In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The summer of 1966 was a time of intense political division in the United States. Young people were realizing, more and more, that older generations were happy to send them off to kill and die in Vietnam, and older generations were in deeper and deeper disbelief that these kids didn’t want to go off to war. Riots over racism were starting to break out. A guy in Austin climbed a clock tower and shot dozens of people. On top of all of that, it was hot, especially in New York City, where a record heat wave was making everyone uncomfortable. Everyone was walking around, sweaty and stressed out. Sound familiar?
Maybe it’s not so hard, right now, to close your eyes and imagine yourself back through time, hearing “Summer In The City” when it hit. The Lovin’ Spoonful were a New York City band. Frontman John B. Sebastian, the son of the weirdly popular classical harmonica player John Sebastian, had grown up in Greenwich Village, and the members of the band had come from the city’s coffeehouse folk scene. (Guitarist Zal Yanovsky had been in the Mugwumps with two future members of the Mamas And The Papas.) The Lovin’ Spoonful started out making doofy, approachable folk-rock. There was nothing remotely threatening about them, and their light and fluffy take on the sound comes across laughably inconsequential right now. But with “Summer In The City,” they hit on something.
The Lovin’ Spoonful were operating at peak capacity by 1966. They made three albums and two soundtracks (including the one for Woody Allen’s What’s Up Tiger Lily) in two years. And they made it to #2 with consecutive singles, “Daydream” and “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” “Summer In The City” is their only #1, and it’s also the only song of theirs that I would ever listen to intentionally. But it’s a hell of a song.
“Summer In The City” started out as a poem from Mark Sebastian, John’s 14-year-old brother. He was a cloistered rich kid dreaming of all the life he saw all around him in New York. He imagined “Summer In The City” as an acoustic folk song, but John and bandmate Steve Boone rewrote the song, turning it into a sort of purposeful rock amble. They found the tension in it.
There is noise in “Summer In The City.” The intro, with those ominous organ plinks and those jarring drum-cracks, sets up Sebastian growling about the sweat crawling down his neck. And so there’s a moment of genuine catharsis when the harmonies and the gossamer guitar strums kick in, when Sebastian starts singing about how everything is better at night. The whole song keeps building up tension and then paying that tension off. We hear sound effects — horns beeping, jackhammers drilling. And then we hear what happens when those sounds blissfully disappear. It’s a beautiful little fantasy about what it’s like to be young and out on the town in an American metropolis, which is a truly great state of being.
The Lovin’ Spoonful never tapped into that “Summer In The City” feeling again, and they didn’t last much longer. That same summer, Yanovsky was arrested with weed while leaving a San Francisco party, and afraid of being deported back to his native Canada, he ratted out the friend who’d sold it to him. Word got out that Yanovsky had snitched, and there was a massive backlash against the band. Yanovsky quit soon after. And by the time Sebastian played a solo set at Woodstock three years later, the band was done. But their proudly goofy country-rock ambles would turn out to be a blueprint for some of the truly awful music that dominated the charts in the early ’70s.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Summer In The City” soundtracking the opening montage from the endlessly rewatchable 1995 movie Die Hard With A Vengeance: