The Number Ones

The Number Ones: John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back”

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.

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John Sebastian – “Welcome Back”

HIT #1: May 8, 1976

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

For a few years in the ’60s, John Sebastian led one of the most popular bands in the world. The Lovin’ Spoonful came out of the early-’60s Greenwich folk scene, and their amiable amble-rock turned out to be a commercial goldmine. They charted over and over, getting to #1 with 1966’s “Summer In The City” and coming close a bunch of other times. But then the Lovin’ Spoonful fell apart, and it took Sebastian a full decade, and a random-ass TV-theme assignment, to make his way back to #1.

Things went bad for the Lovin’ Spoonful in the same summer when “Summer In The City” topped the charts. Band member Zal Yanovsky was arrested with weed, and when police threatened to deport him back to Canada, he snitched on his dealer. Word got around, and the Lovin’ Spoonful faced an immediate backlash. Yanovsky left the band, and Sebastian also quit in 1968. From there, Sebastian spent years in the wilderness. He wrote music for Jimmy Shine, a Broadway play that starred Dustin Hoffman. He played an unscheduled and unannounced solo-acoustic Woodstock set — high and clad in tie-dye, musing to the crowd about how “far out” the baby who’d just been born at the festival would grow to be. He played uncredited harmonica on the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.” And then he recorded a whole lot of solo albums, which went nowhere.

Sebastian’s one post-Lovin’ Spoonful hit was a total fluke, but it was a big one. The comedian Gabe Kaplan and the TV producer Alan Sacks had come up with an idea for a sitcom called Kotter. Kaplan and Sacks both came from Brooklyn, and the idea was that Kaplan would play a Brooklyn-born teacher, returning to the high school where he’d graduated and teaching that school’s toughest students. Kaplan and the kids, who he called Sweathogs, would bust each other’s chops, and then they’d learn valuable lessons from each other. Sacks wanted some theme music that sounded like the Lovin’ Spoonful, so his agent, who was also Sebastian’s agent, put the two in touch. They met and liked each other, and Sebastian wrote and recorded the song that ended up becoming the show’s theme music.

Sebastian has said that he tried writing a song called “Kotter,” but he couldn’t do it, since the only thing that rhymed with “Kotter” was “otter.” So instead, Sebastian came up with “Welcome Back,” a sunny tune that sums up the show’s overriding themes — “Yeah, we tease him a lot / Cuz we got him on the spot / Welcome back” — in 53 seconds. Sacks liked the song so much that he changed the name of the show to fit it. Welcome Back, Kotter debuted on ABC in September of 1975, and it was an instant hit. Someone at ABC had the idea to release a “Welcome Back” single. The song was less than a minute long, but Sebastian wrote another verse and stretched it out to almost three minutes. Steve Barri, the producer who’d masterminded the surprise hit “Theme From S.W.A.T.” a few months earlier, co-produced it with Sebastian.

“Welcome Back” does its job. It establishes a tone, it lays out the basic premise of the show, and it squeezes in the sort of hook that can establish itself in your brain even if you’ve never seen an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter. But it’s a terrible song. Musically, it’s just sloppy — dazed stoner-folk, done with no sense of purpose or immediacy. Sebastian’s voice is a charm-free honk. And you can absolutely tell that he’s just stretching out a minute-long song three times longer than it needs or deserves to be. There’s no structure to the song; Sebastian didn’t bother to add a bridge. “Welcome Back” is effective for what it needs to be, and I cannot stand it.

Reprise, Sebastian’s label, rushed out an album, building it around “Welcome Back.” But Sebastian didn’t like how Reprise had treated him during his no-hit years, and he immediately left the label as soon as the album was out and his contract was up. In the ensuing years, Sebastian continued to tour around, playing with NRBQ and releasing indie albums when the spirit struck him. He also recorded a bunch of theme songs for ’80s cartoons like Care Bears and The Get Along Gang. Sebastian still plays sometimes, usually on the boomer-nostalgia circuit. He was supposed to play this month’s Woodstock 50 festival before that whole thing fell apart.

But Welcome Back, Kotter would launch another pop-music legacy that would overshadow Sebastian’s. Welcome Back, Kotter lasted four seasons, and it launched one big star: A handsome and big-chinned young actor named John Travolta, who played the Sweathog Vinnie Barbarino. Travolta went on to appear in some movies that had seismic effects on the pop charts, and he will eventually appear in this column himself.

GRADE: 3/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of Mr. Bungle covering “Welcome Back” at a 1991 Sacramento show:

(Shockingly enough, Mr. Bungle never charted. But frontman Mike Patton’s other band Faith No More peaked at #9 with 1989’s “Epic.” That song is a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: When Mase returned from a five-year semi-retirement in 2004, he did it with “Welcome Back,” a single that sampled Sebastian’s “Welcome Back” and gave Sebastian a songwriting credit. Mase’s “Welcome Back” peaked at #32. Here’s the video:

(As lead artist, Mase’s highest-charting single is 1997’s “Feel So Good,” which peaked at #5. It’s an 8. As a guest rapper, Mase will appear in this column more than once.)