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Playing Down a Bad Reputation

A reputation is a hard thing to break, ask anyone who went through middle school. Nicknames last forever and facts are’t as important as impressions. In a lot of ways the world of Rock and Roll resembles middle school. Just ask the Lovin’ Spoonful, still mislabeled as a pop sensation forty years after they proved they were more than just a catchy melody.

Between 1965 and 1968, the Lovin’ Spoonful released a barrage of unforgettable albums, the best of which is Everything Playing. This was the last album with John Sebastian as frontman and their first album with Jerry Yester, the group’s new lead guitar player. Rock critics didn’t like it. The trend at the time favored big psychedelic constructions, music for acid trips, not three minute pop songs. The album was pegged as obsolete and the reputation stuck.

Unfortunately for the critics, here I sit 40 years later listening to a near perfect record. It’s painfully honest, it’s more precognitive than Nostradamus and it takes on fresh subject matter. Look at the challenge posed by “Try a Little Bit”, a slow, dirty 6/8 gospel ballad, asking not for relentless struggle or total commitment, but instead just to even make an attempt. Or listen to “Money”, an almost childishly simple interpretation of how finance works, that belittles the entire capitalist system, while using a typewriter as a percussion instrument.

But there are two songs on Everything Playing that make the album truly special, one about growing up and the other about growing old. “Younger Generation” is about maturing and trying to understand your kids. Sebastian writes from the perspective of a new dad about the lessons that elders try to teach their children, and while the song sympathizes with the father, it actually sides with the son, who is clearly more adjusted to a world that his father will never truly accept. The other song that stands out is “Old Folks” a bittersweet, understated description of an old man who lives entirely in the past, as the country that he used to love moves on without him.

When I started writing this piece I didn’t understand why Everything Playing had been so harshly judged by the critics. A record this good should have competed with Sgt. Peppers, if not eclipsed it, but now it’s obvious what the problem with this record was. Rock and Roll was still stuck in middle school, and the Lovin’ Spoonful had grown up.

LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: lorenzowolff@gmail.com

 

 

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LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: lorenzowolff@gmail.com

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