Pick of the Week #16
10 Lovin' Spoonfuls
By Beppe Colli
Mar. 28, 2021

Though a potential source of much ridicule, in the 60s the tag "American Beatles" was generously attributed to many groups who obviously lacked the required qualities.

Though most of them didn't bear comparison - artistic considerations notwithstanding, nobody has ever been as enormously popular as the Beatles - for a moment it looked like the freshness and the vivacity of the music performed by the Lovin' Spoonful brought the Beatles to mind.

A quartet from New York whose music was often called "good time music" - a label that was in many ways appropriate, but which didn't cover the full spectrum of their musical output - the Lovin' Spoonful were never "the American Beatles", but for a moment they influenced the Beatles, especially Paul McCartney: as "Macca" has explained many times, the Beatles song Good Day Sunshine, featured on their album Revolver, was written in the style of the Lovin' Spoonful.

I'll add the "love song to pot" that he wrote, Got To Get You Into My Life, featured on Revolver: while the music is definitely a homage to the R&B sound of the time, the lyrics bring to mind the Lovin' Spoonful hit Daydream, which goes: "It's starring me and my sweet thing/'Cause she's the one makes me feel this way".

(Readers are invited to remember that a lot of music from that time was sung and played by musicians with "very heavy eyelids" as the Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian. The best "graphic" specimen of the genre being the picture of Dave Mason appearing on the cover of the second Traffic album of same name.)

The discovery of the "John Lennon jukebox" revealed the presence of a 45 single by the Lovin' Spoonful. While a recording of a rehearsal, many years after the fact, has Lennon looking for a chord he can't find - maybe a Dmin7? - while performing a song by the Lovin' Spoonful.

1965 was the year the Lovin' Spoonful entered the charts for the first time, with the song Do You Believe In Magic. In just two years the group had seven singles in the Top Ten, with one single - the world-famous Summer In The City - going to #1. While three albums - Do You Believe In Magic (1965), Daydream (1966) and Hums Of The Lovin' Spoonful (1966, their best) - showed their music had depth.

Let's not forget that in February,1969 - the original group by now having split up - the first edition of the pioneering book by Richard Goldstein, The Poetry Of Rock - a very thin book - featured three songs by the Lovin' Spoonful, which makes their perceived relevance quite apparent.

Do You Believe In Magic - no question mark - was the question the Lovin' Spoonful asked on American radio. Their music was for many years completely forgotten: when Peter Buck - the guitarist of a new, already popular US group called R.E.M. - mentioned Zal Yanovsky as an important influence, not many people still remembered his name and his contribution to the "American guitar sound".

In 2000, Lovin' Spoonful being admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame convinced their record company to re-release their albums on CD. (Just a few years earlier, the only CD I had managed to find was a "Best of" of pretty low quality - the kind that were sold at gas stations - at a cheap price).

Today John Sebastian is mostly well-known for playing harp under the moniker G. Puglese on the Doors' Roadhouse Blues, on Morrison Hotel.

(What I didn't know was that John Sebastian had a father who was a harmonica virtuoso, whose name was... John Sebastian. Hence, my confusion when I happened to see the cover of an album by a "John Sebastian" who looked very different - not to mention quite older!)

Canadian guitarist Zal Yanovsky had become friends with the young John Sebastian, and the timbral variety of their guitars - both acoustic and electric - and the great variety of "genres" played by the group should make it easy for fans of the Byrds and other guitar-based American groups from that time develop a liking for the music of the Lovin' Spoonful.

An exuberant and versatile rhythm section - Steve Boon on bass, Joe Butler on drums - also brought new vocal timbres to the mix. Though just a little more than twenty, all group members were fine instrumentalists possessing a substantial background. Let's not forget Erik Jacobsen, the producer who - acting as the proverbial fifth member - made the music make sense in the studio. (Quite young at the time, future world-famous sound engineer Roy Halee worked on some of their albums.)

While sounding simple and user-friendly, the songs by the Lovin' Spoonful don't suffer when listened to side-by-side with those by many famous groups of the time, from the Hollies to the Byrds, from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Buffalo Springfield. Theirs are the kind of songs that are maybe best appreciated as singles - one at the time, in a radio program - than as whole albums; in my opinion, this is also true of many groups and artists of the time - to those already mentioned, I'll add Donovan's greatest hits - and this doesn't mean that those songs were in any way lacking in quality or too similar to each other.

Maybe, when compared to music of the time, sometimes the Lovin' Spoonful sound a bit "nave", but definitely not when it comes to form: just listen to their first album, with Do You Believe In Magic as the opener, then a cover of Other Side Of This Life by Fred Neil, and the instrumental Night Owl Blues as closing track, to conclude this is a group of fine quality.

As a grown-up, I finally managed to find the lyrics to the songs of the Lovin' Spoonful. I immediately noticed a couplet appearing on Do You Believe In Magic: "And it's magic if the music is groovy/It makes you feel happy like an old-time movie". I thought about the time, long gone, when schools were closed for the winter Holiday Season, and late in the morning the State-owned TV broadcast old slapstick comedies and beautiful Disney cartoons, something that invariably made all members of my family quite happy.

And it's precisely this quality that, in my opinion, makes these songs stand out: the Lovin' Spoonful speak to us from a world that is no more, where old movies make you happy, summer showers have two teenagers hide under a roof of tin, people sweat in summer - meaning: there's no air-conditioning - love affairs last a while, "joints" are something to be mentioned with great caution, it's still possible to enjoy silence in a famous vacation resort in Florida, and wearing the first pair of glasses can still be a traumatic event for a young boy.

As it also happens with other "minor" groups of the time, the Lovin' Spoonful always appear to have a few "Best of" on the market, some of them good. Below, readers will find my brief notes about ten of my favourite tracks, coming from different times in their career. Again, I ask readers to pay attention to the guitar work, since the beauty of these songs is quite subtle, and the guitars are to be listened to for their sound, or for some background parts.

Do You Believe In Magic
The group's first hit single, obviously the opening track on their first album of same name, Do You Believe In Magic celebrates the "magic" power of music - which music? all music, if it's good: (...) "don't bother to choose/If it's jug band music or rhythm and blues" - with contagious rhythm and melody, and fine guitar motifs.

"Lazy" is the most appropriate adjective for this song, sounding quite sleepy: "And I'm lost in a daydream/Dreaming 'bout my bundle of joy". Fine rhythm guitars, just a pinch of feedback, walking 'round whistling, a day to take as it comes.

Rain On The Roof
Fine pairing of acoustic and electric guitars, fine sounds from the electric, and a vocal melody that's quite pleasant-sounding. Time stands still: "Maybe we'll be caught for hours/Waiting for the sun". The positive side of Summer showers.

Coconut Grove
A famous tourist place in Florida, Coconut Grove is the perfect background to a moment to live in the quiet and privacy of one's mind: "The ocean's roar will dull the drummin'/Of any city thoughts or city ways". The dunes, the stars, and the word "cool" - as polysemic as "groovy" - to mimic the movement of the waves: "The ocean's breezes cool my mind".

Nashville Cats
A "country & western" moment, guitars played "finger picking", perfect background vocals, a fine "imitation" of an old genre that "the boys" replicate to perfection.

4 Eyes
A neurotic mood for a song that paints a sad picture of a boy's trauma for having to wear his first pair of glasses. The lyrics appear to anticipate some of Randy Newman's more sadistic moods: "How many fingers? Ha ha ha". 4 Eyes gets its forward motion by drums and full volume bass guitar, with harsh-sounding guitars galore. An advice to parents: (...) "Give a break to little Clarence" (...) "And please recall that after all he wears them on his face".

Summer In The City
A complex production - claxons, loud drums, pneumatic drills - for the group's only #1, in the Summer of 1966. A perfect contrast between verses and chorus, a nervous-sounding electric piano, guitars, tense vocals describing people walking half-dead, and night's cool air: "But at night it's a different world".

Darling Be Home Soon
The group's main songwriter, John Sebastian gradually developed a fine degree of maturity, this fine song later being covered many times. Thoughtful mood, a delicate string section, then winds, an "almost-married" sentimental mood, elaborate production, for one of the best moments from the group's late period.

A perfect illustration of a moment of... well, boredom: the narrator would prefer to be anywhere, but here; silence only broken by tracks; a telephone that doesn't ring; a bleak motel; a slide guitar that appears to encourage the coming of sleep; "I feel about as local as a fish in a tree". "And the Late Late Show died long ago/With a few words from a priest".

Six O' Clock
Another late-period song, here John Sebastian meditates - with fine backing - about an existential dilemma.

(Those who have never seen the episode in the Woodstock movie where John Sebastian makes a surprise appearance - it was after heavy rain, and groups using electric instruments were in danger to being electrocuted - are invited to watch it now.)

Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Mar. 28, 2021