[Today: Papa John looks at the dark side of sunny Los Angeles…]
John Phillips was the main architect of the Mamas & Papas, and his 1970 solo debut was an eagerly anticipated release. But John, The Wolfking Of L.A. sounded nothing like ‘California Dreamin’, so it sold poorly and quickly faded from view. At the time of these sessions, Phillips was in the early stages of twin heroin and cocaine addictions that would debilitate his career, and he was ending his first marriage while beginning a new relationship. The Manson Family murders of August, 1969 had obliterated the serenity of Phillips’ Laurel Canyon neighborhood, and his personal turmoil and the general unrest of the times weigh heavily in Wolfking‘s grooves.
It’s an album filled with rumpled, sordid characters pulled straight from Phillips’ life: April Anne, the Easy Rider, the Drunken Gigolo, the Jingle Jangle Friend, the Captain, and Genevieve. Property is stolen, life is misconceived, ships wreck, and flirtations are bandied about. This is an album with a dark side a mile deep – the type of music that was seemingly invented and perfected in Los Angeles. But in spite of its dark subject matter, the music here is sublime. Phillips put together one of the best studio bands possible at the time, including drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist James Burton, and most of Elvis Presley’s band (the King was reportedly a big fan of this album). It resulted in a relaxed musical vibe that’s part bluegrass, part soul, and part rock.
Phillips hated the album. “I never had the front man’s ego and that LP proved it. I nearly mixed my vocals off the album. I sounded seriously depressed. The songs were fine, the backup vocalists and musicians were fine, but the lead singer seemed groggy” he wrote in his 1986 autobiography Papa John. But ‘Holland Tunnel’ is a gorgeous masterpiece of the open road, ‘Mississippi’ is a relentlessly catchy piece of cajun flavored rock, and the album is dotted with excellent tunes that perfectly reflect their era. Time has proved Phillips wrong about his own creation – John, The Wolfking Of L.A. is now generally and justifiably considered to be one of the great lost albums of the 1970’s.
Listen: Holland Tunnel
Listen II: Mississippi