Mary Poppins declared that a spoonful of sugar “makes the medicine go down.” As somewhat sugary acts went, The Lovin’ Spoonful stood up there with the best of them. Fronted by John Sebastian, the band featured a hot-shot guitarist (Zal Yanovsky), a fiery drummer (Joe Butler), and a bassist who imbued the band’s output with tremendous musicality (Steve Boone). The quartet typified American pop of a certain era.
We could write an entire book on the band’s best songs, but for now, we’ll leave it at ten. They stand up with many of the best bands from the 1960s, and the ten chosen here represent some of their most interesting work.
“Do You Believe In Magic”
By the end of the track, I certainly do. From the splashy guitar hook to the oscillating harmonies that close out the song, “Do You Believe In Magic” stands as one of the bubbliest and most enjoyably gooey songs of the 1960s. Considering that The Beach Boys and The Beatles were moving into more sophisticated and adult territories, it was time for The Lovin’ Spoonful to corner a market that was nearly abandoned.
Unusually raucous for the band, the song is one of the few covers to feature in the band’s arsenal. The song is thought to be written by Chris Smith, although it was credited on the album as a traditional number. Tidbits aside, the song features some of Zal Yanovsky’s choppiest guitar parts. Think of it as Dire Straits in the 1960s.
For all the song’s apparent easy-listening properties, there’s a melody that’s genuinely far-reaching and impressive. The band creates a shuffle that’s lush with instrumentation and high on enjoyment. It made an impression on The Beatles, not least John Lennon who had a copy of the song in his personal jukebox. Paul McCartney was also a fan: “That was our favorite record of theirs. “Good Day Sunshine” was me trying to write something similar to “‘Daydream.'”
“Voodoo in My Basement”
Opening with one of the raunchiest guitar hooks of the era, the song is similarly bolstered by a cascade of propulsive drum patterns that litter the backdrop with stealth and solid color. Yes, some of the lyrics are a bit silly, but there’s no denying the ambition of the song, which packs a great deal into its two minutes.
“Summer In The City”
The song in question needs no introduction – the chorus speaks for itself – but you might be interested to know that Sebastian’s younger brother Mark is actually responsible for much of the song’s layout. It shows the band as an out-and-out rock outfit, bolstered by some genuinely staggering vocals from drummer Joe Butler. Sebastian was sufficiently impressed by his brother’s daytime/night-crime lyrics, that he wrote a collection of sinister chords to cement the track with.
“Gray Prison Blues”
Purportedly written for cinema audiences (it features on the soundtrack to Woody Allen’s underwhelming What’s Up, Tiger Lily?), it charges along with the forlorn nature of prison. The drums anticipate Larry Mullen Jr’s military march on “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” while an undulating guitar part adds to the manic scenario. There are no words, but the track is so tight that it scarcely matters.
Although panned on its initial release (Rolling Stone was particularly caustic), Everything Playing nevertheless spoke for a generation who were watching the 1960s close out before their very eyes. And with “Six O’Clock,” they had an anthem that spoke for a generation that stood between adolescence and adulthood. Incidentally, it’s one of the last songs to feature lead guitarist Zal Yanovsky, who was replaced by Jerry Yester.
The Lovin’ Spoonful harbored not one, but two songwriting talents. Nominally the drummer, Joe Butler also possessed a strong voice of his own, and by 1967, had found his own lyrical voice. It would be too easy to write him off as the band’s George Harrison, but there’s no denying that his voice shares a similar cadence. Butler was promoted to lead vocalist for their next album, as Sebastian left to focus on his solo career.
“Never Going Back”
Given that the band had lost its singer and primary songwriter, the odds were stacked against The Lovin’ Spoonful, but the band cobbled together enough material for a seventh album. Even more remarkably, “Never Going Back” is the finest song of their career, carrying one of the band’s most complicated melodies, cemented by splashes of crisp guitar parts.
While only the most insidiously provocative would describe Revelation: Revolution ’69 as anything more than a ram-shackle farewell, the record nevertheless boasted “War Games.” Written by Joe Butler, the song stands as one of the band’s more reflective works, no doubt influenced by their country’s fixation with the rise of weaponry. As it happens, Butler still sings for the band whenever they reform for a tour, although John Sebastian returned – albeit briefly – to his role as band vocalist in 2020 for a concert.
-Photo: The Lovin’ Spoonful (Public domain)
This article does justice to a band that deserves continued study and celebration, and you get scholar points for the deep cuts you chose. No two of their singles were stylistically alike, ranging from country rock to chamber pop to edgy rock. I made friends with these guys (with newer drummer Mike Arturo and Jerry Yester in the band) when we crossed paths on gigs. They’re keeping the name going. Shout out for the song “She’s Still a Mystery.”
Great list, though I’m surprised “You Didn’t Have to be So Nice” didn’t make the cut.
Butchie’s Tune needs to be on this list