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The Lovin’ Spoonful

Next to The BYRDS, the oft-underrated The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL were one of America’s national treasures of the mid-60s; sadly, good things never last. A light, frothy starter before the Summer Of Love’s heavy psychedelic main course, the group were the court jesters of home-grown folk-pop, reeling off hit after prepossessing hit, including some guilty pleasure gemstones: `Do You Believe In Magic’, `Daydream’ and `Summer In The City’.
Formed early ‘65 in and around the Greenwich Village scene by John Sebastian (vocals, guitar, autoharp and harmonica) and Zalman Yanovsky (guitar and vocals), they’d been part of the NY folk revival scene during ‘63-’64 and had played in bands The Halifax Three and The Mugwumps respectively (the latter featuring Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot, future MAMAS & THE PAPAS).
Completing the line-up with Steve Boone (bass, vocals) and Joe Butler (drums, vocals), The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL were discovered and signed to Kama Sutra Records through manager Bob Cavello and record mogul/producer Erik Jacobsen. Their debut 45, `Do You Believe In Magic’, went Top 10 in the summer of ’65, while follow-up `You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice’ followed the same chart pattern.
A mixture of traditional jugband blues-folk, selected covers and Sebastian’s blend of post-BYRDS folk-pop, their accompanying Top 40 debut LP, DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC (1965) {*7}, demonstrated an uncompromising ability to stick to their guns musically. Kicking off with their classy title track smash (the follow-up untraceable), Sebastian’s several other cues comprised hit-to-be `Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind’, the freewheeling `Younger Girl’, the rollicking `On The Road Again’ and organic-blues group composition, `Night Owl Blues’. Alongside renditions of FRED NEIL’s `Other Side Of This Life’ and Mann-Weil-Spector’s `You Baby’, sat trad numbers `Blues In The Bottle’, `Sportin’ Life’, `My Gal’, `Fishin’ Blues’ (soon to be covered by JOHN MARTYN) and `Wild About My Lovin’’; Peter Green’s FLEETWOOD MAC must’ve been a-listening.
A string of magical hits followed in 1966 including chart-topper `Summer In The City’ (also their second Top 10 entry in Britain). Its jaunty momentum was preceded by the meandering `Daydream’, a Top 3 smash on both sides of the Atlantic and the perfect soundtrack for “rolling a fat one” on a lazy midsummer’s afternoon. DAYDREAM (1966) {*6}, the album, was down to chief songwriter Sebastian alongside a permutation of his LOVIN’ compadres on the majority of the tracks, with the exception of Piano Red’s `Bald Headed Lena’. Alongside that elusive aforementioned second 45, plus `Jug Band Music’ and the BACHARACH-like `Didn’t Want To Have To Do It’, the album achieved its goal, however commercially orientated.
They were also the band of choice for Woody Allen’s directorial debut, WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY (1966) {*5}, combining their trademark finger-pickin’ with uncharacteristically experimental elements on the soundtrack and also appearing in the film itself. As such it had the lightweight but durable stamp of the Sebastian school of songwriting, with the same jug-band jam feel which made even their flimsiest early efforts a pleasure. The opening Woody Allen dialogue was funny once or twice but best skipped over for `Pow!’, a fast-talking, harmonica-wailing blast of a main title, developed in a Greek/Middle Eastern-tinged instrumental version. `Respoken’ was the sole track in the wistful, woolly-head pop vein of the hit singles, while the evocative `Lookin’ To Spy’ achieved at least some success in translating the Spoonful’s airy acoustics into film score noir.
On the back two Top 10 hits, `Rain On The Roof’ and the countrified `Nashville Cats’ (plus previous blockbuster, `Summer In The City’), their third album of the year , HUMS OF THE LOVIN’ SPOONFUL (1966) {*7}, saw the group break into other genres. Apart from the odd Boone or Yanovsky collaboration, Sebastian was now in full control of songwriting duties. From the Appalachian-styled `Henry Thomas’ to the cool country smooch of `Darlin’ Companion’ (or the CREAM-like `4 Eyes’), this was arguably their most creative set.
While the band paid lyrical homage to FRED NEIL through `Coconut Grove’, former crooner-turned-folker BOBBY DARIN got off the mark quickly to score a Top 40 hit with the record’s opener, `Lovin’ You’.
The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL’s second and final soundtrack, Francis Ford Coppola’s directorial debut, YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW (1967) {*5}, was a more mature and enduring work than its predecessor, while its ingratiating theme tune was subsequently issued as the B-side to the band’s penultimate, bittersweet hit, `Six O’Clock’ (not included on the OST). The roots jam sessions had become heavier, bluesier and less frequent while the song-based material had become more self-consciously sophisticated, exemplified in the autumnal, BACHARACH-esque `Lonely (Amy’s Theme)’. Sebastian’s evolution as a writer was equally apparent on the gorgeous, uncharacteristically introspective hit single, `Darling Be Home Soon’ (reprised in unlikely, parping circus-parade style on `March’), its keening strings anticipating the orchestration so glaring by its absence on the earlier score. Despite diversions into whimsical lounge and vintage jazz, this was more cohesive as an album.
Unfortunately for the band and especially Zal, The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL had a renowned penchant for doing that aforementioned “spliff” thing, amid other more serious narcotic dabbling. After a bust, he was allegedly sent packing by the rest of the band in August ‘67 amid allegations of informing on his dealer.
Despite a new player in tow, Jerry Yester, and three major hits (`Six O’Clock’, `She Is Still A Mystery’ and `Money’), EVERYTHING PLAYING (1968) {*6} lacked the effervescent sparkle of their previous material and stiffed big-style. On reflection, Sebastian’s `Boredom’ and `Younger Generation’ were nice enough to eat, but the lonesome ditties of Boone’s instrumental `Forever’, Butler’s `Old Folks’ and Butler-Yester’s `Only A Pretty, What A Pity’ were sadly inconsequential.
With nary a hit single in sight, the band struggled on with Butler replacing the recently solo-bound SEBASTIAN on vocals for a final lacklustre album, REVELATION: REVOLUTION ’69 (1969) {*3}. Utilising songsmiths Banner & Gordon, Dino & Sambello and Butler & Finiz, this was indeed a commercial and critical disaster; one saving grace was the trio’s cover of JOHN STEWART’s `Never Going Back’.
But for this glitch, The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL remain one of the few 60s outfits not to have been tempted by the commercial carrot of reformation (stop press: Butler & Co re-formed in 1999 for LIVE AT THE HOTEL SEVILLE {*4}, a best-of run-through of all their great cuts – just one thing missing, JOHN SEBASTIAN to sing them.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-LCS / rev-up MCS Dec2013

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