The treasure trove of glorious sound that is the Summer Of Love bears gems that shine to this day. Yet it also had its fair share of bandwagon jumpers, and they occasionally got it right too. This is the tale of how Scott Mckenzie unwittingly wrote a pop anthem for the Summer Of Love.
San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), despite the venom of many hippies in San Francisco it became a huge hit in the US vying with the likes of Respect, Light My Fire, and White Rabbit. While it became the undisputed Summer Of Love song in the UK, it is now a ubiquitous part of folk history and often used to dismiss hippie culture.
How did Scott McKenzie write one of the most controversial and divisive pop hits in history?
Despite having an unnecessarily bloated title, Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco is actually a pretty tidy slice of acoustic pop.
While much of the counter-culture movement was predicated upon anti-establishment views, Scott Mckenzie utilised the movement and revolutionary rhetoric happening in San Francisco to produce a pop hit, and invariably, a lot of cash.
While McKenzie may have resembled a hippie straight off the casting couch, the song actually possesses a soaring melody with solid production for the mid ’60s. The bright golden acoustic guitar tones are warm and sparkly amidst a shimmering atmosphere. Plus, it contains a fairly interesting son structure. Like all good ’60s records, it doesn’t just pick a groove and dig in, each verse is arranged differently to propel the song forward before the breakdown at the finale.
Moreover, McKenzie’s vibrato is deep and even. His vocal chords are clear and commands a fairly impressive and pleasant tone.
In 1967, the residents of Monterey, a quiet fishing village on the Californian coast, were anxious about holding a large rock festival. They feared it would attract hordes of drug-dazed, pot smoking hippies from San Francisco to ruin their quiet town.
John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas was on the event committee, and his friend and fellow singer Scott McKenzie said to him, “Why don’t you write a song to put their minds at rest, to tell them that everything is going to be all right?”
In a fit of inspiration, Phillips wrote San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair). Yet despite its message of love and gentleness the rest of the Mamas & the Papas never forgave Phillips for handing the song over to Scott McKenzie.
“I knew I didn’t have the right name for a singer,” McKenzie told me when he toured the UK as part of The Mamas & the Papas in 1991. “Having a name that nobody could pronounce was hardly an asset.”
Born Philip Wallach Blondheim III, comedian Jackie Curtis recommended Scottie, while Phillip’s added his daughters name, Mackenzie.
The Mamas and Papas had chart success with California Dreamin and Monday, Monday. San Francisco could have shot them to the stars but Phillips handed it to McKenzie to help kickstart his solo career.
Following the LAPD and local property owners uniting to shut down the Sunset Strip in late 1966, the media was searching for a new American city to carry the torch of freewheeling freedom.
The Haight/Ashbury scene was a delicate, grass roots scene in late 1965 but was certainly in full bloom by ’67.
Phillips recalls producing the tune for McKenzie: “I wanted a song that would express the feelings of the people coming to Monterey. The Olympics appealed to me because they had laurel wreaths in their hair. I wrote it in an afternoon, did a rough dub that evening, hired the players the next morning, and finished it the next night. 36 hours and it was done. I’d known Scott since we were teenagers, and his voice was perfect for the song.”
McKenzie concurred, “My heart was in that song and I didn’t have to change my image. I was already leading a pretty loose life. I was wearing flower shirts, weird flowing robes and kaftans, and we picked flowers the day I recorded the song. One girl gave me a garland of flowers and my friends were sitting in the lotus position, meditating, while I was recording it.”
The Monterey International Pop Festival was an overwhelming success. Appearing after Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, The Who and a show-stopping Janis Joplin, McKenzie closed the festival with San Francisco. It topped both the UK and US charts, selling seven million copies worldwide.
Though McKenzie sadly concludes, “But I couldn’t do The Ed Sullivan Show,” said McKenzie. “Ed said I was a flash in the pan, and he was right.”