VERSIONS: “California Dreamin'”

Photo: J. Aird

Few songs have ever so encapsulated the restlessness of a generation, the wanting to move on from a love that is over and a cold religion that offers no comfort can be contrasted to a loss of belief in the American Dream and the Puritan spirit of the Founding Fathers. Off in the distance the dream of a Golden California beckons – a youthful world of free love and constant sunshine. All this captured in beautiful harmonies, from a band whose internal emotional state was, ironically, rarely far from turbulent verging on the catastrophic.

It was perhaps inevitable that the most successful Californian “boy band” would eventually record ‘California Dreamin’ ‘ – they waited a while though, and this recording from 1986 is well into the age of the music video.  Whilst “the boys” do provide some pretty decent harmony vocals there are the usual Eighties excesses as well – those drums, that saxophone!  What almost saves it though is the presence of Roger McGuinn who manages to give it a very Byrdsian twist in places.

What is the most striking thing about Bobby Womack’s reinterpretation of ‘California Dreamin’‘? Well, the vocals are pulled down to a single passionate soulful one, the longing for sunny California is brought to the fore as Womack adds asides on just how much he wants to move to the West Coast. But the big thing is that the whole “if I didn’t tell her” part has been excised – there’s no complicated love tangle to be escaped, Bobby Womack just really wants to be in California. And what is even more remarkable is that it might take a couple of listens before one even notices that a huge part of the song is gone.

John Phillips’ radical reworking of this song was on the posthumous ‘Phillips 66‘, which it is fair to say comes under the heading of shameless cash-in release. However, if anyone had a right to make a version of ‘California Dreamin’ ‘ which injected world weary vocals in the place of glorious harmonies and the chorus sung in Spanish then John Phillips was that person. Looking back on the song from a couple more decades it seems almost a prototype for The Delines, or at least a rough sketch in that direction.

About Jonathan Aird 2689 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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David D Harper

Well, I’m far more impressed by the Beach Boys’ version of California Dreaming than Bobby Womack’s. The whole gist of the song is a heartfelt longing for the soul-renewing California warmth and sunshine, which the Beach Boys capture perfectly. Bobby Womack’s James Brown-style soul interpretation misses the whole point – while admittedly producing some fine vocals – and so leaves me “all shook up” rather than finding “rivers in the stream.”