In my time, I’ve probably picked up more than one ‘Best of’ Mamas and Papas collections, but I think I’ve finally got the message: in any of their compilations, there are going to be 5 or 6 ‘stand out’ tracks…and the rest are fillers. Now I’m taking a cold objective look, I think it’s probably true to say: that was indeed a true reflection of their career. John Phillips wrote a few absolute classics – and around them, to pad out an album, or a concert performance, or a TV appearance, they threw in some rehashed standards, some slowed-down rock songs, and some mediocre lyric/melody combinations hoping that Cass Elliot’s voice, and the prevailing appetite for commercialized faux-bohemia would sustain them.
But let’s affirm; the classics were classics. ‘California Dreamin’ is toweringly important in its place in popular musical history: it has the feel of something with the substance of folk song, part of a national consciousness, which had been waiting to be discovered. ‘Creeque Alley’ is as clever and witty a song as anything that came out of the sixties : both mischievously self-referential in its narrative of the ambitions of their clique, and at the same time indicative of a more general cultural mood, I think.
And the mood is characterised by the focus shift from (in American geographical terms) East to West Coast, from the more tired, industrious, wisecracking, survivalist cynicism of east Coast’s mentality to the (as perceived) perpetual sunniness, free-spirited, tolerant/relaxed/libertarian lifestyle of the West Coast. ‘California Dreamin’ indeed – because the west coast becomes a kind of dream, an ideal to which the yearning spirit aspired…
Or so it seemed. ‘Twelve Thirty’ was another of this handful of Phillips classics. Perhaps, like many great writers, he really only had one theme, and perhaps that theme was this move from East to west, and what it symbolizes. This single is the only Mamas and Papas single which I remember buying, and it’s still my favourite. I’m imagining I was 15 (?) perhaps, when the single was released. My hazier memory imagines that all of their songs were released in the ‘summer of love’, ’67, and that can’t possibly be true, of course, but I think this single was actually released that summer. My understanding of the American popular-cultural east to west shift must have been sketchy at best…but in some small way I think I got it – and caught the ‘allure’ of freedom and newness that drew all those ‘young girls’ to ‘the canyon’ (Laurel Canyon? The several leafy canyons north of Los Angeles? Did I know that then?)
If this was Phillips’s great theme, where in ‘Dreamin’ he’d pictured the Eastern mentality from which they were escaping as cold, sterile – ‘the preacher likes the cold…’-, that cold church perhaps a symbol of the frigid institutional life which the new generation yearned to leave behind, in ‘Twelve Thirty’ we get the same images of the East’s stagnation – this time through the clock with its hands stuck on twelve thirty. NYC is declared as ‘dark and dirty’ – while the world of the west coast is pictured as a place of new openness, sudden connectedness, discovery – ‘At first so strange to feel so friendly/To say good morning and really mean it/ To feel these changes happening in me…’
I’ve not been to the West Coast of the States, so perhaps I ought to shut up now and bow to more informed experience. Still, here’s what I can’t help feeling: I cannot believe that any place can sustain this weight of idealism; when it carries the symbolism of such allure it becomes like C S Lewis’s idea of ‘northerness’ that drew him on towards…something beyond place, in his spiritually formative years. Perhaps I knew at 14 or 15, as I still believe now, that only a spiritual kingdom can satisfy the profound depth of those kinds of longings – for perpetual sunniness of heart, friendliness, creativity, community. Which is to say that in popular song, at least, the ‘Californian’ ideal of the sixties seems for me a ‘type’ of the Kingdom of God.
Have I strayed from my focus? Let me not forget the song’s delicious melody, the group’s unsurpassed harmonic sound…it’s a great single. Let’s put it back on the home jukebox.