Nightman’s Favourite Songs Of All Time: California Dreamin’ – The Mamas And The Papas

California Dreamin‘ is a song that, up until recently, I wouldn’t have considered one of my favourite songs. Not because I never liked it, just because I never much thought about it. Typically when I talk about my favourite songs, they are the ones that have somehow shaped my life or my musical taste or are by one of my all time favourite artists. In this instance none of those statements fit. So why is it featured in this series? Like some song posts to come in the future, it’s simply because the some is so fucking good I can’t ignore it. I’ve been listening to it more and more in the last year and pining for someone to start a new pop movement where the songs are as strong as this. The song has always been there in my life, not because I purposefully put it on or had an album with it but more simply because it was released a good eighteen years before I was born and was so popular that it continued to be played on radio stations and in movies and shows as I was growing up.

That seems like a good place to start – the song was released in 1965 and over the next couple of years became one of the seminal counter-culture hits. It’s one of those songs which makes me yearn for the USA – as many problems as it has always had, sometimes something comes along which makes you want to be a US citizen living and breathing and existing in the same world that the song talks about. It was a hit single in the States and made the Top 40 in The UK, before a re-release in the late 90s saw it finally crack the Top 10. It’s one of those songs which is predominantly 60s but yet endures in each new generation both in its original form and thanks to copious cover versions. While The Mamas And The Papas version is the best, cover versions include Sia, The Beach Boys, America, and Nancy Sinatra have all had a turn yet it was some dodgy German techno thing which garnered the song its first Number 1 placement.

At barely over 150 seconds long, the song is a perfect example of how to do a pop single with no fluff. Perhaps more important, it’s a perfect example of how to do harmonies – in my mind it’s one of the two best examples of this type of harmony ever written, the other being Help! The song even has a lazy pace and a fake-out psychedelic intro in its short running time. That intro strikes me, quite clearly, as the band having no idea how to start the song and getting to the main melody in a smooth way, so instead they just said ‘fuck it’ and cobbled together a few seconds of bizarre psych guitar before blasting straight in. Those melodies? Forget about it. A few seconds in and I’m hooked forever.

Lyrically, it’s the writer yearning for the warmth of California while in a colder part of the country. I’ve never been to California, but the song paints such an idyllic vision of the place that it make it sound like paradise – coupled with the hundreds of movies and shows I watched growing up set in California, hell even the name California has a mythic quality to someone from the dreary, grey, bomb-drenched shores of Ulster. Hearing this song as a kid made me think of long sunny evenings, beaches which stretched as far as they eye could see, and carefree living – feeling which still pervades now even with the cynical mind of a grown-up.

I’ve probably mentioned it countless times on this blog, but the three main elements for me in any song are melody, lyrics, and emotion. This song ticks all three boxes – while I don’t think the band here showcase amazing technical skills or vocals, the lyrics are evocative, the melodies like glue, and it’s all wrapped up in an authentic package. Get those three right, and all of the other important components of music should follow naturally. Get those three right, and even if the other components don’t work, I’ll probably still love your song. Check out my Nightman Scoring System(c) posts for more information on how I break down songs into twenty different components. For now though, click on one of the links throughout this post and enjoy some nostalgic, sun-drenched, melancholic pop.

Let us know in the comments what you think of California Dreamin’ and if there are any other Mamas And Papas songs you think I’d enjoy!

Nightman’s Favourite Songs Of All Time: Baby Be Mine – Michael Jackson

It’s still okay to talk about Michael Jackson’s music, right? I haven’t seen that documentary about him, and while I’ve been a lifelong fan and there’s no-one bigger than him in forming my musical taste, all that kiddie stuff now puts a sour taste in the mouth. If it’s true of course. I veer on the side of it not being true, and him just being an innocent weirdo, but I try not to be blinded by my love for him and his music. In the end, only those involved know for sure.

But I’m here to talk about his music; individual songs which I class as my favourites, and how they have impacted me. I’ve probably talked about it here before, but when I was young I never had my own copy of Thriller. Instead, I had a bootlegged/copied cassette which had somehow been doing the rounds in school, and I somehow managed to acquire a copy of that copy. One side had Bad (without Leave Me Alone) and the other had Thriller. I used to listen to both, probably on a daily basis, but as I was young and Thriller was scary, I would rewind the tape and listen to Bad more. I’ve always been a much bigger Bad fan but in recent years I’ve found myself enjoying many of the songs from Thriller more than I used to. Baby Be Mine was never a top tier Thriller song for me – the title track and Beat It were the biggies, Billie Jean and Lady In My Life were next, then Baby Be Mine and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. Now I rank them more or less evenly.

I don’t have any specific memories of listening to the song on its own – it’s more of a collective memory, an unease which covered the first half of the album and came from me knowing that Thriller would be coming up. So even though I liked the songs on the first half, my apprehension about the creepy song to come stopped me from fully appreciating them. That’s probably part of why I’ve never really enjoyed The Girl Is Mine, coming right before Thriller. 

After the sheer funk insanity of the epic opening track, Baby Be Mine simplifies things with a streamlined disco boogie and a dark atmosphere. That atmosphere may be something I’m projecting into the song, but it’s there nonetheless every time I hear it. I love that brief jazz drum intro and the synths work mysteriously for me as I’m not usually a big fan of the instrument, and all of the hand clicks, claps, and guitars work extremely well. This being Jackson, what stands out for most people are the melodies and vocals. Jackson was at his peak here as a singer, and the song challenges even his fantastic range. He soars and shrieks and lets out a variety of tics and runs, never letting a slight growl or impure note get in the way of the performance and emotion – if it works, keep it in. Lesser artists would retake again and again to get as clean a result as possible, taking out much of the emotion and inspiration.

The digital sounding backing vocals come decades before everyone else jumped on the bandwagon, yet they sound fresher than anything in the charts today. There’s something slightly ghostly about those backing vocals – projecting again – but they do what so many backing vocals don’t do – they stand on their own. Grab the mix, remove everything else, and listen to the backing pieces – fantastic by themselves and telling their own melody separate from the main lines. Those main lines are some of my favourites from any Jackson song. I’m surprised this wasn’t selected as a single too – it’s one of only two songs of the album’s nine which wasn’t released as a single. It’s interesting how the verse melody descends at the start of the line, and ascends for the second half, with the pre-chorus extending this out with a twist. It’s the verse melodies I prefer over the more straightforward chorus, but fortuitously the bridge is also exquisite and showcases some of Jackson’s most powerful vocals. The ending is a simple disco extension of the chorus, with enough variance so that it doesn’t become tired and repetitive – another skill today’s pop artists have lost.

Lyrically, the song is another call out to a lady – the clue’s in the title – and while he is treading the same ground he had been covering throughout his career, it’s the sexy, raw delivery which heightens their potency; the guy really wants this girl and it’s tearing him apart both being with her and being apart from her. He gets right to the howling soul of obsession and lays it bare. Jackson was much more than just a singer’s singer – he knew how to inflect, how to expand and retract, how to be theatrical and how to give the extra needed punch to an individual sound or word – his love of movies and musicals training him, but his natural ability keeping it from becoming false. He was truly a one of a kind voice.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Baby Be Mine – is it a personal favourite for you, is it one you need to return to, or is it a song you either don’t know or have never liked. Try one of the links above to check out the song and share your thoughts!

Nightman’s Favourite Songs Of All Time – A Case Of You – Joni Mitchell

Greetings, Glancers! You have been warned. But now it’s too late to turn back, and before you start whacking that back button and trying to get out let me tell you that if you do, there will be an unholy stain on your favourite rug next time you look. You’re stuck with me. Deal with it.

I came around to Joni Mitchell quite late. Late teens. I knew some of her songs when I was a cub – namely Big Yellow Taxi and The Circle Game. One of my best friends was a massive fan and he was living and working in a (basically) psych hospital/home and I would come and stay with him sometimes and get up to all sorts of shenanigans. He essentially had a personnel living quarters/ward to himself which reminded me of the army barracks I used to… well, that’s another story. It had the same feeling – long corridors, common rooms, dimly lit kitchen areas, hefty double doors and fire escapes, and bedrooms which seemed like minor improvements on prison cells. To have all this to yourself was like living in your own castle so naturally we would stay up till dawn watching DVDs, playing guitar, getting drunk, and messing around the halls on the various pieces of cleaning and physical training equipment. I have fond memories of walking around the building at 4.00 am while Fleetwood Mac was blaring through the speakers, before going outside as the sun was coming up and talking to some random ‘inmate’ who happened to be having a smoke (the whole complex was split into different areas from the violent criminally insane section which had its own guards and walls, to the more harmless dementia and addict patients, and many were free to roam as they pleased as far as I could tell).

Back to Joni – my friend would stick on Joni albums and they would be perfect for background chill music, but I’ve never been the sort of person who can ‘tolerate’ music as background sounds. What I mean by that is, if a song is on, I can’t help but listen to it. I focus on it, I zoom in on the instruments and the lyrics and the writing and end up engaging with it more than whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. Having a similar taste in music to me anyway, and frequently introducing each other to new bands, I latched on to Joni pretty quickly. With songs like A Case Of You – how can you not? It remains one of the most sweet, most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.

My wife hates it – she doesn’t do high pitched voices and she can’t listen to anything by Joni without cringing. I get it, even in her most commercial songs, I understand why some people won’t like her voice. She hits some incredibly high notes and at times comes close to being shrill, but by contrast that’s what I love in a vocalist. I like a voice to be strained until breaking point – I don’t usually do smooth vocals, listening to someone like Michael Buble is like having an apple pushed into my ear. The thing that is easy to miss when you dislike her voice is just how perfectly controlled it is – remember this song is little more than her vocal and her Dulcimer, but she performs it like a duet, her voice as the lead instrument and the guitar as a backup. Fans will know that she does this on a lot of her albums, but I think she does it best on her first three or four albums. Those little ascending scale runs she does, the personality on certain inflections, the incredible resilient vibrato, it all lends a unique power and quality that I don’t think any other vocalist has ever matched. Joni has always had that power of commanding a song with a vocal performance meaning that her version of whatever song it is invariably sounds the best.

Which brings me to cover versions. According to Wikipedia, the song has had over 300 official cover recordings. I haven’t heard many of those, and the only one which jumps out at me is the one by Tori Amos – another artist who was frequently played during those debauched nights in the halls – but the likes of Prince, KD Lang, and Michelle Branch have covered it too, and a brief search in Youtube will yield hundreds of results by budding and wannabee singers, songwriters, pop stars all bringing their own voice and personality to it. The song has appeared in multiple movies and TV shows over the decades. It’s a song which has clearly spoken on a deeply personal level to millions of people since it’s debut in 1971 on Blue. What is it then which has made it so universally loved for so long? That’s one of the key questions of music, or art as a whole – how and why something endures. At its most simple, it is because the song resonates emotionally, and love and loss are human facets which have always been and will always be.

At a deeper level, that voice is at once haunting, sweet, reminds of what has been seen as a more ideal time, and somehow captures the listener in their own personal point in time. For whatever reason, people find this song exactly when they need to and years later upon hearing the song it transports you back to those days – as exemplified in my writing above. It’s the inherently catchy melody – a simple chorus switched up by the vocals each time, and it’s the timeless writing. You can mash up the song anyway you like, add a bunch of other instruments, soup it up in the studio, but you can’t really strip it down any further than how it is in its original, purest form. It’s like a newborn in its perfection – sure some people are going to be put off by it and not know what to do when handed it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s perfect. The lyrics are poetic without being obtuse, and universal without being cliche ridden – the truest sign of a great songwriter who can relate feelings we’ve all felt in ways and with words we all understand, but which are entirely personal to the person who wrote them.

Between Joni’s soaring highs and James Taylor’s heartbreaking acoustic, the sparse arrangement doesn’t require any embellishing. I love songs which throw everything at the wall and succeed, and I equally love songs which strut up to a stool on a stage, sit down, and just start playing with utmost confidence saying ‘here I am, you’re going to love me’ like A Case Of You does. There isn’t a single millisecond of bullshit in the entire thing, and it lays the performer and the listener bare. Even as simple and sparse as the song is, it still throws in surprises such as the Canadian National Anthem interlude and the interchange between childlike pain and fear and Godly falsetto. The song may not be the most instrumentally complex in the world, but its difficulty comes in playing it without breaking down – it’s a song you can’t restrain your feelings from, those feelings are transported into you fingers and your voice, and it’s very easy to collapse under the emotional weight of it all.

With all of this praise and with its enduring popularity, you would expect the song to have been a hit. The song was never released as a single, its popularity coming from the acclaim and success of the album Blue which went Platinum in the US and double Platinum in the UK. Each new generation of listeners and artists finds the album and finds this song among its many classics, and they share it far and wide, and so the song continues to connect and find new ears and hearts. Have you heard it? If not, there’s no better time like the present. Click any of the links I’ve popped in throughout this post – they all take you to the same album version video on Youtube and if you like what you hear, I highly recommend you buy Blue from wherever you can get it. It’s one of my favourite albums of all time and features a tonne of songs just as beautiful and powerful as A Case Of You. If you don’t like it… you are a very odd person.

Let us know in the comments what you think of A Case Of You!