July 12, 2009

NT's greatest hits, No. 16 (of 34)

Very, very intermittent blogging these days. Summer is the busy season for the BQT, and whaddaya know? The miserable economy hasn't put a dent in things. Thanks for wasting your hard-earned dollars on me. And speaking of summer, this entry in my favorite-songs series is…

"Summer in the City" by the Lovin' Spoonful

Most people know this song by sheer cultural osmosis, but the Lovin' Spoonful is an unjustly forgotten band in pop-music history. Especially New York pop music, because these guys were pure creatures of the 1960s NYC Greenwich Village counterculture scene, coffeehouse hippies who made good. Armed with sunny but not annoying dispostion, a good amount of genuine musical talent and a great sense of humor (the band's name is a reference to oral sex), the Spoonful racked up a lot of hits in the '60s, most of which never get old: "Daydream," "Do You Believe in Magic?," "Pow!" and a lot others you probably don't know or forgot. Before the warm season is out, do yourself a favor: Buy/download a compilation of these guys' hits and listen to it on your fire escape on a weekend afternoon.

"Summer in the City" was their biggest hit, their best song, and a bit of an anomaly in the catalog, since it has a far sharper edge than most of their other hits. I've written before about the "tension-release" song structure, bottled-up verses exploding into expansive choruses, and this might be the best example of them all; Spoonful frontman John Sebastian once described the song's chorus as "falling off a cliff."

And what evocative lyrics to fall off a cliff to. The verses believably establish the heat, grime and claustrophobia of the NYC streets in midday July, and then the chorus welcomes in the eternal optimism of a carefree summer's night, full of romance and celebration. Meanwhile, the song is just packed with great hooks: The brilliantly simple piano riff (Stevie Wonder has called it a major influence) and the rare dignified use of ambient sound effects (gotta love the jackhammer). My only major critique: I wish they'd come up with fresh lyrics for the third verse—I want to hear more about this world. Correction: I know all about this world, but I want to hear more of the Lovin' Spoonful's musical exploration of it.

More of NT's greatest hits:
"Teenage Kicks," "Strawberry Fields Forever, " "Tunnel of Love," "I Get Around," "Local Girls," "Don't Let's Start," "Suffragette City," "See-Saw," "My Name Is Jonas," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Reelin' in the Years," "Objects of My Affection" and "Crimson and Clover," "OK Apartment" and "Just What I Needed"


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