It was hardly a long haul, coming together in 1965 and burning out by 1968, but in the words of Papa John: “We had so much fun for two years, there was no more fun to be had.”Yet in that time, The Mamas & The Papas became the USA’s pop royal family, the American Beatles. Like The Beatles, they were four instantly recognisable, distinct personalities, with the same ready wit, entertainment value and high visibility factor. John Phillips and wife Michelle, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty looked and sounded like no other band in the land. Attractively oddball in appearance, they were professional and perfectionist in front of the mic, but wild and liberated off stage.
Complete Anthology is just that?everything they ever recorded. All four albums from between 1966 and 1968: If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears, The Mamas & The Papas Deliver and The Papas & The Mamas, plus 1971’s ill-conceived People Like Us, recorded to fulfil contractual obligations. Included is their under-rehearsed but spirited closing set from the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, an era-defining event of which John Phillips and producer/label boss Lou Adler were prime movers and co-organisers. A final CD of rarities and solo work closes with their first ever recordings, singing backing vocals for Barry McGuire’s second Dunhill album, This Precious Time, from December 1965.
It was through McGuire that John, Michelle, Denny and Cass, still unnamed and with Cass not 100 per cent committed, auditioned for Dunhill’s Lou Adler. Adler’s comment that he “couldn’t believe his eyes and ears”is now part of rock legend. His added description?”They had just come down off about 80 acid trips, were funky and dirty and yet they sang like absolute angels”?says rather more.
McGuire’s version of “California Dreamin'” closes Complete Anthology and is identical to theirs, bar two pivotal changes: Denny Doherty’s familiar tenor vocal replaced McGuire’s harsh snarl and a summery sounding flute was recorded over an erased harmonica solo. It was the difference between mediocrity and the magic of rock’n’roll and it launched the rollercoaster career of The Mamas & The Papas.
All the crucial elements were immediately in place and remained so for the next three years: producer Lou Adler, engineer Bones Howe and the cream of LA’s session men?drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Joe Osborne and keyboard player Larry Knechtel, aka The Wrecking Crew, as crucial to The Mamas & The Papas’recordings as the team behind Phil Spector’s classic work. They provided the perfect foil to John Phillips’songs and the group’s awe-inspiring harmonies.
The albums followed a pattern, John Phillips writing the lion’s share plus a sprinkling of covers, these usually showcases for Cass?although “Dedicated To The One I Love”was a rare, heartfelt lead for Michelle. John was the driving force and creative taskmaster, his intricate and carefully formulated choral arrangements matchlessly enhancing his singular songs. From a background steeped in folk, his discovery of pop in 1965 (and The Beatles in particular) led to a stream of bright, melodious hits? “Monday Monday”, “Go Where You Wanna Go”, the autobiographical “Creeque Alley”?and smartly crafted album tracks, often darker in outlook? “Straight Shooter”, “No Salt On Her Tail”, “Strange Young Girls”. Vocally, the counterpoint of Denny’s tenor, John’s folk-edged vocals, Michelle’s more delicate tones and Cass’s full-pelt vocals produced the finest of ensemble singing in an era congested with harmony pop. It was the group’s freakish look that stood them truly apart: John Phillips, tall, thin, slightly aloof, manipulating the group like chess pieces; Denny, more traditionally good-looking; Michelle, gorgeous, Hollywood cool; and Cass, the on-stage leader, overweight, charming, sassy and sexy.
The public found their bohemian, flamboyant Bel Air hippie garb and outr