Full Circle

It’s Summertime & the Living Is Easy: Celebrating the sounds of summer

The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys

Sly & the Family Stone

Sly & the Family Stone

The Lovin' Spoonful

The Lovin’ Spoonful

The Monkees

The Monkees

The Beatles

The Beatles

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Calling out around the world
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer’s here and the time is right
For Dancing in the Street.
— Marvin Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson & Ivy Jo Hunter

In summer, the song sings itself.
— William Carlos Williams

My fickle friend, the Summer Wind.
— Johnny Mercer

Much like a Norman Rockwell painting, the skewed impressions of what constitutes “summer” in my mind are largely based upon the mythic Americana traditions that I experienced growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in the greater metropolitan area of Washington, D.C. While there are obvious cultural differences between San Diego and other regions of the world, we Americans have all been indoctrinated, more or less, into the same cultural milieu. Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet…

Just as the traditional myths of Christmas have captured our national imagination, so have the rituals and rites of summer become enmeshed with the very fabric of our existence. It may be harder to appreciate in a locale where the weather rarely becomes inclement, but for most folks the summer solstice is a quarterly reminder of the transitory nature of… well, nature herself. It’s the inevitable process of cyclical regeneration and evidence that all things do indeed pass. That’s the way of the wheel.

And yet, of course, summertime is a state of mind, superimposed across our collective consciousness through a million impressions of sights, sounds, smells, and ideas. Summer evokes fun fairs and games of chance; the California myth of sand, sea, and summer romance; or transcendentally melting into the Sun itself through unfettered pagan worship. Summer screams for ice cream and popsicles and running barefoot in the park, splashing your bike through puddles, and streaking watercolors across the pavement.

Summer drips with watermelon juice, cobs of corn and melted butter, and eating ripe tomatoes from your granddad’s garden. Summer is a time for shooting off bottle rockets and catching fireflies with your hands after dark, and listening to the crickets chirp.

Is the notion of summer and summertime pursuits anti-intellectual? Would you rather drink beer on the beach and play volleyball? Or spend the afternoon in an air-conditioned lounge reading a book that is so thought-provoking that it alters the manner of how you view the world? Perhaps it’s the difference between choosing to live out the lyrics to “Margaritaville” (or, really, ANY Jimmy Buffet song) or choosing to meditate on something else.

Whether swimming in the ocean, a nearby lake, a riverbed, or the municipal pool, water and summer go hand-in-hand. And as every well-seasoned world traveler knows (according to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): never leave home without a towel. But beyond a bathing suit and a towel you also need a boom box and some tunes to bust out summer with. In no particular order of preference, here are 20 sonic slices for your edification:

1) “All Summer Long” The Beach Boys (1964)
T-shirts, cut-offs, and a pair of thongs… We might as well start at the top of the mountain and work our way downward and acknowledge the fact that all of our populist notions regarding the beach and the sun are all filtered through the California fantasies of Brian Wilson. Not every single Beach Boys track is about summertime fun, fun, fun, but you could easily list three dozen BB5 songs that define summertime for several generations: “California Girls,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Keep an Eye on Summer,” “Your Summer Dream,” “Summer Means New Love,” “Girls on the Beach,” the Summer Days (And Summer Nights) LP, and the granddaddy of them all, the Endless Summer compilation. Lots of love now!

2) “Summertime” Billy Stewart (1966)
Which version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” from his 1935 aria Porgy and Bess do you pick? They’re ALL great: the Zombies’ sublime reading from 1965; Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ classic 1959 interpretation of the entire opera; the fuzz-toned psychedelia of Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Winterland Ballroom in 1968. Not to mention recordings by Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Paul McCartney, and Peter Gabriel. However, the version tracked by Billy Stewart, with that insane trilling that he does, cannot be beat, particularly in tandem with the amazing drumming of Maurice White (of Earth, Wind & Fire), turning this standard into a pop classic. Little known fact: the lyrics were written by DuBose Heyward, who co-wrote the book to Porgy and Bess with George’s older brother Ira.

3) “Summertime Blues” Eddie Cochran (1958)
There’s nothing like the sensation of feeling stranded and bored, wishing you could jump out of your skin, aching to get out of the house, and find some action that makes you feel alive. Teenage angst was never better represented than in this Eddie Cochran classic. The slapback echo on the original is otherworldly, and Cochran sets the bar for future rockers to emulate and surpass. Luckily that happened twice with two brilliant interpretations: the proto metal of Blue Cheer (from 1968’s Vincebus Eruptum), and the definitive rock version by the Who from Live at Leeds. So I called up my congressman and he said quote…

4) “School’s Out” Alice Cooper (1972)
The absolute definition of an anthem, Alice Cooper’s seventh career single was a grand slam of commercial and artistic triumph. On the last day of school in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, I brought my cassette player to school with this song cued up, so I could blast it the moment I cleared the building – a rite of passage ritual of extreme significance. Alice Cooper: “What are the greatest three minutes of your life? There are two times during the year. One is Christmas morning, when you’re just getting ready to open the presents. The greed factor is right there. The next one is the last three minutes on the last day of school, when you’re sitting there, and it’s like a slow fuse burning. I said, ‘If we can catch that three minutes in a song, it’s going to be so big.’”

5) “Hot Fun in the Summertime” Sly and the Family Stone (1969)
End of the spring and here she comes back, hi, hi, hi, hi there… Why, hello beautiful, I thought you’d never get here. Another sonic whiff of liberation, THIS is what freedom feels like cascading through your senses. Whatever the Family Stone is partaking of would be delightful to sample. Positively exhilarating.

6) “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” Queens of the Stone Age (2000)
P-A-R-T-Y! Repeat after me: Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, Marijuana, Ecstasy, and Alcohol. As far as hit songs go, few have gotten so much mileage out of such a modest litany. Taking the popular marketing tagline and twisting it into a double entendre, the Queens shine a light on the most hedonistic aspect of summer break: the pursuit of a good time, aka better living through chemicals. If Mike Love was singing about transcendental meditation and cruising the hamburger stand, by contrast, this is what it can feel like in the mosh pit of Coachella, where a bottle of water costs five dollars. Ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-cocaine.

7) “Summer” War (1976)
Getting mellow, this single from June of ’76 epitomizes the vibe when someone asks you to chill. You want to know what chill is? This is the sound of chill.

8) “Those Lazy–Hazy–Crazy Days of Summer” Nat “King” Cole (1963)
This is almost a prototype for “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” from a time when lyrical poetry was used to describe our world, rather than the monosyllabic chants of contemporary culture. Or, rather, think of it as a ditty from a place in time when sodas, pretzels and beer were the cultural equivalent of crack cocaine. Were we ever this young?

9) “Summer in the City” The Lovin’ Spoonful (1966)
This record is Exhibit A of how a piece of music can provoke an emotional response from the listener. No matter what time of year it is, it might as well be the dog days of August when this majestic track comes crackling through the speakers. No other record evokes the muggy sluggishness of summer better than this sublime production by Erik Jacobsen, not to mention the joy that can be found once the sun goes down and the lights go out. Perfection.

10) “Walking on Sunshine” Katrina and the Waves (1985)
Like “Summer Days” from the Grease soundtrack, “Walking on Sunshine” is a cultural cliché. And in exactly the same manner in which “White Christmas” is a cliché, “Walking on Sunshine” is exactly what it appears to be: an unbridled, manic expression at the joy of being alive. And if that doesn’t embody the spirit of summer, what does? Feel the love.

11) “Summer’s Cauldron” and “Season Cycle” XTC (1986)
Facts are facts: the entire 1986 LP Skylarking by XTC belongs on any list of summer classics. “Summer’s Cauldron” and “Season Cycle” are obvious inclusions, but this entire album shimmers with a brilliant intensity. Andy Partridge: “Musician and producer Todd Rundgren conjured up some of the most magical production and arranging conceivable. A summer’s day cooked into one cake.”

12) “Good Day Sunshine” The Beatles (1966)
If ever a year in music shimmered, it was 1966. And no one shimmered quite like the Beatles. Any number of Beatles songs makes the grade for representing summer: “Here Comes the Sun,” “Penny Lane,” and “I’ll Follow the Sun” come to mind. But there’s nothing like Revolver and the splash of optimism that begins side two with this song that is a celebration of Life itself. And if I happened to be James Paul McCartney, age 24, turning out work like this, I’d feel on top of the world, too. Innovation at its finest.

13) “The Door Into Summer” The Monkees (1967)
And he thought he heard the echoes of a penny whistle band and the laughter from a distant caravan. And the brightly painted line of circus wagons in the sand, fading through the door into summer. ’Nuff said.

14) “Thunder Road” Bruce Springsteen (1975)
If summertime exists for any purpose, it’s for getting out on the open road and exploring the world beyond your safety zone. And if there’s such a thing as genre art in rock music, this is it. At 25, Springsteen caught the eternal longing and angst of every coming-of-age adolescent who is looking for an escape route to a more dynamic existence. The principals in this sky-high fantasy are aware that even if this errant daydream turns out to be a dead end, at least it was preferable to never dreaming at all.

15) “Drivin’ Around” Raspberries (1972)
Long, hot days, we’ll be catching the rays. From Cleveland’s finest, a perfect Beach Boys tribute, way more effective in execution than one-hit wonder “Beach Baby” by First Class. The harmonies and the production are sterling and the lyrics capture the vibe perfectly: You know my tape deck is blasting, my car is fast – I’m driving around.

16) “In the Summertime” Mungo Jerry (1970)
There’s something rather lascivious going on in this track, with all of the grunting and groaning, pushing and pulling/back and forth momentum that gives this song a two-steps-forward, two-steps-back lurchiness. It also feels like a turn-of-the-century steamboat chooglin’ up the Mississippi River. There are allusions to sex in here somewhere, but the lyric is so damn oblique that interpretations are hard to pin down. And perhaps that is why it’s so universally loved.

17) “Indian Summer” Joe Walsh (1978)
This nostalgic look over the shoulder is the very stuff of why myths surround our perception of summer. Particularly for anyone who has spent time in the Midwest (as Walsh has) with the notion of grabbing an extra week (or two or five) of summer-like weather – it is like a gift from the gods. Because soon enough, the leaves will all change color, and winter will wrap its blanket across the landscape once again. From the 1978 masterpiece “But Seriously, Folks…”

18) “Long Hot Summer Night” Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)
The other side of summer is the fact that life in the big city can heat up to such a degree that it is anything but a picnic. ¡Qué calor! Sometimes the unbearable heat in the street leads to situations as depicted in Spike Lee’s masterful Do the Right Thing. Electric Ladyland also includes the apocryphal “House Burning Down.” In 1968, that was truly the other side of summer in the inner city.

19) “Summer’s Almost Gone” The Doors (1968)
You want to talk about a weary blues? The dread of leaving summer’s idyll was never more convincing than in this dirge by the Doors. The music drags its feet, refusing to let go of summer without a supreme struggle. What a bum trip: for Jim Morrison the changing of the seasons might as well have been the end of the world, like a gunfighter collapsing from a lost duel. The winter’s coming on, Summer’s Almost Gone…

20) “Summer Wind” Frank Sinatra (1966)
As summer fades, the lyrics of Johnny Mercer convey the emotional devastation of why the splendor of a summer romance is frequently not meant to last. Will I see you in September? Perhaps. But it will never be the same as when we strolled together on those golden sands. There’s always next year, right?

One Comment

  1. Frank Kocher
    Posted August, 2015 at 12:06 PM | Permalink

    Great list. Now, everyone can argue about ‘Summertime Blues’ not being on top:–) I am old enough to like doo-wop and will make an honorable mention for the Jamies ‘Summertime Summertime’ and Bruce and Terry’s regional hit ‘The Summer Means Fun,’ which was a Jan and Dean rip off but a good two minute single. Any list that includes Sinatra, The Beatles, Gershwin, and the Beach Boys has to be good.

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