A couple of days ago the death was announced of singer Scott McKenzie. McKenzie is remembered in the history of popular music for his Summer of Love anthem ‘If You’re Going To San Francisco’. For people of a certain age probably few songs evoke a period, in history and in social myth, with such immediate and haunting power as this. The song itself was written by John Philips of The Mamas and the Papas. It reached no.4 on the U.S. Billboard charts but did even better in the UK, entering the Top 20 in mid-July and leaving the chart in mid-October, and spending 5 weeks at no.1 during August and into September.
According to the Telegraph’s obituary, McKenzie spoke of the song being more about an idea than a place. “My heart was in that song,” McKenzie agreed, “and I didn’t have to change my image. I already had a pretty loose life. I was wearing flower shirts, weird flowing robes and kaftans, and we picked flowers the day we 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.”
I have always suspected that true ‘heads’ / counter-culturalists of the time probably dismissed it as a pop cash-in on their roots movement. Certainly, the production tries to send the right signals (like the sitar noises on the bridge). But it never struck me quite as vulnerable to that charge as The Flowerpot Men’s ‘Let’s Go To San Francisco’ which was released, rather late for the Summer of Love, that autumn (Eric Burdon’s San Francisco Nights was another hit linked to the city). And I guess I should mention Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ as a song that marked the culmination and the end of the 60s dream – a hit for Matthews Southern Comfort in 1970.
Anyway, it seems that ‘If You’re Going To San Francisco’ not only inspired people around the world, but continues to touch people to this day. It’s a beautiful melody and there’s a key-change to lift the later parts of the song and a very pleasing bit of re-harmonizing on the words ‘For those who come to San Francisco’. McKenzie sung it very well, in a cool, under-stated way which just made it more powerful, and thus gained immortality as the voice summoning the idealists and the innocent to a city which exists now as another vision of the celestial city – as much as the Byzantium of W.B.Yeats’ poems. In reality, the actuality of flower power in San Francisco was rather different. George Harrison has some interesting recollections on visiting it on the Beatles Anthology DVD. But the ideal will live on in the imagination.
Now if only John Philips had written a song for Yeats …