Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Sgt Pepper's at 50: the greatest thing you ever heard or just another album?

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Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band : is this the best popular music has to offer? Paul Townsend, flickr, CC BY

Liam Viney, The University of Queensland; Adam Behr, Newcastle University; Catherine Strong, RMIT University; Christine Feldman-Barrett, Griffith University; James Arvanitakis, Western Sydney University, and Stuart Medley, Edith Cowan University

The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns 50 on June 1 and the anniversary of this legendary album will be celebrated in style. But has this classic work - named the greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone - stood the test of time? We asked six writers for their perspectives. The Conversation

More than just mythology

While the cultural impact of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is hard to ignore, “greatest of all time” debates have the potential to obfuscate as much as clarify. White noise over Sgt Pepper’s place in some kind of dubious canon distracts us from its musical qualities, and its well-documented radical experimentation can be over-hyped in the melee. Thankfully, there’s more to the album than novelty and mythology.

Sgt Pepper’s outsized reputation stems partly from the sense that it paved the way for rock and pop’s subsequent expansion into more “lofty” realms of artistic expression. The album captured the world’s imagination thanks to its central conceit (the band’s alter ego that in truth only relates to the first two songs plus a reprise near the end), the creativity and variety of its psychedelic song-writing, production techniques and striking cover art, and its bold forays into territory such as avant-garde aleatoricism and Hindustani classical music.

Yet for an album considered so forward-looking, it drew heavily on its time, place and even past. Frequently (and somewhat misleadingly) labelled the first “concept album”, Sgt Pepper’s was not so much a trailblazing bolt from the blue as a direct response to the Beach Boys’ brilliant Pet Sounds (1966) - itself inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, (1965).

While the album’s palpable drug-haze augured the “Summer of Love”, the Edwardian flavour of the eponymous military/variety band thread could hardly be more disjunct with the times (at least on the surface). Both When I’m Sixty-Four and She’s Leaving Home are imbued with affection and empathy for older generations, a decided break from the norm in 1960s rock and pop.

Perhaps due to the combination of such idiosyncrasies with genuine experimentalism, the idea prevails that Sgt Pepper’s value lies in a perceived contribution to advancing musical “progress”. Some critics detect pretension and a kind of clinically manufactured zaniness to the whole project. So it’s worth examining at least one track - the very last one, A Day in the Life - to find something from the world of emotion in Sgt Pepper.

Famously a hybrid of two separate song ideas – the melancholic opening coming from John Lennon, the middle section from Paul McCartney – the song is widely considered the album’s best. Its epic feel arises from the juxtaposition of contrasting mood and tempo, along with the experimental “end of the world” orchestral crescendos and the ten-hand/four-keyboard power chord that closes the album.

While inventive within the context of commercial music at the time, these novel elements alone fail to explain our constant returning to the song. It could equally be subtleties such as the way Lennon’s poignant lyrics, drawn from a newspaper, manage to evoke the universal through the particular. It could be the opening melody circling through a major-minor progression (bright to pensive), the sadder harmonies corresponding to wilting lyrics such as “I read the news today, oh boy”, or the way Ringo Starr’s sensitive drum fills seem as much concerned with gently reflecting the text as laying down a beat. For this listener, these countless details of songcraft put Sgt Pepper’s into a category of music that never gets old, tired or boring - ultimately, the most likely reason for its longevity.

-Liam Viney

Can we please move on?

Sgt Pepper’s is a very good album. I like it; most people like it. It was undeniably innovative, and helped to change the idea of what a rock album could do. That said, the way this album, and this band, along with a small group of their (white, male) peers from the same era, have come to dominate the rock canon and discussions of what constitutes good music needs to be challenged.

The famous Sgt Pepper’s album cover. EMI/CyberFatal01, Wikimedia Commons
The constant refrain that this is the best that popular music has to offer not only erases the African influences that led to The Beatles in the first place, but serves to devalue everything that has come since. The fact that we return so often to this band, and this era, also means there is so much less space for the music of today’s youth.

It is often said these days that rock is dead, or at least dying, and our increasing tendency to look backwards musically, and to fetishise the past, is part of what has brought this about. The initial spirit of rock and roll was supposed to be about rebellion, change, and a celebration of not doing things the way they had always been done.

But the deification of The Beatles is the opposite of this. No band could possibly be as good as the myth of The Beatles has made them out to be. It’s time to find some other music to talk about.

-Catherine Strong

Forever young

Fifty years since the release of Sgt Pepper’s, The Beatles continue to attract new fans. Though their role as contemporary symbols of youth culture has long since passed, one of the band’s most significant legacies is how their music, style, and sensibilities continue to encapsulate the verities and complexities of “being young”. It is this album that showcases that legacy most eloquently.

Though Sgt Pepper’s reflects the ethos of 1967, the reveries of youth spring eternal through its songs. Young people’s search for both belonging and independence sound out in With a Little Help From My Friends and She’s Leaving Home. The psychedelia of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and A Day in the Life mirror the fearlessness of youthful adventure and risk-taking. Questions of identity and life’s meaning (present and future tense) are expressed in the wildly different Within You Without You and When I’m Sixty-Four. And just as Getting Better speaks to the optimism of youth, Good Morning Good Morning depicts the presumed dullness of adult life.

Trailer for the 2007 film Across the Universe, which is built around Beatles’ songs.

These ideals and imaginings are embedded in a diverse soundscape that encompasses the carnivalesque and the sober; the flirtatious and fantastical. The inclusion of flanged vocals and notes that seem to echo forever demonstrates this experimentation best. Such sonic explorations created “young sounds” that endure.

As a Gen-X Beatles fan, this was the first of their LPs that I heard and it remains one of my favourites. As a youth culture scholar, it is clear to me that this album speaks a language that translates across the generations. So whether 17 or 70, today’s Beatles enthusiasts are all part of Sgt Pepper’s band.

-Christine Feldman-Barrett

A change blowing in the wind

Sgt Pepper’s 1967 release represented, as music scholar Martin Cloonan notes, “pop’s slow climb out of a cultural ghetto”. This explosion of musical colour was significant in foregrounding the album as a statement of artistic intent. The creative strides that the Beatles made were an apogee of a larger shift that also saw musicians making use of the studio as a creative tool, not just a place to set down their songs. Sgt Pepper is, however, also an important illustration of a wider cultural and political context.

Changes in education saw the rising influence of art schools, with popular musicians conceiving of what they did as more than just entertainment. As post-war austerity (and national service) receded, the “Summer of Love” also aligned with the ascendancy of a more open, political culture and came amid Harold Wilson’s socially reforming government. 1967 saw the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the legalisation of abortion following on from 1965’s abolition of the death penalty and Wilson’s attempt to take Britain into the European Economic Community.

Sgt Pepper’s success was in hooking this forward-looking attitude to a sense of the past. The mysticism of Within You Without You and overt psychedelia of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sat alongside echoes of music hall and cross-generationally accessible songs such as When I’m Sixty Four. Its experimentalism pushed forward pop’s boundaries but simultaneously spoke to a country that was shaking off the dustier aspects of a more deferential and restrictive post-war culture.

As John Lennon was to put it:
Whatever wind was blowing at the time moved the Beatles too. I’m not saying we weren’t the flags on the top of the ship. But the whole boat was moving.
-Adam Behr

A still powerful concept

In December last year, I purchased a record player for my wife as a birthday present. It had been two decades since I owned one. Buying vinyl is a very different experience from CD: the art counts. It’s the classic listening experience of this format that contrasts with CDs, playlists and even streaming services, which now invite songs to be skipped and shuffled out of their original order.

The key to vinyl is that we listen to the album the way the artist intends: the order matters to the musical and lyrical story that unfolds. This was certainly the case when The Beatles released Sgt Peppers. What makes a concept album is a larger meaning that unifies the order and themes of the music. The collection is more than simply a range of individual tracks.

Concept albums became a scarce commodity as vinyl sales all but evaporated with the rise of digital. But with vinyl’s recent resurgence, we are reminded that music can still be presented as an immersive story.

In Sgt Pepper’s, The Beatles take us on this rather experimental journey – perhaps more so because it was never meant to be toured. (The band actually planned to stop at the conclusion of their final August 1966 US tour after tensions were mounting). The reprisal of its title track towards the album’s close (known as bookending), and the thematic “military band” alter egos walk us through the album’s various stages. Listening to it, you can sense the specificity of the concept they imagined. Now, 50 years on, it is no less powerful.

-James Arvanitakis

The album as (dated) art

If Sgt Pepper’s towers over the landscape of modern music, it’s not as the pinnacle of pop. It’s for predicting progressive rock: that loose genre praised and derided in equal measure for its musical, lyrical and, importantly, visual concept albums. Its lush arrangements and overwrought production, along with its celebrated album art, pointed the way to the sights and sounds of the Moody Blues, Yes and Genesis.

But Sgt Pepper’s concept is thin and was actually contrived after recording commenced. Its elusive Edwardian threads connect only the title track and its reprise to the vivid circus imagery of Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! and the fusty When I’m Sixty-Four, but are woven large by designers Sir Peter Blake and Jann Haworths and donned by the band on its cover.

The vinyl and album art for Sgt. Pepper’s. badgreeb RECORDS, flickr, CC BY

The sleeve’s gatefold cover with lyrics was an immersive canvas that invited train-spottery. In matching visual detail to multi-layered sounds, the concept of connecting audio to art soon became de rigueur. The big bands of the 70s were especially monogamous with their preferred designers: Pink Floyd had Hipgnosis; Yes had Roger Dean.

However, the sleeve-as-canvas was mortally wounded by the introduction of the CD in 1982. The rise of the immaterial MP3 then delivered the fatal blow. Sgt Pepper’s visual imagery has not survived these ravages well. Rather, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon – which owes a massive audio engineering debt to The Beatles – bears a comparatively simple sleeve that predicted the nexus of shrunken packaging and time poverty. Sgt Pepper’s cover was nostalgic in its own day, but it’s merely obscure and arcane now.

- Stuart Medley

The Beatles will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with several reissue packages on May 26th.

The authors of this piece will be available from 11am to answer your questions - post them below

Liam Viney, Piano Performance Fellow, The University of Queensland; Adam Behr, Lecturer in Popular and Contemporary Music, Newcastle University; Catherine Strong, Senior Lecturer, Music Industry, RMIT University; Christine Feldman-Barrett, Lecturer in Cultural Sociology, Griffith University; James Arvanitakis, Professor in Cultural and Social Analysis, Western Sydney University, and Stuart Medley, Associate professor, Design, Edith Cowan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Friday, May 19, 2017

Classic Album Series #18: Led Zeppelin – "Led Zeppelin IV"

led-zeppelin-iv-53d7c2dc62c11by Tom Caswell:

In the 18th instalment of my CLASSIC ALBUM SERIES I’m yet to cover a Led Zeppelin album, but that changes now with the incredible Led Zeppelin IV. Released in 1971, their fourth album is my favourite of theirs and features eight incredible songs. Every album after this in my opinion struggled to match the greatness of the songs on this album, aside from perhaps Physical Graffiti. But there’s no doubt when I say this one album contained their best work, their most consistent songs and their most focused and driven playing.
The song Black Dog opens the album which features one of the most complex and exciting riffs that Led Zeppelin ever came up with. It was John Paul Jones that initially thought of it, having wanted to compose a riff that people found hard to dance to. You take away the drums and he succeeded. The band came up with so many infectious riffs in their career and Black Dog, along with the following song Rock And Roll, are two of their all time best. Rock And Roll is a song all guitarists should learn to play at some point. The song is a pretty straight forward blues number but the opening drum sequence can really throw you off when you’re trying to play along. It’s almost like they deliberately tried to throw a spanner in the works with that one, but it fits the song perfectly. Looking back at their entire catalogue it’s easy to say that this song stands out as one of their most explosive. And it’s as addictive as hell.
  1. Black Dog
  2. Rock And Roll
  3. The Battle Of Evermore
  4. Stairway To Heaven
  5. Misty Mountain Hop
  6. Four Sticks
  7. Going To California
  8. When The Levee Breaks
Things head in a more mellow direction with The Battle Of Evermore which features singer songwriter Sandy Denny on guest vocals. The song has a distinctive folk feel to it with Jimmy Page playing mandolin on the song which resulting in John Paul Jones playing acoustic guitar. It’s a song that doesn’t stand out initially compared to the others but the more you listen to it the more you fall in love with it. Stairway To Heaven comes next which is probably my least favourite song on the album, yes you read that right. I’ve always considered this song overrated especially compared to the other songs on the album. I know it’s seen as one of the greatest songs of all time but I’ve never bought into that. While the guitar solo section in the final third of the song is exciting to listen to, everything else really doesn’t do that much for me. Just my opinion.
Things return to excellent form with Misty Mountain Hop. The song begins with John Paul Jones on electric piano and it’s yet another Zeppelin riff that latches itself onto your mind and refuses to let go. Plant is exceptional here. Four Sticks comes next but for me it’s always been the one track on this album that doesn’t seem to quite fit. Based around a riff that continues from start to finish with not much else going on, the song ends up feeling repetitive. Everything is righted with the next song, Going To California which is one of the best songs in the Led Zeppelin catalogue. The song doesn’t feature Bonham at all, instead going down the folk route the band had previously visited in The Battle Of Evermore. The song is absolutely beautiful and doesn’t need a catchy riff to stay in your head. The blend of Plant on vocals with Page on guitar and Jones on mandolin is exquisite, resulting in one of the best songs on the album.
When The Levee Breaks is the final track and I don’t think the band could have picked a better song to end on. Anchored by Bonham’s incredible drumming, which was recorded at the bottom of a stairwell at Headley Grande in Hampshire, which is where the band recorded a lot of the album. The unique sound of the drums were created by the natural reverb located at the bottom of the stairwell. That combined with the vocals, guitar, bass and harmonica create one hell of a song and one of the greatest songs of all time, period. I also consider it the best Led Zeppelin track by a country mile, and that’s saying something because their entire catalogue is full of so many gems.
Overall Led Zeppelin IV is a masterpiece even though I’m not a massive fan of Stairway To Heaven, at least compared to the hype surrounding it. When looking at their whole catalogue this is probably their most consistent album from start to finish and at eight songs in length it really hits the spot quickly. There’s no messing around, it’s to the point. The band would go on to reproduce the greatness found on this album on their 1975 album Physical Graffiti, which will be the focus of a future CLASSIC ALBUM SERIES article without a doubt, but Led Zeppelin IV really sums the band up perfectly. Catchy riffs, screaming vocals, beautiful playing and exciting ideas. It’s a must have for any record collection.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

What Really Happened to The Mamas and The Papas?

by Mitchell Cohen, Music Aficionado:!/article/the_rise_and_fall_of_the_mamas_and_the_papas_by_mitchellcohen

There was a melancholy guitar, and then the voices came in: "All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray." That was the beginning of 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 Phillips' batch of original songs: who are these people? Where does something like this come from?

Leavin' The Folk Music Behind

The Mamas & The Papas

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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 (The Man Who Wouldn't Sing Along with Mitch was one of their singles). 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. It was all very A Mighty Wind meets Inside Llewyn Davis, with the Journeymen and the Halifax Three as the Folksmen and the Big 3 and New Journeymen as expanded versions of the fictional Jim & Jean.


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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. The days of getting by singing Fenario and 500 Miles were over.

The Mamas & The Papas

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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."

The Link Between The Fleetwoods And Fleetwood Mac

The Mamas & The Papas

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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 MeMr. 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). There were even elements taken from pre-rock harmony groups like the Hi-Los and the J's with Jamie, and a bit of the vocalese of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. 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. There was something going on here, something off-balance and intriguing.

Fleetwood Mac

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It was in the songs also. If you think turning the internal romantic workings of a pop group into musical psychodrama kicked off with Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, or that songwriting-as-true confession began with the singer-songwriter wave of the early '70s, you haven't heard the first couple of Mamas and Papas albums. Imagine 'Rumours' if it were entirely from Lindsay Buckingham's perspective and you have some idea. The group's first single, in fact, the aforementioned "Go Where You Wanna Go," was like Go Your Own Way: Michelle was having a serious fling with a songwriter on the other coast, and John wrote the song out of that situation, but sung from the female point of view:

You've been gone a week, and I tried so hard
Not to be the cryin' kind
Not to be the girl you left behind

The Mamas & The Papas

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And John, with Denny, wrote Got a Feelin', which is so sweetly sung, but so filled with anguish:

Got a feelin' that I'm wasting time on you babeGot a feelin' that you're been untrue

The Mamas & The Papas

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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, and made the delightfully wobbly single It's as Easy as 1-2-3). 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).

The Mamas & The Papas

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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:

Words of love, so soft and tender
Won't win a girl's heart anymore
If you love her then you must send her
Somewhere where she's never been before

The Mamas & The Papas

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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, and a brief, sweet version of the Rodgers & Hart standard My Heart Stood Still. 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' first), 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.

It Happened In Monterey

The Mamas & The Papas

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In '67, the Mamas and the Papas were pop royalty. John's songs, especially his first two hits, were being covered across the stylistic spectrum, from jazz (Bud Shank and Wes Montgomery both cut "California Dreamin'," and the Paul Horn Quartet did an album called Monday Monday) to easy-listening pop (Herb Alpert, Lou Adler's former writing and producing partner, cut Monday Monday with his Tijuana Brass) to MOR singers (Petula Clark, Ed Ames). Dunhill, for which the group was a financial godsend, released a strange instrumental album, 'The Mamas and the Papas Book of Songs', credited to the Stapleton-Morley Expression. Strange, because no one named Stapleton or Morley seems to be involved: It's just the Wrecking Crew (Blaine on drums, Knechtel on keys, Mike Deasy on guitar and sitar) with embellishment provided by Sid Feller arrangements. Donovan, on his song The Fat Angel from Sunshine Superman, whispers "Cass, Cass." Peter, Paul and Mary, on their part-affectionate, part-condescending I Dig Rock and Roll Music, begrudgingly admit they "dig the Mamas and the Papas," who "got a good thing goin' when the words don't get in the way." Which words, who can say? In March, they appeared on a TV special, Rodgers and Hart Today, where they did Glad to Be Unhappy, and "Here in My Arms," the latter sung over the backing track for "No Salt On Her Tail," and it completely works.

The Mamas & The Papas

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And they continued to have hit singles, all included on their third album, Deliver, released in February of '67: a charming remake of Dedicated to the One I Love, the absolutely beautiful Look Through My Window, and "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." Because previously, people had presumably been static.

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? The party started on Friday night, opening with the shiny, polished pop of the Association, another product of the L.A. studio system (the producer of their current LP Insight Out was Bones Howe, who engineered the Mamas and Papas sessions), and as the weekend went on, things got weirder. If you want to pinpoint a moment when the music world cracked open and revealed an underlying division, you could turn to the weekend of June 16, 1967. 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.

The Mamas & The Papas

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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 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.

When The Dream Ended

The Mamas & The Papas

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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-era 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, and he wrote some interesting songs for Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud; Adler produced an album with Peggy Lipton that was exactly an album he might have made if he'd continued working with Michelle (whose own solo debut, the Jack Nitzsche-produced Victim of Romance didn't appear until 1977); 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 (she was at her best on creamy standards like I Can Dream, Can't I?); Denny's first solo album came and went without causing any kind of stir. There was a reunion album, 1971's People Like Us, made under label duress and sounding like it. And attempts in the '80s and '90s to revive the brand with substitutes like Spanky McFarlane and Mackenzie Phillips were just woeful.

The Mamas & The Papas

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However unremarkable the postscript of the Mamas and Papas' career was, and unseemly the gossip about John Phillips' personal life (no speculation there, except to mention that two of his Brewster McCloud songs were "Promise Not to Tell" and Last of the Unnatural Acts), you'd think there'd be a consensus about how vividly they defined their time, the bridge they built between the folkies and the hippies. The night they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the same night as Fleetwood Mac, poetically enough), I got into an argument (caution: name-dropping ahead) with Phil Spector about the group. He insisted—drunkenly, it's true—that they didn't deserve to be in the Hall. What surprised me, but maybe shouldn't have, was that I assumed he'd acknowledge the level of John's songwriting, the way their vocal blend expanded on the kinds of harmony records Spector made with the Teddy Bears and the Paris Sisters. Or that he'd at least be appreciative of the royalties he made from Spanish Harlem being included on their number-one debut album. He just dismissed them as unworthy, but I think he's on the wrong side of history on this. 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.

Vibrations bounce in no direction
And lie there shattered into fragments