The Lovin' Spoonful
Albums reviewed on this page: Do You Believe in Magic?, Daydream, What's Up Tiger Lily?, Hums of the Lovin' Spoonful, Everything Playing.
I've always been a little surprised that the big New York folk scene didn't kick out more groups. I guess that may be because the folk scene was so vibrant it crowded out everyone else. Let's see - there's the Lovin' Spoonful (the folky/country band) the Youngbloods (more rock/country), the Blues Project (R&B and a little bit of everything), with a couple of infamous weirdos as well (the Velvet Underground, the Fugs).
The Lovin' Spoonful was mainly John Sebastian, a smiling man with glasses who sounds like the nicest guy you'll ever meet. Alongside noted goofball and guitar chamelion Zal Yanovsky, the Spoonful charted course for all the down-home good-time places that music could go. The band scored some early success with happy-go-lucky songs like "Do You Believe in Magic?" and then ventured further into their roots. Some people really like Hums of the Lovin' Spoonful, but I'd say start with Do You Believe in Magic? first and then work your way down. The band never really embraced any experimentalism or psychedelia, and fell apart after Yanovsky got busted for drugs in mid-'67. Sebastian stayed on for one uneven album, Everything Playing, before bailing. He launched a semi-successful solo career as a singer-songwriter, most known today for making the theme to the Welcome Back Kotter TV show.
Even though the band isn't really cool or hip (more goofy) they made some good music anticipating the post-Altamont return of the roots.
Steve Boone (bass), Joe Butler (drums, vocals), John Sebastian (vocals, guitar), Zal Yanovsky (lead guitar, vocals). Yanovsky left after You're a Big Boy Now, replaced by Jerry Yester (guitar, vocals).
You Believe in Magic? (mono version) (1965), ***1/2
So it's 1965 and you want to record an album. What do you do? Copy the Beatles? Probably. Copy the Byrds? Even better (especially if you're American). Maybe some good old R&B can work its way in there. Not so for these boys. No, they went for a humerous, good-time country-blues sound. Aka jugband blues. The dictionary definition of this term is unavailable to me right now, but it appears to consist of playing a country-blues song with goofy lyrics, in a self-knowing way. Although they play with a friendly slack-jawed tone, they are not authentic rusticans singing about fishing or whatnot. Nor are they trying to be - it's pretty clear that they didn't take this persona very seriously (they were too precise and too good), neither did their audience, and thus everyone was satisfied. This was the same sort of wackiness that smacks of Beatles movies, and goofing around. Sure enough, the Lovin' Spoonful had their own Designated Goofball, who went by the name of Zalman Yanovsky. Believe me, if you had been born with a delightfully colorful name like that you have only two options. 1) You can become some sort of mild-mannered white-collar person, who will be only remembered for the letdown associated with reading that name on a business card and then meeting a milquetoast ruddy-faced gentleman in a starched white shirt. (One of God's little ironies, I speculate). OR 2) You can be the goofball lead guitarist for a jugband blues group, and spend your time cranking out bluesy leads over your bandmates, and be the talented Ringo of your own little world.
On the other hand, John Sebastian is the creative man of the group - and he has the tortoise shell glasses to prove it. Sebastian seems to be the oracle for warm, fuzzy pop songs. The man simply writes for sunny afternoons in the country, and the title track is such a perfect example - comfortable, fresh and youthful. These guys seemed to draw on both old country music and folk to create something inherently American. (Much as I hate the term, this appears to be Americana at its finest.) Yes, here's some Chuck Berry, here's a country song. The sunny disposition of the band is evident in comparing their version of Fred Neil's "Other Side of This Life" with the Youngbloods' subsequent cover. The Spoonful's has a swinging beat, and sound like a local C&W cover band with acoustic guitar and autoharp. The Youngbloods' version is more rocking, and dark and bluesy, much like the Youngbloods themselves. The same holds true with the more traditional blues tracks. It being 1965, the blues and R&B were inescapable, thanks to the UK. The Spoonful doesn't try to go for the gritty, guitar based blues from across the Atlantic. This is more of the Paul Butterfield variety (Sebastian on harp), but not as uptempo and energetic as New York compatriots the Blues Project. This was more of the slow, deliberate country blues, and it's good. The jugband stuff is fun, in that 1965 humor way. Hopefully you can laugh at a song that discusses in stride being chased by crazy women with rusty razors, drowning cats, glue sniffing, and the like. But this is good stuff - not the acoustic harmonized (and Dylanized) folk of the Byrds. It's electric (mostly), funny, and predicts both the smiling sunny disposition of the coming years through Sebastian, but also the hybrid country-blues inclinations of the same, through a combination of Sebastian and Zal.
Thus, the Lovin'
Spoonful were launched on their happy, go-lucky way. Produced
by Erik Jacobsen.
Not much change from the debut - the Spoonful added more vocal harmonies, and trended more towards Rubber Soul folk-rock. Daydream's two big singles (the title track and "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice") continue Sebastian's gentle love of the world balladry. The man really knew how to evoke a summer's day - I think a frown would have been impossible from him. The title track has something of an old-time rag in it, and is quite the ode to life - at one point he wants to bury his face in a new-mown lawn! That is a love of the outdoors, folks. The other big hit, "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice" is a folk-rock charmer - full of promise, thanks and appreciation. Sebastian may have the same approach to both nature and women - admiration and gratitude. Even their blues are not of the "woman left me" variety; they are more world weary than anything else. the lowest he gets is on "It's Not Time Now" which is about constructive arguing. It's a country song, about learning from disagreements. The Beatles might have had "We Can Work it Out" and Brian Wilson was cooking up all sorts of ways to be gorgeously sad, but John Sebastian comes out looking more perceptive than all of them on this track. While I may have written "country song," in truth it inhabits that ground in between country blues and folk that the Spoonful have permanent lodgings in. The friendly jug band music continues apace ("Bald Headed Lena", the sing-along choruses of "Jug Band Music"). These songs had to be crowd pleasers - just a bit of fun, as opposed to the relatively serious Byrds. A Chuck Berry worship track shows up again "Let the Boy Rock and Roll" - Berry's music was just about drifting into Americana as well at this point. The blues make their return, as "Day Blues" and the closing instrumental "Big Noise from Speonk." Joe Butler's vanilla baritone graces a few of these tracks ("There She Is" - a Rubber Soul knockoff, with Zal nailing Harrison's guitar tone, and "Butchie's Tune" - a "leaving you" ballad), and while his voice is forgettable, not bad, at least on "Butchie's Tune" his sad, timid vocals do match the feel of the song. No real change from the debut, just another good time. Again produced by Jacobsen.
Up Tiger Lily? (1966), *1/2
This was the soundtrack to an early Woody Allen film, and it's atrocious. I have seen the film, and it's as dated as go-go dancers. Allen's idea was to overdub his own script onto a Japanese spy film. According to the liner notes, the band was asked to come up with a soundtrack on Monday, before leaving for Europe on Wednesday. They were filmed performing it on a stage with no audience, and then the footage was interspersed in the film. This is a half hour album, and the two real songs ("Pow (Theme from What's Up Tiger Lily?)" and "Respoken") constitute under five minutes of time total. The rest are instrumental versions of other songs ("Pow Revisited", "Speakin' of Spoken", etc) and Allen's prefatory description of the project lifted from the film ("Introduction to Flick"). The most egregious example of shoddiness: not only is "Fishin' Blues" cut and pasted from their first album, it's also reprised as the "End Title." I guess hardcore fans might want to hear an embyonic version of Hums' delightful "Coconut Grove" titled "Lookin' to Spy" here. Sure, they boys make some appropriately weird spy movie background music from time to time, and there's some nice throwaway guitar lines, but this is superfluous at best.
I wonder if you could
pass this off as atmospheric rock?
of the Lovin' Spoonful (mono version) (1966),
Sebastian pushed the band further into Americana at this point, but it starts to run counter to the band's zaniness, even when incorporating it. So, you have an odd unsettling compromise between wackiness of A Hard Day's Night (the movie) and variety a la The Monkees (the television show) variety, and rootsy pop-rock. In other words, the band separated their sound back into its component parts, while retaining the goofball humor of jugband music. So alongside the very appropriate Sebastian warm lovey-dovey material (the straight Dixieland "Bes' Friends") there is down-home country nonsense ("Henry Thomas"), and goofy blues-rock ("Voodoo in My Basement"), all with the sort of general happiness that apparently Sebastian effused at all times. Even when Zal dusts the slide guitar broom to create the hardest rocking track on here ("4 Eyes") the song is about schoolyard taunts aimed at those with glasses ("4 Eyes / what you gonna do now / ha ha ha"). This sort of thing really depends on your sense of humor to be effective. Even Joe Butler got to do his usual thing: a bland outdated pop song ("Full Measure") - the guy really was the Steve Katz of the group: a not terribly talented vocalist who gets bought off with a track of his own on each album. Or maybe Butler was the Ringo of the group after all... Zal was still at it, thankfully, crafting those guitar lines to complement whatever harebrained scheme Sebastian cooked up. Sebastian was drawn toward more towards the country side of things, to the point of recording a goofy ode to Nashville session men which somehow made the Top Ten ("Nashville Cats"). Even though the music is pure country, Sebastian's lyrics are almost in jest, although I did notice he wrongly places the Sun record label in Nashville. One of the band's strongest moments is on the languid "Coconut Grove" which is a cool, moody track with more sadness in it than Sebastian had previously displayed. Don't worry, he still writes the happy acoustic songs we all know and love (the folk-rock of "Darlin' Companion", "Rain on the Roof") and even gets a bit punchy and urban on "Summer in the City" with its pounding piano. Even though it is the latter track which is best remembered today, the others are little jewels of summer warmth and happiness. In summary, the band was diversifying their sound, but not having the same level of success as before. Still a slightly above average album, however.
You're a Big Boy Now (1967)
Another soundtrack, this one to a Francis Ford Coppola film (thanks Fidel, again). I have never seen either. The band was having issues at this point, and this was their only album from the crazy big year of 1967. Most of their singles released that year would up on Everything Playing. Oh, and Francis Ford Coppola rocks.
Playing (1968), **1/2
The band was going through a rough patch the previous year, both in terms of personnel (losing Zal) and declining chart success. Psychedelia seems to have passed them for the most part, which may account for some of it. Instead, Zal's replacement Jerry Yester brought in strings/horns/etc on the tracks, giving the band a quasi-Moody Blues feel. Yester was only nominally Zal's successor - he is only a "warm body" on guitar and the bulk of his arranging is reminiscent of his previous work with West Coast pop group the Association. Everything Playing, most of which was released on singles during the prior year, has good stretches and bad, but goes in a direction known for a lack of scenery, sort of like traveling to rural Iowa.
You only realize how important Sebastian's vocals when he isn't the one singing. Although Sebastian wrote the bulk of the songs on here, turning a goofy song featuring vegetables cheating on each other ("Priscilla Millionaira"), over to Yester, Boone or whomever to sing is instantly a mistake. I think it is Yester, but it doesn't matter because the vocals are awful: flat, amateur with the amazing technique of singing louder to add emphasis. Butler is still kicking, and he got to write this time, showing up with both "Old Folks" and "Only Pretty, What a Pity." They are pretty good for a beginner: character pieces, and the latter satire. Butler was also more ambitious than Sebastian ever tried to be on "Only Pretty, What a Pity", adding a more experimental section with distorted vocals and violin. It is likely to produce only a shoulder shrug in the listener, though, as almost anything Butler seems to be singing is tarred with mediocrity (although this is top-shelf mediocrity).
shows up in full frequently enough. With the band he
contributes two fine singles: "She Is Still a Mystery" and
"Six O'Clock", which is well-done orchestrated pop.
Neither are groundbreaking (quiet versus, louder choruses, etc.) and
must have been a disappointment to a world enamored with backwards
tambourines. The album's true gems are Sebastian solo tracks in
everything but name. His "Boredom" is a perfect
country song about wasting time in a small town, and the steel guitar
work is so excellent I have to think it was either Zal or one of
those Nashville Cats. "Younger Generation" also shows
his perceptiveness again, as he sings about how our kids will rebel
someday and he asks "can it be you don't live up to your
dreams?" Yes, Sebastian is mellowing out before it
was fashionable, despite the fact that the lyrics get goofier as it
goes along. "Money" reminds me of that other man who
was out of place - Ray Davies, in describing who we give our money to
and why. Although Sebastian played at Woodstock, his message is
always wholesome and quirky without being rebellious. Davies,
who a few years later would go down the same musical roads that
Sebastian was pursuing (the simple banjo arrangement on "Money"
could put it on Muswell Hillbillies), was looking at the past
and being satirical, while Sebastian was in jest and thinking
forward. What other rock person would put a little gospel-like
love tune on their album (the fun "Try a Little Bit") and
include both the old organ and the female vocal backing? I
don't think anyone was shocked when Sebastian left for a solo career
later that year, as he was already effectively solo on this album.
Revolution Revelation '69 (1969)
Featuring Joe Butler! Everyone's favorite British soul singer! No wait, that's Joe Cocker! This is the band's drummer! Who merits none of these x!clamation! points!