Everything you need in one large dollop
Hit-for-hit The Lovin’ Spoonful were the most commercially successful of the American groups which formed in response to the British Invasion. Between October 1965, when Do You Believe in Magic crashed into the Billboard Top 10, and October 1968, when leader and chief songwriter departed, they racked up 10 hits – substantially more than The Byrds or The Beau Brummels, while only the more facile Paul Revere & the Raiders trumped them.
The Spoonful conjured up a concept which, far from imitating The Beatles, strove to capture the musical virtuosity and stylistic breadth of American music, effortlessly taking in traditional folk and blues elements, country, jug band music, even good ol’ rock’n’roll. All four band members where recognisable characters (especially wacky guitarist Zal Yanovsky), blessed with a wild streak of humour and serving up the sort of zany antics which anticipated The Monkees. Whereas the ever-cool Byrds offered a template for a thousand garage bands to follow and were seen as innovators, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s genial, universal appeal detracted from just how good they were.
In John Sebastian they had an extraordinary pop craftsman who installed the group\’s assimilation of American musical forms with an unassuming pop sensibility. He could be casually observational and romantic, always with a homely turn of phrase (You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice, Young Girl); nor was he afraid to celebrate old fashioned values, as in the Hoagy Carmichael-influenced Daydream or country-picking Darlin’ Companion. At his best, Sebastian could capture a mood, apotheosis of which was edgy, steamy Summer In The City. Sebastian could even eulogise the essence of pop itself in songs such as Let The Boy Rock & Roll, Nashville Cats and the sublime Do You Believe In Magic.
The downside for the group was being trapped in the pop treadmill, which sapped their ability to create even one consistently great LP. All six of their albums are presented here in two-for-one packages with bonus material, but only Hums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful comes close to overcoming the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, the band were engulfed by the pop process, even bowing to the pressure of creating soundtracks for tow films: Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? And Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re A Big Boy Now. Both were patchy, relying on instrumentals, though the latter includes the aching Darling Be Home Soon.
Unlike their friends The Mamas & The Papas, the Spoonful never generated an underground following. When, in 1967, Yanovsky was busted for drugs in San Francisco, he incriminated others and the band was ostracised. Yanovksy made way for The Modern Folk Quartet’s Jerry Yester, fresh from producing The Association. Everything Playing, the Spoonful’s final album before Sebastian’s exit, was a brave stab at a new direction, mixing Yester’s epic arrangements with even more simplistic Sebastian material. Both Boredom and Younger Generation (which Sebastian performed at Woodstock) were dry runs for the leader’s solo career, but his later songs rarely matched those he wrote for The Lovin’ Spoonful.
The Lovin’ Spoonful survived long enough to create half a dozen albums that combined John Sebastian’s musical songs with a feel-good blend of blues, country, folk, and jug band music.
Now, all six original albums are being repackaged and reissued in three 2CD sets, complete with bonus tracks and special booklets.
One set contains their first two albums from 1965 and 1966: Do You Believe In Magic? and Daydream. Set 2 combines What’s Up Tiger Lily? and Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful from 1966. Set 3 brings together their final albums from 1967: You’re a Big Boy Now (the last album with guitarist Zal Yanovsky) and Everything Playing (the last with John Sebastian).
“CREEQUE ALLEY”, The Mamas & The Papas’ jaunty name-checking chronicle of Greenwich Village scenesters who were “gettin’ kind of itchy to leave the folk music behind”, is as much the story of The Lovin’ Spoonful as it is the band who recorded it. He may have started out as a solo strummer in the boho clubs of Lower Manhattan, but John Sebastian was, from the start, determined to work on a broader canvas, once fancifully describing his template for the group as “Mississippi John Hurt meets Chuck Berry”.
Folk clubs were the places to be heard, but where contemporaries like Tom Rush or Fred Neil (who both utilised Sebastian’s harmonica skills for session work) stuck by and large to a traditional formula, the Spoonful used them as a springboard to investigate sundry other stops on America’s musical map. The Byrds were clearly an influence, as were The Beatles, but Sebastian and guitarist Zal Yanovsky also ventured deep into the swampy backwaters and wide open prairies of the country.
Watching Sebastian play autoharp along to the band’s 1965 debut hit “Do You Believe In Magic?” on national TV, it was as if the old-time concerns of The Carter Family were rocking towards a head-on collision with mop-top infused bubblegum pop. The lightness of touch, the seductive hook and the pretty boy harmonies heralded the start of a six-album journey through musical styles, reissued here in a set of three, chronologically arranged twofers. Debut album Do You Believe In Magic was heavy on trad chestnuts(the jug band hoedown of “Wild About My Lovin”; the rustic “Fishin’ Blues”), but still found space for self-penned sweet teen anthems (“Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?”).
Having got record-buyers’ attention, Sebastian became bolder on Daydream, its ragtime vaudevillian title track giving the group their first chart-topper. And if the likes of “You Didn't Have To Be So Nice” continues the vein of teenybopper-friendly sing-along’s, there was a darker, more questioning motif to “It's Not Time Now” or the waltz-like “Didn’t Want To have To Do It”. Their third album in the space of 12 months, What’s Up Tiger Lily, gives an indication of the group’s restlessness.
A soundtrack for Woody Allen’s Japanese spy spoof, its brief (mostly) instrumental pieces were completed in less than a week.
Such a punishing workload meant that cracks were almost inevitably beginning to show, and by all accounts the recording on Hums... was not a happy time. Yanovsky was increasingly dabbling in drugs and becoming resentful of the media attention Sebastian was receiving. The guitarist’s only writing credit came on “Coconut Grove” (a tribute to Fred Neil), while his co-founder became more dictatorial, veering towards redneck novelty on “Henry Thomas” and “Nashville Cats”. Zal, however, is plainly the driving force in the paean to New York, “Summer In The City”.
By now, Sebastian was agreeing to commissions without consulting his co-workers, knocking off a quickie soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re A Big Boy Now with a full orchestra in place of the band on several tracks. “Darling Be Home Soon” is a triumph of yearning one of their greatest recordings. But trouble was brewing for the disenchanted Yanovsky – a high-profile drugs bust hastened his departure from the group.
With Yanovsky gone, Sebastian entered his ‘Brian Wilson / Sgt Pepper’ phase, eager to match the more complex work of his fast-maturing rivals on Everything Playing.
“Boredom” and “Younger Generation” maintained links with the Spoonful’s acoustic pop past, but many of the attempts at psych grandeur fall short, save for the mock baroque “She Is Still A Mystery” and “Six O’Clock”. But having taken on the lion’s share of writing, not to mention almost all lead vocals, Sebastian was close to burn-out – just 22 months separate the release of the first and last of these half-dozen albums – and he headed for the door himself.
The Lovin’ Spoonful deserve their place in the pantheon of 60’s greats, and any serious compilation of the era without at least two of the band’s songs is unthinkable, but beyond the dumbass pop of “Do You Believe In Magic?”, the sun-kissed stroll of “Daydream” or the concrete jungle urgency of “Summer In The City”, there’s a wealth of experimentation, the enthusiastic slinging of all manner of musical mud at a wall, that’s tended to be overlooked. Yes, there are misfires, occasional lapses in quality control, but they’re easily outweighed by the magic. Believe It.
Formed in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1965, The Lovin’ Spoonful were part of the USA’s response to The Beatles, an American band with an American flavour that could be to American kids what the Fab Four were in Britain.
Talking in blues, country, folk and jug band music, John Sebastian’s songs delivered hit after hit in the States, but only two major singles here in the UK.
I remember meeting the Lovin’ Spoonful at Birmingham’s Cedar Club in 1966, shortly after The Move had been formed.
Do You Believe In Magic / Daydream: The Spoonful’s first two albums, from 1965 and 1966, feature the two title tracks, plus You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice and Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind.
What’s Up Tiger Lily / Hums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful: Albums three and four were both out in 1966. What’s Up Tiger Lily was the soundtrack of Woody Allen’s debut movie while Hums offers US chart-topper Summer In The City, Rain On The Roof and Nashville Cats.
You’re A Big Boy Now / Everything Playing: The fifth and sixth albums came out in 1967. The former was the sound-track to one of Francis Ford Coppola’s earliest films and features hit Darling Be Home Soon. Everything Playing was the last album with John Sebastian before he left to pursue a solo career and contains hits Six O’Clock and She Is Still A Mystery.