The New Sounds: The Mamas and the Papas, The Blues Project, Love

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The New Sounds: The Mamas and the Papas, The Blues Project, Love

This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of   Crawdaddy   in July 1966.

Sometimes the only way to feel better, after looking at the Top 100 charts, is to remember that they have practically nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll, or the big beat, or whatever clumsy term we want to use, is a musical idiom quite apart from what is selling at the moment, i.e., quite apart from pop music. Money and popularity serve as important influences on the field, inevitably; but they aren’t in control. Barry Sadler is about as significant an influence on r ‘n’ r as Harold Robbins is on American literature.

The important influences on the field are not, per se, the people who sell a million records. The important influences are those people who are creative, imaginative; who change the idiom by introducing a new sound. One record (“King of the Road”) can do this; but the really vital musicians are those who never stop introducing new sounds, new ideas: the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, the Spoonful, the Byrds. Nancy Sinatra will never make an impact on the history of music; the Spoonful will, and have.

With this in mind, we can ignore “Strangers in the Night” and “Billy and Sue” and look down and even off the charts for the songs that really are new. Some of these (“Paint It Black,” “Rainy Day Women,” “Eight Miles High”) are by the artists we’ve come to accept as being at the head of the field, sales notwithstanding. But, happily, there are also some brilliant newcomers…

Four-Track Mind

People who buy albums (as opposed to 45s, which are bought primarily by teenagers) have a strange affection for saccharine-sweet movie soundtracks and for Herbert Alpert and his Tijuana Dross. The Beatles make #1 pretty consistently, true, and the Stones have made it once or twice. But otherwise, no rock ‘n’ roll groups have made it to #1 on the album charts for several years; not until late this spring, when a fantastic first album featuring four scruffy Americans in a bathtub burst to the top (probably leaving a trail of broken piggy banks in its wake). The album, as you must know by now, was If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears; the group who recorded it call themselves the Mamas and the Papas.

California, land of Ronald Reagan and P. F. Sloan, deserves the credit for latching on to these four wanderers long enough to record them and turn them into superstars. Appropriately, their first single, “California Dreamin’,” is a paean to that state, and is still, for my money, the finest song they have recorded. The very concept of the song (“California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day”) is evocative; but it is the execution of the song that makes it a masterpiece. The Mamas and the Papas are extremely sensitive to their material and to the impact of their finished product (producer Lou Adler probably deserves quite a bit of the credit here); their whole gimmick, if you want to call it that, is complex harmonies, each group member singing on one or several tracks which, when all mixed together, produce a new sort of harmony, not at all choral. The ancient concept of the round figures importantly, as do the very modern innovations of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The impact of this harmonic style, used effectively, is wondrous: “California Dreamin’” changes from a still image into a movie of emotion, tapping the listener on the shoulder and swirling him through the singers’ world. And the vocal is framed with precision and love by the instrumental solos: guitar at the opening, electric violin and flute in the middle of the song. The poignant effect of the flute is a tribute both to the orchestration and to John Phillips, who arranged (and wrote) the song.

Phillips, with occasional collaborators, is responsible for seven of the songs on this album. There is a little too much similarity in structure between several of the songs, and his words are sometimes careless or inappropriate (especially in “Go Where You Wanna Go”). One could also complain that, like most pop music composers, he draws from far too limited a vocabulary. But, with these reservations, he is an original and appealing songwriter—”Monday, Monday” is an excellent song, melodically complex with simple yet elusive lyrics. As the liner notes (which are, incidentally, way above average in quality) point out, the song is transformed by the lead vocalist into a work of beauty, a gentle portrait of love and uncertainty. The other members of the group turn their voices into musical instruments, backing up Denny’s lead with much success (although if you pay too much attention to their repeated “bah-dah bah-dah dah-dah,” the effect is lost in bathos).

“Somebody Groovy” is obvious, but attractive and well handled. It was the flip of “California Dreamin’,” and quite popular on a number of jukeboxes. “Straight Shooter” is a catchy tune with wonderfully ambivalent lyrics; its carefully structured harmony and the always-building melodic line are typical of the Mamas and Papas’ arrangements. I’m particularly fond of “Hey Girl”; the words are fairly trite but they become thoroughly delightful thanks to the gently ironic performance of the singers, who actually take roles in the song and dispute playfully. The Mamas and Papas have an easy, relaxed approach to their material which is extremely refreshing.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the originality of the Mamas and Papas is the way they handle familiar material. “Spanish Harlem” and “In Crowd” don’t appeal to me especially—there is no question that the M’s & Ps’ versions are attractive and in many ways refreshing, but these are still overly familiar songs, and not ones that are especially adaptable to the style of the M’s & P’s. “You Baby” works a little better. There are plenty of original tricks employed in the performances of all of these songs, and they’re all enjoyable numbers, but where the Mamas and Papas really impress is with the radically different arrangements they give two other old chestnuts.

“I Call Your Name” (which received a great deal of airplay and would probably have been a #1 single if it had been released) is a wonderful exercise in slapstick. It’s a Lennon-McCartney song, but done somewhat more in the style of Gilbert & Sullivan, with exuberant overacting, much tomfoolery on the piano, some bawdy calling of names and a fine self-parody as the soloist calls out, “Don’t you know l can’t take it?” and the chorus answers in great seriousness, “dit-dit-dit”…The orchestra is delightful, Cass is great; and at the same time that this rich sense of humor is displayed, the group manages to get the listener caught up in the melody of the song, its sublime infectiousness. A perfectly executed rendition.

Even more shocking, and in many ways even better, are the fantastic things that the Mamas and Papas have done to Bobby Freeman’s classic, “Do You Wanna Dance?” The arrangement is intrinsically different, although it’s more of a psychological difference than anything else. It seems a totally different song; in reality not much has been altered, except approach—but of course it is the approach that is crucial with the Mamas and Papas (would that there were many other groups so concerned with style). The key word for this version of the song is “grace”; there is a sense of dignity in this performance that is almost inconceivable to anyone familiar with the original song.

The virtues of the Mamas and the Papas lie partly in their talents—their voices, their songwriting talents, their timing and ability to perform; partly in their work as a group—their marvelous arrangements, their harmonies and group impact; and partly in their attitude—their ease, their dignity, their sense of humor, their style. This is an excellent album. Almost any cut from it would have made the Top 10, and the sales of the album as a whole are the result of its quality (for once, a million-seller that’s on our side!). I’m somewhat disappointed in their new single, “l
Saw Her Again”; it sounds too much like the early Beatles, and too little like something fresh. But I’m convinced that the Mamas and the Papas are too good not to go on being a vital, imaginative group…a group with a lasting impact on American rock and roll.

Going to Au Go Go

Total participation is required. The stage lights flash blue, red, blue, the audience lights flicker and burst, and occasionally the music is totally lost amid the cascading torrents of sound. But not often. “I saw my brother this morning,” Kooper yells into a lull in the storm, “Walking…” But before the verse is half out, Kalb’s twitching fingers have drowned it in a cavalcade that will only end when every mind and fuse in the Au Go Go is blown. Not to be outdone, Kooper raises the intensity of his all-engulfing organ (great! great!) and the entire B.P. screams, WAKE ME!!! (there is no audience at all now, only performers) SHAKE ME!!! (the lights stop flashing; they can’t keep up) DON’T LET ME SLEEP TOO LONG! (everything explodes). The Au Go Go thunderstorm continues, and the five brilliant musicians who collectively call themselves the Blues Project have once again won the battle for men’s minds.

On record, unfortunately, it’s not quite the same. Despite the presumptuous claim of the album’s producer that “we have managed to capture all of the excitement these young men generated,” their first LP, The Blues Project Live at the Cafe Au Go Go, is a poor substitute for the B.P. when they really are live at the et cetera. But although its faults are many and frustrating, there is something magical about this album, and it leaves the listener no doubts that the Blues Project is one of the most likable groups performing today.

The most serious fault of this album is that it was recorded too soon. It was recorded during the Blues Bag at the Au Go Go in November I965; at that time the Project had only recently formed, and was still undergoing birth pangs. Since then their vocalist, Tommy Flanders (previously known as Tom Jones), has left the Project. Flanders’s voice and style are not especially well suited to the sort of material the Project does, and his departure has actually been an asset to the group. Furthermore, since November the Project have practically overcome their greatest difficulty—the lack of cohesion in the group. They are all talented and imaginative musicians, and each of them—especially Kalb—is a bit of a show-off. In general, this works to their advantage; but when this album was made, they were not yet able to work together effectively at all times. The result is quite a bit of clumsiness, and occasional lapses—”Jelly, Jelly” is a sad example—into chaos.

Most of the other carps I have about this album can also be laid at the feet of
Verve-Folkways Records, Inc. The idea of recording an electric blues group live in a coffeehouse is easily as insane as trying to press the recording on a piece of silly putty (which Verve-Folkways may also have done; this is the flimsiest, shoddiest LP in terms of manufacture that I have ever seen from a respectable record company). A group like the Project are extremely difficult to record; to record them in a crowded room during a live performance is impossible. All things considered, the engineers responsible have done fairly well; but, inevitably, the recording suffers from feedback and sloppy vocal and instrumental work as a result of difficult conditions, occasionally inaudible vocals, and other monstrosities. The applause sounds like it’s trickling down a drain.

Flawed as it is, however, this is an enjoyable and valuable LP. The Blues Project, though the majority of the material on this LP is Chicago blues, are not really a Chicago blues band, nor do they lean towards the jazz idiom (these facts set them quite apart from the Paul Butterfield
Band; both are playing electric blues for white audiences, but they are heading in two quite different, though equally valid, directions). The Project finds its roots, to a certain extent, in modern American folk music; but it is more accurate to say that the Project is rootless, the result of catalysis between a number of experienced performers who banded together without set ideas as to the sort of material they wanted to work with or the style in which they wanted to work. The meeting of such varied musical minds as Al Kooper (organist), Danny Kalb (lead guitar), Steve Katz (second guitar), and Andy Kulberg (bass) has gradually resulted in a blending of styles that constitutes a wholly new approach to performing music. The word “incandescent” has been used to describe them; an equally valid word is “infectious”: their arrangements are irresistible, and more than once on this album they take a song out of an individualized style of music and give it a near-universal appeal. Exactly how they do it, I don’t know, but they may help revolutionize modern music in the process.

The finest cut on this album should be—but isn’t—Eric Anderson’s “Violets of Dawn.” The 45 of that song, released by the Blues Project last January, was one of my favorite records this year. The arrangement was brilliant, and much better than Anderson’s own arrangement of the song; the accompaniment, particularly guitar and piano, was excellently performed, as was the flashy vocal; and the recording was perfectly produced by old pro Tom Wilson so that every aspect of the performance was coordinated. The total effect was a beautiful paean to life in the vein of Dylan’s “Tambourine Man”; but the same song recorded by the same group on this LP is, in comparison to the single, abysmal. Flanders’s vocal is all wrong, and it’s hard to believe he also made the single; the accompaniment is practically nonexistent, a kind of plunking in the background. The fault, of course, lies with whoever decided to record the album live; if you can get ahold of a copy of the 45, by all means do.

Three of the songs recorded here are old Willie Dixon numbers, written for Howlin’ Wolf: “Spoonful,” “Back Door Man,” and “You Go, I’ll Go with You (Little Baby).” The best is “You Go, I’ll Go with You,” which is rendered joyously in an arrangement that does beautiful justice to Dixon’s melody. Never was a blues song so fantastically catchy! “Back Door Man” is notable for the excellent guitar work and the beautiful breaks; again, however, the single version was much better. “Spoonful” is a bit too long; and though the bottleneck lead is lovely, I think Kalb runs wild on some of the guitar solos. Andy Kulberg’s bass here is magnificent.

“Goin’ Down Louisiana,” by Muddy Waters, features Steve Katz’s adroit harmonica work (he is the brilliant, though unsung, rhythm guitarist on most of the cuts). Again, the arrangement, sprinkled with plenty of well-timed breaks, is the hero of the day. “I Want to Be Your Driver” is unusual because it is a (relatively) recent Chuck Berry song—few people seem to be aware that the Master is still writing. It is a gleefully raucous song, and the Project know just how to handle it. Kooper gets to show off in a beautiful organ solo.

Kooper (who, as I understand it, is responsible for much of the arranging) also shines in a jam session entitled “The Way My Baby Walks.” Everyone shines in this one, in fact, especially author Kulberg (there’s quite a bit of songwriting talent in the Project, as will probably be demonstrated on their next album).

The outstanding cut on this LP is “Catch the Wind,” by England’s Donovan; the Project have somehow captured all the delicacy of his melody and words better than Donovan himself did in his recording of the song. As always, they are in complete control of the listener’s mood. My only regret is that this recording was done before they incorporated Andy Kulberg’s flute into the song; but it is characteristic of the Project that they are always improvising, always improving, always finding new and better ways of handling their material. I have heard them several times since this album was released, and I am waiting impatiently for their next recording. It may well be a classic.

What the World Needs Now

“Underground” is the big In word this month, thanks to the Evergreen subway ads and the Times Book Review and other sundry overground media. It is only a question of time before Esquire comes out with a big map of the Underground Establishment (don’t laugh); meanwhile, anyone in the audience who likes to think of himself as a little furry animal will be glad to know he has come to the right magazine to find out about In records. Status-seekers are hereby advised to rush out and buy albums by the Who and the Pretty Things, which are Inner In; meanwhile, I’d like to discuss a happily ex-In group, who would still be In today had their record not made the accursed Top 40 charts.

The name of this excellent, unusual group is Love, and that is also the name of their first album (Love). This is the first of a line of pop LPs at pop prices from Elektra, already known for its very good lines of folk music and low-price classical LPs. The album is unusual from the outside because the jacket is in color on both sides, and there is a bare minimum of information offered. This is because: a) no one on the East Coast knows anything about this group, and b) it pays to be enigmatic.

Love is hard to describe; they don’t sound like anybody. The first song on this album is “My Little Red Book” from the movie What’s New Pussycat?, a song Manfred Mann flopped with about a year ago. It’s the worst song on the LP, which doesn’t really explain why it was chosen to be Love’s first single (it did get up into the middle of the national Top 100). Actually, it comes through pretty well for a song with no melody to speak of; the syncopated, mean-sounding vocal is in perfect accord with the pogo-stick accompaniment. “Can’t Explain” is annoying because no mention is made of the fact that it’s really “What a Shame” (by the Rolling Stones) in different clothing. Otherwise, the song is excellent, particularly the fantastic drum work. The drummer is more or less the leader of the group musically, with the organist close on his heels. This is not to belittle the vocal work, which is essential to most of these songs but which usually either follows the lead of the drummer (and rightly so) or else is at counterpoint to the instrumental, though always perfectly attuned to it. Love has impeccable timing; this is one of the keys to their sound, and of course we can again praise the drummer for this, although the entire group deserves credit.

“A Message to Pretty,” number one on the Underground hit parade, is easily the best song on the album. All credit here goes to the singer(s) and the harmonica, although there is some beautiful guitar/organ backup. The vocal is subdued and deliberate; it sounds like something sliding off a wall. The words are very moving (this and all the songs on the album except “My Little Red Book” and “Hey Joe” were apparently written by members of the group) but it is really the harp that says everything. It pierces, prods, whimpers. The ending of the song is fantastic.

“My Flash on You” comes on like a stampede. There are all sorts of things happening here, all well coordinated, all rushing out at once. The vocal screams, the organ stabs, while drums and rhythm race along keeping up with the melody, and meanwhile a strangely fuzzed guitar runs up and down the sidelines. It all adds up to a groovy protest song in the “Get Off of My Cloud” vein: angry, free.

I’m very fond of “Softly to Me”—it’s a familiar tune but blended nicely into a new concept. Trying to pick out the sounds in the delicate and expressive accompaniment is fun: l think the low notes that aren’t organ are bass figures, which I usually can’t distinguish; the guitar, though odd, is surely guitar; and I think that the sharp gentle high notes are the organ. Obviously, I’m not sure of anything, but they are good sounds. It’s a pretty song, with pretty words and a very attractive theme.

“No Matter What You Do” again offers the rolling, thumping, ringing, occasionally exploding accompaniment that is by this time familiar and, by the end of the LP, over-familiar. This one has a catchy melody, and words that might be trite somewhere else. “Emotions” is all instrumental, lonely but beautiful, kicking a pebble down an empty street, marching around far-off city blocks, mysterious, lost, lonely but full of love for life. “You I’ll Be Following,” with its wordless refrain, is an attractive, lively tune with the usual disregard for rhythmic clichés. “Gazing” is a far-out song with unintelligible lyrics, full of crescendos that break into harmonies and other pleasant explosions. Who cares what they’re talking about?

“Hey Joe” was made popular by the Leaves alter this album had appeared; Love’s version is better, though both are good. The song never lets up; vocal and instrumental complement each other flawlessly in a breathless sort of continuity. Not a note is superfluous. “Signed D.C.” is a modern blues, somewhat in the vein of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” The beautiful, powerful vocal is aided by an ominous bass and some wonderfully expressive harmonica playing. The last line is shattering.

“Colored Balls Falling” is a strange little thing that seems unfinished and leaves you with a curious taste in your ears. “Mushroom Clouds” is a well-performed non sequitur, the words having little to do with the music or each other. “And More,” which is a delightful title for the last song on the album, serves as yet another example of potentially trite words rescued by a highly creative performance and by the depth of implication in phrases which also, paradoxically, gain strength from their simplicity.

Thus, Love; a highly unusual album put together with paste and pyrotechnics, a package of marching rhythms and resiliencies and subtle silences, plaintive and expressive and thoroughly alien, but still very 1966 and very, very real. That their album is selling is a bit surprising; it’s a good indication of how much we have matured.

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