Album Notes: the Mamas and the Papas' "If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears"

Friday, May 25: 12 p.m.
Posted by Rock Hall
The Mamas and the Papas censored cover for If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears

For the week of May 21, 1966, the Mamas and the Papas debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, peaked at Number One on the Billboard 200. The group of New York folk vagabonds whose post-beatnik image and soaring harmonies bridged folk rock and imminent psychedelia had emerged from the "New Folk" movement of the late Fifties and early Sixties, delivering a seminal debut album with an unexpectedly controversial cover. 

John Phillips had been a member of the Journeymen, a folk trio that also included Dick Weissmann and Scott McKenzie. (McKenzie would go on record a song of Phillips’, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” that became a hit during the summer of 1967.) In a similar vein, Cass Elliot had been in the Big Three, while Denny Doherty belonged to the Halifax Three. Both Elliot and Doherty came together in the Mugwumps, which also included John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky, later of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Michelle Phillips was an aspiring model (born Holly Michelle Gilliam) and the wife of John Phillips.

the mamas and the papas california dreaminJohn, Michelle and Doherty performed in the New Journeymen, a temporary group put together to fulfill contractual obligations after the original trio’s breakup. In 1965, the three of them then headed to St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, to write and rehearse. They were joined by the alto-voiced Cass Elliot. The foursome relocated to Los Angeles, where they signed to Lou Adler’s Dunhill label. After briefly calling themselves the Magic Circle, they took the name the Mamas and the Papas. 

If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears stands as a peak moment in the West Coast vocal-group sound. The Mamas and the Papas’ vocal blend, with its intricate harmonies and interweaving, prompted Life magazine to proclaim them “the most inventive pop musical group and first really new vocal sound since the Beatles.”

Although the Mamas and the Papas, clad in colorful hippie threads and projecting diverse looks and personalities, were in many ways the archetypes of a uniquely American reaction to the British Invasion, their debut included the Lennon-McCartney composition, "I Call Your Name" though the Mamas and the Papa's piano-driven, lilting swing bore little resemblance to the rollicking version that appeared on The Beatles' Second Album. Along with a version of "Spanish Harlem" (a track credited to Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector), the album included Phillips originals such as the folk-cum-pop classics, "Monday, Monday" and "Go Where You Wanna Go," the rock groove of "Straight Shooter" and the funky pulsations and bluesy punchiness of "Somebody Groovy." However, it was "California' Dreamin'" that sent the group's career into overdrive.

The song helped trigger the westward migration of rootless young people during the hippie era. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me over the years that the reason they were in California was because they heard the song ‘California Dreamin’,” Michelle Phillips recalled. “It changed their lives.” The track beautifully captured the ethereal quality of the group's vocal dynamic and married it to John Phillips' deceptively simple arrangement.

The album's first pressing for Dunhill, released in the spring of 1966, featured a reportedly candid shot of the band fully clothed in a bathtub next to a toilet. At some point, the toilet was deemed inappropriate among label executives, and the decision was made to release the album with a new cover, this time with the offending commode obscured by a label variously heralding the album's inclusion of "California Dreamin'," "Monday, Monday" and "I Call Your Name." A third, further censored cover eventually appeared with the cover image cropped so the bathtub and the toilet were completely removed. Most important, the track list remained the same. The Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and are among the artists featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland's main exhibit hall, in the Cities and Sounds: Los Angeles - I Love LA: 1965 - 1979 exhibit.


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