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A look back at The Mamas & The Papas' "California Dreamin'"

The Mamas & The Papas

California Dreamin'

Dunhill Records

Release Date: December 8th, 1965

Words by: Kevin Harvey
January 7th, 2016

Listen:

I doubt anyone is happy to admit it, but the thing about the first Mamas and Papas' album was right there in the condescending title: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears. It's hard to believe, decades later, that the cover shot was startling: four people jammed into a bathtub, a toilet visible on the right side of the photograph. (It's worth recalling that the sight of a toilet held up the release of Beggar's Banquet for what felt like years.) 

But the question remains: Just what was so hard to believe about The Mamas & The Papas? That they were all in the same tub, (even if they were still dressed)? That John Phillips looked better in one of those Cossack chapeau's (that made David Crosby look like he shouldn't be in the Byrds)? I don't think so: Phillips isn't wearing the hat in the tub - a sure sign of breeding. That Denny looked like  several of the guys you went to High School with, (even if he was from Canada)? Probably not. No one knew what people from Canada looked like.Stretched out across the other three, Michelle is gorgeous, a perfect Sixties Blonde! Okay, now we're getting somewhere. Deep breath now: Mama Cass Elliot, lantern-jawed and horsey, is fat. Fat! Not fat by today's standards by any means, but Sixties sing-in-the-bathtub-with-three-other-people fat! Do you believe it? And to think they let her in the group. Wow. I don't believe my eyes. 

It shouldn't have been a big deal and soon wouldn't be, but when the album came out, she was so unhip as to be daring. Careers were made and lost on looks; singers were hidden from the public! Of course, Fabian was signed because he looked like he could sing. 

How about our ears? What did they have to struggle to believe? The group sang HARMONIES! I don't believe it! What's next, well-crafted songs? Well, that's why we're here today... "California Dreamin'", to stick to the most famous of their tunes, was a well-constructed universal piece of song writing. And by universal, I mean anyone could sing it. Start with Sinatra and make the list. One can hear nearly any vocalist covering it. 

Let me make the point by offering an opposite kind of song: could anyone sing "Oh, Yoko?" I'm not asking if anyone would want to; I'm asking if anyone possibly could. Tiny Tim? Perhaps. He was, at his best, capable of singing the strangest of tunes, but still...give "California Dreamin'" it's due: The song is melodic, even haunting, and well sung. 

The lyrics hang visibly in the memory: "on such a winter's day. Stopped into a church along the way, fell down upon my knees - I began to pray!" (One thinks of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises; god listens but goes back to reading his paper.) Dreamin' soars, but its heart is dark. The singer would be safe and warm IF he were in L.A., but he isn't. And the preacher knows he's going to stay. Sin hovers at the edges of the song. "If I didn't tell her, I could leave today." Tell her what exactly? What has happened? 

Only now, decades later, does one notice the presence of a mystery. It may be why the song has lasted. That, and the fact that it sounds good. As for the album itself, it has more than a few moments that have held up. Cass sings a ragtime remake of "I Call Your Name", daring then, today as easy to listen to as "Something Happened To Me Yesterday", made during that period in which everyone had to make some version of Winchester Cathedral. The covers are all well-picked: "Do You Wanna Dance"; "Spanish Harlem"; "You Baby"; but take away "California Dreamin'" and we wouldn't be talking about it today. 

Phillips would organize the Monterey POP Festival, an event that should rank above Woodstock (but doesn't); make a weird junkie album with Keith Richards called Pay Back and Follow, which comes complete with an Annie Leibovitz photo of the two musicians lying on a bed so deeply stoned I'm sure neither of them knew Annie was in the room; get called out for incest by a troubled, damaged daughter and die early, leaving only the lovely Michelle still breathing. Still, he did look better than David Crosby in that Czar cap and "California Dreamin'" remains a dark and crafted mystery.

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