“San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” — Scott McKenzie
I’m not old enough to remember the ‘Summer of Love’, but there’s something very appealing for me in the music of that time. When I need to chill out a little and restore a bit of balance in my life, that’s the music I reach for.
One of the defining anthems of the Summer of Love is Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)”.
The song was written by John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas and, more than anything else, was conceived as a way to promote the Monterey International Pop Festival he was organising. You can say a lot about John Phillips…and plenty of people have…but he knew a business opportunity when he saw one.
Long before ‘immersive content’ and ‘native video’, John Phillips knew that if he made a record which encapsulated the feelings and aspirations of young people at that time in America, they’d travel far and wide to attend a music festival which promised to deliver that…which is exactly what they did.
The same basic model has been used very successfully in the multi-award-winning Christmas TV advertising for UK department store John Lewis in recent years to shift several warehouses full of merchandise. So you’ll be glad to know that strategy is still alive and well…
John Phillips had known Scott McKenzie since they were kids. They had both been members of The Journeymen before John Phillips would conquer the world as the prime mover behind the Mamas and Papas.
And let’s not forget the Mamas and Papas were performing at the Monterey International Pop Festival too, so John Phillips had plenty of reasons to write a great song to promote it.
Some critics have said the song reads a bit like advertising copy in places…which in a sense is exactly what it was. But I think that’s just being snide.
I’d agree “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” doesn’t have the most intellectually challenging set of lyrics ever to find their way into a recording studio.
But what they do, better than just about any other song ever written, is encapsulate the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a generation of young people at a particular time in history. Very few songs…even songs which are more technically demanding in their music or sharper and cleverer in their lyrics…can justifiably claim to do that.
Don’t get me wrong, there are better songs.
There just aren’t many which do such a great job of bottling the essence of a particular time and place and describing it in a three-minute pop song…in fact, if you take “Jailhouse Rock” and “Pretty Vacant” out the equation, you’ll struggle to find many other songs vying for the title.
If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you’re going to San Francisco
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there
Of course, nowadays, if you go to San Francisco, you’re more likely to meet someone who works at Google doing a job that only three people in the world really understand…but it was different back in 1967.
The counterculture era wasn’t quite as glamorous as it was portrayed at the time or eulogised about since. There were problems with drugs and lives were ruined as people took it upon themselves to experiment with things they didn’t really understand.
But I’ve always loved San Francisco. Perhaps not so much in the tech era, but even up to the early 2000s, you didn’t need to look hard to find the remnants of the Summer of Love dotted around the city on the bay.
Every time I go there, I make a little pilgrimage to Haight/Ashbury, take a cable car up the steep hill from Powell and Market towards the bay and stop for a delicious coffee in what we would nowadays call a hipster cafe.
My love for San Francisco is perhaps magnified because the city represents everything I’m not.
Maybe it gives me a place to connect with who I really am in the inside, even though I’m not like that on the outside at all…although it’s more likely I’m just fooling myself and indulging in the sort of “what if…” dreaming we all do from time to time.
Despite being, on the surface, a shimmering piece of perfect pop, “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” has a deeply counter-cultural message buried within it. It’s a message that resonates in our troubled times as well…
All across the nation, such a strange vibration
People in motion
There’s a whole generation with a new explanation
People in motion, people in motion
1967 was no picnic, despite the Summer of Love doing its best to convince you it was.
Vietnam was in full swing. Young men (it was only men in those days) were drafted to fight in a brutal war far from home. Many never came home. Even those who survived were never the same.
By comparison, most of us living in Western democracies at the moment don’t experience anything like as challenging an environment as those young men did.
But, no less than in 1967, today the scent of change is in the air.
Young people are marching, agitating, protesting and making their voice heard.
I don’t agree with everything they say and do. But I am proud that young people…largely silent since that long hot summer over 50 years ago…are starting to feel they can make a difference to the world they’ll be in charge of before too long.
Good luck to them, I say.
Considering my generation would get a “could do better” grade at best on our stewardship of the planet, I have high hopes that the coming generations of young people might lead us to a better place.
And…just maybe…in there somewhere is the John Phillips of this new generation.
Even now they’re writing an anthem to capture the essence of how they feel, think and act.
Perhaps a new Scott McKenzie is working their way around the pubs and clubs to develop their vocal and performance skills so that, when the time is right, we’ll hear their song at the top of the charts, giving a voice to a group of people society has ignored for too long…to its detriment and theirs.
And if those young people are looking for a template for their own era-defining performance, they wouldn’t go far wrong if they went back to the Summer of Love and re-discovered John Phillips’ own era-defining anthem, so perfectly brought to life by Scott McKenzie.
50 years ago, John Phillips and Scott McKenzie set a high bar with “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)”.
I hope whatever’s coming is at least as good as that.
Here’s Scott McKenzie all the way from the Summer of Love with “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)”…
The video is below but, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/6vcNJUWtUPB0hKC6VbZriY
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.