I’ll tell you ’bout the magic that’ll free your soul
But it's like trying to tell a stranger 'bout rock 'n' roll…
If you believe in magic, don't bother to choose
If it's jug band music or rhythm and blues
Just go and listen, and it'll start with a smile
That won't wipe off your face no matter how hard you try
Your feet start tapping, and you can't seem to find
How you got there, so just blow your mind
Written by John Sebastian and released by The Lovin’ Spoonful in the mid-1960s, this two-minute pop song is as good a declaration as any of the joy of music. Sebastian apparently wrote it after he’d seen a young girl dancing close to the stage during one of their early gigs, oblivious to everything around her. Lost In Music, as a song from a later era would put it.
Brought up in New York’s Greenwich Village Sebastian became part of the folk and blues singer-songwriter scene of the Sixties. Other songs in his catalogue, written on his own or with band members, include Daydream, Nashville Cats, You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice and Summer In The City.
Sebastian formed the Lovin’ Spoonful with guitarist Zal Yanovsky, bass player Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler. Sebastian and Yanovsky had formerly been in a Village group The Mugwumps with Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty who in turn were to become half of the Mamas and Papas. For a musical take on this period check out the Mamas and Papas song Creeque Alley.
Do You Believe In Magic begins with a lift which sets the tone from the off. Leading with a snare drum pickup and employing the trick of not starting on the signature chord of the home key, the intro uses a rising chord sequence which Sebastian has said he adapted from the opening of (Love Is Like A) Heatwave by Martha and the Vandellas.
Unusual for pop songs of the time Do You Believe In Magic does not have the common verse/chorus/middle eight structure. Instead two verses give way to a mellow, low-register guitar solo followed by a third verse and outro. The climbing chords from the intro feature in the latter part of the song’s verses and are mirrored by the background harmony vocals. The effect is repeatedly to drive the joyous upbeat feel. The outro sees a part verse, with those ascending chords again…
Believe in the magic in a young girl’s soul
Believe in the magic of rock ‘n’ roll
Believe in the magic that can set you free
Ooohhhh, talkin’ ’bout magic
… and it fades on the voices of the band overlapping with the question: ‘Do you believe like I believe in magic.’ Perfect feelgood pop.
An innovative element of the record’s production adds to the appeal. The band had a standard two guitars, bass and drums set-up but were keen to explore new sounds in the studio. As well as a guitarist Sebastian was also an autoharp player and figured it hadn’t been used before in pop. He hit on the idea of taping a contact microphone to the back of the instrument and on hearing the amplified sound believed that they were on to a winner. He retuned the harp to cope with the song’s minor seventh chords that regular tuning didn’t allow, and it is the strum of this instrument which gives the track its distinctive chiming rhythm sound.
Do You Believe In Magic was written by a 20-year-old Sebastian born out of youthful exuberance and, seemingly, a capacity to dance all night. If identification with that aspect of the lyric may have waned with the passing of years, connection with the spirit conveyed by the song and its performance has definitely not. For me it has always been one of those ‘sunshine’ songs that 'can make you feel happy' and I still play it.
I have my own youthful memories of the track. As it blasts from a small blue transistor radio in my tiny teenage bedroom I’m clattering along on a full drum kit I’d made out of all manner of things my dad had been able to bring home from work in response to a son whining: ‘Daaaad, do you think you could get me…’ DIY music. Happy days!
In 2004 the ITV South Bank Show screened a documentary about a portable Swiss-made Discomatic jukebox that had belonged to John Lennon and which had recently surfaced in an auction of Beatles memorabilia. Lennon had bought the jukebox in the mid-Sixties and had loaded it with his favourite 45rpm records to take with him on tour. When it was found the records were still in place and one of the singles was – you’ve guessed it – Do You Believe In Magic. The man, I thought to myself, obviously believed in good taste.