‘San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…’
If a raging, savage cynic like Hunter S Thompson could write so warmly about San Francisco in 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then it must have indeed been quite a place. After two homegrown Summer of Love anthems from Procul Harum and the Beatles, the third that summer to hit number 1 came from US singer-songwriter Scott McKenzie with his tribute to the hippies of the Golden City.
McKenzie was born with the very un-hippy-like name Philip Wallach Blondheim III in Jacksonville Florida, January 1939. When only six months old the family moved to Asheville, North Carolina. At school he became friends with John Phillips, future member of the Mamas & the Papas and writer of this number 1 you’re reading about. In the mid-1950s Blondheim sang with Tim Rose in the Singing Strings at high school, and later formed doo-wop group the Abstracts with Phillips, Mike Boran and Bill Cleary.
The Abstracts soon became the Smoothies and they signed with Decca Records. Around this time, Blondheim decided if he was ever going to be famous he needed to change his name. Comedian Jackie Curtis said he looked like a Scottie dog. He has a point, but I’d say he looks more like a Spaniel. Anyway, from then onwards he became Scott McKenzie (McKenzie was the name of Phillips’s daughter).
During the folk revival of the early-60s, McKenzie and Phillips teamed up with Dick Weissman to form the Journeymen. They recorded three albums for Capitol Records, but failed to ignite the charts and so they disbanded in 1964. McKenzie and Weissman went solo, while Phillips formed the New Journeymen, who eventually morphed into the Mamas & the Papas. McKenzie was offered the chance to join them, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to cope with the pressure and declined. He did however audition to join the Monkees, but was rejected for looking too old at 24.
In the spring of 1967, Phillips, along with music producer Lou Adler, Alan Pariser and Beatles and Beach Boys press spokesman Derek Taylor planned the first major rock festival, inspired by the Monterey Jazz Festival. Celebrating the counterculture, the Monterey International Pop Festival was planned for 16-18 June at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Monterey, California. Phillips may have been a hippy, but he was also a budding businessman. Some of the psychedelic era’s biggest acts agreed to play for free, including Jefferson Airplane, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who, the Grateful Dead, the Mamas & the Papas (of course) and Otis Redding. Documented in a famous film by DA Pennebaker, without Monterey we may have never had the music festival culture we have today.
With Phillips being such a canny businessman, he could see the way the wind was blowing, and decided, why stop there? He wanted a song to promote the festival, and hopefully make him a lot more money in the process. So he wrote San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) in 20 minutes to promote his project. Perhaps deciding it would look too cynical to get his group to record it, he asked McKenzie, who was an unknown by comparison. Members of the Wrecking Crew were hired as backing, with Phillips and Adler co-producing. Phillips also provided guitars and sitar. The song was released that May.
It’s looked down upon these days for not being a cynical marketing tool, but I don’t mind San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). The lyrics are a little cheesy and bland, but it’s well-produced, with Gary L Coleman’s orchestral bells and chimes making for an atmospheric sound, and together with McKenzie’s wistful vocal, it makes for a strangely downbeat tune, seemingly mourning the passing of the hippy movement while it was at its peak.
It’s an unusual number 1, and it was certainly a case of ‘right place, right time’. Strangely, it didn’t get to number 1 in the US, despite him performing it at the festival, so I’m guessing that San Francisco must have seemed to many Brits to be a mystical, out-of-reach paradise, and buoyed on by the success of Procul Harum and the Beatles, McKenzie’s folk song seemed a suitable way to follow up the mood of hippy celebration that summer. It even inspired the first Bee Gees number 1, Massachusetts, later that year.
Scott McKenzie would remain a one-hit wonder. The follow-up, a re-release of his debut single, Look in Your Eyes, failed to chart once more. Phillips co-wrote and co-produced Like an Old Time Movie, but that and debut album The Voice of Scott McKenzie, didn’t capture the public mood. But McKenzie was aware of the fact he just wasn’t a natural pop star, and after his second album Stained Glass Morning in 1970, he retired.
McKenzie resurfaced in the 80s and rode the nostalgia wave of the baby boomers as part of the new version of the Mamas & the Papas, and then in 1988 he co-wrote the risible Beach Boys hit Kokomo with Terry Melcher, Mike Love and Phillips for the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail.
In 1998 McKenzie left the Mamas & the Papas and retired once more. He appeared at the Los Angeles tribute concert for Phillips in 2001. Nine years later he began suffering from Guillain–Barré syndrome, which would eventually claim his life in 2012 at the age of 73.
San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). ruled the charts for most of August. During that time… playwright Joe Orton was battered to death by his lover Kenneth Halliwell at their North London home on 9 August. Halliwell then committed suicide. The hippy movement took a knock on 14 August when The Marine & Broadcasting (Offences) Act 1967 declared participation in offshore pirate radio in the UK illegal. Therefore, Wonderful Radio London closed down that afternoon with one last song – A Day in the Life by the Beatles. Three days later, Coventry City, who had been promoted to the Football League First Division for the first time, lost their manager when Jimmy Hill announced he was leaving his position to become a television pundit.
Ten days later, the manager of the Beatles shocked the music world, dying of an overdose aged only 32. This comes as a surprise to me now, as I assumed he was a fair bit older. More on this when I cover Hello Goodbye. And on 28 August the first late summer holiday on the last Monday of the month occured in England and Wales, replacing the previous holiday, which occured on the first Monday of the month. Bet it rained.
Written by: John Phillips
Producer: Lou Adler & John Phillips
Weeks at number 1: 4 (9 August-5 September)
Scottish ice hockey player Tony Hand – 15 August
Footballer Michael Thomas – 24 August
Politician Greg Clark – 28 August
Comedy actor Steve Pemberton – 1 September
Field hockey player Jane Sixsmith – 5 September
Playwright Joe Orton – 9 August
The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein – 27 August