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Jun 06

SCOTT MCKENZIE – “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)”

Popular23 comments • 8,302 views

#236, 12th August 1967

The history of Britain’s summer hits and the history of British holidaymaking go together like sand and towels. The key factor is the balance between function and description, place and pleasure in pop – these days the summer hit templates are Whigfield or Las Ketchup, disco anthems that you hear on holiday and bring home with the duty free. In the package tour boom of the 70s, when going on holiday was itself a novel thrill, the models were “Y Viva Espana”, or “Barbados” – songs about the trip that would work as postcards to dancefloors at home.

And in the 60s, when holidays for most people were Bournemouth or Blackpool, the key notes were hit by Cliff and the Shadows – “Summer Holiday”, wistful, evocative, and the closest cousin to Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco”. McKenzie’s song is a document, a cash-in and a media-ready crystallisation of the love generation – but my guess is it made a mass British breakthrough because it’s also a fine piece of ‘if-only’ exotica. “Summertime will be a love-in there” – we’ve seen it in the movies, now let’s see if it’s true.

The song quickly runs out of anything much to say about San Francisco and its loving vibrations, but like most travel brochures the hook is the pictures, not the words. When I planned to write this entry Britain was overcast and chilly and “San Francisco” sounded as mocking and forlorn as a broken jelly shoe. Now the sun is out, I’m packing for the Mediteranean and the gentle people sound mighty appealing. Mind you, when I planned to write this entry, Sandi Thom wasn’t at Number One with her wretched answer record: a miserable illustration of how utopias curdle, the flowers in the hair becoming sticks to beat us with for not living up to someone else’s pop dream.

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Comments

  1. 1
    koganbot on 5 Jul 2006 #

    In the U.S. this song peaked (at number 5) in June, which makes a lot more sense, since it’s about a summer that’s about to happen, not one that’s in full swing.

    I’d give it an 8 or a 9; it’s pretty. It’s canny but not wise, and even as a young ‘un I had the sense it was a commercial cash-in, more for squares than for hipsters. And I liked it anyway.

  2. 2
    Chris Brown on 21 Jul 2006 #

    You think this is a cash-in? At least it’s not ‘Let’s Go To San Francisco’ by the Flowerpot Men. Actually I hate this, but I can’t deny that the retrospective hype is a big factor, (including Sandi Thom – well spotted).

    My Mum says they used to joke about The Golden Hits Of Scott Mackenzie – Volume 2.

  3. 3
    Marcello Carlin on 22 Jul 2006 #

    That’ll be “Kokomo,” then, which Scott McKenzie co-wrote.

  4. 4
    Doctor Mod on 31 Jul 2006 #

    (Sigh) I am a Californian. I love San Francisco (unofficial capital of NoCal), even though I am from Los Angeles (unofficial capital of SoCal). I have always known this song is a crock. The San Francisco described therein was some glib songwriter’s “let’s make a fast buck off this hippie thing” fantasy/hoax. Yes, there were hippies and flowers in one’s hair and all that, but this was to evoke something (what?) in people in places like Iowa or Missouri and make them want to dress funny and acted stoned.

    There is, though, one use left for this song. I’ve been in a number of gay bars in SF where this record is in jukeboxes–simply for its camp value.

  5. 5
    koganbot on 8 Aug 2006 #

    some glib songwriter’s “let’s make a fast buck off this hippie thing” fantasy/hoax

    I agree with this completely except I would change the word “glib” to “brilliant.” The songwriters were Scott McKenzie and John Phillips, the latter of the Mamas & Papas. And he’s “pop” through and through, wasn’t a freak, didn’t get it but was willing to market it.

  6. 6
    Lena on 28 Sep 2006 #

    Wasn’t this written as a kind of ad for the Monterey Pop festival?

    I’m a native of California too, and as songs about my state go, this is definitely one of the better ones. It is brilliant and sad and alluring, just like the place…

  7. 7
    Kenneth Wright on 19 Oct 2006 #

    Surprised no-one has mentioned how marvellously arranged and played this record is. The lead guitar sounds remarkably like Mike Bloomfield’s twangy little fills on the more laid-back tracks of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, and the bass line is a cleverly developed counter-melody. As for the lyrics, we were all a lot less cynical in 1967 …

  8. 8
    Ted Meyer on 26 Feb 2007 #

    A bit of cheesy L.A. marketing hype from Lou Adler & Papa John Phillips indeed, but what a beautiful tune it is.
    From the intro when John Phillip’s shimmering 12 string acoustic strumming gives way to Scott Mackenzie’s silky tenor delivering the most gorgeous, mournful melody. I’m sure most of the big S.F. freak bands at the time (The Dead, Big Brother and the Airplane) did not dig the L.A. gatecrashers-

  9. 9
    wichita lineman on 19 Jul 2008 #

    John Phillips: “pop through and through, wasn’t a freak, didn’t get it”?

    Wasn’t he largely responsible for organising Monterrey, which was the love-in he was writing about? Sorry for all the questions, but I’m thinking I’m either losing my memory or a lot of the posts above are plain wrong. The same ‘heads’ who’d have sneered at this single’s supposed cynicism were probably booing Laura Nyro at the festival.

    As a picture postcard it works as a perfect companion to California Dreaming, Phillips’ breakthrough hit when he was still based in wintery NYC. If San Francisco was a “hoax” or a “fantasy” it was one that Phillips clearly believed in, and one that finally sucked him dry (see the Wolfking Of LA album).

    The production is a heat haze, with the tangy guitar fills, subtly atonal bells and that odd mock-eastern middle eight adding to a sense of mild disorientation. All of which creates a gen-u-ine summer ’67 sound of California. The music of Quicksilver, the Dead et cet just doesn’t work as well unless you know the context. This one – from a distance – bottles the essence.

    Also, what a sonorous, believable vocal. McKenzie had it on a plate but decided he didn’t want to be a star, otherwise he could have become a major player in the soft pop/orch-ballad-land that was ’68 (imagine him tackling things like the Casuals’ Jesamine, or Macarthur Park, or even Montague Terrace).

    The follow-up was an orchestrated minor-key heartbreaker with a subtle song structure which sank it’s airplay chances. The title, Like An Old Time Movie, probably didn’t help either – sounds like it’s from the Anita Harris/Frankie Vaughan/Pet Clark class of ’67. It nails the love/hate, push-and-pull at the end of a long-term relationship: “I’m gonna let you go, every time I see you”. Absolutely worth digging out if Jimmy Webb and Scott Walker float your boat.

  10. 10
    larry.kooper on 15 Dec 2010 #

    I prefer The Animals’ “San Franciscan Nights” and The Human Switchboard’s “San Francisco Nights” myself

  11. 11
    Lena on 7 Nov 2011 #

    Meanwhile, in Wales: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2011/11/loneliness-is-such-drag-tom-jones-ill.html Ta for reading, everybody!

  12. 12
    wichita lineman on 19 Aug 2012 #

    So farewell Scott McKenzie.

    Here’s a sweet promo film for his gorgeous follow up to San Francisco, Like An Old Time Movie. Sad to say I’ll probably discover more about his life in an obit than I discovered while he was alive.

  13. 13
    Jimmy the Swede on 20 Aug 2012 #

    Yes, goodbye Scott. Nobody can be sure where he is now but let’s hope he meets some gentle people there.

    Wichita – I can’t access that link from where I am now but “Like An Old Time Movie” screams Gordon Lightfoot to me!

  14. 14
    wichita lineman on 20 Aug 2012 #

    It’s a great clip, lots of mod girls surrounding the rather embarrassed but kindly Scott.

    Nothing wrong with Gordon Lightfoot in my book, maybe that’s another reason I’m fond of it! Summer Side Of Life is one of my absolute favourite albums.

  15. 15
    Jimmy the Swede on 20 Aug 2012 #

    I love both “Sundown” and “If I could Read Your Mind”, the former being a US number one. The latter was played to death back in the day and is a Ken Bruce staple to this day. Both records failed to set our own chart alight (or even remotely warm). Disgraceful.

  16. 16
    Snif on 21 Aug 2012 #

    What about “Carefree Highway”?

  17. 17
    Jimmy the Swede on 21 Aug 2012 #

    Very carefree indeed, Snif! Gordon’s a top lad, is he not? And another guy wreathed in the Maple Leaf and not the Stars and Stripes.

  18. 18
    Tommy Mack on 22 Aug 2012 #

    ‘…Old Time Movie’ – what a great song, never heard it before – what a shame it wasn’t a bigger hit (#50 in the UK?), I suppose people weren’t ready for something so downbeat after San Francisco! RIP Scott.

  19. 19
    wichita lineman on 22 Aug 2012 #

    I was in Toronto a few years back, doing a ‘show’, and thought I’d invite Gordon Lightfoot along just in case he had nothing better to do. So I called Early Morning Management, around 11.30am, and got the answering machine. Maybe they’d already gone home.

  20. 20
    Jimmy the Swede on 22 Aug 2012 #

    You should have tried again at sundown, Lino.

    Yeah, alright, I’m going…

  21. 21
    website on 2 Jul 2013 #

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  22. 22
    Patrick Mexico on 2 Jul 2013 #

    Re 21: I hate it when Americans try ripping off The Village Green Preservation Society.

  23. 23
    lonepilgrim on 18 Apr 2016 #

    another song where my mental image is contradicted by the song itself. I always think this is going to be a triumphant celebration of the hippie dream and instead it sounds like a lament for something that’s already been lost. The music is by (at least some of) The Wrecking Crew and so has a pop precision and richness that the genuine hippie bands might have disdained. Scott Mckenzie himself brings a forlorn otherworldly quality to the vocals.

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