This song contrasts what it's like to live in a large city during the day and during the night. According to the song, it's difficult to walk around a crowded and hot city during the day, but it's great at night because you have plenty of opportunities to chase women. This particular city is New York, where the band formed.
The song was a collaboration between John Sebastian, The Lovin Spoonful's bassist Steve Boone, and the frontman's brother (and non-group member) Mark Sebastian. Mark was 15 years old when he wrote a poem that John used as the basis for the song - John especially liked the part that went, "But at night there's a different world."
"That song that came from an idea my brother Mike had," John Sebastian recalled to Uncut magazine June 2014. "He had this great chorus, and the release was so big. I had to create some kind of tension at the front end to make it even bigger. That's where that jagged piano part comes from."
Boone came up with the middle eight, which John thought sounded like the Gershwin composition "An American in Paris," where the orchestra implies the sound of traffic and city noises. This gave him the idea of incorporating car horns and other city ambiance into the track.
The band was rather particular about the traffic sounds. Instead of just using what was available on the sound effects records in the studio, they found an old-school radio engineer - a guy who used to create the soundscapes for shows, so if a guy was riding a horse, you'd hear the hooves hitting the ground and the wind whistling by. This guy, whom John Sebastian referred to as a "hilarious old Jewish sound man," came in with a huge library of street sounds, which the band went through for hours. They wanted the scene to build, so it starts softly (the horn at the beginning comes from a Volkswagen Beetle), and grows to a gridlock nightmare. To close the scene, they used a pneumatic hammer pounding away at the pavement.
This was recorded over two days: At the first session, they put down the instruments: guitar, bass, autoharp, drums, organ, electric piano and percussion. The second session was for vocals and sound effects.
The sound of car horns and traffic was the first time these sounds appeared on a hit song. A year later, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff used the idea when they produced the Soul Survivors track "Expressway (To Your Heart)
Appropriately, this song was released in the summer of 1966 - July 4, to be exact. It quickly climbed the chart, reaching #1 on the chart dated August 13, where it stayed for three weeks.
This is used during the looting sequence on The Simpsons episode "Poppa's Got a Brand New Badge."
The song served as the theme song for German art-director Wim Wenders' first film, 1970's Summer in the City. It plays during an incongruous scene in which the protagonist Hans is seen walking on a brutally cold day, surrounded by snow.
This was used at the beginning of the movie Die Hard: With A Vengeance
. The song plays throughout the opening credits, showing different scenes of New York City until a building blows up.
From 2006-2007, the piano portion was used in various Gatorade ads depicting the history of the sports drink, which was created in 1965.