The BBC iPlayer is a great and wonderful thing (I shall be watching the Empire of Cricket tonight as I hadn’t realised it was on yesterday) but, in the manner of Evelyn Waugh eating three bananas in front of his astonished and traumatised children (they had only ever heard rumour of the existence of this exotic and delicious fruit, when one was awarded to each child post-war, Waugh pere metamorphosed into Goldilocks and scoffed the lot), California Dreamin’ has been screened on BBC4 over the weekend but is not available to watch again.
Whipped away from under our very gaze, a documentary unlike any other on pop music that I have seen. Less a History of the Mamas & Papas, though background info was given, than a concentrated analysis on the genesis and recording of a batch of great songs; some classics, a few lesser known.
With interviews from three of the band (though both Papas have now gone leaving Michelle Phillips as the sole survivor), producer Lou Adler, musician friends and key players in the story (John Sebastian, Barry ‘Eve of Destruction’ McGuire and Zal Yanovsky), the film was backed up with stunning US TV clips. This band were made for the invention of colour TV. Only their earliest song appeared in monochrome, from then on it was glorious COLOUR; four gaily dressed figures against backdrops of dazzling yellows and oranges or Californian sky blue.
What also hit one in the face like a custard pie was the personality of Cass Elliott. Sure, she stood out because of her size, as bulky as John Phillips was tall (like a Giacometti with a guitar and a fur hat), but she also dazzled on the small screen because of her dance steps, her frocks, her hair, her smile and that wondeful voice. A human manifestation of the word ‘happiness’, just as the group are the epitomy of sunshine pop.
Much was made of Michelle Phillips as some sort of goddess that lured in guys like the Lorelei. She was fairly pretty, if the elfin look’s your bag, though on occasions her eyes betrayed someone who was off her ‘nana (as thay say in Australia), but not what I’d consider beautiful. Cass was not what you’d call pretty, but came across as a hell of a beautiful human being.
What great songs Creque Alley (tells the story of the formation of the band with amazing wordplay) and Words of Love are. Michelle kicks her leg out like a Tiller Girl at the start of the clip that was shown. Don’t know why, but it made me laugh. It’s a great song in that Vaudeville style that seemed to be in vogue Stateside back then (You’d sometimes get similar material on Sesame St). Faux twenties nostalgia mixed with the hippy vibe I guess? It’s a style that didn’t go down so well over here. Winchester Cathedral or the Bonzos are about our nearest examples, though The Stones’ great but little-heard Cool Calm Collected on Between the Buttons is cut from a similar cloth.
I came relatively late to the band. As a five-year-old I’d have been aware of Monday, Monday and California Dreamin’ and knew they were good, but as you get older, you think you know it all. I was listening to The Kinks (the beginning and end of pop as far as I was concerned), Chuck Berry, Buzzcocks, Magazine and The Fall. I think I regarded the M&Ps as a bit old hat, pop for wimps maybe. However, certain things slap you in the face as you get older (like that custard pie again) and you realise you don’t know it all, far from it…
Like the night I went to a little pop club just off Soho Square, about ten years ago. St Etienne’s Bob Stanley had put it together, four succesive Monday nights in August to celebrate pop, to mingle with chums, drink, chat and dance. It was a groovy affair but no song made me dance like a monkey in a pill box hat quite like I Saw Her Again Last Night. I went straight out the next day and bought The Best of the Mamas & Papas on CD. I could barely wait for the shops to open. It was an epithanal moment.
‘Twas only a week or two ago that I heard Monday Monday on the radio and remarked to Debbie (my girlfriend) that it had only just occurred to me how wonderful a song it was. Like, let’s try to think of something, Daydream Believer is a good example, a great song, that I know to be great but I wouldn’t care if I never heard it again (I fear The Association’s Windy is in danger of such a fate if I’m not careful). You can have too much of a good thing. I thought Monday Monday was in that category. I’ve now re-filed it in the box of 45rpm pop Quality Street.
It wasn’t all smiles…I Saw her Again was about the affair between Denny and Michelle (who was John’s wife). Michelle was also seeing Gene Clark at about the same time (this wasn’t mentioned in the film, nor was her expulsion from the group. They got her back in a couple of months later). It was the summer of love and all that. Free love still hurt people’s feelings and the drugs did their damage. It is also alleged that Doherty broke Cass’ heart, rejecting her proposal of marriage (though they remained good and close friends).
But, I think the documentary worked because it wasn’t an in-depth history of the band. It would have been messy. It worked as a celebration of great songs, great arrangements and great, great voices in perfect harmony ~ all filmed in sunshine colours. It was an hour of absolute pop joy in front of the goggle box curled up with Debbie and the cat.
Here’s a bit of what you may have missed.