The sun is out in the UK today. After a grey winter, the first day of warm sunshine always makes me think about summery songs by the Mamas and Papas. If ever there was a group that signified “summer” to me, it’s them.
Although my favourite Mamas and Papas track is “California Dreaming”…and I’m a big fan of Mama Cass’s solo work…today I’m writing about a very unusual, and fiendishly clever, Mamas and Papas song from 1967, which reached number 5 in the Billboard Hot 100 and number 9 in the UK singles charts.
Music and lyrics for today’s song were written by John and Michelle Phillips…between them, 50% of the Mamas and Papas.
“Creeque Alley” takes us on a wonderful autobiographical trail through the history of the Mamas and Papas, weaving in some of the key characters and events of the folk-rock scene of the early to mid-1960s.
A bit like that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, where you can connect from Kevin Bacon to just about any figure in the movie industry via one of the films he’s been involved with, for the folk-rock end of California’s music industry in the 1960s, you were only ever a couple of connections away from the Mamas and Papas.
Of course, it’s not unusual for composers and lyric writers to draw on experiences from their own lives when writing a song. But having quite such a comprehensive autobiographical sweep is very unusual…at least among hit records of the last 40 years or so.
One of the reasons I enjoy listening to “Creeque Alley” so much…apart from it being a straight-up brilliant song, beautifully delivered…is that I like to spot the Mamas and Papas’ references to the people they encountered and the places they visited on their musical journey from near-deserted back-street coffee houses in Greenwich Village to stardom around the world.
And there’s always something new to discover. I found out only today as I was checking a couple of facts for this article that the title “Creeque Alley” is a place in the Virgin Islands where, allegedly, John Phillips wrote the song while the Mamas and Papas were performing in a club nearby…I’ve enjoyed listening to “Creeque Alley” for 40-odd years without knowing that little nugget before today…
If you listen carefully you’ll pick up references to bands…or the members of bands…who were pivotal to the development of the music industry in the 1960s. Bands like the Mugwumps, the New Christie Minstrels, the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Byrds all get a nod somewhere in “Creeque Alley”.
When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps
Called John and Zal and that was the Mugwumps
That references Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot, who with John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky, and the uncredited Jim Hendricks, formed the Mugwumps in the early 1960s. The band never broke through to the big time, chart-wise, but of course in different guises as the Mamas and Papas and the Lovin’ Spoonful respectively, it was a different story.
These days, few people remember the Mugwumps…and in fairness, very few people noticed them at the time either…but can you think about popular music of the 1960s without a soundtrack which includes songs like “California Dreaming” or “Summer in the City” running through your head?
Without the Mugwumps, neither of those tracks would have been recorded. So the Mugwumps deserve their place in popular music history. Not necessarily for what they did as the Mugwumps, but for what the individual members of the group would go on to do later in their careers.
One of the great things “Creeque Alley” does is cement for all time the characters and events which in some way influenced the direction popular music would take during the latter half of the 1960s and beyond.
Even though only a few people remember bands like the New Christie Minstrels anymore, they and all the other bands referenced in “Creeque Alley” played their part in creating the sound of the 1960s.
Having a musical tribute like “Creque Alley” which references them all…a song still played on the radio today nearly 50 years after it was first a Top 10 hit record…makes sure those characters and events won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
Whatever else the song is, “Creeque Alley” isn’t a sugar-coated autobiography of the Mamas and Papas’ early careers. They made a sweet-sounding song out of what were probably some challenging times…
Mugwumps, high jumps, low slumps, big bumps
Don’t you work as hard as you play
Make up, break up, everything is shake up
Guess it had to be that way
Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful
Michelle, John and Denny gettin’ very tuneful
McGuinn and McGuire just a-catching fire
In LA you know where that’s at
But there are so many references to different people, places and experiences in today’s song that I could write several thousand words on the subject and still not cover everything. Quite an achievement for a story that goes from start to finish in under four minutes.
However, you’ll be glad to learn I’m not going to go on about it much longer…
Except to note that the “McGuire” in the lyrics quoted above, is the same Barry McGuire…formerly of the New Christie Minstrels (see why this all intertwines?)…who sung my all-time favourite song “Eve of Destruction”, which is where this article started.
After writing about that the other day, and with that song fresh in my mind, it took my subconscious a single step to think of “Creeque Alley” and the Mamas and Papas just a few days later, the moment the sun came out.
In yet another link in this incestuous tale of 1960s pop music, Barry McGuire’s masterpiece, “Eve of Destruction”, was written by PF Sloan who also played the guitar intro to “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and Papas, who in turn wrote and performed today’s song and even referenced their own 1965 hit in the lyrics of “Creeque Alley” a couple of years later…
Duffy’s good vibrations and our imaginations
Can’t go on indefinitely
And California Dreamin’ is becoming a reality
There are so many intricate relationships like this referenced in some way in today’s song that it’s just a delight to listen to, especially if, like me, you’re a fan of music from the 1960s.
Today’s song, as well as having the trademark, unimpeachable vocals for which the Mamas and Papas were renowned, is probably the most interesting history lesson you will ever get about 1960s popular music and certainly the only one you’ll get in just four minutes from start to finish.
So next time it’s raining outside and you’ve nothing better to do, you could always start to track back the individual stories that underlie this complex, interwoven tale of the people and bands who between them created the soundtrack to the latter half of the 1960s. It will keep you amused for hours.
But for now, let your mind drift off to those more peaceful times, when the gentle fragrance of joss sticks hung in the air and people sat around in kaftans contemplating…even if they weren’t always quite sure what it was they were contemplating about…
Today’s song is the soundtrack to those far-off times when the world seemed a lot simpler…
Although the sound quality is not always perfect on the video I’ve linked to below, and it skips a couple of times, I’ve used this version because it’s got a spoken intro by one of my favourite female vocalists of all time, Mama Cass Elliot. Her life was short and, in large part, tragic…but her voice lives on…
Here’s the Mamas and Papas with “Creeque Alley”…
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to the track on Spotify, you can find it here… https://open.spotify.com/track/7KItCaj2bp5XH8f7oOUrfx
And, if you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. I appreciate you taking the time and I hope you enjoyed reading about another of my favourite songs.