Apologies for my elongated absence. I’ve started a new job and have been busy with stuff for our wedding next month. Busy times! Today, the debut by a band that should get more love. I’ll be taking on their second and third albums in subsequent posts.
Way early on in the life of this blog, I wrote about Never Going Back, an underrated country-rock song from the post-John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky lineup of the Lovin’ Spoonful. (It’s not very good but you can read it here.) I commented at the time that the band seemed underrated and quasi-forgotten to me, and were ripe for reassessment. Well, nothing has changed in the eight years that have passed and, since no one else has done it, I figured I’d do it myself.
So, this week I’ve been listening to the first three Spoonful albums, recorded and released within 12 months of each other, along with a soundtrack album to What’s Up Tiger Lily. That might seem like an extraordinary bout of productivity, but it was in fact pretty common practice in an era where labels assumed bands would have a short shelf life, and needed to be milked dry while people were paying attention.*
In the case of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the band’s not-quite-readiness as a songwriting unit is apparent on its debut, Do You Believe in Magic, which leans heavily on folk-blues warhorses and features only four solo John Sebastian compositions, with the blues instrumental at the end of the album credited to all four members equally.
The album does feel a little slight, it’s true, but it’s hugely charming. The fact that it starts with the title track – one of the greatest of all pop singles – certainly helps in this regard. Key to Sebastian’s art was his seemingly total sincerity. Granted, he was only in his early twenties himself, but few men in rock could write lines like “Believe in the magic of a young girl’s soul, believe in the magic of rock ’n’ roll” without coming off as unattractively cynical or disgracefully lecherous. Coming from Sebastian, such sentiments seem neither. It is instead utterly disarming.
Musically, Do You Believe in Magic shows Sebastian’s magpie tendencies. He adapted the intro chord sequence from Martha and the Vandellas’ Heatwave, with Sebastian explaining that, since that song’s intro was so exciting, taking the chords and changing them twice was quickly would make it twice as exciting.** It worked, and illustrates what the Lovin’ Spoonful were at their best. Hugely versatile for such young players, they took elements from the folk revival, blues, country, jug band music, Motown and the British Invasion beat groups, and melded it all together. They had an ability to play any of those genres (except perhaps Motown-style pop-soul), basically straight, or – as with Do You Believe in Magic – blend them together, while always sounding like themselves.
For me, they tended to work least well while playing straight rock music. Steve Boone and Joe Butler were a more-than-competent rhythm section, able to turn their hand to pretty much any style of music, but aggression didn’t come naturally to the band – just on a temperamental level, and none of them had a voice that suited heavier material. Consequently, On the Road Again sounds pretty unconvincing compared to the Beatles’ rock ‘n’ roll material, or Creedence a year or so later.
But, that said, they could do a creditable cover of a folk-blues warhorse like Sportin’ Life. Sebastian was an adept blues harmonica player, who’d learned from the very best – his father, also called John Sebastian, played classical harmonica and the younger John Sebastian learned to play blues harp by sitting in with Lead Belly, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry in Greenwich Village. By the time he wailed all over Fred Neil’s Bleecker and MacDougal in 1965, he was already a practised veteran at the age of 21. He sings it well, too. The band might not have been able to double for Fred Below and Willie Dixon on a Chess side, but they’re not callow young boys either.
As one of the finest white exponents of folk blues, Fred Neil is a key influence on the album, and not just in the group’s choice of covers. The band actually recorded a Neil original, Other Side of this Life, and while Sebastian had a lighter, less authoritative voice than Neil (who doesn’t?), his phrasing and note choices on the bluesier material bears a strong resemblance to Neil’s vocal approach.
As much as Sebastian is key to the Lovin’ Spoonful, though, they were a band – not a frontman and three other guys. Zal Yanovsky is crucial to the arrangements of the folk rock material, his guitar bubbling away joyfully through Do You Believe in Magic and Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind. He and Butler were a very useful pair of harmony singers and occasional lead vocalists, too. And as I say, the rhythm section were able to move from one style to another seamlessly and allowed Sebastian the freedom to write in whatever idiom he chose.
A brief glance at Do You Believe in Magic’s tracklisting suggests it’s – Do You Believe in Magic, Younger Girl and Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind apart – a warm-up for bigger and better things to come. It’s actually a hugely likeable record in its own right, far stronger than any debut album of white kids playing Jimmy Reed and Brownie McGhee songs should ever be. It’ll surprise you.
*In a recent interview with Richie Unterberger, bassist Steve Boone had this to say about their treatment by label Kama Sutra: “So we were a) worked to death and never had the chance to really breathe deep and spend time on the cuts, and b) the label and the way they got records on the air had nothing to do with somebody sitting back and putting on FM 101.7 and smoking a joint and listening to eleven, twelve, ten cuts, maybe with some kind of a sequential order to them. That was so alien to them that I don’t think they could even handle it if they were asked to experience music that way. All they could think was wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Get it on the air, get it in the top of the charts, get it off the air, and get the next one up there.”
**Sebastian’s public good humour and commitment to good-time music can make him seem a bit of a bumpkin, which I suspect is a knowingly created facade. Nonetheless, some have taken him at face value. Witness this Robert Christgau review: “So what happened to John Sebastian, anyway? […] Figure the reason no one was better at translating the flowery optimism of the middle ’60s into folk-flavored pop song–“Do You Believe in Magic,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” “Summer in the City,” “Rain on the Roof,” just look at those titles–was as much spirit as talent. Figure he was so eager, so well-meaning, so fun-loving, so warmhearted, such a simpleton, that when the times demanded cynicism this John–unlike natural-born reprobate Phillips or designated reality principle Lennon–didn’t have it in him.”