For the week of 1/21/2013…

“I Saw Her Again Last Night” by the Mamas & the Papas

The actual title of this song, I believe, is just “I Saw Her Again,” but it seems pretty common to take the entire first line of the song as the title.  Anyway, I’ve been listening to the Mamas & the Papas’ first two albums this week, and especially my three favorite songs of theirs:  three-minute-long drug innuendo “Straight Shooter” on their first album, the beautiful “No Salt on Her Tail” from their second, and “I Saw Her Again,” one of the singles from their second.  I can’t decide which is the best; they’re all great.

So The Mamas & The Papas, their self-titled sophomore record, was recorded in 1966 during a time of significant turmoil within the band.  As a result of the sudden massive success of their debut — released in February of that year and buoyed by era-defining singles like “California Dreamin'” and “Monday, Monday” — the headaches of heavy touring and the accompanying drugs hung over the writing and recording of the quickly-released followup.  Most disruptive of all was the affair one of the two male singers, Denny Doherty, had with the attractive wife, fellow band member Michelle Phillips, of the other male singer, John Phillips.  Meanwhile, the other female singer, Cass Elliot, who was overweight but had the best voice in the group, was bitter because her love for Doherty was unrequited.  Michelle was briefly kicked out of the group, but returned to finish the recording sessions that had been started with temporary replacement Jill Gibson.

In the midst of all of this, John Phillips, often considered one of the great songwriters of the 1960s, forced an awkward situation:  Doherty was to co-write a song with Phillips about his affair with Phillips’ wife.  The result was this great, heavily-Beatles-influenced rock ‘n’ roll song.  In the autobiographical song, Doherty admits to wrongfully stringing her along, lying when he told her he loved her, being in way over his head, and “living a lie.”  That description makes it sound like it’s a painful song to listen to, but in fact everything about the recording sounds almost magical, from the instrumentation (including the strings interlude) and memorable melodies to the beautiful harmonies and vocal arrangements.  The false-start “I saw her… I saw her again last night” towards the end of the song is regarded as one of those accidents that sounds so good it couldn’t have possibly been accidental.  John Lennon said as much when he heard the song.

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