if you can believe

The #1 Albums: The Mamas and the Papas’ “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears”

Detail from the cover of "If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears." Not the most attractive setting we've ever seen for a cover photo.

This series, which intends to discuss each album to reach #1 on the Billboard chart began at a now-defunct website with Meet the Beatles in the winter of 1964. We’re up to the late spring of 1966 now, and in that two-year space, the following pop and rock artists managed to hit #1 amid the movie and Broadway soundtracks and Herb Alpert records: the Beatles (six times), the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, and the Rolling Stones. That’s it. You probably wouldn’t have pegged the Mamas and the Papas as the next in line, but here they are. Their debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, was #1 for the week of May 21, 1966. (It was briefly mentioned on last week’s Mad Men, when Glenn asks Sally if she’s bought the new Spoonful album yet.)

If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears contains some of the most magnificent music to come out of the 1960s, including “California Dreamin'” and “Monday Monday.” Allmusic.com’s review describes it perfectly: “[I]t embraced folk-rock, pop/rock, pop, and soul, and also reflected the kind of care that acts like the Beatles were putting into their records at the time.”

The Mamas and the Papas represented a sort of hybrid, too: John Phillips grew up on early rock ‘n’ roll and formed a folk group called the Journeymen (with Scott McKenzie), and a successor group, the New Journeymen, which included a model and singer named Michelle Gilliam. Meanwhile, Cass Elliot, who had sung in off-Broadway shows in New York and performed jazz in clubs, met up with Denny Doherty (and John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky) in a folk group called the Mugwumps. By the end of 1964, John and Michelle Phillips, Elliot, and Doherty formed what was briefly known as the Magic Cyrcle, but later became the Mamas and the Papas. Their audition at Dunhill Records included most of the songs that would eventually appear on If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears.

Here’s a live performance of two songs from the album, the Beatles’ “I Call Your Name” and “Somebody Groovy.” The Grass Roots join them on the latter, and they’re introduced by Barry McGuire, an old friend of Elliot’s who had helped the group get their Dunhill audition (and who scored his own hit, “Eve of Destruction”). The clip is from Shindig!, broadcast in December 1965.

Three more top-5 albums would follow If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears before the end of 1967. The last, the compilation Farewell to the First Golden Era, had it right. Although the Mamas and the Papas would maintain a high profile together and separately into the early 70s, their “golden era” was over by then, after lasting just short of two years.