“All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray
I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day
I’d be safe and warm. . . .”
— “California Dreamin'”, John Phillips and Michelle Phillips
This is not about nostalgia. I was born in 1971, seven years after The Mamas & the Papas first formed, and one year before they permanently disbanded. Three years before “Mama” Cass Elliot died and became the stuff of urban legend. As a result of simple arithmetic, you would work out that Pet Shop Boys and INXS and UB40 are more likely to evoke feelings in me of nostalgia than some 35-year-old hippie band. And yet . . .
From this end of the last three-and-a-half decades, it seems that “California Dreamin'” has always been a classic. Its status rests on the beginning notes (which can be heard in R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”) and chords alone, never mind the lyrics. In the unfortunately overblown liner notes to these two CDs, Matthew Greenwald writes, “If this was the only hit song that the group ever recorded, they would have made it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame . . . at least the one that’s in all our hearts”. While Greenwald’s praise may be excessive, the music describes itself more beautifully than he (and probably I) ever could. According to those same liner notes, as well as singer Michelle Phillips’s book, for many people the song was an invitation to come out to California, a “Prepare Ye the Way of the Flower Children” in the ’60s. Along with the songs of the Beach Boys and “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)” — which probably not coincidentally was also co-written by Papa John Phillips — the song exported the mystique of California. My mother was one of those who, thanks to a friend who had similarly fallen under the spell, eventually made the journey to California, where she would meet my father. And though it is a serious exaggeration to say that I owe my life to “California Dreamin'”, well. . . .
These two CDs contain The Mamas & the Papas’ first four albums in their entirety (possible because they come from a time when song length was limited by the amount of grooves you could stick on a piece of wax), a non-LP single and alternate mono single versions of three others. At this point the review diverges. For those of you who are already familiar with the originals, that information should be as much or as little as you want to know — adding also that the CD sound is excellent.
As for the rest of you, I’m going to assume that you’re in the same position I was before pressing “play” on the first disc. I’d had a taste of The Mamas & the Papas — hard to grow up with even half an ear tuned and turned to pop radio without knowing “California Dreamin'” and “Monday, Monday” — but I couldn’t tell you John from Denny, or Michelle’s voice from Cass’s. And “California Dreamin'” had become a dark reminder of the fact that I’m still stuck in Seattle. I pressed play. Since then, I’ve listened to both discs more than three-and-a-half times over, watched the group’s Hullabaloo and Monterey Pop appearances on DVD and tape and read most, as I write this, of Michelle Phillips’s book. The 1967 Mamas & the Papas song “Creeque Alley” uses wonderfully basic, sing-along chords to tell the story of the group to that point. It’s a light, upbeat number from people who were at the top and didn’t know how far they had to fall. Boy oh boy, if ever there was a band that was a template for VH1’s Behind the Music series, this is it — and, in fact, they were the subject of a popular episode. Partner changing, unrequited love, dying young, drinking and drugs, early success followed by early burnout. . . .
The music is, as though you didn’t know, the “sunshine pop/rock” we hear in other songs of the mid-to-late ’60s from “Day Tripper” to “Last Train to Clarksville”, with lovely vocal/musical arrangements, harmonies, tight musicians (almost all session players) and quality songwriting. But you knew that. “I Saw Her Again” is a good example, as is the bittersweet “Once Was a Time I Thought”. Besides their resident composer in John Phillips, The Mamas & the Papas also did a nice line in covers, of which “Dedicated to the One I Love” is a pretty enjoyable example, along with a chiming version of “My Girl”. Their covers weren’t limited to the pop/rock era either, as a couple of Rodgers and Hart songs, “Sing for Your Supper” and “Glad to Be Unhappy”, demonstrate. “Twist and Shout” sounds the way it would if the Beatles had recorded it after Sgt Pepper. Only occasionally did Phillips’s and producer Lou Adler’s instinct for an arrangement fail them, such as on “Did You Ever Want to Cry”, which is too busy for its melody. The “Happy Mouse Story Time” intros to a couple of songs on the band’s fourth album are also a little hard to take.
Because of these occasional excesses, as good as this set is, those wanting a more concise introduction to The Mamas & the Papas’ music are directed to the 1998 Greatest Hits collection, which contains just under half this material at just over half the price. The 1991 Creeque Alley box set is also tempting, but All the Leaves Are Brown is a better deal. It’s hard to argue with a chance to get almost all of a band’s output on two CDs, with the only thing missing being a contractual obligation album that no one seems to think much of.
But let’s face it. You already know if you want this or not.