“It’s Getting Better” — Mama Cass Elliot

Having mentioned the Mamas and Papas briefly the other day in my article about Barry McGuire’s “Eve Of Destruction”, I couldn’t help myself writing a bit more about the Mamas and Papas…one of my favourite groups.

Technically, “It’s Getting Better” isn’t a Mamas and Papas song as Mama Cass Elliot didn’t record it until after the band had gone their separate ways. But as the song is often included in compilations and retrospectives about the Mamas and Papas, I figured I could stretch a point to write about one of my favourite songs from one of my favourite vocalists.

And I’ll probably get away with it too — every video I can find for “It’s Getting Better” uses pictures of all four members of the Mamas and Papas to accompany it…despite three-quarters of Mama Cass Elliot’s old band having nothing to do with it.

It’s a slightly unusual song in the Cass Elliot repertoire. She was renowned for the deep chocolate-y tones in her voice and “It’s Getting Better” is mostly at the upper end of her vocal range.

To complete the slightly unusual approach to this recording, Cass Elliot seems to have been placed on the other side of the studio from the microphone for some reason, so there is a “far off” feel to her performance on this song.

Now I’d be the first to admit this might be my own interpretation of what’s going on…and perhaps evidence of my slight frustration that the depth and richness of Mama Cass’s voice isn’t as much in evidence as I would ideally like.

“It’s Getting Better” is quite a dreamy song, so having the vocal float its way gently towards you from the far side of the recording studio, maybe with the intention of giving the impression of a slightly out of body experience, might have been a deliberate creative decision.

Much as I like today’s song, I can’t help feeling it doesn’t make the most of Cass Elliot’s voice. Yet it’s still one of my very favourite songs from one of my very favourite singers, so please don’t think I’m being too mean…I still love it.

The music and lyrics for “It’s Getting Better” were written by all-star songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, a husband and wife team. Barry Mann wrote the music and Cynthia Weill the lyrics.

Successes for the Mann/Weill songwriting team include classics like “I Just Can’t Help Believing” for Elvis, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” for the Animals and “Saturday Night at the Movies” for the Drifters.

The lyrics for “It’s Getting Better” tell a tale of love being gently awakened, slowly at first…unexpectedly even…but growing over time into something special…

Once I believed that when love came to me
It would come with rockets, bells and poetry
But with me and you it just started quietly and grew

It’s a funny thing, love.

Cynthia Weill’s description of love coming with “rockets, bells and poetry” is one of my favourite descriptions of someone falling head-over-heels in love. That’s the way it’s supposed to happen, isn’t it?

Or is that just the way it’s worked in the movies I’ve watched over the years…?

“It’s Getting Better” isn’t a song about love at first sight…where your eyes lock on someone else’s across a crowded room, and you know in that instant you’ll be together for the rest of your natural lives.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that this sort of encounter is entirely fictional, invented by the movie studios of Hollywood and the recording studios of Tin Pan Alley just so they can sell us more of their products, which in turn perpetuate the myth.

It’s a dream we’d all like to believe was true, but…

Maybe the sort of falling in love Mama Cass Elliot sings about in “It’s Getting Better” is a closer representation of the truth.

You meet someone, get to know them, then…almost magically, and without an event that you could point to which was “the moment”… you find you’re finishing one another’s sentences…making them the cup of tea before they said anything just because you sensed they were getting thirsty…knowing when to hold them close to help them feel better and when to leave them on their own to work through their issues.

Maybe “It’s Getting Better” is a lot closer to how love really works…

Cass Elliot wasn’t what you’d call lucky in love, though.

By all accounts, she was head over heels in love with her Mamas and Papas bandmate Denny Doherty from their days together in the Mugwumps…one of the two precursor bands of the Mamas and Papas (the other being The New Journeymen, which John and Michelle Phillips were both in pre-Mamas and Papas).

Denny Doherty seems to have felt strongly about Cass too, but not to the point of actually reciprocating her feelings.

He really went to bat for his old friend Cass Elliot, though. When John Phillips was putting the Mamas and Papas together, and had invited Denny Doherty to join him and Michelle, Denny insisted that his old friend from the Mugwumps, Cass Elliot, be given the opportunity to join this new band too.

By all accounts, John Phillips took some persuading. Denny Doherty’s old friend Cass Elliot was a tremendous singer, albeit not exactly what Central Casting would consider a traditional candidate for the role of “attractive young female singer doing the harmonies for talented, if self-opinionated, leader of a folk-rock band”.

In the end, Denny Doherty’s tenacity paid off. Cass got the gig and, as the say, the rest is history.

The Mamas and Papas were only together for a relatively short amount of time, but they would become one of the defining bands of the late 1960s. Their sound defined a generation. And to this day, when you see a TV programme or a movie with a flashback to the late 1960s, it’s often the snatch of a Mamas and Papas tune that’s used to transport us back there.

Some black and white footage of hippies carrying flowers accompanied by a bar or two from a Mamas and Papas song is almost the go-to cliche for “we’re back in the late 1960s now” in film and TV-land. That’s how much a part of popular culture the Mamas and Papas were.

Denny Doherty seems to have believed in Cass Elliot, even when she didn’t believe in herself, and tried to be a good friend to Cass during her all-too-short life.

It might not have been the dramatic love affair Cass was looking for, but great friendships are at least as hard to find as great love affairs…if not harder…so Denny Doherty definitely played a significant role in Mama Cass Elliot’s life.

Although Cass Elliot wasn’t the first person to record “It’s Getting Better”, her version is usually seen as the definitive one. The emotion that comes through in her voice makes this more of a personal story than a singer just reading the words on a scrap of paper propped up on a music stand…

I don’t feel all turned on and starry-eyed
I just feel a sweet contentment deep inside
Holding you at night just seems natural and right
And it’s not hard to see
That it isn’t half of what it’s going to turn out to be

After the Mamas and Papas, Cass Elliot went through some tough times, but recorded some great songs…of which “It’s Getting Better” is most definitely one.

The song wasn’t a huge hit when it came out in 1969 — a UK Top 10 and a Billboard Top 30 record. In retrospect, though, it was one of the last pieces of late 1960s West Coast pop to hit the charts.

Glam rock would be along soon, giving way to punk and then to “hair metal”, all genres which looked down on the “hippie scene”.

Nobody knew it at the time, but “It’s Getting Better” would, in some ways, be the closing act for a world that was about to move on from the positive, optimistic, peaceful world everyone seemed to be working towards in the late 1960s.

As the Eagles sang, “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969”…

Sadly, Mama Cass Elliot died of a heart attack in London in 1974, aged only 32, when her career was on the up again, having just completed a well-received two-week run at the London Palladium.

That night we lost one of my favourite female singers of all time. But at least we still have Mama Cass Elliot’s music, both during her time in the Mamas and Papas and from her work as a solo artist.

Wherever she is today, I hope Cass Elliot has found that “sweet contentment deep inside” she sings about in today’s song.

Here’s (Mama) Cass Elliot with “It’s Getting Better”…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/0a36j16sG6y40W2UBOQVge

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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