Creeque Alleythe History of The Mamas and The Papas
The Mamas and The Papas
1991: MCA MCAD2-10195
This is going to be one of the most complicated commentaries Ill have for this website. I hardly know where to begin, because its a mighty tangle of contradictions and confusions that I dont believe can be actually unravelled.
The thing is, I wasnt raised on The Mamas and The Papas, although certainly a few of their songs (the enduring hits, mostly, such as California Dreamin and Monday, Monday) were impossible to avoid hearing on radio at least a few times. It wasnt til the mid-1980s that I actually listened to one of their albums, and that one was a greatest-hits kind of thing (Farewell to the First Golden Era being its title, ironically); I was enchanted by the sound, overall, but it always seemed to be simultaneously pure and false.
For a long time I didnt address that contradiction, I just revelled in the magic of these joyous voices and their shimmering harmonies (thats not my own coinage, I read it somewhere online in a review of their work and said THAT is a perfect term for it! but sadly cant locate the original reference now). My friend Jan and I would play a tape of their hits endlessly on day-trips from Seattle to Portland and back, and wed sing ourselves almost hoarse, rejoicing in giving new physical voice to this excellent exuberance they recorded. Ill never forget the midsummer night we were returning from Portland wed just gotten well into I Call Your Name when we saw a smallish fireworks display going on over some little town we were nearing (my recollection is that it wasnt the 4th of July, so this was a surprise), and we cranked her sad little car-stereo speakers to their best strength and roared through to the songs mighty climax with fireworks bursting in the sky above and around us.
So thats kind of how I have come to cherish The Mamas and The Papas recordings. Strong three- and four-part harmony vocals that shout with the joy of singing such harmony together. Not so much the lyrics or the songs topics, which certainly ran the gamut; it was always the rapturous singing that electrified me.
And it still does. However, their recordings are on the whole best played on less-than-high-quality audio equipment if you want to enjoy them that way. With the advent of digital transfers and the CD format, now you can hear all too clearly that these recordings are pastiches of countless studio session takes. What on a generic car stereo sounds like a tight foursomes work is revealed to be in some cases two or three twosomes plus a strong solo track, in other cases simply the two guys singing one note and the two girls singing another, and often Denny and John singing two parts and Cass and Michelle doubling up on a third. Lets just say this impression of vocal collaboration loses some of its initial impact when you can see that theres a Wizard working levers behind a curtain.
But because of the murky, multilayered production involved, you cant actually tell what the Wizards doing most of the time. I have played certain marvelous harmony sequences countless times on headphones, even at slower speeds, trying to determine whos singing what note and how many people are actually singing how many notes in how many tracks, to no avail I blanch at the thought of attempting to transcribe the vocal parts to SATB musical notation .
Still, the effect of the overall vocal chording, even when its streamlined to just two parts or even unison, is, regardless of its recording technique, staggeringly beautiful at times. When I can disconnect my detail-obsessing mind from the Hows of many of these tracks and return to appreciating the What (leaving the Why aside for the most part), I ascend to heaven via sonic angels with mighty wings. One thing I like best about the vocal arrangements on their tracks is that much of the time the four voices are arrayed very close together, often completely erasing the classic borderline between male and female ranges: theyre all one, a chorus of the vigor of young adults (leaving aside for the moment their actual ages).
At times I cant hear Michelles voice at all because Casss is so distinctive and strong; instead of thinking oh, they doubled them up because Michelles voice was too weak to stand as a fourth pillar, I marvel at the vocal arrangements that make just a three-part harmony ring like more. And in general I find myself wishing they couldve stripped away the cheesily overboard strings and other instrumental fluff that cluttered many of their tracks and just delivered the voices in all their glory atop a simple base of bass, drums, and guitar as on tracks such as You, Baby and Straight Shooter. The latter is one of my belated favorites of their outputI didnt hear it until I got this Creeque Alley collection in the late 1990s, and it amazes me that this puppy hasnt been a rock icon, considering its excellent gritty swagger and direct-current vocals.
There are tracks on this compilation which I simply skip because theyre just NOT what I love to hear from The Mamas and The Papas: Do You Wanna Dance, Spanish Harlem, Dancing Bear, Twist and Shout and My Girl are pretty much cut from the same plush cloth, and they are just too sickly and vague for my tastes, and Dream a Little Dream of Me, Midnight Voyage, and Safe In My Garden are of a similar nature but hybrids of stronger stock (and No Salt On Her Tail would be included in that group if it didnt have such lovely vocal touches in among the sugary flowers). These are however more than amply compensated for by most of the rest of the tracks, and I have my favorites on top of THAT.
I Saw Her Again, regardless of its origins and the excessive orchestration and wailing backup vocals at the end, is almost three or four songs crammed into one, but John Phillips somehow managed to make it all work, and the harmonies go a bit odd from time to time, which keeps it interesting. Go Where You Wanna Go is fun to sing along with but not an exemplary recording, whereas Dedicated To the One I Love bears so little resemblance to the original and sounds so much like a medley that I was surprised to note that it actually is credited as being a cover version. In the later stuff I was pleasantly surprised by For the Love of Ivy and Glad To Be Unhappy, which are of a different breed to the earlier recordings but which gradually fascinate nonetheless. Got A Feelin should make me yawn but actually holds my interest because of its bizarre chord progressions and sustained false tranquility. As for the two big classics, Monday, Monday and California Dreamin, I dont like to hear them playing but I do like them when I can focus on them completely.
And finally theres the seriously big guns: Straight Shooter, which I mentioned before, is just GREAT. Creeque Alley, besides being fun to sing along with once you know the lyrics (and the tales behind them), is just *concise* (in the best way). Look Through My Window may be moody but continues to draw me in (harp swoops and all). Words of Love, well, its entirely too much fun, and it gives us tastes of the fantastic Cass Elliots stately and gritty sides in an almost candy-coated structure that she strides through reeking with smug confidence. Trip, Stumble & Fall may be mean-spirited but its punchy and slick with lots of vocal tidbits that bring me back over and over again.
Above all, however, its their cover of the Beatles I Call Your Name that I love best in their recordings. Recently as I was surfing the Web to see if anyone else was mentioning this one, I was surprised to see first how little was remarked online about The Mamas and The Papas and second the vitriolic negativity employed by the few who actually did mention this recording. Leaving aside the original, which sounds like yet another first-few-Beatles-records piece, the Mamas and The Papas version is so completely in a world of its own that the original is almost anticlimactic by comparison. Well, literally anticlimactic, when you put their endings side by side: the play of vocal parts nearing the end of the song is fun enough, and it builds toward something, you can tell, but when that drummed-in strutting ending finally arrives and fans out into the electrifying vocal chord of the final name, well its just the natural orgasmic fillip to have that YEAH! close it with smackdown finality. I absolutely love that recording.
In fact I can think of few things that would bring me more mind-blowingly fulfilling pleasure than to sing that very arrangement with three other like-minded singers capable of delivering it. Im a good singer, although I havent put my voice into action publicly in a long time, and this is the sort of thing that would make it worthwhile. Know a threesome that needs a solid tenor with baritone range thrown in to boot?
Comments © 2005 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted, and no claim is made to the images and quoted lyrics.