best harmonies

Mamas & the Papas

Five of the best ever harmonies in popular music

If you’re “feeling nostalgic for a time before last month, when people could harmonize in real life.”

The Fleetwoods, “Come Softly to Me” (Dolphin Records, 1959)

Best harmonies in popular music

A friend a few weeks ago opened up the question to Twitter: What are the best-ever harmonies in popular music? Presumably, like many of us, she was feeling nostalgic for a time before last month, when people could still be within two metres of one another, perhaps even harmonize in real life. I thought it over and came up with a short list, another of my “play distant” columns since I cannot bear one more recent podcast or live DJ set from someone’s living room. Whilst life outside in the real world slowed to a crawl during the COVID-19 lockdown, the onslaught of online media leaped into hyperspeed. For once, keeping up didn’t even occur to me.

I sense another retromaniacal era approaching in which many of us, in the media industries at least, temporarily turn away from what we call contemporary culture. The familiar refrain, along with curves and vaccines and new-normal narratives, is that “no one saw this coming.” Well someone did. Someone saw this coming. Just no one who should have known: no one in the White House; none of the Epstein truthers who pivoted to China; none of the drums and Trump that usually accompany announcements of unprecedented import; none on the Avant-Garde, the kind of death figures that typically result from war. Corona came softly, not with a bang.

Mamas & Papas, “Dedicated to the One I Love,” The Mamas & the Papas Deliver (1967)

Best harmonies in popular music

The official number of papas and mamas is a matter of public record. But according to lovable lore and legend, a fifth member, neither mama nor papa, was conjured and made material and moreover sonic — sound-producing, supra-singing — via the complex harmonies and consummate collective clarion spectrum that this group invented around a microphone, live in the studio. Like an angel hanging over them — a horny angel, breaking down walls with its horniness. Surely something libidinal and eternal exists here. Why would Charles Manson, Dennis Hopper, Steve McQueen or Quentin Tarantino have sniffed around otherwise?

The Chips, “Rubber Biscuit” (Josie Records, 1956)
Best harmonies in popular music

Say friend, have you tried your hand at making sourdough yet? Heritage hipsterism, and its adjacent hucksterism, is back. With the announcement that the city’s community gardens might shutter for the season, a lot of us panic-ordered dirt and seeds and mulch thinking that we might grow our grandmothers’ cucumbers, along with our own grandmothers in a heap of compost on our pristine white bedsheets like some David Lynch student movie.

Maybe just a batch of muffins then. No? Well anyone who’s anyone has apparently been putting some combination of flour and yeast and butter into the oven of late, posting the questionable results across their public and private networks — dough to fill the clout drought. Everyone’s been trying in turn to do their doughnuts, scald their scones, burn their biscuits, just to avoid the dreaded bread line. In quarantine we’ve all become master bakers.

Everly Brothers, “Don’t Blame Me” (Warner Brothers Records, 1961)

Best harmonies in popular music

The thing that everybody knows but we are not saying about this coronavirus is: if it were for any other reason, we would have taken to the streets. Had it been an act of terrorism, or even all-out war, and our dear leaders had shuffled us away indoors for our own protection, we would have stormed the palaces demanding, “What protection? And by whom?” By any measure, this might have been an excellent year for collective action. Not virtual but collective action. The sort that requires and doesn’t simply prefer the magic of contact. Bodies together. The shame of this is that a young generation will emerge distrusting the proximity of other people. Divided we fall.

But despair not, because your choice wasn’t even counted in all of this. Nobody came around to your house or apartment in a plebiscite or sent you a questionnaire to inquire what you’d do in the unlikely event of a pandemic. We weren’t consulted. So there’s no culpability for us to assume. Nope. Shrug off that weight. Your inherent mediumship is not on trial. Note the rumblings that this virus just trimmed the fat or merely killed off those that nature deemed expendable. Don’t forget that Legault said, on Easter Sunday of all days — the day we collectively discovered that 31 citizens died in a single residence — that Quebec will be “reborn” after this crisis.

Some of us will remember this fondly as the time when we streamed Netflix and didn’t get out of our pajamas except for when we all sang Leonard Cohen on our balconies. Some of us will remember it as the time when tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people prematurely died.

George Jones And Tammy Wynette, “Near You” (Epic Records, 1976)
Best harmonies in popular music

It’s time to decide what we want to go back to. Since COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of life, we really have the ultimate opportunity to make some serious choices. Life choices. Things that will affect the course of our existence together, separately, forever.

What song shall we sing? The first thing that comes to mind. ■

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