Tag Archives: The Mamas and the Papas

This old world may never change: The Dolphins – Fred Neil

Bit of a flight of fancy, this one. About an artist I’ve written about before. Forgive me the indulgence: I didn’t have it in me tonight to write anything serious or weighty or that required research or fact checking. Back at the weekend.

It all comes back to The Dolphins, really. It’s not typical of Fred Neil’s other work, it sounds like nothing else he ever recorded, yet whenever listened to, it feels like the puzzle box that would allow us to somehow solve Fred Neil, this most unknowable, enigmatic of musicians, this towering figure who made few records and then one day gave music up to work in the field he cared for most, the protection and preservation of dolphins.

Fred Neil – aged 30 at the time he made The Dolphins, in 1966 – had moved sideways into folk-rock from the more traditional Greenwich folk-blues scene of which he’d been a part since 1961 or thereabouts, when he met and began singing with Vince Martin. Before that he’d been a very minor Brill Building writer, responsible for a couple of small hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and a few rockabilly-inflected pop sides he cut himself. Whether he’d genuinely been into first-wave rock’n’roll is not something I’ve ever been able to determine, but I tend to think he must have been. There’s a rhythmic emphasis in his guitar playing that sounds like it has roots in rock’n’roll, although he also hung out with jazz players and his knowledge of syncopation may have been derived in part from those associations. But rock’n’roll in the Chuck Berry sense had been replaced by Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the early sixties, and no one with discernment wanted much to do with it.

Folk-rock’s principle authors were fans of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, kids who mostly had been fans of rock’n’roll and had moved over to folk in search of meaning that Bobby Rydell couldn’t give them. Neil, older by almost a decade and something of a big brother figure to David Crosby, John Sebastian, and even Dylan up to a point, wasn’t touched musically by either. The Byrds’ version of folk-rock was derived from Dylan and The Beatles; as practised by the Mamas & the Papas and the Lovin’ Spoonful, folk-rock also took in vaudeville, Broadway tunes, light pop, jug band and country. Nothing that any of these bands produced has anything like the strange unknowability of The Dolphins.

It begins with a heavily tremoloed electric guitar, haloed with echo. Instruments are hard panned, the stereo image is massive, the sense of space is vast. Neil’s voice reaches down to the ocean floor. Pete Childs’s guitar goes to the same raga-like outer space that Roger McGuinn tried to get to on Eight Miles High, the slashing rhythm guitar sounds oddly like Television, 10 years too early. It’s the most singular concoction, it’s sound as metaphor, it’s the best record Neil ever made, one of the best records ever made by anyone.

If you’ve heard some other singer’s recording of The Dolphins, but not Neil’s oiginal, you’re in for such a treat.

Fred Neil

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Luv n’ Haight – Sly & the Family Stone

In 1969, the outrageously talented multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and bandleader Sylvester ‘Sly Stone’ Stewart, was one of the most celebrated figures in popular music. His band had triumphed at Woodstock, their seemingly warm-hearted, outward-looking psychedelic soul making even Motown seem old hat and forcing them to change their game and turn increasingly to the visionary producer Norman Whitfield. Their late-sixties hits, calling for love, peace, understanding and integration, were made all the more powerful by the mere sight of Stone and his band on stage: they were both multi-racial and multi-gender in an era where such things were extremely uncommon. 1969, remember, was the year of Kent State and just one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

But by 1971 Sly Stone had retreated to a very strange headspace. Holed up inside an LA mansion belonging to John Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas, Stone sacked half of his band (the white members, supposedly at the insistence of the Black Panthers, but also master bassist Larry Graham, upon whom Stone apparently took out a contract), surrounded himself with goons, dealers, pimps and hookers, and haphazardly set about making what would be his masterpiece, There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Recording was undertaken at the Record Plant in Sausalito near San Francisco, in a room Stone had had installed there for his own use. Progress was glacial, with Stone playing much of the record himself, or inviting guests in at the expense of his bandmates (Bobby Womack, for example, is much in evidence on guitar), cutting tracks and recutting them, over and over. The protracted nature of the recording took its toll on the master tapes, and they completely lost their high end through wear and tear. The resulting murk – in a happy accident – suited his new material perfectly, the cracked and paranoid deep funk shocking those enamoured of his outward-looking pop hits.

Family Affair was the album’s most enduring hit (its only hit). But it’s not exactly representative. Riot is not an album of expansive, memorable melodies. Family Affair is one of the few songs to let a bit of light in. For the most part, it’s an intensely claustrophobic album; Christgau nailed it when he called it ‘Despairing, courageous, and very hard to take’. These days, Luv n’ Haight – the album opener – seems to me the most crucial track: all that Riot is, is contained in its churning groove and airless (literally – the mix is dry as a bone) swirl of vocals and wah-wah’d guitars.

 

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Sly, with Telecaster, 1969

People Like Us – The Mamas & the Papas

In 1971, maybe running out of money, maybe growing bored by the excesses of their Laurel Canyon lifestyles (drugs and ill-considered romantic entanglements) and still owing an album to their label to complete their contract, the Mamas & the Papas reconvened for a comeback album. It’s been rubbished by most of the band members since, it was slammed in the press at the time, and it is seriously patchy – but for this song at least, the effort was a worthwhile.

Bodies of work don’t come much whiter than the Mamas’, but People Like Us is surprisingly soulful and black-sounding. For this, credit has to go to John Phillips, who produced the album in place of their producer and mentor from the sixties, Lou Adler, and assembled an unlikely team including drummers Earl Palmer and Ed Green, bassist Tony Newton and an electric sitar player. (It seems somehow to typify early-seventies soul, the electric sitar. I don’t know where it got used first in that context – Band of Gold, maybe, from 1970? – but I associate it most with the Chi-Lites’ Have You Seen Her, from June 1971, to which this might have been a very quick response.) But beyond the touches contributed by the rhythm section, the album’s whole cast of players is seriously impressive: as well as Palmer and Green, present on the record are Bobbye Hall, Louis Shelton, Clarence McDonald – stellar, enormously talented musicians who (with the exception of Jim Horn on saxophone, who has a real off-day and plays nothing but clichés on Pacific Coast Highway) are sympathetic and tasteful throughout.

It might seem a strange thing to say but the thing that often worked least well for me about the Mamas was the enormous voice of Cass Elliot – it was great on its own, but it was simply too big to be contained by a four-piece singing group. Some voices are like that – they need to be heard on their own so they can become what they really are. Michelle Phillips once said that while she was no great singer herself, her big contribution to the band was to keep Cass from over-singing and drowning her out entirely. That was probably true. But Cass Elliot hardly appears on this whole album – possibly due to illness, possibly to drug problems, possibly due to illness due to drug problems – forcing Michelle Phillips to up her game. And her soft-voiced cooing sits very well with Denny Doherty’s lead tenor, giving the music a more sensual feeling than it had in their mid-sixties heyday.

I’m no contrarian. California Dreaming is a masterpiece, and of course I recognise that the Mamas made several other great pop singles in the sixties. But People Like Us is my favourite Mamas song, however uncharacteristic it might be.

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People like them – The Mamas & the Papas, 1971. Clockwise from top left: John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot