by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
One of the most admirable things about the A&M label during its first few decades was that quite a few of its artists enjoyed long stays at the label in spite of failing to find much success on the radio dial. The Baja Marimba Band, Claudine Longet, Phil Ochs, Shawn Phillips, Peter Allen, Head East, Spooky Tooth, Humble Pie, and Paul Williams are just a few of the acts on the label’s roster who never found their way onto the Top 40 singles charts yet still put out a sizable number of full-lengths for the imprint, while even some of the label’s biggest superstars took a while to finally break into the mainstream. Neither Supertramp nor Janet Jackson became bona fide commercial forces until their respective third albums (Crime of the Century and Control). Despite common misconception, not even the label’s biggest act of the early ‘70s, the brother-sister duo Carpenters, were even immediate sensations – their first album, Offering, was, in fact, a colossal bomb, and Close to You was actually the pair’s second album. So it just makes sense that A&M, of all imprints, would be willing to offer a second chance at pop stardom in the late ‘70s to two former female pop stars of the ‘60s whose musical careers had gone absolutely ice-cold in the intervening years, the Mamas and the Papas’ Michelle Phillips and former Quincy Jones protégé Lesley Gore.
It’s rather strange that the members of the Mamas and the Papas, of all groups, had such little chart success after parting ways in 1968 (they’d briefly reunite in 1971 for a reunion disc that was crafted merely to fulfill a contractual obligation and didn’t do much of anything commercially); after all, they had been one of the hottest pop groups of the mid-‘60s, racking up nine Top 40 hits – six of them Top Ten singles, the biggest behind the Number One smash “Monday, Monday” – in less than two years. Denny Doherty all but faded into obscurity, while even band leader and primary songwriter John Phillips subsequently reached the Top 40 just once, with the minor, #32-peaking 1970 single “Mississippi.” [He’d have far better luck behind the scenes, scoring a Number One hit as one of the co-writers of the Beach Boys’ Number One hit “Kokomo” in 1988.] Even the ever-charismatic Mama Cass Elliot struggled to find much of an audience as a solo artist; after kicking her solo career off in 1968 with the #12 hit “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (technically a Mamas & the Papas single that generously gave Elliot top billing), Elliot just barely managed to reached the Top 40 twice more (with the #30-peaking “It’s Getting Better” and the #36-peaking “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” both in 1969) before undergoing a near-five-year-long dry spell that lasted until her untimely passing in 1974. Michelle Phillips, in contrast, had an excuse for disappearing from the charts: she simply didn’t record. [She’s gone on record as saying she waited so long to make a solo album because she felt she was a lesser singer than the others, namely Mama Cass. However, Michelle did pop up as a background singer on the Cheech & Chong hit single “Basketball Jones featuring Tyrone Shoelaces” as part of an all-star cast that also featured Darlene Love, Carole King, and George Harrison.]
Michelle finally resurfaced on vinyl in 1975, on a promo-only non-LP single (issued via A&M) entitled “Aloha Louie.” Interestingly enough, the Hawaii-tinged song was written by Michelle with her former bandmate and by-then-ex-husband John and produced by John as well! Another single would follow the next year, the ballad “No Love Today” (penned by renowned songwriters Roger Nichols, Paul Williams’ longtime songwriting partner, and Will Jennings), taken from the soundtrack to the now-long-forgotten Bill Cosby/Raquel Welch/Harvey Keitel big-screen comedy Mother, Jugs & Speed. It wasn’t until 1977 that Michelle’s first and only full-length solo affair, the Jack Nitzsche-produced Victim of Romance, would be released.
There are two beloved-but-fairly-obscure rockers from the ‘70s who figure prominently on Victim of Romance. Three of the ten tunes on the disc – the doo-wop-era-recalling “Paid the Price”; the gorgeous, lush-but-chiming near-country-pop of “Aching Kind”; and the squawking Phil Spector-like wall-of-sound pop of the title cut – come from the pen of the very talented John “Moon” Martin, who also provides most of the guitars on the album. [Martin would later reach the Top 40 as a solo artist with the new-wave-tinged rocker “Rolene” but is best remembered for having written Robert Palmer’s massive hit “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor).”] Ron Nagle – best known as the recording artist of the 1970 cult classic Bad Rice, though he’d later write the Tubes’ biggest pre-‘80s hit, “Don’t Touch Me There,” Pablo Cruise’s “Don’t Believe It” and “Not Tonight,” and Dave Edmunds’ “Closer to the Flame” and co-produce John Hiatt’s Riding with the King album – both co-writes and arranges the dreamy hangover of the album-closing ballad “Where’s Mine?”
Several unlikely covers crop up on the album. The Doris Troy classic “Just One Look” isn’t exactly obscure (aside from being the sole pop hit Troy would ever have, it’s been covered plenty of times, most successfully by The Hollies and Linda Ronstadt), but the BeeGees’ “Baby As You Turn Away” – the excellent but commonly-overlooked closing cut on the brothers’ 1975 album Main Course – certainly is by comparison and makes an appealingly left-field choice of outside material. Even more unexpected is a cover of the accordion-laden, Parisian-tinged cocktail-lounge jazz of “Trashy Rumours,” a cut written by Michelle’s famous ex-husband and originally recorded by John’s third wife, Genevieve Waite, on her cult-classic 1974 album Romance Is on the Rise.
But Michelle – who’d co-written the Mamas & the Papas hits “California Dreamin’” and “Creeque Alley” with John – also gets in on the writing herself with two excellent entirely self-penned songs. “There She Goes” – is delightful marimba-laden country-pop, while “Lady of Fantasy” – produced and arranged by John Phillips! – is a jazzy torch song with a clever instrumental arrangement that finds the saxophonist and guitarist playing the same cascading fill in echoing, call-and-response fashion.
Promising though this disc is, Michelle would sadly turn her full-time attention back to acting shortly after, later going on to small-screen stardom as one of the primary cast members of the ‘80s prime-time-soap Knots Landing. But though she’d never record another single of her own, Michelle – whose daughter Chynna would light up the charts in the early ‘90s as one-third of Wilson Phillips – would very quietly add one more Number One hit to her musical résumé in the ‘80s: Michelle’s one of the background vocalists you hear on Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth”!