If you can’t beat them, join them. That was the unspoken musical philosophy of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the tuneful American rock band that from 1965 to 1967 responded to the Beatles and the British Invasion with some glorious music from this side of the Atlantic.
Scoring seven Top 10 hits in only three years, the Spoonful’s brand of “good-time music” - a term leader John Sebastian preferred over “folk rock” - included such memorable songs as “Do You Believe in Magic” “Daydream”, “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” and the chart-topping hot weather rocker “Summer in the City”. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
The sounds of the band, if not an accurate history of its fall, have been preserved in Do You Believe in Magic: The Music of the John Sebastian & The Lovin’ Spoonful a DVD of videos and remembrances.
Videos and live TV appearances of all the band’s major hits are included, along with a running interview and extra commentary by Sebastian, the band’s principal songwriter, lead singer and multi-instrumentalist. There are also very brief—and not very useful—excerpts from interviews with lead guitarist Zal Yanovsky and pal Denny Doherty of the Mamas and the Papas. (Yanovsky died in 2002, and Doherty passed away earlier this year.)
As Sebastian tells the story, he met Yanovsky, a Canadian folkie, at the New York apartment of Cass (not yet a Mama) Elliot when they were invited to watch the Beatles make their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. The flamboyant Yanovsky, always wearing a goofy grin and a silly hat in live performances, provided a perfect balance to the more subdued Sebastian. The duo was soon joined by bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler.
Though Sebastian and Yanovsky came out of the folk music scene, and Boone and Butler got their start playing in rock `n’ roll cover bands on Long Island, the Lovin’ Spoonful skillfully incorporated blues, Motown, country and bluegrass, along with rock and folk, into their music. They took pride in their musicianship and played and sang with unabashed exuberance.
In these ways, they did resemble the Beatles, who mastered all sorts of American styles before developing their distinctive sound.
The good vibes of the Spoonful are most apparent on the group’s earliest hits, “Do You Believe in Magic”, “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice”, “Daydream”, and “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” But the ambitious “Summer in the City” - the band’s sole No. 1 single - showed off a grittier, harder side, as well as the creative use of urban sounds like jackhammers and car horns, while “Nashville Cats” demonstrated a learned appreciation of country music, and “She Is Still a Mystery” revealed a Beatlesque sense of melody and harmony.
Discussing the origins of most of these songs, Sebastian is most interesting when talking about the light and bouncy “Daydream”, which peaked at No. 2 on the charts. The Spoonful had toured the South with the Supremes, and Sebastian was tremendously impressed with the playing of the Motown musicians who backed up the vocalists. He explains how he developed “Daydream’s” rhythmic shuffle from listening to such hits as “Where Did Our Love Go?” and “Baby Love”, demonstrating the similarities on his guitar.
Sebastian also offers a neat anecdote about “Welcome Back”, his solo hit from 1976, also included here. The song was written for a TV sitcom pilot at a time when, he says, he was an “out-of-fashion singer-songwriter guy in an Alice Cooper world.” The producers of the show, which was then tentatively titled “Kotter”, liked it so much that they changed the name of the series to Welcome Back, Kotter, and played Sebastian’s songs above the credits each week. It reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
Sebastian’s commentary is at its best when he reflects on his own background growing up in New York’s Greenwich Village with a father who was a classical harmonica player and a mother who wrote radio shows, and in his description of the scene in New York, circa 1963-65, when folk music gave way to rock ‘n’ roll.
But from this DVD, one would never know that the Spoonful’s relatively rapid demise was caused not by the band’s music falling out of public favor but by a drug bust in Berkeley in May 1966 involving Boone and Yanovsky. Arrested for possession of marijuana, Yanovsky, a Canadian citizen who feared that he would be deported, and Boone eventually avoided prosecution by introducing a police narcotics agent to a friend who bought drugs. After that person was arrested, the band received negative publicity that seriously damaged its countercultural credibility.
Perhaps more importantly, the incident led Yanovsky to leave the group, in June 1967, and return to Canada. Although the Spoonful continued for another year with Jerry Yester taking Yanovsky’s place, Sebastian decided to quit in
1968 and pursue a solo career. The others tried at various times over the years to reunite, but without success.
But if the DVD skimps on the Lovin’ Spoonful’s history, it does include buoyant performances of eight of the band’s best songs, plus two of Sebastian’s solo tunes. And although one would have enjoyed some additional material from the group’s albums - songs such as “Younger Girl”, “Didn’t Want To Have To Do It” and “Jug Band Music” - if they were available in video form, the songs here offer a pleasant sampling of good-time music and memories of good times.