A vivid evocation of a time before air-con, Tinder and low-traffic neighbourhoods, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s sixth single was a huge hit in summer 1966 – and remains a go-to song every time the thermometer nudges into the eighties. It was conceived in the heart of Greenwich Village, where the band’s frontman John Sebastian and his songwriting brother Mark were born into a musical family (father John was a harmonica virtuoso and mother Jane worked at Carnegie Hall).
While John Jr was swept up in the Village folk revival of the early ’60s, running with the likes of Tim Hardin and Cass Elliot before forming The Lovin’ Spoonful in late 1964, his underage brother was forced to watch the action longingly from a 15th-floor window. However, after bashing out two albums in six months, it was to Mark that John turned when pulling together songs for the band’s third LP proper, Hums Of The Lovin’ Spoonful. Mark’s somewhat jejune ballad became the chorus of a colossal Frankenstein’s monster of a tune, with verses by John, a middle-eight by bassist Steve Boone, spiky guitar from the mercurial Zal Yanovsky, an unforgettable electric piano riff, a cacophony of car horns and a thunderous drum sound achieved by mic’ing up a stairwell.
“We were scattershot and we were trying anything that made sense,” recalls John. “We wanted to do a tune by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the Minstrel Of The Appalachians, just as much as we wanted to do a Ronnie Bennett and Phil Spector tune, and all of those elements did end up in ‘Summer In The City’.”
Yet while the single’s release put The Lovin’ Spoonful on top of the world, the seeds of the band’s demise had already been sown when Boone and Yanovsky were busted for marijuana possession in San Francisco a few months earlier. Yanovsky, a Canadian citizen, was threatened with deportation; under pressure to keep the band together, they named their dealer. When this incident was later seized upon (and distorted) by Rolling Stone, the hippies turned against The Lovin’ Spoonful and the game was up.
“It was gruesome,” admits John, but the long afterlife of “Summer In The City” has more than compensated. “Those ice cream commercials, they just keep coming!”
Written by: John Sebastian, Mark Sebastian, Steve Boone
Personnel includes: John Sebastian (vocals, acoustic guitar, keyboards); Zal Yanovsky (electric guitar, backing vocals), Steve Boone (bass, keyboards), Joe Butler (drums, backing vocals), Artie Schroeck (electric piano)
Produced by: Erik Jacobsen, Roy Halee (engineer)
Recorded at: Columbia Studios, New York City
Released: July 4, 1966
MARK SEBASTIAN, co-writer: My parents had an apartment on Washington Square West. We were 15 stories up and my window looked directly out onto the Empire State Building, almost nose-to-nose. But when the summer came, it was horrific! You’d pray that a breeze might blow from one window to another. I’ve had a lifelong sensitivity to heat ever since.
JOHN SEBASTIAN, vocals, acoustic guitar, keyboards, co-writer: The really stinking hot weather, it’d get ya! [There was no air-con, so] you went to the movies.
MARK: On Sundays there was folk music in the square. There were girls that came down from the outer boroughs with big bouffants and I’d think, ‘Wow, if I could talk to her…’ When the Spoonful happened, it was very exciting. If we walked round the Village with Zally, teenage kids would come up and ask for autographs. I went with them to the Ed Sullivan Theater when they did “Do You Belive In Magic” and we had girls chasing us on the street like in A Hard Day’s Night.
JOHN: “Summer In The City” didn’t start with me. My brother Mark had the idea for the song and a couple of elements: [sings] “It’s gonna get hot/The shadows of the buildings will be the only shady spot/But at night it’s a different world…” And I went, “Whoa, hold on! What are those chords?”
MARK: I began writing my own private little songs at 13, 14. John would come over from his loft on 11th Street to have a home-cooked dinner and he’d listen to what I’d just done. After the Daydream album [released in February 1966], he came over one time and said, “What was that song you had about summer in the city?” He needed grist for the mill because he’d had to write two albums in quick succession. I had a lot of the song, but not the verses. He did a fantastic thing of livening it up by creating those vital, energetic verses.
JOHN: “But at night it’s a different world” was a marvellous release, so we needed to create tension in the beginning. For some reason, I made an association with [Mussorgsky’s] “Night On Bald Mountain”, which scared the hell out of me when I saw it in Fantasia when I was about five. I thought I could create something that’s tense like that and then it would open up into my brother’s chorus. But we still needed what The Beatles used to call a middle-eight. There had been a figure that Steve Boone had been playing in the studio for weeks as we had been developing that album.
STEVE BOONE, Bass, keyboards, co-writer: I think the band was gettin’ sick of hearing me play it! When John said, “I think that would work as a terrific middle section”, I wasn’t gonna argue with him even if that meant I had to give it up as a song in its own right. But I’m so glad I didn’t make a fuss because it fits perfectly in the song. I own a portion of the publishing, so those 12 notes really helped me out quite a bit over the years.
ERIK JACOBSEN, producer: I immediately thought it was a great song and was excited to record it.
JOHN: The way that “Summer In The City” evolved was the beginning of designing [songs] in the studio, which rarely happened in those days.
ERIK: We did what we wanted from the get-go, because we didn’t have the record company or anybody else telling us what to do. I put up the money for “Do You Believe In Magic” because we were turned down by every major label. So we made up the arrangements, the guys and I, and we recorded them. We were not malleable artists. It was like, ‘This is what we’re doing and if you don’t like it, fuck you!’
JOHN: Erik Jacobsen is one of the most under-appreciated producers walking the planet. He was this wonderful mediator for all of these suggestions that would come through on almost every tune. Because we really didn’t want to give up and go, “OK, let’s call Hal Blaine!”
MARK: Just before that era, the studios were very sterile and the engineers were like scientists in white coats. But Erik was totally cool. Longhairs took it over.
JOHN: One of our genius arranger pals, Artie Schroeck, was at the session. I’m not a pianist, and he knew it. He sat quietly through the first 20 takes before he finally said, “Sebastian, go back to the guitar – let me play the damn electric piano!” And he did it so great.
STEVE: I came into the studio and sitting behind the Wurlitzer was a guy I didn’t know. But once I heard that part – dun, dun, du-dun, dun – I went into hyperdrive, because it was too frickin’ good to believe! He nailed it, and it really inspired me on my bass part.
MARK: Some of the words I had in the original were twisted around and used in a different form, but “Wheezing like a bus stop” was John’s. The 5th Avenue buses would pull up and make all these different sounds, I don’t know if it was the hydraulics or what.
JOHN: We began to hanker for a couple of city sounds. We came in for a separate session where we were greeted by a wonderful soundman from radio with trunks of sound-effects records. We said, “We want to create a traffic jam,” and he says, “Well, I’ve got one on 48th Street” – and of course that’s where the band got all of our instruments from, at Manny’s Music. So we said, “Yeah, that’s the one.” Then the trick was how to get this steamhammer. He kept playing different ones until we got this really loud, flatulent steamhammer noise, so that was the one that went on the record.
ERIK: In those days, it was only three- or four-track. To get those things on right, you had to roll your tape and he would try to start the acetate of sound effects on his turntable and get it to sync in.
JOHN: Zal Yanovsky began his traditional complaint about how the drums weren’t big enough. He said, “I want the drums to sound like garbage cans being thrown down a steel staircase.” Our engineer Roy Halee put a microphone up on the eighth floor of the metal stairwell and sent the snare drum out of the big theatre speakers down on the ground. Obviously that gave us enormous amounts of echo. In two years, everybody had cavernous echo on their snare drum! In fact, Roy Halee used the same staircase for “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.
ERIK: Kudos to Roy Halee, he’s the greatest engineer I ever worked with.
MARK: Originally the song had a big, apocalyptic crash at the end. I’m glad they took it out, ’cos it was kinda ridiculous.
ERIK: They were gonna kick the Fender Reverb to create a loud bang. I said, “John, you’re gonna fuck up this record!” So I made a copy of the last verse and chorus and spliced that in there instead, to make an instrumental fade. That saved the record, really.
MARK: I went in for the overdubs and mixing. John really gifted me with certain rights. He let me decide on the background vocal harmony – Joe Butler [drummer and backing vocalist] changed what he was singing per my suggestion, which really chuffed me. Just to sit there and hear my song, much changed, become this thing… It was crazy how it sounded. It was gigantic.
JOHN: Did I know straight away it would be a hit? Yep. No false modesty there!
MARK: That summer I was in Italy because my mom was doing press for the Spoleto Festival Of Two Worlds. I rented a radio and was listening to Radio Free Europe and Radio Caroline every day and finally “Summer In The City” came on and it sounded so good.
STEVE: “Summer In The City” really changed our image because, prior to that, people were like, “Are you guys ever gonna make a real rock song? What’s with all this lightweight stuff about daydreams?” But when “Summer In The City” got on the radio, those attitudes changed overnight. It was the deal-maker for us, it completed our circle. It cemented our place as a genuine rock band.
MARK: I had no sense it would be a hit – their only No 1! I like to rub that in, as a younger brother. It was over so quickly after that.
STEVE: I thought releasing “Rain On The Roof” as the follow-up to “Summer In The City” might have been a mistake. I still love “Rain On The Roof”, it’s one of the prettiest songs John ever wrote, but it couldn’t compete as a hard-rocking song, so I felt we were gonna have to climb that hill all over again.
JOHN: We managed to soldier on for another year or so, but the bust eventually caught up with Zal and Steve. It was a terrible thing because the police had the power to end the band, by sending Zal back to Canada and giving Steve a nice stiff sentence. Or, you could show us where the pot came from… And by the way, we’re talking about an ounce of marijuana which you can buy for under $300 in California at any time now. All of those press guys were so anxious to side [against] us because we’d just gotten a guy busted, but nobody was interested in finding out how we were pressured into that. Zal Yanovsky was not only a genius guitar player, but he’d become a culture hero – the funny-looking guy with holes in his jeans five years before anyone else. And then the next day, he’s a fink. I mean, he feared for his life. That’s why I’ve never tried to do The Lovin’ Spoonful songbook movie – it was great fun but it does not have a happy ending.
STEVE: The air began slowly seeping out of our balloon. I think Zally really felt bad, it put him into a tailspin. John did come to me some time after that and said, “You gotta help me more with songwriting, I can’t carry the whole load.” But I couldn’t get motivated for songwriting, I was totally bummed out with what had happened in San Francisco.
MARK: I worked around The Beach Boys and they’ve had a lot of heartbreak and dysfunction but somehow, as a franchise, they managed to keep going. But my brother has a great artistic vision, which is: if it’s not happening, don’t do it.
STEVE: “Summer In The City” doesn’t have a shelf life. It seems to fit every era, sound-wise. It’s like “White Christmas” – it’ll still be played every year after we’re gone.
JOHN: It feels delicious [to hear the song played every summer]. It means a certain 77-year-old guy doesn’t have to be quite as urgent to take gigs where people hold up iPhones instead of listen…
MARK: I’m so grateful for it. I’m stunned that young people know the song. Quincy Jones did a fantastic version with a long instrumental at the beginning, and many rap artists [have sampled it]. I won an R&B & Hip-Hop Billboard Award in 2001 from a sample. Me winning a rap award is pretty hilarious!
STEVE: If nothing else is left as an example of what me and the other three guys created, then I’m good with that.