Creeque Alley by The Mamas and Papas

 

The Mamas and Papas

Photo of The Mamas and Papas. Clockwise from the top: Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty, Michelle Phillips and John Phillips.

 

Creeque Alley is an autobiographical song produced in 1967 by The Mamas and Papas, one of the most popular groups of the period.

 

Creeque Alley is unusual in that the title does not appear in the lyrics. Creeque Alley was the name of the road where the group stayed on The Virgin Islands for a short period in 1965. It was also the location of a club owned by Hugh Duffy, where the group performed and hung out while they were trying to achieve success.

 

The song tells the story of the early formation of the group and of other performers of the time.

The lyrics of Creeque Alley are obscure and need some explanation.

 

The following is an annotated version of the lyrics that aims at explaining as much of the meaning as possible.

 

Creeque Alley (Annotated lyrics.)

John and Mitchy were gettin' kind of itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind;

Husband and wife team John and Michelle Phillips began their career as folk musicians, forming a group called The New Journeymen. But they wanted to move on from the folk tradition and create popular music more in tune with the times.

Zal and Denny workin'for a penny
Tryin' to get a fish on the line.

Zal Yanovsky (1944 - 2002) and Denny Doherty (1940 - 2007) were fellow musicians struggling to make a living and trying to find a lead into the music business.

In a coffee house Sebastian sat,
And after every number they'd pass the hat.

John Sebastian (1944 - ), another friend of John and Michelle Phillips, continually played in clubs and coffee houses in New York, always looking for an opportunity to create a successful group.

McGuinn and McGuire still are gettin' higher
in L.A., You know where that's at.

James Roger McGuinn (1942 - ) became a founder member of the highly successful group called The Byrds. Barry McGuire (1935 - ) was a member of The New Christy Minstrels. Both groups were based in Los Angeles, California, and their repeated mention in Creeque Alley suggests they are a symbol for the success the Mamas and Papas wanted. There is also a hint at getting high in the hippy sense.

And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

Cass Elliot, Born Ellen Naomi Cohen (1941 - 1974) is the butt of this joke. She was a well-built lady and was self conscious about her size. John Phillips was reluctant to include her in The Mamas and Papas because he thought she would never be a success, given her size and looks. But he was wrong. She was a powerful and feisty person who had a great voice and who contributed enormously to the success of The Mamas and Papas.
After the disbandment of The Mamas and Papas in 1968 she went on to have a successful solo career. She was well received in London, where she died in a flat in Mayfair 1974.
No one really knows what she felt about the inclusion of this line in the song, a line which is repeated at the end of each verse and which she had to sing hundreds of times.

Zally said, "Denny, you know there aren't many
Who can sing a song the way that you do; let's go south.

Denny Doherty was well known for his remarkable singing ability - he was regarded as one of the best singers of the period.

Denny said, "Zally, golly, don't you think that I wish
I could play guitar like you.

Zal Yanovsky was a brilliant guitar player.

Zal, Denny, and Sebastian sat (at the Night Owl)
And after every number they'd pass the hat.

The Night Owl Cafe was a club in Greenwich Village, New York, where many up and coming acts performed, including Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian. Jimmy Hendrix played there.

McGuinn and McGuire still a-gettin higher in L.A.,
You know where that's at.

McGuinn and McGuire continue their rise in fame.

And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

When Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore
But she changed her mind one day.

In America a sophomore is a second year student, or a performer or film director who has produced a second work. Swarthmore is an American liberal arts college in Pennsylvania which Cass Elliot wanted to attend. But she changed her mind.

Standin' on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike,
"Take me to New York right away."

Cass decided she really wants to go to New York and become a singer. It is interesting that in America the old English word turnpike is still used.

When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps;

Cass Elliot met Denny Doherty and fell in love with him.

Called John and Zal and that was the Mugwumps.

The new friendships resulted in the formation of The Mugwumps, who were a short lived group that worked between 1964 and 1965. They were formed in 1964 by John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky and the line-up included Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty, and Jim Hendricks.
The name Mugwumps derives from the novel Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, published in 1959, which includes strange creatures called Mugwumps.

McGuinn and McGuire couldn't get no higher
But that's what they were aimin' at.

McGuinn and McGuire reached the apex of their career and had no further to go, but it dosen't matter because that is what they wanted.

And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

Mugwumps, high jumps, low slumps, big bumps---
Don't you work as hard as you play.
Make up, break up, everything is shake up;
Guess it had to be that way.

These lines reflect the many changes that were going on as the individuals and groups tried to find the right formula. The result was that groups formed and disbanded in a chaotic manner, but the process seemed inevitable.

Sebastian and Zal formed the spoonful;

The Mugwumps split up and John B Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky created The Lovin' Spoonful.

Michelle, John, and Denny gettin' very tuneful.

The other mambers of The Mugwumps, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot joined up with Michelle and John Phillips, and this union gradually evolved the tuneful sound they wanted. This was the basis for the Mamas and Papas.

McGuinn and McGuire just a-catchin' fire in L.A.,
You know where that's at.

McGuinn and McGuire are in danger of buring themselves up because of their ambition.

And everybody's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

The sudden reversal of the line from "No one's gettin fat except Mama Cass" to "Everybody's getting fat except Mama Cass" suggests a low point where there is frustration about not achieving success.

Broke, busted, disgusted, agents can't be trusted,

The frustration builds up because the group had no money and were fed up with agents who failed to deliver.

And Mitchy wants to go to the sea.
Cass can't make it; she says we'll have to fake it---
We knew she'd come eventually.

Michelle Phillips wanted them all to go on a trip to The Virgin Islands, but Cass Elliot was unsure and suggested they manage without her, but she went in the end.

Greasin' on American Express cards;
Tents low rent, but keeping out the heat's hard.

Because of lack of money, they were living on credit cards.

Duffy's good vibrations and our imaginations
Can't go on indefinitely.

Hugh Duffy was the owner of the Creeque Alley club in The Virgin Islands. The group knew they could not continue to live there with no income, despite the good vibrations of the place and their own very active imaginations. In the end, Michelle Phillips made enough money by gambling for them to get back to New York.

And California dreamin' is becomin' a
reality...

First written by John Phillips in 1963, but not recorded and released until 1965, California Dreamin' was a reworking of a version by Barry McGuire, for which the Mamas and Papas had sung the backing vocals. Their own version was released on the Dunhill label and became a hit in 1966. The song expresses a wish to escape cold winters in New York and go to the sun and warmth of California, and by mentioning it in the last line of Creeque Alley they suggest that success for the group was at last becomng a reality.