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LPs from the Attic: The Mamas & the Papas — If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears

November 8, 2010

The Mamas & the Papas — If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (MCA, 1966)

The Mamas & The Papas -- If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears

This album cover reveals more than you might think.

My aunt Jean was a child of the late 60’s, but you would never know it from her choice of music on road trips back to her native Ohio with her mischievous nephew and sons in tow. Although just a couple years older, a significant gulf of about 10 years separated her tastes from those of my father, who preferred the bad-boy swagger of the Stones and randy rapaciousness of the Zeppelin over The Kingsmen or The Isley Brothers or Dusty Springfield.

I had such a good time on those trips, forced though I was to listen to oldies stations that had yet to hear of this year called 1967 and the music that attended it (there was also the issue of my aunt’s joyfully enthusiastic off-key singing).

(Related note: on one of the last trips we all made together, my cousins and I took matters into our own hands. We brought along what was called a “jam-” or “boombox” in those days and, crowded together at the back of the minivan, listened to “our” music. At one point, this was a cassette copy of Appetite for Destruction. We played it as loud as we thought we safely could, hoping that my aunt and uncle couldn’t hear “It’s So Easy” over “Winchester Cathedral.”)

Sure, I’ve found plenty of artists and songs to love from that earlier era of pop music. But, even the Beatles were timid in rock’s nascent days, preferring to hold your hand rather than do it in the road. Or, so they said.

At any rate, while I like many songs from the early to mid 60’s and had fond memories of sing-a-long road trips, I dug the music of the last few years of the decade and more contemporary fare once I had control of, if not yet the radio dial, then the play button on a Walkman (may it rest in peace).

Once my bias weakened (read: I got old enough to be reflective and nostalgic), I sought to collect some of my favorite songs from that era. Of course, the usual suspects were involved: the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Simon & Garfunkel, those pesky Beatles fellows.

There was another band who I liked for their standout vocal harmonies and catchy songs: The Mamas & The Papas. I used to think that the group represented a fairly innocent part of the 60’s with their bright melodies and songs about sunny California, groovy love, and dancing under the moonlight.

But, I’ve since realized that my early impressions were superficial, notably when I listened to If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears from end to end.

While the harmonies are light and airy in their folkiness, and the tempos are often upbeat, these occasionally hide a darkness that heralds the end of the decade, when the country was mired in turmoil and where the Summer of Love era ended with multiple overdoses and tramplings at concerts and still being at war. When the counterculture dream crumbled under the weight of a hazy, unwieldy, and disorganized idealism and far too many drugs.

I don’t know if the band itself anticipated that the forces that brought it together for this exciting debut–those of free love, copious pharmaceuticals, and an adventurous ambition that touched both–would soon tear them apart.

“Got a Feeling” may have addressed an outsider, but the infidelity that forms its centerpiece would affect the band members, who certainly indulged in creative pairings. “Straight Shooter” is a rocker with a central, descending riff that recalls the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville,” but the thin double entendre refers to a frank love of both sex and heroin. In fact, it’s explicit enough that the wink implied by “do you know what I mean?” is hardly necessary. Message received, Cass. “Go Where You Wanna Go” may seem like the perfect soundtrack for a bank’s self-service online offerings these days, but the verses reveal it to be about matters more prurient than financial: feminine sexual empowerment equal to the freedom enjoyed by men. A girl like the protagonist may not be able to love just one one man, and her choices for fulfillment should be equal to those of the opposite sex, but the progressiveness of the idea turns destructive in practice when it leads to enmity among the players, as it did among the Mamas and Papas.

“Monday, Monday” and “California Dreamin’ endure as high-water marks for the band and the sunshine pop era in general; there’s a reason these songs still end up in movies and commercials. But, there are moments of both explicit beauty and implied ugliness in some of the albums’ deeper cuts. These darker implications surprise me with subsequent listening. I have to wonder if Aunt Jean would have known what she was singing about if “Straight Shooter” or “Somebody Groovy” ever got played on the radio. Would she have known that she was asking for smack? Would she have known what kind of “moving” Cass Elliot was asking for?

If she did, she didn’t let on.

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