Whether you know the catalog of The Mamas And The Papas, or your knowledge of them is limited to “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreamin,’” a visit to their excellent first album of 1966 will be highly rewarding. It was If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears, which entered the US chart 0n March 12, 1966.
The quartet, who distilled the very essence of the California vocal sound as it matured from straight pop to the greater sophistication of the second half of the 1960s, were not an immediate success. Their first single, the glorious, richly orchestrated John Phillips composition “Go Where You Wanna Go,” failed to make the charts, but when Phillips and his wife of three years, Michelle, came up with the bittersweet “California Dreamin’” and Dunhill released it as single late in 1965, it was a different story.
Signature hits and much more
The song became a US Top 5 hit, followed just three months later by another superior single, “Monday, Monday,” which went to No.1 in the States and into the UK and Australian Top 5. The time was right for a debut album containing both of the hits, the earlier, undeserved miss and a great deal more, and that was If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears, produced by Lou Adler.
Listening to the record again, what comes through is not just the extraordinary power of the group harmonies created by John and Michelle, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot. It’s their unique ability to “own” songs across a wide range of pop styles, on a record split evenly between their own compositions and covers that are every bit the equal of their originals.
Of their material, “Straight Shooter” is a guitar-led piece that previews the sound that the Monkees would make their own later in 1966. Among the other John Phillips compositions, “Got A Feelin’” has a gentle, metronomic beauty while “Somebody Groovy” is joyous, quintessential Mamas & Papas. “Hey Girl” (written by John and Michelle) has Cass taking the lead and Larry Knechtel’s keyboards to the fore, along with the drums of omnipresent session king Hal Blaine.
The group had the imagination to address a relative Beatles obscurity (if indeed that word truly applies to any Beatles recording). “I Call Your Name,” issued on their Long Tall Sally EP, was never on an original album, and the American quartet make it theirs by completely changing the tempo and feel. Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance” is similarly successful, even though it was a well-worn song by then, from Freeman’s 1958 original and hit covers on either side of the Atlantic by Cliff Richard and The Beach Boys. Despite all that, the M&Ps slow it down and give it their stamp, and “Spanish Harlem” and “The ‘In’ Crowd” are also successfully updated.
By May 1966, If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears was spending a week at No.1 in the States. Fans there, and beyond, could believe their eyes and ears, and filled them with the Mamas and the Papas.
Buy the vinyl editions of If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears released in January 2021.