Saturday, 19 March 2011

The A-Z Of All Time Great Pop Singles: "C"

C is for: "California Dreamin'", by The Mamas & The Papas
When me and my kid sister used to holiday with our folks, we'd go in the car someplace like Northumberland or Norfolk or wherever, and our parents would take the opportunity of having a captive audience to educate The Kids about The Popular Music Of Their Youth. The syllabus was largely defined by whatever cheapo 60s cassette compilation my Dad could find in the first petrol station we came to, tapes called things like 'Music Inspired By Easy Rider' or 'The Best Of The Sixties'. The real mainstay, however, was a double-cassette called 'Psychedelia', 40 tracks of late 60s wig-out magic, including White Rabbit, 8 Miles High, See My Friends, and even Beefheart's Electricity. Undeniable, timeless pop records. And I heard 'em a lot. But there was one song that, despite the fact that it only apeared on the album once, just like the rest of those songs, seemed to be on in our car the whole time, every time I looked up from the Beano Summer Special, or the NME, or from playing Top Trumps with my sister - The Mamas and The Papas' California Dreamin'.

There are very few songs awesome enough to withstand the sort of maximum over-exposure that the Western World has had to this record. It's wheeled out every time a movie, TV or advert director wants to evoke 'The Sixties'. It's a shortcut, short-hand for a whole era. It should, by all rights, have become a terrible cliche, synonymous with yawnsome babyboomer nostalgia. Everybody, everywhere, should be bored to death of this song. And yet, somehow, California Dreamin's spooky, chilly glory remains entirely undiminished. Partly I think this is because, unlike, say White Rabbit, California Dreaming isn't a "hippy" record, or an "acid rock" record - it's not a record about living in sixties LA; it's a record about dreaming about living in sixties LA. This puts the protagonist in the same position as the listener, and provides the sense of longing, of yearning, for a mythical other place, which defines this song.

Beyond that , there are so many great things about this record that it's impossible to list them all here. I like how dramatic it is, and how short it is, and how it packs so much briliant stuff into those two minutes and 39 seconds that it makes you wonder why more pop records can't do it, and I love the outrageously loud backing vocals "well I got down on my knees (GOT DOWN ON MY KNEES!) / and I pretend to pray (I PRETEND TO PRAY!)", and the final, rushing "DAAAAAAYYYYYYYYY" (six seconds long!).
Maybe most of all, I love the flute break, a pristine, ghostly, yearning little melody which send shivers down my spine still. It's just one of my very favourite moments on any pop record. Bud Shank played that flute solo. Bud was a West Coast jazzman who played with Stan Kenton, and on pioneering indo-jazz fusion tracks with Ravi Shankar. Most people who've heard California Dreamin', and that's pretty much everybody everywhere, probably don't know the name Bud Shank. Truth be told, neither did I until I was reading about this song recently. His music can be heard everyday on radio stations around the globe, but his name remains a quiet footnote in the pop history books. So this post is for Bud Shank.


Dazzy Hitch said...

Aww dude, you rock!

This is another awesome choice - I know exactly where you're coming from on a lot of the points you make here. Like you, I was brought up on a diet of Super Sixties compilations, as my parents had a couple of sets of Readers Digest "Sounds Of The Sixties" tapes, which would always get played on long car journeys and lazy sunday afternoons - and California Dreaming always seemed to be on. I've always loved the M&P's glorious harmonies, and this intoxicating classic is the epitome of that.

As you point out, it's interesting how many people (especially the idiot literalists who provide soundtracks for TV shows) misinterperate what the song is actually about. In that regard, I guess it's like Springsteen's "Born In The USA", another tune that's always taken literally rather than lyrically (if that makes sense).

Oh, and funky flute breaks! Oh man, I thought I was the only guy into funky flute breaks! Those mid-70's Lalo Schifrin-style movie soundtracks are stuffed with crazy flute solos, and I love'em!

May I also point you in the direction of The Mamas & The Papas "Shooting Star" & Mama Cass's "One Way Ticket"? Neither of them are as good as California Dreaming, of course, but I dig them, and maybe you will too...

Oh, and two posts in a week? You're spoiling us... :)

Paul 'Fuzz' Lowman said...

.1. Great shouts on those two M&P / Mama Cass tracks; had never heard either before, they're both really great.

.2. Big fan of Lalo Schifrin's 60s/70s stuff, especially the Dirty Harry score.

.3. Anything is made better by adding flute.

.4. I must confess that I'd actually written the bulk of this post ages ago and shelved it, so all I had to do was polish it a bit. Hence the epic "two posts in a week".

.5. Still waiting on your blog, dude. ;)

Your folks! said...

Great post and wonderful writing as ever.Love your choice for the letter "c".Glad we were able to influence your musical tastes.....and we've still got the casette!!

JulesLt said...

I remember that compilation too, where someone had obviously realised they could fill up a lot of time for little money with Electricity.

Love the way California Dreaming is used in Chungking Express too. Don't always think of people in the East dreaming of California.