John Phillips: Many Mamas, Many Papas

John Phillips' efforts to revive his career in the 1980s are awkward and emotionally fraught, but surprisingly not awful.

John Phillips

Many Mamas, Many Papas

Label: Varese Sarabande
US Release Date: 2010-07-06
UK Release Date: 2010-07-12

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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