The Sound of Summer Playing

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

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The Sound of Summer Playing
The Beach Boys, Surfin' USA
We all have our own ways of welcoming the summer. For students, it’s when school lets out for the year and vacation begins. For Druids and hippies, the summer solstice traditionally kicks things off with mystic rites and music festivals to celebrate the longest day of the year. Astronomers note the day when the sun reaches its zenith in the Tropic of Cancer and the earth’s axial tilt affords maximum solar exposure in the hemisphere. Me, I just listened to the radio. Growing up in the ‘60s, summer’s arrival was greeted with a bumper crop of that seasonal staple, the summer hit. As California kids, we marked the passage of time in its flight not so much by changes in the weather, but by the rotation of popular culture narratives. We knew it was fall not by the leaves turning, but by the trappings of Halloween, from horror movies and songs like “Haunted House” and “Monster Mash,” to supermarkets overflowing with pumpkins and trick-or-treat candy. A few weeks later, and it was all Pilgrims and Indians gathering for a turkey feast. Another month and everything was (fake) snow and Santa Claus and traditional Christmas carols, along with a slew of standards, from “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…)” to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and countless other holiday pop classics. I don’t recall too many springtime hits—maybe the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream,” the Rascals’ “It’s A Beautiful Morning”—but then comes summer. Was there ever a more glorious time to let the audio sunshine in? Here on the West Coast, summertime meant the beach. The beach meant surfing. And surfing meant surf music—cool instrumentals by artists like the Ventures and Dick Dale, inspired by country rocker Duane Eddy and his “twang” guitar style, and songs by the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean built around recycled Chuck Berry riffs—“Sweet Little Sixteen” retooled as “Surfin’ U.S.A..” P. F. Sloan and Steve Barri helped fuel the hit machine, cutting their own hot rod and surf songs under various names like The Fantastic Baggys and writing hits for others, like the minor classic “Summer Means Fun,” which charted for the short-lived duo of Bruce and Terry. The Beach Boys ruled the genre, with far too many hits to count, but my personal favorites are “All Summer Long” (poignant end title track for American Graffiti), “Good Vibrations” (released in October 1966, but what the hell—it’s still a summery masterpiece) and their triumphant return to surf music in the summer of 1968, the magnificent “Do It Again,” a #1 hit in the UK that barely cracked the Top 20 here in the States. 
Eddie Cochran, Summertime Blues
Surf wasn’t the only ‘60s summer music. The previous decade saw a number of summer-themed hits, like the bright and bouncy “Summertime, Summertime” by the Jamies, anchored by the brother-sister team of Tom and Serena Jameson, Jerry Keller’s “Here Comes Summer,” and of course the Eddie Cochran classic of teenage angst, “Summertime Blues,” famously covered later by The Who and Blue Cheer:
I went to my congressman, and he said, quote,
“I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote” Sometimes I wonder what I’m-a-gonna do
Oh, there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues
Munjo Jerry, In The Summertime
Beside surfing, there were plenty of other diversions for a frisky young man. Mungo Jerry:

In the summertime
When the weather’s fine
You got women, you got women on your mind
Have a drink, have a drive
Go out and see what you can find

In the summer of 1966, Ray Davies and the Kinks scored a #1 hit in the UK and a Top 20 hit in the U.S. with a song about a less innocent kind of lechery—a dissolute pop star, dumped by the girlfriend he mistreated, who ran off “to her ma and pa, tellin’ tales of drunkenness and cruelty,” while he bides his time, “just sittin’ here, sippin’ at my ice-cool beer, lazin’ on a sunny afternoon.”

The girls had something a little more tender and romantic on their minds. Backed by a memorable minor-key harpsichord line, Marianne Faithfull sang wistfully of her “Summer Nights”:

There’s a little café
Where we can hear music play
They keep the lights turned down low
It’s the place where lovers go
Then you hold me tight and say,
“Our love will always be this way,”
on summer nights

The Drifters, Under The Boardwalk
The West Coast may have been all surfing and cruising, but summer carried a very different vibe in the Midwest and on the East Coast. When it got too humid in the concrete jungle, Detroit’s Martha Reeves and the Vandellas sang about “Dancing In the Street” and the “Heat Wave,” while the Drifters yearned for the peace and quiet “Up On the Roof,” or stealing an intimate moment making love out of the sun, “Under the Boardwalk.” Billy Stewart, who was born and raised in Washington, D. C. and cut many fine R&B sides for Chess and Okeh Records, is best remembered for his brassy, powerhouse 1966 arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” from the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.
The Lovin' Spoonful, Summer In The City
But for me, nothing beats the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer In the City,” in which singer-songwriter John Sebastian’s good-time jug band takes a radical turn into one of the toughest urban rockers of the era, which one rock writer called “the perfect inner-city urban summer anthem” and #1 smash:

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head

In 1968, the Stones delivered their most powerful blow against the empire with the overtly political “Street Fighting Man,” inspired by rising anti-war protests and the Paris student riots in the spring, where Jagger finds release as he channels his rising aggression into music:
Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
But what can a poor boy do
‘Cept to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man

No wonder it stalled at #48 in the US charts: many radio stations refused to play it over its “subversive” lyrics. It would be three years before the single was even released in the UK at all.
Scott McKenzie, San Francisco
Darkness and violence were the exception, though. The summer of 1966 saw Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan shed his folk roots and cut one of the earliest hit singles of the dawning psychedelic era in “Sunshine Superman.” The Summer of Love inspired many classics, maybe most prominently when the Mamas and Papas’ John Phillips wrote and produced a certifiable winner in the gorgeous “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” for his former bandmate in The Journeymen, Scott McKenzie. An honorable mention goes to Eric Burdon, with his new American-based Animals, who flew Trans-Love Airways to the Bay Area and fell for a girl (or a tab) “named Sandoz” (the Swiss pharmaceutical lab where LSD was first synthesized), where “strobe lights beam/creates dreams/walls move, minds do too/on a warm San Franciscan night.”

One reason summers are special is because they’re so fleeting. We work all year to earn our three months of carefree leisure—and then, all too soon, it’s gone. And so it was by the summer of ’69—Sly and the Family Stone’s classic, “Hot Fun In the Summertime,” one of the few American hits for that year to feature a summer theme, which ironically contrasts the advent of a summer romance (End of the spring and here she comes back/Hi hi hi there) and the bittersweet parting at the end (First of the fall and then she goes back/Bye bye bye there).

For many, that summer was anything but carefree. We sent a man to the moon and celebrated three days of peace, love and music at Woodstock—but we also had the Zodiac killer, the Manson Family, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River literally catching fire from all its pollution (inspiring the Randy Newman song, “Burn On”), the Stonewall riots for gay rights, and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s car off Chappaquiddick Island.

An important sub-genre is the summer song tinged with melancholy and regret—perhaps a last goodbye to the school friends and romantic partners you may never see again, or an autumnal reflection on the joyful summer memories that invariably begin to fade almost before the season is out.
Traffic, Paper Sun Giving To You
Two of the best “farewell” songs are Brian Hyland’s mournful summer 1962 hit, “Sealed With A Kiss,” where the singer mopes over his absent girlfriend (Yes it’s gonna be a cold, lonely summer/but I’ll fill the emptiness/I’ll send you all my dreams every day in a letter/sealed with a kiss) and the Happenings’ summer 1966 hit, “See You in September,” tempering the loneliness with more than a hint of jealousy and control (“Have a good time but remember/there is danger in the summer moon above/will I see you in September/or lose you to a summer love?”).

A personal favorite of mine, a Top 5 hit in the UK though a miss in America, was Traffic’s debut single from May 1967, “Paper Sun.” As Dave Mason’s trippy sitar swirls about Steve Winwood’s deceptively upbeat melody, Jim Capaldi’s darker lyric casts a jaundiced eye toward a girl “who thinks you’re having good times/with a boy that you just met,” only to find herself alone and abandoned: “Daylight breaks while you sleep on the sand/A seagull is stealing the ring from your hand/The boy who had given you so much fun/Has left you so cold in the paper sun.”
Don Henley
Former Eagle Don Henley’s, “Boys of Summer,” a later hit in October 1984, is another small masterpiece, also nominally about summer’s fleeting pleasures, but ultimately a melancholy reflection on time passing, dreams deferred or cancelled, love and loss, and the inevitability of age as the singer, in a reverie, vows eternal love for the girl who’s already left long before:

I can see you
Your brown skin shining in the sun
You got the top pulled down
Radio on baby
I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone

Chad and Jeremy were part of the first wave of British Invasion artists to break on American shores in early 1964, but like their contemporaries Peter and Gordon, they preferred a soft and mellow folk style rather than the hard-edged rock ’n’ roll and R&B favored by the Beatles, Stones, and others. Though it failed to chart in their native England, over here the duo’s “A Summer Song” edged into the Top 10 to become their biggest stateside hit. It’s another bittersweet end-of-the-season lament about passing time and fading love:

They say that all good things must end some day
Autumn leaves must fall
And when the rain
Beats against my windowpane
I’ll think of summer days again
And dream of you

We close with two of the most compelling entries in the summertime canon. Johnny Rivers’s “Summer Rain” came out in November 1967, and powered by the Wrecking Crew rhythm section, the song recalls an ecstatic summer “spent groovin’ in the sand/and the jukebox kept on playin’/‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” By song’s end, the summer has receded into the past and the weather has turned harsh and cold, yet this love story seems to have a happy ending: 
Winter snows drift by my window
North wind blowing like thunder
Our love is burning like fire
She’s here by me, yeah
She’s here by me
Let tomorrow be
Nancy Sinatra with Lee Hazlewood
Nancy Sinatra’s professional hook-up with singer-songwriter-producer Lee Hazlewood yielded a handful of Top 10 hits, and though it barely cracked the Top 50, my personal favorite is “Summer Wine”—a 4:16 epic of sexual conquest, betrayal, abandonment…and something more. The orchestra strikes an ominous chord as Nancy’s voice seductively wafts in: 

Strawberries, cherries, and an angel’s kiss in spring
My summer wine is really made from all these things

And we know that Hazlewood’s cowboy, who tells us in a Johnny Cash growl, “I walked in town on silver spurs that jingle to/a song that I had only sung to just a few,” is a goner. Nancy purrs:

Take off your silver spurs and help me pass the time
And I will give to you summer wine

But soon, the cowboy is done:

My eyes grew heavy and my lips they could not speak
I tried to get up but I couldn’t find my feet
She reassured me with an unfamiliar line
And then she gave to me more summer wine

A brass line nicked from the James Bond theme and a key change heighten the drama and ratchet up the sexual tension. As he finally awakens, 

The sun was shinin’ in my eyes,
My silver spurs were gone,
My head felt twice its size

And like a phantom the girl has vanished. But our cowboy is beyond caring, having fallen hopelessly under her spell: 

She took my silver spurs
a dollar and a dime
And left me cravin’ for
more summer wine

And there’s the metaphor I was searching for. Time ultimately steals nearly everything from us—our youth, our vitality, our possessions, our loved ones—leaving only our memories, and our craving for those heady, carefree days gone by. A craving that just maybe, if we’re lucky, we can satisfy with a summer song that mystically conjures it up again.

For three or four minutes, at least.
Joel Bellman

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July 24, 2020