Home > Album cover art > Great covers: The Mamas and the Papas – If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears

Great covers: The Mamas and the Papas – If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears

In this series of album covers I would hang up on my wall, I previously featured the artwork of Dexys Midnight Runners’ Searching For The Young Soul Rebel album, which features a defiant looking Belfast lad named Anthony O’Shaughnessy. A couple of weeks ago, Anthony commented on that post, which marks the first time the subject of a post (who was not a fellow blogger) responded to something published here.  Let’s see if Michelle Philips leaves a comment to this post. If she doesn’t, you are more than invited to do so…

When the Mamas and the Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears album was released in early 1966, the two mamas and the two papas were still sharing a house, a situation which soon changed after Michelle Phillips was caught having an affair (or in Michelle’s version, a one-night stand) with Denny Doherty. The story goes that when photographer Guy Webster was at the group’s communal house to shoot the cover pic, the lively four decided to play a game of hide-sand-seek with him. As they were hiding in the bath, Webster opened the door and snapped the winning image. The subjects’ facial expressions on the photo give no clue that the story might be apocryphal. Webster himself told a more prosaic version of the story: they were all stoned, and “I put them in the bathtub and I set up my tripod and my big two-and-a-quarter camera and shot that picture.”

The positioning is remarkable. John Phillips, on the far left, was married to Michelle. At that point Michelle had her affair (or secret exchanges of affection) with Denny. Meanwhile, Cass was in unrequited love with Denny, a life-long love that would never be romantically reciprocated. Note that Michelle is lying in Denny’s arms, her boots metaphorically directed at her husband. And poor Cass is putting on a jovial face when surely she would want to be the one in Denny’s arms.

As noted, at the time the album came out, Michelle and Denny (who was deeply in love with her) had not been caught out yet. So the story that John wrote Go Where You Wanna Go as a bitter commentary about Michelle’s tryst with Denny is not correct. It is, however, inspired by a previous extra-marital affair Michelle allegedly had conducted. So here he has his wife crooning about her inability to exercise fidelity. Eventually, John expelled Michelle (one of the most gorgeous women in pop ever) from the group, after her affair with the Byrds’ Gene Clark, but soon took her back.

John was not above punishing his bandmates in lyrics. The line “…and nobody was getting fat except for Mama Cass” in Creeque Alley on the Deliver LP was particularly cruel on Ms Elliott, who suffered life-long self-esteem and, indeed, romantic problem owing to her obesity (in the end, rapid weight-loss possibly contributed to the heart attack that killed her in 1973). Cass, whom John didn’t want in the group in first place and whose stardom he resented, sang the line with breezy gusto. Deep down it must have hurt. Likewise, having Cass and Denny dueting on a song about unrequited love, Gad To Be Unhappy, with the line, “Like a straying baby lamb with no mama and no papa, I’m so unhappy” seems like a calculated insult quite in keeping with John’s character.

But romantic intrigue isn’t what the cover of If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears is famous for. Its notoriety derives from the depiction of – gasp – a toilet. Soon, the toilet would be covered with an overprint and/or stickers advertising featured hits and awards won. A later cover simply cropped the picture closer to eliminate the bog (see The Gentlebear). It is bizarre to think that a humble toilet, by then standard issue in most American homes, should have posed such a threat to the moral susceptibilities of a nation which was pretty tolerant of atomic testing, McCarthyism, racial violence and other such sordid activities.

It must be said, however, that the state of the toilet does not hint at meticulous housekeeping standards chéz Mamas & Papas. Perhaps the guardians of American sensibility were more concerned about the effect the cover might have on the nation’s proud housewives, now at risk of corruption by Cass and Michelle’s slovenly disregard for brush and bleach (they would not, of course, hold the lazy guys accountable).

 

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  1. May 6th, 2009 at 07:56 | #1

    Great post, Amd,

    What sad tale…

  2. May 6th, 2009 at 15:13 | #2

    Superbly observed. I knew very little of the detail to all this.

  3. Garth
    May 7th, 2009 at 00:36 | #3

    I’d have to agree with the above comment – I own an embarrasingly large amount of Mamas and Papas stuff, and sure I’d heard the lines in question and assumed they were some kind of self-deprecatory humour, or irony. Very interesting to hear about the rifts within the band!

  4. May 8th, 2009 at 18:57 | #4

    Sadly, the first thing I noticed when I saw the album cover was the use of apostrophes in the Mamas and the Papas. To paraphrase my dad (an English professor): “The Mama’s and the Papa’s what? That’s possessive!” A common mistake nowadays with the misuse of it’s/its, but here it’s occurring 40 years earlier.

  5. sw2boro
    May 31st, 2009 at 15:47 | #5

    Some of you may have seen BBC4 (in the UK) on Friday night – they had a double bill of docs about the Mama’ & the Papa’s that was very enjoyable, with lots of interviews with Michelle in particular – she didn’t come across as a very sympathetic character. One was a Rock Family Trees show with the subtitle California Dreamin’ & featured the Lovin’ Spoonful too, the other was just about the M’s & P’s – they may be on i-player if you’re quick.
    Apparently the album title came after a studio audition where the chap (forget his name & actual position) from the record company listened to them “blind” just so he wouldn’t be tricked by a band’s image, loved their sound, had a look, and…

  6. June 1st, 2009 at 09:42 | #6

    Damn, I’d have loved to see that. Michelle might come across less than sympathetic, but, goodness knows, rarely has there been a more beautiful woman in pop music.

  7. sw2boro
    June 3rd, 2009 at 20:27 | #7

    You’ll no doubt be further gutted to know that those shows were repeated on BBC4 on Saturday, Sunday & Monday nights, but no more repeats scheduled. Sorry – if I’d known I would have flagged them up for you or DVD’d & posted them.

    I’d certainly encourage you to keep an eye on BBC4’s listings, they show a lot of very good music docs & concert footage etc. – assuming you can’t get it where you are, give me a shout in the other place should you require.

    And I would certainly agree that Michelle Mama was very beautiful, but there was also something dead-eyed about her I found slightly chilling.

  8. October 4th, 2009 at 04:18 | #8

    does anyone know what the insult John made to Cass was that led to her first walkout???

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