Back when John Phillips wasn't filling his time doing cocaine with his family, he occasionally made some memorable music. Depending on your sense of humor, the off-Broadway musical “Man on the Moon” might fall into the category of memorable, though none of this music will ever be viewed with the sincerity or love any of his more notable work is. But for a multitude of reasons I believe that it's worth your while and that it'll gain momentum as time goes on, not the opposite.
The musical was universally panned. There were some vicious remarks made about it after its premiere. Perhaps the work deserved it, perhaps not—the CD package includes some video footage, but it's impossible to make any final appraisal based on it—it's rehearsal footage. When compared to his finer and more polished material, with all of those lush harmonies and melancholy minors that so characterized Phillips, it's easy to see how more conventional critics might not “get it,” or might have been disenchanted with the straight-forward, even nostalgic and folksy kitsch on Moon
. Yet when one listens to the music divorced from any expectations he or she might have built up due to earlier efforts, there's a wonderful sense of humility and lightheartedness (despite the content of the words) at play, and via this charm (and the benefit of retrospect) it seems to succeed as an autonomous record.
For the bulk of the musical, Phillips ditched all baroque curlycues and paid most of his composing attention to callow guitar accompaniments to rudimentary vocal melodies. This isn't intended as a slam, nor is it intended to say that it was aesthetically anything like, oh, the Modern Lovers or Beat Happening. The songs are simply simple. Though the instrumentation was, at times, fairly broad, the gist of the score is a bare bones shindig incorporating cabaret, tin pan alley, traditional American folk and hints of Dixieland and are as catchy and filled with hooks as you might imagine a cocktail of those influences being.
On top of the different musical direction Phillips was taking, there was also the cheap production values with which to contend, the gaudy costuming done by Marsia Trinder, a Brit who designed clothes for Elvis and Raquel Welch, among others, and all of the irony-laden puff typified by anything producer Andy Warhol touched. Its near-Plan 9-like costuming and effects were another blow to critics—and in turn, to Phillips and crew. As a result of the negative reviews and publicity, the show closed in 5 days.
With all of the ensuing disappointment, the music pretty much disappeared for decades, only to resurface here to new ears (and eyes), along with different critical sets with which to judge the content. The unpretentious spirit embodied by “The Man On The Moon” is refreshing, and though blithely deranged, the values of the vox populi (circa-early 70's) are undeniable. The strangeness of the production lent a curious twist to Phillips' stuff, who was almost always accessible. He couldn't have been very prepared for the lashings he would take, those bilious responses to his excursion.
The simple and touching story of “Man On The Moon” is a mix of autobiographical tidbits thrown in with a hopeful yet potentially dystopian science fiction narrative. There's certainly nothing overwhelming or mind-blowing about it, rather it's the opposite of that which makes “Man On The Moon” endearing. The CD includes extensive liner notes, rehearsal footage, a PDF file with the original playbill, photos, those aforementioned reviews, press clippings plus scripts in progress and early orchestrations. It makes for a nice package, definitely a curiosity for Mamas and Papas fans, and fetish material for those who seeks lost relics of pop art, particularly anything to do with Warhol. 8/10 -- P. Somniferum (19 November, 2009)