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On This Day In Music… May 7, 1966: The Mamas & the Papas Score Their Only No. 1 Hit With a Song Written in 20 Minutes

'Monday, Monday', John Phillips' 'dumb f---in' song about a day of the week' wasn't even especially liked by the band themselves.

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'Monday, Monday' was The Mamas & the Papas' third single.

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On May 7, 1966, The Mamas & the Papas’ third single hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100, the first song by a mixed-gender group to do so. “Monday, Monday” would be the only release by the Californian quartet to reach No. 1 – and if it is now often overlooked in favor of their previous single “California Dreamin’”, it remains in many ways the quintessential Mamas & the Papas song: touched by genius, defined by its sublime harmonies… and rooted in hidden strife.

The Mamas & the Papas may have looked and sounded like the perfect mid-1960s pre-hippy dream, but behind the blissful smiles and perfect melodies lay raw ambition, copious substance abuse, and a sexual merry-go-round to rival Fleetwood Mac’s.

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Behind the smiles and sunny harmonies was 'two and a half years of total melodrama'.

The group had come together after New York folk musician John Phillips met Michelle Gilliam, nine years his junior, while touring with his band The Journeymen in San Francisco, and promptly left his wife to marry her. The pair joined with Denny Doherty of folk band The Mugwumps and began playing together in New York in the early 1960s.

With Phillips taking control of the band – as well as writing their songs – they continued with a folk sound, before Doherty suggested adding his Mugwumps bandmate Cass Elliot to make the trio a quartet. Initially, Phillips was skeptical, ostensibly objecting to Elliot’s strong contralto voice, but also admitting he felt that her weight would be a hindrance to their commercial success.

He was outvoted, and in the spring of 1965, the four bandmembers decamped to the Virgin Islands to write and rehearse in earnest. It was there that Elliot and Doherty persuaded Phillips to “go electric”, inspired by the Beatles-led "British Invasion" of 1964. The result would be spectacular: after returning to California that summer, The Mamas & the Papas were snapped up by Dunhill Records.

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John Phillips initially objected to the inclusion of Cass Elliot in the group.

The band’s first single, “Go Where You Wanna Go” was released a few months later, and bombed. But after second single, “California Dreamin’”, came out in December 1965, The Mamas & the Papas were suddenly a sensation.

If Phillips had been worried that Elliot’s look would be a commercial hindrance, he could not have been more wrong: the sheer force of her personality was magnetic, and when combined with the willowy, luminescent beauty of Michelle Phillips and the folksy, eccentric Doherty and John Phillips, made for an entirely unique look. Added to that was their lush harmonies – with Elliot’s soaring contralto cutting through like a blast of pure California sunshine – and the deft mixing of pop sensibilities and folk roots, and The Mamas & the Papas (along with contemporaries The Byrds) all-but defined the emerging Laurel Canyon sound that would prove so influential over the following decade.

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The Mamas & the Papas' brief career would help define the Laurel Canyon sound.

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“California Dreamin’” peaked at No. 4 and spent 17 weeks in the chart, and was followed in the spring by “Monday, Monday”, written while the band awaited the release of “California Dreamin’”, after Doherty told Phillips the band needed new material and a song with “universal appeal”. He duly returned the next day with a track he said he had written in 20 minutes.

At first, none of the others rated “Monday, Monday”. Speaking later, Doherty, who sang lead vocals, said: “Nobody likes Monday, so I thought it was just a song about the working man. Nothing about it stood out to me; it was a dumb f---in’ song about a day of the week.”

Nevertheless, they recorded the tune, enlisting legendary session band The Wrecking Crew to provide accompaniment.

The result was astonishing: “Monday, Monday” may have been “a dumb f---in’ song about a day of the week,” but with the Wrecking Crew’s symphonic backing and the quartet’s rich, sumptuous vocal harmonies – plus a smart false ending before the climax – it was impossible to resist. Radio stations began playing it even as “California Dreamin’” was still in the charts, and by the time it was officially released as a single in March 1966, it was inevitably going to be a hit.

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Behind the harmonies, however, the band were already fracturing. The Mamas & the Papas may have appeared to embody the blissful, unified spirit of California on the cusp of the Summer of Love, but the reality was very different. Michelle Phillips had begun an affair with Doherty – himself the subject of Cass Elliot’s unrequited romantic ardor – while John Phillips was availing himself of the “free love” vibe of the time with a succession of willing groupies and hangers-on.

Sex was not the band’s only vice. Doherty later admitted "The first thing I did in the morning and the last thing I did at night was have a blast of rum,” and Michelle Phillips would tell People that the band "never went into the studio without a case of Crown Royal and a bag of pot."

Meanwhile, Phillips grew increasingly jealous of Elliot’s status as the stand-out star of the group, with Rolling Stone describing her at the time as “the unchallenged queen of the pop music scene”. It was Elliot, from her Laurel Canyon home, who introduced David Crosby and Stephen Stills to Graham Nash, and as she told the magazine, "Joni Mitchell has written many songs sitting in my living room”.

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By the end of 1968, with Elliot an established star in her own right and the Phillips marriage on the rocks, The Mamas & the Papas disbanded (a contractually-obliged final album would emerge in 1971, scraping into the charts at No. 84). As Michelle Phillips sardonically recalled to Vanity Fair of their time together, “It was two and a half years of total melodrama.”

Nevertheless, for a little while, The Mamas & the Papas created magic. In their short time together they scored four Top 20 albums and six Billboard Top 10 singles: today “California Dreamin’”, “Monday, Monday”, “I Saw Her Again”, “Words of Love”, “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “Creque Alley” are all held as classics. And of them all, it was Phillips’ “dumb f---in’ song about a day of the week” that gave the band their only No. 1, and their only Grammy Award, for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal.


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