Classic Music Review: The Lovin’ Spoonful: Greatest Hits

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One feature of the American Counterattack against The British Invasion that strikes me as curious is that it was absolutely sexless.

Curious because the capitalist part of the American psyche had mastered the lesson that sex sells long before the Invasion. The Americans had deep experience in the mass production of sex symbols, largely through the star generation machine called Hollywood. Rock ‘n’ roll never would have taken off as furiously as it did had Elvis never shaken his hips or if Little Richard had never screamed or Chuck Berry had never mastered the art of the double entendre. The opposing strain of the American consciousness—Puritanism—is never far from the surface, and it seemed to emerge after well-publicized scandals involving Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and their teenage amours. Little Richard became a preacher, Elvis went into the Army and the teen idols who followed them were generally devoid of blatant manifestations of impure thoughts. The music of Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Dion and Fabian was pretty tame stuff in comparison, and when it came to open displays of virility, well, let’s just say that you would never confuse Roy Orbison with Clark Gable or the unshirted version of Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity.

The Puritan strain continued to dominate the marketing of 60’s American bands, even after the Invasion and the concurrent advent of long-haired men should have told the Americans that sex was back in vogue. The music moguls took the one guy with serious sex appeal—Mark Lindsay—and dressed him up in a ridiculous Revolutionary War get-up. Does any woman ever stare at a dollar bill and fantasize about sex with George Washington? The three-cornered hat is the ultimate mood-killer, even worse than Bobby Rydell’s hairstyle.

This meant that the Americans faced the more virile British with one penis tied behind their backs (a trick requiring some impressive acrobatic moves). Not until Jim Morrison came along would Americans produce someone who could rival Mick Jagger. The British had not only had bad-boy sexy, but all varieties of sexy. The Zombies were avant-garde-sexy, Them were wild-sexy, The Yardbirds dark-sexy, The Kinks sneery-sexy. Except for the one-or-two hit garage bands like The Leaves, 13th Floor Elevator and The Seeds, mid-60’s American rock bands were generally mellow and laid-back, at least in terms of public persona and music, and the band that best exemplifies this latent strain of American Puritanism is The Lovin’ Spoonful.

Their music is often referred to as “feel-good” music, a fair characterization. Despite folk roots, they never got their feet wet in the sub-genre of protest song. The Lovin’ Spoonful played in a wide variety of styles, a capability clearly demonstrated on their best album, Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful, where you can hear country, rock, pop, rockabilly, jazz and even a touch of Engelbert Humperdinck. There was never any controversy about whether or not they played their own instruments, and they proved to be capable, if unremarkable, musicians. The Lovin’ Spoonful produced hit after hit, all easily accessible songs that you could sing along with after a few spins. Although you would never use the word “exciting” to describe them, they were very successful, joining Gary Lewis and the Playboys as the only artists in the 1960’s to place their first seven singles in the Billboard top 10.

And like Gary Lewis and the Playboys, completely sexless. Oh, the girls of the time screamed at their shows, but by then the girls were programmed to scream at the appearance of any long-haired male with a guitar. The Spoonful were nice guys, and maybe Zal Yanovsky qualified under the Ringo category of “he’s so ugly, he’s cute.” But mojo? Nada. Rien! Nichts!

Still, they made some pretty good music. This is a very strong collection, generally organized in chronological order, featuring seven songs from Hums and all of their hits (as well as a few misses). It’s easy to identify the exact beginning of their decline, which coincided with two roughly simultaneous developments: Sebastian started writing for the movies and Canadian Zal Yanovsky departed due to a drug bust complicated by his Canadian citizenship and his choice to rat out his supplier. The act of snitching destroyed The Lovin’ Spoonful’s reputation with the anti-establishment cognoscenti, because that was seriously uncool, ya dig? Anyway, after Hums it was pretty clear that John Sebastian had ambitions beyond The Spoonful, culminating years later in the thoroughly inoffensive and completely uninteresting theme song for the horrid little sitcom Welcome Back Kotter.

Lucky for us, the collection ends long before “Welcome Back,” and begins appropriately with . .

“Do You Believe in Magic?”: I was delighted to learn that Sebastian admitted he lifted the first three chords from Martha and The Vandellas’ “Heat Wave,” and sped them up to create the lead-in to this song. I knew I’d heard that sequence somewhere! The song is terribly infectious, with a nice flowing melody and well-placed touches of harmony, background vocal and simple but effective guitar vamps. Joe Butler’s drumming is strong and steady throughout and Sebastian’s vocal has that “oh, wow” sense of excitement about the magic of the music. I love the agnosticism of the song (“If you believe in magic, don’t bother to choose/If it’s jug band music or rhythm and blues”), underscoring the free and open musical environment of the period. The song also marks the first appearance of one of Sebastian’s recurring symbols: young chicks. For John Sebastian, the young girl was the symbol of innocence and release, the purest expression of beauty and joy. It’s not how I remember my teenage friends, who were generally a bunch of gloomy, self-centered bitches, but I grew up in the 90’s, when suicide was considered cool. Is that fucking dumb or what?

“You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”: A perfectly lovely pop number with a bit of a kick, the highlight for me here is the lovely counterpoint vocal mix, particularly when they shift to lyrical fragments that reinforce without direct repetition. Zal’s guitar work isn’t Joe Satriani, but it’s perfectly complementary to the overall mood. I like this one better than “Do You Believe in Magic,” and apparently so did Brian Wilson, who said the song influenced his creation of “God Only Knows.” I’ll take “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” over “God Only Knows” any day, a position understood to be a minority viewpoint.

Here’s Peter Noone introducing The Spoonful on Hullabaloo. What a hoot!

“Daydream”: One line in this song harkens me back to reminders of a pleasure I was largely denied in my youth: “I’m blowing the day to take a walk in the sun/And fall on my face on somebody’s new-mowed lawn.” Good luck finding a house with a lawn east of Twin Peaks in the San Francisco core! Dolores Park had lots of grass, but only rarely did the grass mingle with warm sun, and I tended to avoid the place because it was a big hangout for drug dealers. I don’t remember smelling warm, fresh-cut grass until I went to college in L. A., where I was held spellbound by another phenomenon that was relatively rare in San Francisco: automatic lawn sprinklers. I used to sit outside the dorm in the perpetually sunny weather, timing my study to coincide with the sprinklers coming on, so I could watch them chug along and see the rainbows in the sprinkler stream. And when I heard the riding mowers kick into gear, I’d run outside and fill myself with snootfuls of that sweet, sweet smell of fresh-cut grass. Isn’t that weird?

“Daydream” is one of the classic lazy day songs, one that McCartney said inspired his own “Good Day Sunshine.” What I like here is the precision and simplicity of the build, which never gets too busy or distracting.

“You Baby”: Let’s be clear: this is not one of the seven singles to make it to the top ten. It’s a dreadful throwback to the days of Frankie Avalon, a song penned by Mann, Weill and (gag!) Phil Spector. Joe Butler seemed to have a fondness for crooning cheesy lounge music, and this penchant would produce only one decent song in the catalog. It’s not this one.

“Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?”: A fun song to sing with others in a fuck-around session when everyone’s getting drunk and silly—as long as you ignore the underlying belief that a woman would actually stand around waiting for a guy to choose her, like the last one picked for the softball team. Ha! I had a rule when I was dating: if the guy was more than ten minutes late, he could go fuck himself, literally and figuratively, because this little chickie had better things to do! It became harder to take this song seriously when it was featured in a commercial for Denny’s restaurants, but it could have been worse: it could have been a commercial for Waffle House.

“Wild About My Lovin'”: A “traditional” song adapted for their first album, I simply have a hard time believing John Sebastian when he sings “I’m wild about my lovin’.” No, you’re not! Not when you’re singing in a voice so laid-back it sounds like you’re going to fall asleep on the porch! What the fuck kind of lovin’ is that?

“Younger Girl”: This is an interesting piece for two reasons: one, the melody and chord structure were borrowed from an old blues number called “Prison Wall Blues”; and two, the reappearance of the young girl theme. This song puzzled me because it expressed cultural norms that seemed alien to me, so I called up my dad to get the scoop. Apparently it was somewhat rare in the 60’s for boys and girls to date outside of their age group until later in high school. My dad explained that seniors could go out with juniors and maybe stretch that into a sophomore, but going out with a freshman would be too weird. I was relieved to hear that because Sebastian never identifies the specific ages of pursuer and pursued, so I thought he might be expressing latent pedophilia. Whew! After all that hoo-hah, my conclusion is that it’s an okay song but not as strong as “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice.”

“On the Road Again”: This attempt at a rocking blues number leaves me cold. Yanovsky didn’t have the chops and Sebastian didn’t have the voice to pull of a number like this. Aerosmith did an outtake cover that was somewhat promising, but a song that expresses the expectation that the little woman should have dinner ready for her man when he stumbles home from his wanderings is never going to catch my fancy unless Muddy Waters is singing it.

“Didn’t Want to Have to Do It”: The muffled recording doesn’t help much, and I have an aversion to songs dominated by mushy major seventh chords. The call-and-response form is misused here, resulting in a very cluttered song that sounds like it was recorded in a Greenwich Village closet after they finished off a lid.

“Jug Band Music”: While the song has a good groove and well-told vignettes, I’ve always wondered why they didn’t use jug band instruments in the recording process if they wanted to advertise its magical properties to the listening audience. You can hear electrified imitations of a washtub bass and faint hints of washboard, but why not go whole hog? I find this kind of thing frustrating when Yankee musicians head south and fail to pay due attention to the character of the music in the region they’re allegedly trying to bring to life. The worst offender—and the main reason I think he’s a phony—was John Fogerty, who wrote Bayou/Delta songs completely free of Cajun or Zydeco influence, sanitizing and idealizing the region’s music for the average consumer. And the critics gave him credit for being a roots musician? Ha! Sebastian would sometimes rub up against that line, but only occasionally crossed it (as he does here).

“Summer in the City”: One of four singles from the Hums album to make the charts, this single and that album represent The Lovin’ Spoonful at their peak. A musique verité piece that captures the dreadful experience of East Coast city summers, you can listen to the song and smell the humid air, the mold, the subway brakes and the carbon monoxide of a hot July day in New York, where everyone on the streets seems more pissed off than usual and perspiration stains bloom in bulk. The nights are still a sweaty mess, but you feel so much better without that sun broiling you into a mushy hamburger . . . and if you’re going to have sex in the East Coast summer and your air conditioner is on the fritz, the nighttime is not only the right time, it’s the only time.

Ah, but this is The Lovin’ Spoonful, so the guy doesn’t have sex with the girl, but just dances all night. What’s the male equivalent of being a dick-tease, anyway?

The Lovin’ Spoonful rarely played at this level of intensity, preferring the more laid-back arrangements of feel-good music. That’s too bad, because they obviously had some room to go darker and heavier (and sexier!), as the bite of the vocal and the guitar in this song clearly demonstrate.

“Rain on the Roof”: The artistic goal that drove Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful was to play in a multitude of styles, and this pleasant, dreamy ditty provides good contrast to “Summer in the City.” Harp and French Horn help reinforce the romanticized imagery of a showery summer day in the country, visuals that remind one of a Claritin commercial. Ignoring the possibility of hay fever is one thing (and I thank John Sebastian for not going there), but the puritanism of The Lovin’ Spoonful borders on the absurd in this piece:

You and me, we’re gathered away
Dreamy conversation, sitting in the hay
Honey, how long was I laughing in the rain with you?
‘Cause I didn’t feel a drop
‘Til the thunder brought us to

Johnny boy! Girl! Hay! Come on, boy, you can do it . . . starts with an “r” . . . no, not “relax” . . . Roll, John, Roll! Roll in the hay! Ever heard of that? No, I didn’t think so.

“Pow”: Our mini-tour through Hums is interrupted with this insert from the soundtrack for Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? a movie that still puts me in stitches. The Spoonful made a cameo appearance and provided the music. “Pow” tells the story of a hopeless bad-luck loser and has only a very loose connection to the film (to reinforce Woody Allen’s comedic persona or the bumblings of lead character Phil Moskowitz). The best thing about the song is that it provides the background to China Lee’s striptease, about as close to racy as The Spoonful would ever get.

“Nashville Cats”: Returning to Hums, this little tune about John Sebastian’s love for “yellow Sun records from Nashville” has earned criticism from people who don’t do their research! Yes, the Sun of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis was located in Memphis (now a National Historical Landmark). Wikipedia, among others, accuse Sebastian of making a terrible mistake, but they’re the ones that need to get their facts straight. Sam Phillips, after launching the careers of several stars in both the rock and country fields, did what any business person with a brain would do when he’s got a good thing going: he expanded his operation, opening a branch in Nashville in February 1961. Harrumph! Tip: While Wikipedia has some good source material in a wide variety of topics, the quality of their articles is wildly inconsistent, so always remember to find two or three other sources to confirm their assertions.

Wow! I just did my first Public Service Announcement! Maybe I’ll tweet it! My first Public Service Tweet!

Back to the song . . . even if Sebastian had called it “Memphis Cats,” I still wouldn’t like this song. Country and cute doesn’t sit too well with my delicate constitution.

“Lovin’ You”: The opening song to Hums demonstrates John Sebastian’s integration of roots music influences at its best. The split-channel guitar work gives you that pickin’ on the porch feel, the harmonies are closer to doo-wop than country and the bridge has a sassy, uptown strut feel reminiscent of the more rhythmic Mills Brothers’ numbers. “Lovin’ You” is one of their best pure feel-good numbers and a fabulous sample of their musicianship.

“Darlin’ Companion”: A more countrified feel-good number, for some reason the feel-good overcomes the country and makes this one of my favorite Spoonful numbers. The performance is crisp, tight, and moves along nicely thanks to Joe Butler’s steady skip-beat. The Spoonful sound like they’re having a good time, and the feeling is infectious.

“Coconut Grove”: This minor blues piece from Hums is a Sebastian-Yanovsky composition that helps define Hums as a brilliant collection of mood pieces: songs that capture the feeling and sensual experience of place. The place here is coastal Florida, and the languorous feel of the place is perfectly expressed in the languorous arrangement: soft guitar, quiet vocal, blue note overtones, no drums, nothing too busy or distracting. The electric guitar is used for fills and an occasional off-chord that gently expands the soundscape without ruining the feel. This is the perfect song for a lazy summer afternoon when the only effort you want to expend is the energy it takes to grab another beer or a cool glass of white wine.

“Full Measure”: Joe Butler’s urge to become a lounge singer finds its best expression in the last song on this collection from Hums. Unlike the amateurish “You Baby,” this song features a clean arrangement, carefully attenuated background vocals and more complete integration of harmonies. The organ and piano parts add color and urgency to the vocal builds in the bridge, a marvelous passage that ends in very satisfying crescendo. Joe’s vocal is smooth without crossing the line into smarmy, and his drum punctuations provide energy boosts in all the right places.

“Darling Be Home Soon”: Oh, this is nice. Acoustic guitar and a little tambourine backing Sebastian’s vocal. Hmm. I don’t think we needed the bass on that first chorus, but okay, well, nothing’s perfect. Uh oh. Rhythm guitar and drums? We’re losing the acoustic guitar—damn! What? Strings? Oh, shit, they’re turning this into Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme! I can hardly hear Sebastian now. WHOA! WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT? OH MY GOD, IT’S THE ENTIRE FUCKING WOODROW WILSON HIGH SCHOOL ORCHESTRA AND MARCHING BAND! WHERE’S SEBASTIAN? JOHN, JOHN, CAN YOU HEAR ME? Oh, there you are. Gee, you sound exhausted. 

“Lonely (Amy’s Theme)”: What the fuck is this? From the soundtrack to what movie? Oh, that film Coppola did—the one that was a ripoff of The Graduate? Ah, that’s why “Darling Be Home Soon” got so fucked up: cinematic overkill. Well, let’s listen to the theme song anyway.

“You’re a Big Boy Now”: Uh, oh . . . I hear the seeds of “Welcome Back” here. Hollywood sure does strange things to people. Yanovsky was still there when they recorded this turkey, so maybe his departure wasn’t as dramatic an event as I thought. This is obviously a band on a downhill slope.

“Six O’Clock”: What a thoroughly irritating opening! Why would anyone want to emulate the sound of an electric alarm clock to open a song? Isn’t that the universal symbol of irritation for every human being in a First World country? After that “wake-up call,” all that’s left is a rather awkward melody and the overblown arrangement style The Spoonful adopted in their fading years to hide the growing cracks in the façade. This was the first single after Zal’s departure and the film gigs, and more evidence that the end is near.

“She Is Still a Mystery”: Once again the band is buried in an arrangement that is seriously overdone, for the song itself is similar in theme and feel to “Younger Girl” and demanded a quieter, more wistful approach. Either Sebastian was still fascinated with young chicks (“little girls,” he calls them paternalistically) or he was out of gas as a songwriter. I tend to think both were true.

“Money”: Still trying to find his groove, Sebastian gives us an economic lesson in a cute, banjo-driven (argggh!) little number that is a mere shadow of his earlier roots music. The irritating sound of an adding machine or a typewriter or whatever the fuck people used before software provides an additional kiss of death for this stinker.

“Younger Generation”: This was actually The Spoonful’s last single, a song that makes you very happy that this was actually The Spoonful’s last single. The subject is the prospect of parenting as seen through the eyes of an idiot who knows nothing about cultural history and dreams paranoid dreams about a future where three-year olds take LSD. This song was dated before the record left the presses.

“Never Going Back”: An earlier single that deserved to die the horrible death that awaited it. Shooting all the way up to #73 (and how it got that far is still a mystery to me), “Never Going Back” features Joe Butler, cheesy lounge singer transformed into Joe Butler, cheesy honky-tonk singer. The phrasing is so awful it defies gravity, common sense and anything else you’ve got. Dig the first line: “Every time I see that Greyhound . . . . . BUS rolling down the line.” The long pause after Greyhound isn’t long enough for the listener to come up with another word that could possibly fit other than BUS, so when Joe sings BUS with such force, the experience is Pythonesque, to say the least. Did the Greyhound Bus Company ever do trains, trucks, ships, airplanes, wheelbarrows, canoes, kayaks, bicycles, tricycles, scooters or dirigibles? No! So why all the suspense about a fucking bus?

I think The Spoonful should have quit while they were ahead and departed after Hums. That album was definitely their creative and commercial peak and would have been the perfect way to exit the scene. In the end, they left a pretty impressive catalog of songs that have become oldies radio standards, and though I know very few people in my generation who listen to their music, I’m sure they’ll be rediscovered by someone in the future when tastes shift back to roots music. As a response to The British Invasion, I’d say The Spoonful had better songs than The Byrds, better musicians than most of the bands of the day . . . and zero sex appeal. There was no way they were ever going to generate the level of excitement triggered by almost any Englishman who set foot on American shores during that period.

Things could have gone very different for The Lovin’ Spoonful, though. Did you know they were in negotiations to star in their very own TV show? And that it might very well have happened if John Sebastian hadn’t secured all the rights to his music beforehand? The power of television might have transformed our perceptions of The Spoonful. Shit, if TV can make losers like Britney Spears seem sexy, those magicians can turn anyone into a hot piece of ass!

Alas, it was not to be.

Alas, my next review will be about the guys who did get that deal.

Hey, hey.

12 responses

  1. […] The Lovin’ Spoonful, Greatest Hits […]

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  2. […] Latest Classic Music Review: The Lovin Spoonful’s Greatest Hits […]

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  3. A review which references Gary Lewis; Jerry Lee Lewis; Claritin;
    Woody Allen; and Denny’s Restaurants is sui generis…..
    Really ….does it matter what you are referencing ??

    John Sebastian exists in some post historical moment.
    He is neither signifier or signified; more like the tiniest asterisk
    on some bibliographer’s footnote that never was.

    Can we look forward to a new version of the movie Woodstock where
    JS has been mercifully edited out?

    The current version of the LS is still on the water and looking at the horizon;
    on Caribbean Cruises Oldies boat; twice next month; if you can believe their website.

    It is a safe bet that even Somali Pirates will steer clear of that ship.

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    1. I really wanted his piece from Woodstock to be on this album; all of my sadistic urges would have come to the surface in a literary massacre. I love the visuals of the Somali pirates fleeing in terror!

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  4. “The chances of me reviewing a Monkees album are equal to the chance of the Republican Party discovering common sense…” Alas, indeed. Can’t wait!!!

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    1. A girl can change her mind, can’t she? Actually, I was forced into this one by a combination of chance and the need to be faithful to the historical record.

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      1. I’m still waiting for the Republican Party to be forced into common sense. Looks like they won this game of chicken! Try not to go Seagull on my Monkees…

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        1. Well, you’ll find out tomorrow!

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  5. I was lucky enough to meet John Sebastian in 1970. He gave myself and my friend a lift from the Isle of Wight festival site back to the ferry terminal. Lovely man. Wonder if he remembers!

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    1. What a lovely experience! He does seem like quite a gentle soul.

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  6. Great, as usual, review. Just an aside.

    This compilation includes many songs from the Spoonful’s first album, but somehow they managed to pick the wrong ones (“You Baby”, “Wild About My Lovin'”, “On The Road Again”). Much better choices from that album would have been these, two covers of old blues numbers and annearly Fred Neil song (also recorded by Jefferson Airplane):

    Other Spoonful favourites of mine which I would have included are these. I find the former (a good rewrite of Buddy Holly’s “I’m Looking For Someone To Love”) rather titillating (at least for Spoonful standards), and John Sebastian plays lead guitar on the latter:

    Cheerio,

    Ayrton

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