The Mamas & the Papas were one of those peculiar bands in the sixties that mixed the drugs, affairs, and conflict of their personal lives with the beautiful harmonies and innocent voices they projected. To me, they are yet another example of how unrealistic it is to ask a group of talented singers/musicians to come together and create music while doing press and tour. It almost always ended in feud and conflict for these sixties folk groups. Crosby, Stills and Nash? They all came together after being fired from different bands, and were determined to do things differently this time around. They purposefully named their group with their last names so no one could leave or be kicked out, but this talented group only lasted for two years before breaking up and creating a lifelong feud with each other. I’m sure it didn’t help that they were all in love with Joni Mitchell at the same time (who wasn’t?). Simon and Garfunkel? It was only two members and they still manage to hate each other after all these years. They blame it on disputes about performing and songwriting. A demanding music industry combined with the toxic coping mechanisms of fame led to a horrible, horrible cocktail. The Mamas & the Papas’ quick reign of success ended when Michelle Phillips, one of the vocalists, and wife of lead singer/songwriter John Phillips, had an affair with the only other male vocalist, and it drove everyone apart.
But underneath that toxicity and drama was a lot of talent. For the Mamas & the Papas, each of their harmonies was significant to the group’s sound. Even though John Phillips wrote the majority of their songs, their signature sound was the complexity and darkness of the group’s harmonies. Their most famous song, “California Dreamin’,” is about living in New York City’s cold, dark winters while dreaming of the warmth of LA. But their harmonies make it so much more than that. I picture the complexities that came with living in New York City in the sixties. The political darkness, winter depression, financial instability. Clinging onto LA warmth is also dreaming of better, happier, stress-free days. Their harmonies perfectly capture that desperation and yearning. I often cling to this song in the winter when I am feeling that January darkness, when it feels like the sky is dark 24 hours a day and there’s no chance of the weather ever becoming warmer or flowers blossoming or people interacting outside ever again. You look around in the winter and you are reminded of an isolated feeling, because there is literally no life around you.
Their other top hit on If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, “Monday Monday,” starts off with a slow la-da-la-da-da-da and John Phillips’s soothing voice. When the harmonies come in, the song gets progressively faster, louder, and darker (“whenever Monday comes, you can find me crying all the time”). It reminds me of every Lifetime movie or American Horror Story episode we’ve seen where a 50s housewife type starts off pleasant and then slowly goes mad from an unfaithful husband. Perhaps John Phillips was already going crazy about his wife’s affair when he wrote this. After all, another on this album, “Go Where You Wanna Go,” is about Michelle’s affair with another songwriter/record producer. I swear, this drama is more intense than Fleetwood Mac’s scandalous album Rumors, based on Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham’s intense breakup.
Why do I know so much about this drama? Well, all of this information is accessible to us now from biographies, oral histories, band reunions, etc. But at the time of their fame, just like the industry today, this group was meant to look happy, put together, and excited to sing, no matter what. The cover of this album shows all four group members huddled in a bathtub together like college students messing around in a dorm. A famous live performance of the group singing “California Dreamin’” shows all four of them smiling and bopping around while they’re performing a dark song. Fame forces performers to withhold their real emotions no matter what, and to provide stunning performances for their audience. Performers were not allowed to have “off” days. When Mama Cass, the other female vocalist, went solo after the band’s breakup, she was forced to perform in Las Vegas even though she was shivering from a fever and sore throat. The performance went so horribly that people walked out; she struggled to fill chairs at her performances for the rest of her life despite her amazing fame and talent. Audiences show no sympathy, and it puts a lot of pressure on performers trying to keep their name.
I didn’t meant to turn this piece into a sympathetic look at the life of famous, successful 60s folk singers, but I do think it’s rather impressive that they were able to come out with chart-topping hits even when they made their songs political or reflective of their alternative lifestyles. The Mamas & the Papas in particular proved how powerful harmonies can be for even the darkest of songs.