One of our most popular 4TR themes has been The Girl In The Song, and in the course of uncovering that little piece of information about 67 songs thus far, I hope I have been able to throw some light on their provenance, to further contextualize the words and music that we all enjoy; and maybe even reveal something about the creative process, that will add to your appreciation of a favorite song, or take you to another time in your life that you haven’t re-visited for a while.
Providing information that contextualizes a song seems to further substantiate your listening experience, 4TR blog feedback indicates that we are all in search of creative inspiration, intrigued by the way that creative processes can be stimulated by an occurrence specific to one’s life, and how musical influences are so many and varied, and resonant through the works of so many performers. How Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound technique influenced the hits of the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, The Four Seasons, and The Crystals, how a folk song inspired Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, why a song about Renee inspired a global hit about a girl called Marianne, and the seemingly endless inspirational possibilities to be found with partners – Linda McCartney, June Carter, Agnetha Ulvaeus, and lovers – PJ Harvey, Judy Collins, Michelle Phillips, and others. Over the next two weeks we will again revisit famous songs from the past and explore the fascinating backstories that will answer that intriguing question “Who Was the Girl in the Song?”, I hope you enjoy the journey, as we bring up our 100th review of these classic songs.
Go Where You Wanna Go (1965 (J Phillips)), I Saw Her Again (1966) (J Phillips/D Doherty), 12.30 (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon (J Phillips) and Creeque Alley (J Phillips/M Phillips (1967) – Mamas And Papas.
Folk-rockers the Mamas and the Papas provided the musical backdrop for the sexually-liberated, flower-power of the late 1960’s, with their harmony-drenched hits Monday Monday, and California Dreamin’. The titular Mamas and Papas, who borrowed these terms of “endearment” from the Hells Angels, were John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot, and yet the groovy times didn’t save the group from the frequent upheavals that erupted within the band and saw them break up after only three years. Clandestine affairs and heartbreak, break-ups and re-unions, substance abuse and epic parties; in a Vanity Fair interview Michelle Phillips recalled the period 1965-68 as “…two and half years of total melodrama”.
John Philips and Michelle (Holly Michelle Gilliam) met in Hollywood in 1961, he was married to Susan Adams and they had two children (Jeffrey and McKenzie), but he was besotted with Michelle, a teenage model who was 18, he was 27, and after a whirlwind courtship they were married in 1962, and with Denny Doherty formed the group The New Journeymen. By the time that they departed for a drug-fueled stay on the Virgin Islands, Cass Elliott had joined the band, and brought along a quart of LSD as a party-starter contribution. It was here that all four band members dropped acid for the first time, Cass Elliott fell in love with Denny Doherty, Michelle Phillips commenced an affair with Denny, and John Phillips amused himself with young groupies, and commenced an affair with Mia Farrow. They also later found time to pen the song Creeque Alley which name-dropped their friends who had shared acid and dope with them on the beach – Cass Elliott, Denny Doherty, Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian (Lovin’ Spoonful), Roger McGuinn (Byrds), Barry McGuire (New Christy Minstrels), and Michelle who was referred to as “Michi”.
In 1966 the band would have three consecutive top five hits in the USA, but it was the John Phillips song Go Where You Wanna Go (1965) which reflected his growing discontent at being cuckolded by his wife with other men, who was simultaneously conducting affairs with the band’s tenor Denny Doherty and songwriter/producer Russ Titelman. The song’s lyrics are an emotional tug-of-war between himself and Michelle “You gotta go where you want to go/ Do what you want to do/ With whoever you want to do it with/ You don’t understand/ That a girl like me can’t love just one man/Three thousand miles, that’s how far you’ll go/ And you said to me please don’t follow…” it was a limited release as a single for the band, but a big hit for the 5th Dimension.
The triangular affair between Denny, Michelle, and John was complicated, Cass Elliott was burdened with an unrequited love for Denny, and not only were they all in the same band, but they were all creatively collaborating on song writing and production, and after the success of Monday, Monday and California Dreamin’, Doherty and Phillips collaborated on the writing of I Saw Again. Doherty’s confessional lyrics about his affair with Michelle (together below), which was now an open secret to John, caused tension to simmer between the two, and John warned Doherty off, but he was hopelessly infatuated with the doe-eyed Michelle, “I saw her again last night/ And you know that I shouldn’t/ To string her along’s just not right/ If I couldn’t I wouldn’t/ But what can I do, I’m lonely too/ And it makes me feel so good to know/ You’ll never leave me.”
The tension in the recording studio was such that Denny famously made a false start on the third chorus when he sang “I saw her…” and then stopped in mid-sentence, and the famous error stayed in the final mix. After ending her affair with Denny, Michelle moved on to Roman Polanski and Byrds lead singer Gene Clark, and it was at this point that John ejected her from the band and briefly replaced her with singer Jill Gibson, who appeared at live performances and recorded several tracks on the band’s second self-titled album, until Michelle later returned to the fold.
The band’s last successful single was the curiously-titled Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon), which was inspired by the migration of groupies into the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles in the evenings, looking to bed pop stars. In 1967 the Summer of Love was in full flower in Laurel Canyon, where an artist colony of actors, writers, and musicians had lived for decades. In the late 1960’s it was colonized by the rising stars of the hippie counterculture – Frank Zappa, John and Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliot, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell, the Byrds, the Monkees, Buffalo Springfield, and others, and young girls would inevitably find their way there, to crash the parties, score dope, and spend the night with their stars of choice.
John and Michelle would divorce in 1971, she would famously marry Dennis Hopper for 8 days, and have affairs with Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and others. John remarried in 1972 but he had become drug-dependent and was arrested for dealing, he spent time in rehab and had a liver transplant in 1992, but he passed away in 2001 (67yrs) and in 20003 his eldest daughter McKenzie revealed that she had been in an incestuous relationship with John for a decade. Denny Doherty who had been an alcoholic for much of his adult life passed away in 2007 (66yrs) and Cass Elliot sadly died of a heart attack in 1974 at the age of 32, after making a promising start to her solo career. At 76 years of age Michelle Phillips (below) remains the only surviving member of the group, she pursued a successful acting career in film and television throughout the 70’s and 80’s and is the mother of three children, including Chynna Phillips, who is a member of the group Wilson Phillips.
Veronica and her older sister Estelle Bennett and their cousin Nedra Talley, (above) were an aspiring girl group from Spanish Harlem NYC, performing at clubs and lounges in the city, including the famous Peppermint Lounge, who released a succession of unsuccessful singles on the Colpix label, under the names of the Darling Sisters and Ronnie and the Relatives. By 1963 they were ready to throw in the towel until Phil Spector (below with the group) agreed to audition them, he was so impressed with Ronnie (Veronica) and completely smitten as well, that he only wanted to sign her to a record deal with Phillies Records, but her mother delivered the ultimatum that it was all three girls or none at all, and the hottest producer in the US at the time, agreed.
Ronnie was an exotic blend of African-American, Irish, and Cherokee Indian lineage with a great rock voice, her signature look was Kohl-rimmed eyes, heavy makeup, and hair teased to dizzying heights, she was the rock goddess of her era, and Spector quickly moved to bring her into his life, and imprison her in his mansion in Los Angeles. His infatuation with Ronnie, who he would marry in 1967 also extended to an extraordinary level of perfectionism in recording and promoting the group, who Spector had dubbed the Ronettes. The girls travelled to California to record their first tracks at Gold Star studios with Spector, their debut recording Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love, was never released, a further four songs ultimately appeared on a Crystals album with no credit for The Ronettes.
This was standard procedure for Spector who regularly used his staff singers to record material and then released the songs under the names of others; for example Darlene Love (above) recorded the original version of He’s A Rebel which was released as the Crystals debut record with no credit to Love. When the Crystals subsequently performed the song in LA on a bill with Gene Pitney, who had written the song, he was surprised when they asked him the best way to perform it, even though it was already charting as a hit for the Crystals.
Spector would retain two of the best songwriters from New York’s famous song factory, the Brill Building, the husband and wife team of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (below), who with such hits as Da Doo Ron, Ron, Chapel of Love, Leader of the Pack, River Deep Mountain High, Then He Kissed Me, Do-Wad-Diddy, were songwriting royalty, and with Phil Spector they created the Ronettes magnum opus.
There was no doubt that Ronnie was the inspiration for Be My Baby, it was the ultimate celebration of Phil Spector’s life, love, and his pursuit of happiness, the Wall of Sound was perfected right here, Ronnie’s vocals were mesmerising, Hal Blaine’s drumming was iconic, Cher sang backing vocals, and it was a huge global hit.
The group that would become the Four Seasons (let to right above Tom Devito, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi) had performed as the Varietones and the Four Lovers, but chart success eluded them and they were performing in bars around New Jersey and New York, and providing backing vocals for the likes of Freddy Cannon, Danny and the Juniors, and Dion and the Belmonts, until their keyboardist, Bob Gaudio wrote their breakthrough smash hit – Sherry. Gaudio has revealed that he was inspired by the Bruce Chanel hit Hey Baby, and the working title for Sherry had been variously Jackie Baby (after Jackie Kennedy), Peri Baby (after one of Bob Crewe’s record labels), and finally Sherry Baby (after Cheri Spector) the daughter of DJ Jack Spector, one of Bob Crewe’s friends. Gaudio has also revealed that it only took him fifteen minutes to write the song, but choosing the title took much longer. Gaudio’s formula for success here was typical of the doo wop/pop genre of the time, include a girl’s name in the title (Susie, Cathy, Diana, Marie, etc), use a narrative where the guy is begging a girl to come out with him, refer to current fashions (Gaudio had already written the hit song Short Shorts for the Royal Teens and he referenced a “red dress” in Sherry) or dances (reference to a “twist party’” is part of Sherry’s lyrics), and wrap the whole thing in a big production, with echo chamber percussion, and Frankie Valli’s soaring falsetto vocals. Sherry was a global hit, a US #1 for 5 weeks, followed by Big Girls Don’t Cry, which was also a #1 US hit for 5 weeks., these Jersey Boys would become one of the most iconic of the early rock groups, and in 1964 they would deliver yet another stunning single which would dominate charts around the world.
One winter’s morning Bob Gaudio was driving into the city through the notorious Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan, near 11th Street he stopped at a traffic light, and a young homeless girl emerged from the sidewalk and began to clean his windshield, Gaudio recalled the little girl, dirty and wearing tattered clothes. He was mesmerised by her, and moved by her plight, reached for change to reward her but had none, so he gave her a ten dollar note, he could not forget the look on the girl’s face, and was inspired to compose the song Rag Doll. The opening drumbeat referenced Phil Spector’s classic Be My Baby, and the song’s narrative had Frankie Valli in love with a poor girl, whom his folks do not approve of. The song was a shimmering tribute to Spector’s Wall of Sound, and featured Valli’s closing vocals soaring up an octave at the outro, the B-side wasn’t too shabby either, Silence Is Golden became a UK #1 hit for the Tremeloes in 1967.
An intro of gliding strings like waves breaking on a shore, then a man’s doleful voice, rich and dark, intones one of the most enigmatic opening lines in pop music: “Some velvet morning when I’m straight/I’m gonna open up your gate/ And maybe tell you ‘bout Phaedra/ And how she gave me life/ And how she made it end/ Some velvet morning when I’m straight.” In response a woman’s voice, light and airy like a summer’s breeze, chants an invocation: “Flowers growing on a hill, dragonflies and daffodils / Learn from us very much, look at us but do no touch/ Phaedra is my name.”
It was 1967 in Hollywood, the bass voice belonged to writer/producer (Barton) Lee Hazlewood, the soprano to his protégé Nancy Sinatra, he was 38, she was 27 and the eldest of Frankie’s three children. Between 1966-68 they would dominate global charts with a series of off-kilter hit songs written by Hazlewood and sung by Nancy who took Lee’s advice “You can’t sing like Nancy Nice Lady any more. You have to sing for the truckers.” He got her to sing in a lower key, crafted sexy songs about women who were empowered, dangerous, even mysterious – These Boots Are Made For Walking, Lightning’s Girl, Sugar Town, Bang Bang (He Shot Me Down) – and she made an image overhaul which included bleached blonde hair, frosted lips, heavy eye make-up and Carnaby Street fashions – this was the Swingin’ Sixties.
The duets between the two were as surprising as they were successful, country-tinged songs like Jackson and Summer Wine came naturally to Hazlewood who was from Oklahoma where his family had lived an itinerant life, and Lee had written and produced hits for Duane Eddy and Sanford Clark, as well as Houston for Sinatra’s Rat Pack pal Dean Martin.
So the release of Some Velvet Morning, a duet by Nancy and Lee, written by Hazlewood who had been inspired by a Greek goddess, made this song the most surprising duet of them all, and rated by UK music critics in 2003, as #1 on their list of the “50 Best Duets Ever” (Daily Telegraph). Phaedra was the goddess in question, she was the treacherous wife of Theseus, whose unrequited love for Hippolytus, her stepson, resulted in his watery death at the hands of Poseidon, after Phaedra lied to Theseus that Hippolytus had raped her – who knew that Lee Hazlewood was into Greek mythology?
Lee’s interpretation of these mythological events, and the reasons behind the inspiration can only be explained by the man himself, in his typically laconic style: “I thought they (Greek myths) were a lot better than all those fairy tales that came from Germany that had killings and knifings. There was only about seven lines about Phaedra. She had a sad middle, a sad end, and by the time she was 17 she was gone. She was a sad-assed broad, the saddest of all Greek goddesses. So bless her heart, she deserves some notoriety, so I thought I’ll put her in a song.’
Interpretations of the song are numerous, the metaphorical references to getting “straight” and opening her “gate” implied a carnal intent, the song headed off in different directions, at once overlaid with a country-folk ambience, then consumed by a haunting, otherworldly psychedelia which swirled around in the background, courtesy of a brilliant orchestral arrangement by Billy Strange, who originally recorded the whole thing live, without any overdubbing or layering, it was trippy, hippy, and utterly timeless. Many artists have been drawn to unravel the ambiguity in the lyrics, Aussie Rowland S Howard, of the Birthday Party, and Lydia Lunch made the perfect Gothic coupling in 1982, even Kate Moss had a crack at it with Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream in 2002, but two years before Hazlewood died in 2007, he recorded the most poignant version of this song with his grand-daughter- Phaedra is her name.