Creeque Alley (or "Creque's Alley") is part of a narrow area of alleys that spiderweb the docks which historically carried ship cargo and pirate booty to the warehouses lining the waterfront on the island of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Among the pirates to make use of this area was the fearsome Blackbeard. The island of St. Thomas houses the remains of the castle of Blackbeard, one of the most notorious pirates to ever rule the high seas.
Edward Teach, aka "Blackbeard" (played by Ian McShane in 2011's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), nurtured a frightful image, reportedly tying lit fuses under his hat to scare and confuse his enemies. He cut an intimidating figure and it was that alone which helped him become so proficiently successful at his pirating game: reportedly never actually harming a hair on the heads of a single sailor on ships that he overtook, he instead used his reputation alone to gain complete cooperation. His career stretch lasted until November of 1718, when, at the age of 38, he was caught and killed in battle.
Creeque Alley (pronounced creaky) also boasts a much different, more recent notoriety: rock 'n roll historical landmark. The '60s group The Mamas & The Papas spent time in the Alley where (according to a story told by a bartender at a neighboring club) they played at a club called Sparky's Waterfront Saloon, owned by the Creeque Family, for whom the now-famous alley is named. Their time there also gave life to one of their most popularly enduring songs, aptly called "Creeque Alley."
The song, however, isn't really about Creeque Alley at all. That may be where John Phillips was when he wrote it, but his mind was truly in musical realms many miles away.
The "McGuinn" of "McGuinn and McGuire just a-gettin' higher in L.A." was none other than Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. And when this quartet sang about McGuinn getting higher, they were referring to The Byrds' 1966 "Eight Miles High" single. McGuinn was getting higher, at least artistically speaking, than the simpler "jingle-jangle" of other Byrds hits, like "Mr. Tambourine Man." This breakthrough Byrds' single referenced John Coltrane's free-jazz atonalities, as well as Eastern sitar vibes. Political reactionaries automatically assumed this was a drug song, particularly because it features the word "high" in its title. Nevertheless, McGuinn was describing a plane flight to London. Even so, there were most certainly a lot of drugs being taken in the Byrds' camp at the time – this song is just not about that.
McGuinn was a part of the 1960s Sunset Strip music scene, which gave birth to some of the greatest ever rock acts. He rubbed shoulders with Buffalo Springfield, The Doors and Love, to name but a few.
The other "Mc" in this song is Barry McGuire, who had a massive hit with "Eve of Destruction," which was written by P.F. Sloan. Underneath McGuire's gravelly voice, there was an all-star cast of L.A.'s best studio musicians. P.F. Sloan provided guitar, while Hal Blaine (of Phil Spector's "Wrecking Crew") was at the drums, and Larry Knechtel played bass.
When The Mamas & The Papas sing about "Zal, Denny, and Sebastian sat (at the Night Owl)," they're referring to The Mugwumps, a pre-Lovin' Spoonful group that included primary Spoonful songwriters Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian, as well as Denny Doherty, later of The Mamas & The Papas. "Night Owl" refers to "Night Owl Blues," the flip side to The Lovin' Spoonful's 1966 hit "Daydream." It's actually an instrumental featuring the guitar work of Sebastian and Zanovsky.
John Philips, one of The Mamas & The Papas, wrote this song, and he also references his own group along the way. Most notably, they sing, "And no one's getting fat except Mama Cass," to talk about the large, beautiful singer in the quartet. Michelle Philips thought for sure that John would take the line out before it went to final recording. However, it stayed in and is now one of the funniest lines ever in a pop song.
The group also references one of their biggest hits, "California Dreamin'," when they sing, "And California dreamin' is becomin' a reality." They dreamed of music business success, and that dream was quickly becoming true.
It's rare that a group gets a hit with such an obviously autobiographical song. Instead of singing about cars and girls, which Bruce Springsteen was accused of (and probably rightfully so, early in his career), The Mamas and the Papas sang a song that chronicled the trials and tribulations of their early career. In addition to being a song about the group, it's also a great history lesson on the burgeoning folk-rock scene at the time. Chances are good that if you love The Mamas & The Papas, you'll also dig all the other acts they name-drop in the tune. Whether it was McGuinn and McGuire making amazing electrified folk-rock on the West Coast, or The Lovin' Spoonful mixing it up on the East, this was an amazingly creative musical period. And The Mamas and The Papas were right up there with the best of 'em. They went from Creeque Alley to the top of the pop charts, and California dreamin' did, indeed, become a reality. ~ Dan MacIntosh