Monday, August 29, 2016

Album Reviews # 68 The Lovin' Spoonful - Hums of the Lovin' Spoonful


        The Lovin' Spoonful are well remembered and greatly revered of course for the significant part they played in the history of Rock and Roll. Only not as an albums band, but as a singles one. This is partly because their key years, 1965 to 1967 were played out during the transition in emphasis between those two formats. Partly also because of the sheer eclecticism of their output. While contemporaries such as The Beatles, Kinks, Beach Boys, Dylan, Byrds, Love and Doors focused their energies on the long as much as the short player, (or increasingly towards the former), the Spoonful, (sorry that contraction of their name is unavoidable), churned out a series of LPs between these years that remain great collections of songs while never quite cohering as whole statements in the way that would lead them to find their way into the lists of great albums.


This is a shame but no surprise. The band consistently leap from one vibe and mood to the next on record and while this produced a whole clutch of songs that were the equal of any of their peers, the subsequent lack of a classic album has perhaps precluded them with the passing of time from laying their claim among the true big-hitters of the period. 



This though would be a misreading and an injustice, because that's where they belong. In terms of song for song merit their recorded output is fit to stand against anything released from that glorious period. Largely due to the sizable songwriting talent of leader John Sebastian although they were very much a band in the proper sense, the loose, carefree playing is the other genius ingredient in the mix. They seem to embody a certain joy and innocence that surfed its wave most obviously between '65 and '66 and perhaps shifted towards a certain seriousness and engagement with a greater sense of imminent danger during '67 which in turn led to the darker and more obviously politically charged '68 and '69 both in terms of historical events and in the general tone of much of the pop and rock music of the time.



Appropriately, Hums of the Lovin' Spoonful which is the record I've chosen to write about here was recorded in late '66 but released in January '67 just as this gradual transition started to kick in, which would lead to the break up of the band with the crucial departure of Zal Yanovsky, the huge mouthed sparring partner of Sebastian who contributed so much of the madcap joy that made them such a force.


Still, though the Lovin' Spoonful's essentially light touch prevails. In the words of Bob Stanley, who understands these things and fully recognises their greatness:

'The Lovin' Spoonful looked as if they'd turned up stoned at a jumble sale and hastily assembled what they took to be a beatnik Beatles look. All clashing spots and stripes, they were droll, human and a lot of fun. Folk, blues, jazz and rock'n'roll were all thrown into the mixing bowl. 'We call it Good Time Music because we have a good time,' said singer John Sebastian. even more than Dylan, Spoonful were Americana, only with barely a hint of  pretence or anger. Every song was coloured in with felt tips; they were cartoons for grown-ups.'



The cartoon quality of their output is immediately evident from a cursory listen to almost any of their records,  be they singles, B Sides or albums. The Lovin' Spoonful were free from care in a way that very few of their contemporaries truly were. Their records just float, defying gravity. You might get a similar feeling from listening to Monkees records for whom the Spoonful might well have acted as a template, just as much as The Beatles did. Sebastian generally wrote, sometimes with co-writing credits to his bandmates but they swapped turns at the mic in a loose and happy democracy that didn't seem set to last and sadly didn't.



Hums and its preceding album Daydream are probably interchangeable in terms of quality. Not a bum track anywhere. Even the slightly throwaway stuff, such as Henry Thomas from Hums earns its slot as part of the greater whole because listening to the records you get a sense of the whole immense, spontaneous thrill it must have been to be in the Spoonful in '65 or '66 or as the next best option, to being one of the four, to see them live.

 

Hums like Daydream is twelve songs long and isn't really an advance as such on the band's sound as everything was pretty much in place from the off. It has a couple of their more reflective songs and two of my own personal favourites in Rain on the Roof and Coconut Grove. It has Summer in the City, their biggest hit and a shining example of how it's possible to get poetry to Number One.



Occasionally, on 4 Eyes or Voodoo in my Basement, things take a bluesier slant and Spoonful show they could have given the Stones or Creedence a run for their money had they chosen that slant. But their's is always a lighter, poppier disposition and they're off to the next track before you know it. It's all tribute to Sebastian's restless happy talent. As Clive James wrote of him, 'Randy Newman is the only man who has outstripped his brilliant lyric technique,'  The Los Angeles Times  described him as ' One of the very select group of songwriters, including also John Lennon, Ray Davies and Brian Wilson, for which the term genius doesn't seem like a publicist's wild notion.'



So Hums is not an album as such so much as a collection of small, visionary moments. Vignettes. All shots at the Great American songbook .It's all here whenever you need it, whenever you forget what it felt like to be seventeen and need a reminder. In Bob Stanley's words again, (he clearly loves the group):

'John Sebastian favoured steel-rim glasses and worn denim. He was born and raised in Greenwich Village, which made sense: his songs all sounded as if they were composed on a New York fire escape, five storeys up.'



Sadly, they were not built to last. Hums was pretty much their final important statement:

'Then Sebastian wrote Darling Be Home Soon, a fragile daisy chain of a song. 'I've been waiting since I toddled for the great relief of having you to talk to.' It was beautiful enough to make you shudder. But it was not goofy in any way and, to Sebastian's horror, a disapproving Yanovsky gurned and clowned his way through a TV performance of it. Less than two years on from their first single and they were splintering. Worse soon followed: Yanovsky and Boone were caught holding drugs, and Yanovsky was threatened with deportation if he didn't identify his dealer - which he did. A Rolling Stone magazine-sanctioned boycott of the Spoonful followed. Yanovsky was sacked but the damage was done. In late '67 Sebastian wrote a sour, tired single called Money aimed at the band's management, and they wisely split before things got cynical and boring.'



And we're left with the records. Their first three albums are all essential, plus a Greatest Hits. For their peak two years they were as good as any band's been before or since. Maybe not one for the holier than thou hipsters, but they don't always get things completely right!

The last song on Hums is called Never Goin' Back. There's no need for them to ever do so although core members Joe Butler, Steve Boone and Jerry Yester still tour fifty years on in a reconstructed Spoonful that Sebastian sensibly keeps his distance from. They're best remembered as they were in '65, '66 and early '67. Preserved in visionary aspic.





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