I was already a big fan of The Beatles but I had another division of groups and singers I loved. No act could compare with The Beatles but just below them I placed The Hollies, Manfred Mann, The Searchers, The Walker Brothers, and Sandie Shaw. Especially Sandie Shaw.
I didn’t like the Rolling Stones; they seemed like rough boys to me.
I suppose I was already beginning to feel I was a bit different to other children of my age. They wanted to play with their Action Man or Dinky toys. I wanted to watch Juke Box Jury, Top Of The Pops, and Ready Steady Go! and listen to my father’s Beatles LPs.
It seems extraordinary in retrospect that there were no legal pop stations in the United Kingdom until 1967, but my older cousins had told me about these pirate radio stations running from ships anchored a few miles off the coast in the North Sea. I found this a very powerful image. It was an exciting time – new music seemed to appear every day and now we had several places on the radio dial (and it really was a dial in 1965) to listen to our music.
So, the radio was plonked on an old tree trunk in the garden and I heard this song on Radio Caroline. I can’t be sure but I think the disc jockey was Tony Blackburn. I dashed over to hear who the group was because I hadn’t heard anything like it before.
It was The Mamas And The Papas and the song was California Dreamin’.
Pretty much eighteen months ahead of the game and the whole ‘Summer Of Love’ business, this was the birth of psychedelia, and was the first rose placed in the barrels of the guns of The Man who was busy sending young American boys to die in Vietnam.
It helps if you watch a video of The Mamas And The Papas performing the song. It took a while for the single to take off and in my hazy memory I have a recollection that I saw this clip on some British television show before it was a hit over here.
That’s John Phillips with the guitar. He was already thirty years old but he looked older. No matter what he did with facial hair and a comb-over to disguise his increasing baldness, he just could not look cool. He looked like the sort of guy that would get turned down by Peggy Olson in a Tribeca bar.
On his outside stood the effortlessly chilled Denny Doherty, all clicking fingers and waistcoat, rebellious haircut, and beautiful lead vocal. Oh, and he was having an affair with Phillips’ wife Michelle who positioned herself as far away from John as possible. Michelle – the All-American California Girl with blonde hair, perfect figure, sizzling confidence, and Long Beach charm.
Finally, next to Michelle, the unmistakeable figure of Cass Elliot, suffering from bottomless lack of self esteem, cruelly dismissed by men she admired because of her weight.
In Graham Nash’s rather odd autobiography (published last year) he writes about an incident at the time that The Mamas And The Papas were recording California Dreamin’. He says that he took acid with Cass and they ended up in bed together,
“I think she had hopes of seducing me behind the acid but I wasn’t going for it. She stroked my hair and asked, “Is this the way you want our relationship to be? Just platonic?” And I said yes. Friends, but good friends – no, great friends – nothing more than that. I’m sure it was difficult for her to hear. I loved her but I couldn’t will myself to be attracted to her.”
And there we have it in a paragraph. A situation that was to be repeated time and again.
Cass undertook a series of crash diets and followed them with periods of binge eating. This up and down pattern of eating was thought to be responsible for her death, in London, at the age of only thirty-three. She had lost eighty pounds through fasting four days a week but she was still chronically overweight. The coroner’s inquest found that Cass Eliot died from ‘fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity – a heart attack brought about by fatty degeneration of the heart muscle fibre’.
Look at Cass in that video for California Dreamin’; she’s a pretty lady but obviously overweight. As Denny Doherty steps forward to sing the lead, Cass changes position with John Phillips. It appears as if she is looking for her mark on the studio floor. She is trying not to fall over. She is wearing an extremely unflattering velvety dress that looks like a small tent. No sharp, testosterone fueled, young member of The Hollies was going to want to walk into the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard with Mama Cass on his arm.
Look at the stills featured in that video during the instrumental break. Michelle is always at the front. “Err, Cass… could you just drop back a few steps – that’s it, just there in that shadow…”
There was a crazy story put around in the sixties that Cass would have joined the group earlier but that she had a limited vocal range. The group agreed to put out a rumour that Cass had been hit on the head by a tube of piping dropped by a workman, and this had added three notes to her vocal range. They were naive days and the world bought the story.
In her biography of Cass Elliot (Dream A Little Dream Of Me, 2005) Eddi Fiegel writes:
‘John would produce various excuses, maintaining Cass’s vocal range didn’t fit the group’s material — it was too low, he claimed, as well as admitting that he didn’t think her look was quite right. “Mitch, Denny, and I were three string beans and she was huge. The sound was off and the look didn’t fit either. So I kept her out,” he said. Denny, meanwhile, remembers there being no doubt as to why he wouldn’t let her in. “She was too fat! His ideal woman, he had: Michelle.”
Michelle’s sister, Russell Gilliam, meanwhile, remembers John being straightforward with Cass and telling her the truth straight out. “John wanted to have a Peter, Paul and Mary-style rock-and-roll group and he had no compunction of saying, ‘Sorry, Cass, but you’re too fat,’ right to her face. But not in a mean way. He’d just say, ‘Cass, I’m sorry — you’re too fat.'”
‘Not in a mean way.’ It may seem rather mean to you and me.
In 1969, Esquire magazine ran a piece about Cass that ran to several pages. Here’s half a paragraph that stood out to me when I read it:
‘Cass was the most visible member of the group, and her voice the most distinctive, so she became the biggest celebrity. Wherever the group appeared, little fat girls would seek Cass out, ask her advice on their careers, and sit at her feet talking about life.’
‘Little fat girls would seek her out’.
When Cass got married for the second time when she was twenty-seven, Time Magazine, reporting her marriage, described her as ‘brobdingnagian belter of pop-rock tunes’.
I’ll save you looking it up. ‘Brobdingnagian – adjective, meaning gigantic, or huge’.
Gee, thanks, Time Magazine.
There’s a curious remoteness in the marriage between the music and the lyrics of California Dreamin’. ‘Gold’ radio stations often feature the song when the sun is blazing in the middle of July and talk about it being one of those ‘feel good’ summer songs.
But there is a paradox, an ambiguity that they are missing.
Yes, there is that mid-sixties ‘let’s go to San Francisco and walk barefoot with flowers in our hair’ vibe to the music, but the lyrics are as warm as a cold winters day in New York City – which is the perspective from which the words were written.
Despite California Dreamin’ sounding like the siren call of the hippies first dip into counter culture, it was actually written in 1963. John Phillips had just married Michelle, they were in New York City and early one morning he wrote the first verse:
‘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 if I was in L.A.
California dreamin’, on such a winter’s day’.
In an interview with NPR, Michelle recalled that John woke her up to ask for help with the song. She was homesick and dreaming of California.
Michelle said that a few days earlier she had visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “I just loved going into churches. And that’s where we got the lyric for the second verse.”
‘Stopped in to a church I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees and I pretend to pray
You know the preacher liked the cold, he knows I’m going to stay
California dreamin’, on such a winter’s day.’
But I didn’t know any of this, hovering over the radio, in the garden in 1965, waiting for Tony Blackburn to tell me the name of the group behind this astonishing song. I didn’t know anything of affairs, weight issues, drugs, and all the other problems that were carving through these four people. I just knew I had heard something so new, and so powerful.
I knew that while other ten year olds were reading Bunty and Hotspur comics, and I was devouring the NME and Fab 208 Magazine, I wasn’t quite alone. I learned that there were people with alternative views, who wrote pop songs about revolution and joined protests against pointless wars.
The Mamas And The Papas helped me understand more about life and my place in it.
Terence Dackombe – March 2014