“I guess no matter what else we do, we’ll always be part of this thing called The Mamas & the Papas, with all its intense love-hate relationships.” So once admitted “Papa” John Phillips, and by all accounts, those familiar relationships flared up in 1971 when John, ex-wife Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot reunited for what would turn out to be their final album together, People Like Us. Yet despite being a contractual obligation for the group, the LP turned out to be a work of great beauty - if a commercially unsuccessful one. More than forty years on, Cherry Red’s Now Sounds label is revisiting the formerly out-of-print People Like Us in an expanded edition, part of the (ongoing) Papa John Phillips Presents reissue series. The sepia-toned cover photograph of the group takes on even more of a wistful hue. “Mama” Michelle is the last living member, with Cass having died in 1974, John in 2001 and Denny in 2007.
Upon its release in 1971, People Like Us was likely jarring to listeners who still had “I Saw Her Again (Last Night)” (1966) and “California Dreamin’” (1965) in their recent memories. The urgency of those hits was replaced by liquid, languid grooves. The polish of the Wrecking Crew session pros was absent, replaced with Motown stalwarts and jazz players. Even the vocal blend of the group sounded different, with “Mama” Cass no longer so out front in the mix. The boisterousness of “Words of Love” or “Monday, Monday” was all but absent. Yet today, People Like Us, produced and written almost entirely by John Phillips, can be viewed an extension of Phillips’ own, early solo work, and an honest, natural updating of the Mamas & Papas’ sound for a new decade. It’s somewhere between funk and cosmic country, and the perfect soundtrack to a lazy, hazy day of summer deep in Laurel Canyon.
The California feeling was different than in the past, but still evident on songs like “Pacific Coast Highway,” with its chugging beat, funky guitar and wailing saxophone weaving through. The newly-assembled band (including famed keyboardist Joe Sample of The Jazz Crusaders, percussionist Gary Coleman, drummer Ed Greene, saxophonist/flutist Jim Horn plus Motown vets Tony Newton on bass, Clarence McDonald on keyboards, Bobbye Hall on percussion and David T. Walker and Louie Shelton on guitar) adapted well to the group’s vocal sound. The title track “People Like Us” is every bit as lovely as any of their past hits, espousing sentiments that may or may not have been true (“People like us/So much in love/People who just trust/One another…”) in closely-blended harmony. The tone of the spellbinding song is hushed and intimate, with Phillips reflecting on the Mamas & the Papas’ early days in New York in a poetic, even sweet and rose-colored way that’s far removed from the acerbic “Creeque Alley”: “Ooh, what a dump/Now it’s a palace/Where a Dixie cup becomes a chalice.”
The mid-tempo “Step Out” was chosen as the album’s single; it only reached No. 81 on the Billboard chart. “Shooting Star,” the single B-side, is one of the more rocking tracks on a largely mellow set of songs, and boasts a typically intricate vocal arrangement by Phillips, as well as subtle orchestration from Gene Page which adds tension to the mix. Steel drums add a unique character to the impressionistic, evocative “European Blueboy.” Cass Elliot sounds content on these tracks to be part of the group, rather than out front with her commanding voice and vaudevillian, coquettish and charismatic persona.
Despite any conflicts between the members, the sounds on the surface of People Like Us are filled with good vibrations and great spirits. The harmonies on “No Dough” are fittingly shimmering, with vivid imagery from Phillips imagining dialogue between a young couple in bed as the Mamas and Papas trade off each line: “Pass the chips, you’ve got salt on your lips/Not the news, it gives you the blues/Help you off with your shoes/Then I’ll scratch your back/Then I’ll do the same to you.” That’s not the only element of whimsy on the album; “Blueberries for Breakfast” (“Love in the afternoon/Butterflies in my trousers/Under the August moon”) begins humorously enough before veering into eccentric territory: “I'm gonna have to call the cops, if you don't leave me alone/Stop waiting at the bus stop, trying to walk me home/The FBI, the CIA, you know they'll never leave you alone/And I will cut you to the bone!”
Phillips drew on personal experiences and relationships for many of the album’s songs, turning some into story songs and others into character studies. “Pacific Coast Highway” drew inspiration from a hitchhiker he met at a club, and “I Wanna Be a Star” depicts a young actress anxious for her big break (“I don’t want to keep house for a spouse/I’d much rather be the girl, I need much more to be the pearl of the movies”) as well as the comments of those around her! The wistful “Pearl” was a tribute to Janis Joplin (who else?), built around “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and wishing for the departed singer that she “finds someplace out of this world where she feels at home.” The lovely “Lady Genevieve” was written for Phillips’ future wife Genevieve Waite, “Snowqueen of Texas” was based on model Deborah Dixon, and “Grasshopper” even recounted Michelle’s marriage to Dennis Hopper!
What will you find on this expanded edition? Hit the jump for that, plus the track listing and order links!
Nine bonus tracks (all previously released on other volumes in the Papa John Presents series, to our knowledge; alas, no discographical information is provided) offer a near-complete portrait of John Phillips’ musical experimentation during the period in which People Like Us was created. A freewheeling late-night session sans Cass but plus Terry Melcher yielded the satiric “Fantastic Four,” and a spare guitar-and-voice demo of “Lady Genevieve” is even more touching than the finished track. “No Dough (Honeymoon)” offers different vocals than the finished album version. The full-blown country rave-up “Mississippi” features Wrecking Crew vets Joe Osborn, Larry Knechtel and Hal Blaine, plus renowned guitarist James Burton and singers including Darlene Love. “April Anne,” another personal song populated by Phillips’ friends and acquaintances, is in the same countrified vein which Phillips continued to explore post-People Like Us in songs like “Revolution on Vacation,” heard here in a mix distinct from its original Columbia single release.
“Jack of Diamonds” is better known as “Me and My Uncle” in the Grateful Dead’s version; John’s own, raw version included here features different lyrics. The most atypical bonus track might be “Andy’s Talkin’ Blues” from Man on the Moon, the Phillips-penned musical that played Broadway’s Little Theatre (today the Helen Hayes Theatre and home to Rock of Ages) for 42 previews and just 10 performances per Playbill Vault. Other accounts state the show ran for anywhere from 2 to 5 performances! Ironically, some of the songs on People Like Us (“No Dough,” “I Wanna Be a Star”) are far more theatrical than “Talkin’ Blues.”
The attractive 16-page booklet features notes from Richard B. Campbell and the reissue’s co-producer, Jeffrey A. Greenberg. Now Sounds’ Steve Stanley co-produced the set, and designed the impressive package. Alan Brownstein has wonderfully remastered the album from the original master tapes. Now Sounds has previously brought the Phillips-produced Jamme to CD as part of the Papa John Presents series, picking up where Varese Sarabande left off. (Varese’s titles included John, the Wolfking of L.A., Jack of Diamonds, Pussy Cat, Man on the Moon, and Many Mamas, Many Papas.) Future volumes are eagerly anticipated.
Resplendent though its harmonies are, the central failing of People Like Us may have been that it simply didn’t sound close enough to the Mamas & the Papas’ past records for record buyers of the time. Cass Elliot’s tragic death, of course, closed the door on any true Mamas & the Papas reunion. Phillips and Doherty reformed the group as the 1980s began, however, under the name of The New Mamas & The Papas. But viewed through the lens only decades can afford, People Like Us offers a rare chance to hear the true “fantastic four” in a different setting than their classic material. It’s another kind of California dreamin’, for sure.
You can order People Like Us at the link below via Amazon U.S. (currently only through third-party sellers) and here at Amazon U.K.!
The Mamas & The Papas, People Like Us: Deluxe Expanded Edition (Dunhill DSX-10106, 1971 – reissued Now Sounds CRNOW37, 2012)
- People Like Us
- Pacific Coast Highway
- Snowqueen of Texas
- Shooting Star
- Step Out
- Lady Genevieve
- No Dough
- European Blueboy
- I Wanna Be a Star
- Blueberries for Breakfast
- Fantastic Four (Outtake) – The Mamas & the Papas
- Lady Genevieve (Outtake from John, the Wolfking of L.A.) – John Phillips
- No Dough (Honeymoon) (Alternate Mix) – The Mamas & the Papas
- Mississippi (Album Version from John, the Wolfking of L.A.) – John Phillips
- April Anne – John Phillips
- Revolution on Vacation (Alternate Mix) – John Phillips
- Cup of Tea (Skyjacked) (Alternate Mix) – John Phillips
- Me and My Uncle (Jack of Diamonds) – John Phillips
- Andy’s Talkin’ Blues – John Phillips
Tracks 1-12 from People Like Us, Dunhill DSX-10106, 1971
Tracks 13, 15 & 20 from John Phillips, Jack of Diamonds, Varese Sarabande 302 066 819-2, 2007
Track 14 from John Phillips, John the Wolfking of L.A., Varese Sarabande 302 066 752-2, 2006
Track 16 from John Phillips, John the Wolfking of L.A., Dunhill DS-50077, 1970
Track 17 from Dunhill single 4236-B, 1970
Tracks 18 & 19 alternate mixes of Columbia single 45737, 1972, also on Jack of Diamonds (see above)
Track 21 from Man on the Moon, Varese Sarabande 302 066 965-2, 2009
I've tried to order this new release several different places and they all say it's either out of stock or backordered. Amazon cancelled my pre-order and told me is was not available. Very frustrating.
While I don't love this album, I do enjoy it and actually prefer it over their fourth album. Your description of the album ("It’s somewhere between funk and cosmic country, and the perfect soundtrack to a lazy, hazy day of summer deep in Laurel Canyon.") is spot on!
The album was certainly in line with (and as good as) the other music that was coming out of that scene at the time. Ultimately, I think that is why it didn't work (commerically). You had a group that was famous for its totally unique sound now sounding like a bunch of other groups that were out there (ironically, many of which had been influenced by them).
Yeah, I won't be rushing to buy this expanded release. It really does smack of contractual album to me, lazy, off-the-cuff songwriting (witness those lyrics you mentioned). But there is something about it -- that early 70s minimalist groove and handmade feel on other tracks is very evocative of the time, which I do like. And "Shooting Star" is actually one of my favorite M&P tracks, unorthodox as it is for them. Love that long fade out with strings, bass still grooving along. Glad you took the time to write about it!
The assertion that "Cass Elliot sounds content on these tracks to be part of the group, rather than out front with her commanding voice" sounds rather groundless to me. Quite the contrary: as stated by her husband, upon listening to the final mix Cass was "livid, believing that John [Phillips] had remixed the recordings while she was out of the studio".
John Phillips himself, later in the years, has been quoted regretting not having used Cass's voice to its full extent.
For the record and to complete the track-by-track analysis, "I wanna be a star" was written by Michelle Phillips (not by John Phillips as mistakingly reported by this reissue's credits), and is considered to be an (auto)ironic piece about Michelle's own aspirations as an actress (she was by then moving her first steps in the movie world).
Joe Marchese says
Her performances on "People Like Us" certainly speak volumes to Cass' professionalism. While it may be true that Phillips mixed her down, her role in the tight vocal arrangements is still rather dissimilar from much of the group's venerable sixties hit output. I stand by the assertion that she sounds quite relaxed and content in a role that isn't so much diminished as altered. If, in fact, she was far from content, she vocally doesn't show it, and that's just one of the qualities that made her such a legendary presence. Thanks as always for your insights, Andrea!
Her role is "dissimilar" inasmuch it was mixed down AFTER the recording, and that's precisely what she was unsatisfied with.
I can't see how she could "sound content to be part of the group" since this (to mix her down "in the group") was a post-production choice she was then unaware of, and precisely the reason she has been famously reported to be unhappy with the final mix.
Joe Marchese says
We're going to have to agree to disagree on this one. To these ears, at least, Cass is singing in a much more restrained style on PEOPLE LIKE US than the brassy, dramatic and theatrical manner on many of the earlier, more well-known Mamas and Papas records (not to mention her impressive solo discography). While I've no doubt the mix contributed to her "reduced" presence on the album, it didn't alter her more subdued style of singing laid down at the recording sessions. Perhaps we could agree, though, that it would be remarkable to see some of this material remixed, should the multi-tracks still exist?
Hi Joe, thank you for this exchange of views. Every opinion is respectable as long as it doesn't contradict the ascertained facts… and the facts here tell us (as far as we are able to know by the accounts of those who witnessed the recordings) that those sessions were difficult and tense; that Cass was not particularly happy to work with John; and that she was definitely furious with the results: so there’s no way I would describe her as “content”, which was my first objection.
And yes again, by all accounts Cass’s reduced presence was mainly due to mixing choices, in which she was not involved, and which left her quite disappointed.
I’m only stating this to set the record straight; personally I think this is a fine record, and about half of the songs are sheer genius, which make it (to my ears) one half of the wonderful record it might have been.
Joe Marchese says
Andrea, many thanks for the civil discourse. I appreciate it, more than you know! I still must stress, though, that the line of my review reads: "Cass Elliot SOUNDS content on these tracks..." not that she WAS, in fact, content. I've worked with any number of artists who have been able to disguise their unhappiness behind the scenes, and I believe that's precisely the case here. Again, it speaks volumes to Cass' professionalism. But as you know, I agree that there's a lot of merit on "People Like Us." Thanks again for reading and sharing your views.
Thanks Joe. About the difference between "sounding" or "being" content - I'm not really sure if we want to go there. I actually don't know exactly what "sounding content" means (not even sure how you can tell a not-content-sounding singer; can you make me an example?).
I just kind-of had the impression you were saying that Ms. Elliot was pleased (comfortable, at ease) with this recording, while it's common knowledge she was not. I'm sorry I misunderstood your words. Cheers!
Joe Marchese says
Thanks again, Andrea. This could go on forever, so these are my last words on the subject - by "sounding content," I was referring to a lot of things - the tone and timbre with which Cass is singing; the warmth of her vocal performance; the lyric interpretation as a storyteller; etc. etc. We could go on forever about my choice of that one word in a rather lengthy piece, and I understand that you felt I could have chosen a less "weighty" word given the recording circumstances. But while I'm considering this particular discussion closed, I do - honestly! - thank you for your contributions here!
Just for the sake of completeness: the thing John Phillips was attempting, successfully in my opinion, during the mixing of this record was to blend Ms. Elliot’s and Ms. Phillips’s vocals. As engineer Val Garay noted, “[John Phillips] used Michelle’s voice to soften Cass’s hard edge”. What he was trying to achieve was a vocal mix very different from the buoyant-psychedelic-folk style of their previous records: a smooth, almost soft-jazz vocal style, a true blend in which the female voices and their tone and timbre are, most of the time, not discernible from each other. And this is quite obvious if you listen closely to the record. Thank you, Joe, for your insight!
Adam Marsland says
I was very content to read this fascinating exchange.