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Erased Vocals, Incorrect Lyrics, Music Brilliance

I stumbled up on this video on YouTube by the Professor of Rock, and learned something about one of my all-time favourite songs, California Dreamin’ by the Mommas & the Poppas. Watch the details about the history of the song, and the consequences first. Then come back and read my thoughts on the subject, because I have some opinions of my own. None of them, though, will necessary conflict or contrast with those in the video.

The Barry McGuire Version

I had no idea that there were other versions of the song (and I don’t mean covers, but an original recording). It was one of those songs that I just listen to, and originally didn’t know much about. But after watching the video, I listened to a few other versions, starting with the Barry McGuire version. This was technically the first instance of the song to be released. To say that this version is not good is being polite. It is almost bad.

McGuire’s vocals are stumbling, awkward, clunky, and do not suit the song at all. The harmonica bridge? Frankly, it’s just embarrassing. When John Phillips removed those two elements, replacing the lead vocals with Denny’s and the bridge with the alto flute played by Bud Shank, it brings the song to life.

The Other Versions

There are host of covers for the song. The Beach Boys version is over the top, overwrought, and nothing like you might expect from a band that makes surf music. They take a simple song and add layer after layer of instruments and sound effects that are almost cartoonish. It really isn’t very good, and nowhere near their best work.

The versions from Sia, Diana Krall, and Jose Feliciano are slow, sad, almost maudlin in their feel. They aren’t badly done. The vocals are, as you would expect, impeccable. The quality of the tracking, the mix, and the mastering can’t be questioned. But their approach completely misses the tone, tenor, and philosophy of the song. They have missed the point.

However, the Freischwimmer version is probably the one that captures a more modern feel of California in the song while preserving some of the original point of the song. This one feels like it “gets it” when it comes to what the song is about, transported into the 21st century and today’s realities.

It’s About California

The original song is supposed to be about California, specifically the California of the late 1960’s, and more specifically about an idealized version of it. This is the California of free love, of New Age thinking, of a place where it is always sunny, it is always warm, it only rains when it has to, and it never snows. It’s the place where you can be free to be what you want, can live comfortably, have fun, and enjoy life. There are mountains and the ocean and beaches. There are fruit trees, and green parks, and people open to new ideas and new experiences.

Yes, it’s a fantasy. It’s a California that only existed partially. It’s an idealized land that only exists in people’s heads. But in the 1960’s, this was what California was about symbolically. And songs about California would both build the place up while also tearing down the myths.

The Contrasts

The acoustic guitar intro sets us up, and then we listen to a somewhat up-beat pop tune. We have bright lead vocals, brilliant harmonies in the backing vocals, and a simple, stripped down rhythm guitar. The flute bridge plays to the New Age-y elements of an imaginary California. But the lyrics are sad. That’s the contrast, the juxtaposition of a somewhat up-beat number singing about a sad topic. It’s similar to the Albert Hammond song It Never Rains In California (which is even heavier on the contrasts).

And while the thoughts about California are wistful, they are also practical. The person in the song is dreaming of California, but knows that they really can’t leave. They have a life where it is, at times, cold and gray. While they fantasize about escaping, they (and the observing preacher) know they aren’t going anywhere.

Music History

California Dreamin’ is one of those quintessential songs from the 1960’s. It is one that helps define the era, and when you hear it, it instantly brings certain images to mind. If you want to let the audience know “we’re in the 1960’s now”, you play a snippet of the song somewhere in the scene. Maybe it’s in the background on a radio, or being played live on stage. But it is one of those defining elements of culture in that time.

But had there not been the second version, the one that became popular and the one most of us know, it wouldn’t have gained the place in history. It is entirely likely no one talks about it, almost no one else covers it, and I don’t write the blog post about it.