Saturday, August 18, 2007

Joe Butler's Lovin' Spoonful

For years the Lovin' Spoonful was a hit factory, and as led by John Sebastian they turned out 60's pop classics such as "Do You Believe in Magic?", "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?", "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice," "Summer in the City," and "Younger Generation." At heart, though, they were just a classy little jug band, as evidenced by a perusal of deeper album cuts: "Fishin' Blues," "Sportin' Life," "Jug Band Music," "Bald Headed Lena," "Darlin' Companion," and "4 Eyes" all showcase a bluesy rock 'n' roll that indicates they had no interest in being anything like the Beach Boys (with whom they were frequently compared). I have great admiration for Brian Wilson, Pet Sounds, and Smile, but I'll admit that I've always been a bigger Lovin' Spoonful fan--ever since seeing Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily?, for which the Spoonful provided the addictive soundtrack (the song "Pow!" is one of the band's most enjoyable). But these hit factories can't last. The Spoonful were undone by a slow accumulation of disasters and changes. In 1966, as the band was at the height of their popularity, Canadian guitarist Zal Yanovsky and bassist Steve Boone were busted for marijuana possession. The search was illegal, but the pair were sufficiently intimidated--Zal was threatened with deportation--and so they ratted out their supplier. The reaction among the hippie elite was swift and brutal, and the Spoonful quickly became the unhippest band on the planet, excommunicated from the burgeoning psychedelic scene. Zal, a virtuoso contributor to the band, eventually left the group. In 1968 the band released their weakest album, Everything Playing; weak, because Sebastian bowed to the pressure of his cohorts and democratically surrendered the spotlight to them, leaving an album without a consistent voice (literally) and without any particular direction or goal. "Priscilla Millionaira" is an OK rock song, written by Sebastian, but Steve Boone's vocal work is execrable--and it's inexplicably given prime placement as the second track on the album! Still, the experiment in un-Sebastianness may have been worth it to give a little more elbow room to Joe Butler, a talented songwriter with a voice that's gorgeous (if more conventional than Sebastian's). His track, "Old Folks," is one of the highlights of the album.

Expectedly, Sebastian split to pursue a very erratic solo career. His high point would come right away, with an appearance at Woodstock: the rest of his career would be greeted with wide indifference, with the exception of his hit "Welcome Back." (A shame, as some of his solo albums, recently reissued by Rhino Handmade in a limited edition 3-CD set, are pretty good.) The most widely overlooked aspect of the Lovin' Spoonful's legacy is its last album, made without Sebastian. Revelation: Revolution '69 was a hasty attempt to rejuvenate the band and reestablish its presence as fronted by Butler (the cover of the album features his name, lest there be any confusion from the consumers). The ten tracks in the album continue the spirit of his "Old Folks," and featured one single, the Nashville ode "Never Going Back." Despite the appealingly psychedelic album art (featuring Joe and an unnamed, nipple-free woman running naked beside a lion) and its title, the album is more country and less Haight-Ashbury. The pastoral feeling, which calls to mind the Byrds, relents only for "War Games," a seven-minute epic clearly inspired by "Revolution 9." Over a thumping heart beat, we hear a baby squealing, followed by the sounds and broadcasts of the Vietnam War and some ironically delivered patriotic music. It's a pretty fascinating misstep in an otherwise solid album of pop songs. And it hasn't even received a CD release, to my knowledge, despite the fact that the other Spoonful albums have in recent years been released in deluxe editions by BMG. (Two tracks did appear on Rhino's excellent 1990 best-of, Anthology.) It deserves another look. [Incidentally, my copy of the vinyl has an alternate title, Till I Run With You, printed on the actual record. Since this jives with the theme of the album artwork, one assumes the title change was done at the last second in an attempt to belatedly cash in on the hippie craze.]

The Lovin' Spoonful - Revelation: Revolution '69 (zipped file w/MP3s)

1. Amazing Air
2. Never Going Back
3. The Prophet
4. Only Yesterday
5. War Games
6. (Till I) Run With You
7. Jug of Wine
8. Revelation: Revolution '69
9. Me About You
10. Words

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