Story Behind The Song: The Mamas and the Papas–I Saw Her Again

The Mamas And The Papas: “I Saw Her Again” (1966)

mac mamas

Marital infidelity is tragic. But when it happens to great songwriters, it’s damn catchy to listen to.

A decade before Fleetwood Mac’s critically wounded marital relationships spilled blood on the tracks of the classic Rumours album, The Mamas And The Papas similarly spun gold from domestic strife. John Phillips’ “Go Where You Wanna Go” and Lindsey Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way” are like two sides of the same coin lyrically, as well as the work of two songwriters brave enough to let the world sing along to their State Of The Marriage addresses. But “I Saw Her Again” is where things really get twisted.

As a piece of pop music “I Saw Her Again” (a #5 hit in 1966) is pure brilliance. John Phillips (pictured above looking displeased about being at the wrong end of the tub) was one of very few who could rival what Brian Wilson did in terms of layering vocal parts. Even if you’ve heard this song a thousand times, a fresh listen with special attention to the complexity of the vocal arrangement can be a revelation. Also, as was the case with much 60’s pop, some cool stereo panning effects were used. If you’re able to listen to the song through only the left speaker, then a second time using only the right, you’ll have two totally different listening experiences.

As for the twisted part, the song arose from an affair between Phillips’ wife (and bandmate) Michelle and Denny Doherty, the lead singer of the song–an affair which caused such tensions within the group it even let to Michelle’s temporary expulsion from it. Although Doherty has a co-writing credit on the song, the extent of his input is unclear and may have only been on the musical side. Essentially the song was John’s retribution against Doherty for the affair. One might imagine a tense vibe in the room when the song was recorded, to say nothing of Michelle and Denny’s discomfort at having to sing the song in public every night. It seems John Phillips’s creativity wasn’t limited to the recording studio. “I Saw Her Again” is the best case on record of songwriting as revenge.

Of additional interest is Doherty’s famous false entrance on the last chorus of the song. If you listen just after the 2:40 mark you’ll hear him come in prematurely with the words “I Saw Her…”. Producer Lou Adler, on hearing the playback, loved the way the mistake sounded and left it in. The side-to-side stereo panning of the first and second “I Saw Her” helped make it sound more like an intentional part of the song’s arrangement (more studio genius). But to one discerning listener named Paul McCartney the lyric’s accidental nature was obvious. “No one is that clever”, he’s reported to have said.

Great song. Great arrangement. And a miscue that’s a hook unto itself–a little sonic icing on the cake.

Apparently others artists liked the way it sounded too. Listen to Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darling Be Home Soon” (1967) for John Sebastian’s little homage to Doherty’s false start:

…and to Kenny Loggins’ less successful attempt at the same kind of thing on his 1980 hit “I’m Alright”:

Oh, and John and Michelle eventually divorced. And now, as Paul Harvey used to say, you know the rest of the story.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Christine Clements
    Feb 20, 2012 @ 08:22:45

    I have always loved this song. I always thought that this song was taboo in it’s time. They are clearly singing about a “bootie call”.

    Reply

  2. paul
    Feb 20, 2012 @ 16:45:00

    a sordid pair of infidelity anthems. great article

    Reply

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