naive Michelle, who had grown up in California’s Long Beach area, had not suitably prepared herself for New York City’s icy conditions – supposedly she had no notion of what snow was – and arrived on the eastern seaboard with only tank tops and trainers. California Dreamin’ details an actual walk the pair took, complete with stop off in a church to warm the inappropriately dressed Michelle up. The lyrics came to John that night while his wife slept next to him in a room at Greenwich Village’s Earle Hotel. Initially upset about being woken up by demands to listen and note down lyrics, Michelle would later come to see the benefits of her part in this collaboration: her transcription earned her a co-writing credit and with it half the royalties.

It was still another two years until John and Michelle would team up with Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot to form the Mamas & the Papas. Cass and Denny were until then part of the Mugwumps, a more innovative and rock influenced outfit than John’s Journeymen, their mixed gender vocal harmonies and lyrical boldness bearing a much stronger resemblance to what was to become the eventual Mamas & Papas sound. For his part, John was reluctant to go down the psychedelic route – but the rest of the group were well aware that the mid-60s British Invasion was rendering such folky conservative traditionalism patently uncool.

The embryonic Mamas and the Papas – their name was inspired by the way in which Hells Angels members would refer to one another – went on a defining trip to the US Virgin Islands in the summer of 1965. Supposedly they blindfolded Michelle and had her throw a dart at a map of the world to dictate their destination, and it was in these Caribbean climes that John was persuaded not just to develop a more Mugwump-like contemporary pop sound, but also to fully accept Cass as a member – previously having had doubts about her weight and its impact on the band’s image.

Upon return to New York City the group had a successful audition with Lou Adler’s Dunhill Records and by the end of the year California Dreamin’ was released, eventually charting in March 1966. The subsequent success of their single enabled the Mamas & the Papas to relocate to Los Angeles: indeed Creeque Alley, an autobiographical number from the group’s third album, Deliver, concludes with a reference to California dreamin’ becoming a reality.

Delivery

Psychedelic connotations and heartfelt lyrics of longing place one directly in the eminent crappiness of John and Michelle’s specific New York day, leading one to empathise with their wistful Californian ambitions. My less conventional take is that this song also gives you an overwhelming taste of burning nostalgia for somewhere you’ve never been – like being tied to a dentist’s chair while being force fed someone else’s high school photo albums.

The Mamas & the Papas were otherwise purveyors of ‘sunshine pop’, their appeal largely lying in the joy they seemed to take from their art. The lament that is California Dreamin’ is naturally less joyous, the implication being that the NY metropolis is some kind of desolate cold wasteland where Californians go to die, and lyrical scornful resentment of NYC crops up elsewhere 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 instantly recognisable haunting nature of the song and the musical sophistication of its backing track owes much to the session musicians who played on the record. The loosely defined Wrecking Crew, more famed for being Phil Spector’s go-to men and women for his own Wall of Sound, were a group of individuals responsible for providing a soundtrack to a generation without that generation even realising it – California Dreamin’ was one example among an incredible litany of hits that they feature on, which the US100 will explore at a later point.

Legacy

Perhaps more than any other group the rise of the Mamas and the Papas is inexorably and paradoxically linked to their downfall – the 1965 Virgin Islands sojourn did so much to crystallise the group’s formation yet was concurrent with a rapid evolution of complicated personal relationships. While Cass’s deep unrequited affections for Denny were already known, it was perhaps less anticipated that he would become romantically involved with John’s wife Michelle – sparking an affair that, unsurprisingly, tore the group apart, although not immediately.  

The period after California Dreamin’s release was defined by the Mamas & the Papas’ growing profile on the one hand, but exposure of the Denny-Michelle scandal on the other, further complicated by excessive drug across the group’s membership. Although John did not see his wife’s infidelity nor his friend’s treachery as a reason to break up either the band or the marriage, he did sensibly conclude that it might not be the greatest idea for all three members of the debauched triangle to continue living and working under the same address and stage name. As such he moved Michelle and himself out of the house they had all shared until that point, and fired his wife from the band in June 1966 – remarkably the same month in which the band released I Saw Her Again, co-written by John and Denny about the very situation that was turning their various worlds upside down.

michellePhillips-1
Michelle Phillips, pictured in 2016

Michelle had been replaced by ‘Mama Jill’ Gibson but it was not an arrangement set to last – as Jill explained in an interview with US100, Michelle was eager to reclaim her place back and succeeded in doing so within a matter of months. Meanwhile I Saw Her Again found its way onto the group’s second studio album, The Mamas and the Papas (1966), and fairly impressively – considering the circumstances – the band released two further albums before officially breaking up at the start of 1969. John and Michelle eventually 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 former Journeyman Scott McKenzie and John’s daughter from his first marriage, Mackenzie Phillips.

Today only Michelle Phillips of the original four members survives – having utilised Hollywood contacts made at the height of the Mamas & the Papas celebrity, she went on to cultivate an acting career. 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 second generation ‘super’ group that produced a form of teenage girl Disneypop in the early 90s. Undoubtedly Mama Cass became the biggest name individually of the four, releasing five studio albums before succumbing to an eventual fatal heart attack in London in 1974 after a complicated personal history of her own.

The no less complex life of John Phillips ended in California in 2001, his well known history of infidelity and drug abuse given a much more disturbing hue eight years later when the aforementioned Mackenzie Phillips went onto The Oprah Winfrey Show to allege that her father – among other things – had introduced her to drugs from the age of 11 and had paid for her to have an abortion during a ten year incestuous relationship. Denny Doherty meanwhile passed away in his native Canada in 2007.

More positively the most significant legacy of the Mamas and the Papas is in the role they played in the wider 1960s counterculture movement. While their music perhaps does not command the same level of respect today as that of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who or Otis Redding, it should be noted that they were at the forefront of the scene that brought these acts for the first time onto one billing. 1967’s Monterey International Pop Festival provided the blueprint for the modern music rock festival and was co-organised by John Phillips, alongside California Dreamin’ producer Lou Adler (who four years later produced Carole King’s diamond-certified Tapestry album). 1969’s Woodstock has been described by some as being merely an east coast attempt to emulate Monterey. 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 – the Mamas & the Papas rounded off proceedings at the festival.

More positively the most significant legacy of the Mamas and the Papas is in the role they played in the wider 1960s counterculture movement. While their music perhaps does not command the same level of respect today as that of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who or Otis Redding, it should be noted that they were at the forefront of the scene that brought these acts for the first time onto one billing. 1967’s Monterey International Pop Festival provided the blueprint for the modern music rock festival and was co-organised by John Phillips, alongside California Dreamin’ producer Lou Adler (who four years later produced Carole King’s diamond-certified Tapestry album). 1969’s Woodstock has been described by some as being merely an east coast attempt to emulate Monterey. 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 – the Mamas & the Papas rounded off proceedings at the festival.

Learn more

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
Monterey Pop (1968)

Read
US100 interview: Former member of The Mamas & the Papas, Jill Gibson, speaks to the US100
Interview with John Phillips and Scott McKenzie by L.A. Johnson, hosted by scottmckenzie.info, August 1995
Monterey Pop, the Rock Festival That Sparked It All, Returns – The New York Times, April 2017

Listen
The Mugwumps (1967) Spotify
Creeque Alley (1967) Spotify
Creeque Alley: The History Of The Mamas And The Papas (1991) Spotify / YouTube
The Journeymen – Capitol Collectors Series (1992) Spotify / YouTube
Spotify playlist: Monterey Pop 1967

US100 cover of choice:
The Flashbulb – California Dreaming (2005) Spotify / YouTube