It’s not hard to imagine the delusion that must have went into the tracks collected on Many Mamas, Mama Papas, Varese Sarabande’s most recent installment in its series of John Phillips reissues, which compiles 16 studio recordings from 1981 to 1989, and eight live tracks from the same period. At some level, everyone involved must have known that these songs were not going to chart. They must have known that these songs were not going to return Phillips to artistic respectability after a decade spent in drug-addled disrepute, or that they were not even destined to be released in his lifetime.
Yet Phillips, his daughter Mackenzie (the One Day at a Time actress, fighting her own addiction problems) and several of his ‘60s cohorts—former Papa Denny Doherty, Scott Mackenzie of “San Francisco” (Wear Flowers in Your Hair) fame, and Spanky MacFarlane from Spanky and Our Gang—were able to put that looming sense of failure aside and climb into their ego cocoons long enough to record at several different sessions. Desperation is occasionally palpable in the incongruous 1980s production touches (drum machines, Sanborny sax licks, bad synth sequencing, kettle drums) and the nostalgic vocal arrangements meant to remind listeners of the Mamas and the Papas’ late 1960s heyday. And you can hear the overwhelming self-pity in the lyrics, which indulge the same lacerating melancholy and romanticized disappointment that marks much of Phillips’ work from his classic 1970 album, usually called John, Wolf King of L.A., on. Hideous indulgence and impotent regret were pretty much a way of life for Phillips, and he couldn’t write anything that didn’t reflect his doomed oscillation between those twinned poles and how he thwarts his own yearning to escape.
One would have every reason to expect this collection to be embarrassing and un-listenable. The CD booklet’s photos of the band, aging and clumsily dressed, does nothing to dispel that intuition. And the disc kicks off with a labored cover of the Moody Blues’ “Go Now” that seems to confirm those fears. But the distance that Phillips had traveled from the mainstream in the life he had been leading leaves its trace on this material. Phillips never lost his gift for melody, but he no longer knew how to be conventionally accessible. So many of the songs, despite their superficial and unfortunate sheen, throb with muted despair and ambivalence. The bridge of “I Wish” is typical: “Tell me now why can’t I be way down on the Bowery/Lonely and tired, hungry and cold, upset and angry?” Even “Kokomo”, which was eventually reworked into a mindless hit for the Beach Boys in 1988, appears here in an early form as a troubled lament for a lost paradise. The restrained production and the casually affecting vocals makes it the most conventionally satisfying thing on the disc.
When McFarlane or Scott Mackenzie take the lead on Phillips’s junkie fables, like “Frankie” and “Chinaman”, they add a layer of distance and apparent non-comprehension reminiscent of Doug Yule’s vocals on the Velvet Underground album Loaded. The emotional dissonance makes for somewhat strange listening—like Alvin and the Chipmunks singing the sexual innuendo of “Good Girls Don’t” on Chipmunk Punk. Their vocals are no less suited to “Yachts”, a loping crypto-reggae song that cries out for an understated approach rather than the pushy harmonies Phillips scored instead. McFarlane has an awkward crack at “Love Is Coming Back”, originally crafted for the vampy Tin Pan Alley throwback album by Phillips’ wife Genevieve Waite, Romance Is on the Rise. Waite sang it with campy little-girl flirtiness, but McFarlane’s take is a cold shower.
“Not Too Cool” is the most successful attempt from these sessions to sound like the Mamas and the Papas; it’s easy to imagine the original group sounding something like this if they had managed to stay together for another decade. That’s not an endorsement of the song, just an observation. It’s a bit of a knockoff of “Trip, Stumble, and Fall”, aping its structure and spirit, and seems a bit superfluous. The songs on which Phillips sings lead are generally the most compelling and disturbing, even when they seem meant to have an upbeat calypso vibe, like “Kwela” and “She Got She”. He adds a hint of menace despite himself; he can’t give himself over completely to the pretense that pleasing an audience is more important or more powerful than purging his own demons. “Love Life”, another of the restrained productions, is as good as anything from Phillips’ solo career; his wistfulness remains abstract enough to allow for listeners to sympathize and enter into the song emotionally instead of having to remain outside, observing the freak show.
But there’s no escaping prurience on the songs which Mackenzie Phillips sings lead—“Love Song” and “Crying in the Shower”. They wouldn’t be out of place on Marianne Faithfull’s broken and spiteful Broken English album. Mackenzie’s voice isn’t as hoarse and brittle, but the irony and contempt is unmistakable in lines like “Oh baby, don’t you know you’re the consummate rock and roller”. Her relationship with her father was obviously complicated and disturbing, and allegedly incestual, and one can’t help but think about that when listening to these songs and the harrowing “Fairy-Tale Girl” (another song improbably rerecorded by the Beach Boys as “Somewhere Near Japan”) or “Babies”, both of which detail Mackenzie’s troubled teenage years. The biographical overtones potentially limit the appeal of this material, despite it being relatively strong compared with the rest of the disc.
But in truth, a certain amount of morbid curiosity is a prerequisite for appreciating John Phillips. If one can set aside feeling like a voyeur, one can appreciate an ambivalent glimpse at the dark side unlike any other accessible elsewhere.