Graded on a Curve:
The Mama’s and the Papa’s, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears

A few random observations about The Mama’s and the Papa’s’ 1966 debut LP and folk-pop classic If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears.

1. This album has everything, including a toilet on the cover! Which puts it in some elite crapper company, including the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, Sebadoh’s Bakesale, Millie Jackson’s Back to the S__T!, and Humble Pie’s Thunderbox. (The Circle Jerks’ Golden Shower of Hits doesn’t count, because it features a urinal.) As for the toilet on If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, it faded from view and was living in filth and poverty until 1988, when it sued the Mamas and the Papas for royalties and won. It currently resides in Costa del Sol and is married to a supermodel.

2. There’s a great story about how Mama Cass Elliot came to join the Mamas and the Papas. Seems John Phillips didn’t want her in the band because of her limited vocal range. THEN, but let’s let Elliott tell it:

“They were tearing this club apart in the islands, revamping it, putting in a dance floor. Workmen dropped a thin metal plumbing pipe and it hit me on the head… I had a concussion and went to the hospital. I had a bad headache for about two weeks and all of a sudden I was singing higher. It’s true. Honest to God.”

It’s a great story. Unfortunately it’s not true. Seems Phillips didn’t want Elliot in the band because she was too fat. Me, I prefer her story. It gives me hope that one day I’ll get conked on the head by a length of pipe, and suddenly discover I can sing like Geddy Lee.

3. The Mama’s and the Papa’s were at the epicenter of the Laurel Canyon music scene of the mid- to late sixties. It was the hip “place to be” for folk-rockers and turned-on actors and all kinds of assorted freaks and hangers-on. You never knew who was going walk through your door to play music, get stoned or get laid. Brian Wilson. Peter Fonda. Joni Mitchell. Jim Morrison. Charles Manson. Oh, shit!

4. Why does Denny Doherty sound so happy about it being Monday, Monday? Easy. He’s a hippie and has never worked a real job in his life. But no cause to get jealous–by song’s end he’s singing, “Monday, Monday,” he mopes, “It won’t go away/Monday, Monday, it’s here to stay.” Turns out he’s in a Twilight Zone episode where he’ll be trapped in Monday– forever! Ba-da bah-da-da-da that!

5. “Straight Shooter” has this great Monkees guitar riff and turns out to be a drug song! The poor singer guy’s been burned in a dope deal which he makes clear when he sings, “Baby what you’re holding/Half of that belongs to me.” He should look on the bright side. At least he’s not deceased like the three guys in Laurel Canyon alum Neil Young’s “Tired Eyes.” Or deceased like the three guys in Blue Öyster Cult’s “Then Came the Last Days of May.” Seriously, six dead guys and this guy’s bitching?

6. “California Dreamin’” the best song about the Golden State this side of the Beach Boys’ “Califonia Girls,” but at its heart it’s a big fat bummer. The Mama’s and the Papa’s aren’t living the California dream, they’re dreaming about California because they’re stuck in some frozen Northern hellhole. And they’re so desperate they even go to church!

7. Turns out the strings- and tambourine-drenched “Go Where You Wanna Go” is about this girl who can’t stand her man’s philandering ways and finally says, “Do what you want, you useless piece of shit.” Those aren’t her exact words, mind you, but you get the idea. Phillips wrote it as a dig at his wife Michelle, who was then playing footsie with Doherty, and then let her sing it about him. The guy was a masochist.

8. Come 1966, LA was the most happening place on earth this side of Swinging London, and groovy indeed are “Somebody Groovy” and “The ‘In’ Crowd.” Both tunes sound totally innocent from the vantage point of the present day because they are innocent. Nobody’s smoking LSD or shooting up reefers or engaging in degenerate three-ways like David Crosby in “Triad.” The Mama’s and the Papa’s might as well have been endorsed by the Vatican.

9. The Mama’s and the Papa’s were one of popular music’s greatest vocal acts, but on If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears they get a big assist from Wrecking Crew stalwarts Larry Knechktel (keyboards) and Joe Osborn (bass), as songwriter/guitarist P.F. Sloan and Hal “I’ve played 35,000 sessions!” Blaine on drums. And we have Bud Shank to thank for the flute solo on “California Dreamin.”

10. One of the great things I love most about the Mama’s and Papa’s is the way they avoided playing Renaissance Faire horseshit like CS&N’s “Guinnevere.” Or Simon and Garfunkel’s “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Yadda Yadda Yadda.” Or so I thought until I heard “Dancing Bear.” But it’s not on If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, so there.

11. The Mamas and Papas went on to record a whole lotta great music–songs like “I Saw Her Again” (oh, shades of the Association!), “Creeque Alley,” and the deliriously dreamy “No Salt on Her Tail” all spring to mind–but none of their four subsequent LPs would come even close to recapturing the spirit of If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears. Their debut album’s layered vocals and euphoric melodies provide the perfect soundtrack to a magical time and place before hard drugs (it wasn’t a ham sandwich that killed Mama Cass Elliot), personal ambitions, and the Manson Family harshed the buzz and good.

12. If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears is God’s favorite album, and if you don’t buy it he’ll punish you. An oak tree might fall on your car. Your dog might develop tonsillitis. You might buy 20 Powerball tickets every day for the next 50 years and never win a nickel. You’ve been warned.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • James Buechler

    i thought their last album was much better than, entitled, The mamas and the papas sing the papas and the mamas. The record you’re talking about wasn’t even that good. It’s cold and depressing, the arrangements aren’t that good, the instrumentation isn’t so hot.

  • James Buechler

    Also, you resort to foul language over and over again, gross.

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