John Phillips,
Pay Pack & Follow
(Phoenix, 2001)

John Phillips' recent album, Pay Pack & Follow, actually isn't recent at all -- the studio sessions in which the album's tracks were held in 1979. Thus, reviewing this album and explaining how it came to be requires a detour into pop music history.

In the early 1960s, John Phillips co-founded the Mamas & the Papas, along with his wife Michelle, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty. The group was short-lived, lasting less than three years, but Phillips' songwriting and the group's distinctive four-part harmonies left a mark on pop music with hits like "California Dreaming" and "Monday, Monday." Phillips himself received a number of comparisions with Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, and shared with him a troubled personal history of depression and addiction. When Phillips finally recovered from heroin addiction, his health had been permanently damaged; he died this year, not long after the album was released.

Apart from a solo album made shortly after the Mamas & the Papas disbanded and a project he was working on at the time of his death, this album represents Phillips' only full-length independent work, and his early demise adds a poignant touch to its release. But Pay Pack & Follow is more than a slice of the rock 'n' roll past--it's a lively set of songs that sounds engaging rather than dated, proof that Phillips' pop sensibility was alive and well.

The nine songs on this album have a sharper, more rock-oriented edge than Phillips' work with the Mamas & the Papas, partly due to guitar work and backing vocals by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, though Phillips' trademark melodic tenor is still very much in evidence. Though unified by Phillips' vocals and the Stones' guitar work, the album is a grab-bag of musical styles, ranging from the bluesy country-rock of "She's Just 14" and "Oh Virginia" and the African-influenced rhythms of "Zulu Warrior" to the exuberantly trippy harmonies of "Wilderness of Love" and the jazzy pop of "The Year 2000."

Along with a rockier sound, some of Phillips' lyrics have acquired a harder edge that seems to represent the darker side of the carefree California world he sung about in the Mamas & the Papas. "She's Just 14" is a portrait of a precocious starlet who's already become jaded by the Hollywood lifestyle, yet still feels like a little girl. It ends with the haunting final stanza, "Well, she's always too nice to the driver/She says 'James have you had your supper/And she's always too high on arrival/And she runs on her high platform heels/And she falls flat on her face and she knows how life is/And she's just fourteen." "Pussycat," a song that manages to be both poignant and disturbing, depicts a man with a porn habit who's touched with sympathy for the young women he sees dancing on the strip club stage, while "Mr. Blue" creates a vivid image of a junkie and his girlfriend that resonates with Phillips' own experiences in the underworld of drug addiction.

Not all the songs are dark, however. "Oh Virginia" expresses a wistful longing for the landscape of Phillips' childhood in that state, "Wilderness of Love" portrays the intoxication of beginning to fall in love, and "Zulu Warrior" is a paen to the ancestral spirit of black South Africans, co-written with Jagger, that marks Phillips' only foray into activist songwriting. "The Year 2000" is an old-fashioned party anthem looking forward to the biggest New Year of all, which sounds just a little surreal in the year 2001 itself. The mixture of sunny and discordant notes seems odd at first, and contributes to the initial impression that this is more of a random collection of songs than a unified album, but, on repeated listens, they seem almost to represent the two sides of John Phillips himself. Like Brian Wilson, Phillips deserves more credit for his role in shaping rock and pop music; and, whether you remember the '60s or not, if you like a smart, catchy pop song, Pay Pack & Follow is worth a listen.

[ by Erin Bush ]
Rambles: 2 March 2002

Buy it from