People have their own definitions about what makes up a good summer song. With Memorial Day weekend upon us -- designated, of course, as summer's kickoff weekend -- I've chosen today to dispense with the heavy pontificating and give you both my definition, and my favorite summer songs.
First, my definition. To me, a summer song is fun first, everything else second. It has to evoke, well ... summer! Which means, to me, it has to sound good coming out of someone's car speakers as it's driving along the beach.
For reasons I cannot understand, "Good Vibrations" has always been seen as a summer song, which to me is simply wrong. First, the song itself came out in the late fall of 1966, and it's anything but summer beach music -- which, of course, a lot of the Beach Boys songs are. Labeling it merely as a "summer song" does it grave injustice. It's one of the best records ever made (and if you want to be completely blown away by it, get a hold of the version done by Annie and Nancy Wilson, and baritone Jubilant Sykes, for the Brian Wilson tribute. It'll leave you with tears in your eyes (sorry, it was removed from YouTube due to copyright issues; you're going to have to order it).
But "Good Vibrations" is not a summer song because you can't listen to it passively. You have to pay attention to it ... savor every nuance of its intricacy ... to fully appreciate it. Brian called it his "pocket symphony" and that's exactly what it was. You wouldn't normally hear Mozart or Beethoven at the beach, and there are some pop songs that deserve more attention than to have some ramped up DJ babbling at the beginning and the end of them. "Good Vibrations" is one of those songs.
Summer songs need not have been released in the summertime ... though it certainly helps. But some of our best "crank it up" music was released and became popular at other times of the year. They've just morphed into summer songs because they lend themselves to a summer-like environment ... which is to say they sound their best blasted through open windows. I'll give you a perfect example: Billy Joel's apocalyptic "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)." The song itself is pretty deep. It's his scifi-movie vision of what would happen to New York if disaster truly struck (it kind of took on a creepy countenance after 9/11 too).
But way back in the 1970s, when "Turnstile" came out, it was the album's final song, and by then, I'd been so totally wrapped up in other songs from the record (most notably "New York State of Mind") that I barely gave this one any thought at all, save for the piano at the beginning and the end, which I love.
Then, I was hanging out one day in Boston, in the late spring, on a day when windows were open all over the Back Bay, and someone had this record on. When this song came blasting through the window, it just sounded so cool, and seemed to reflect the vibe of the day so perfectly, that it stopped me in my tracks. It immediately became my absolute favorite song of his (which it still is, to this day). And even though it has very little to do with summertime, I always associate it with pleasant weather because of the timing of when I first noticed how great it really was.
(On the other hand, "A Matter of Trust," which tries to evoke, in its video, the same feeling I had listening to "Miami 2017" that day, does not register on my list. It's an all right song, but that's as far as it goes.)
So, as Ed Sullivan would way, without any further ado, here is a list of my Top 15 summer songs.
1 -- (Can't Get No) Satisfaction, Rolling Stones. Actually, it doesn't matter to me when I hear this. I've always considered it the most perfect of perfect rock 'n' roll songs. It's catchy, naughty, has a killer hook, it's not a day-and-a-half long, and -- to boot -- sounds the berries on your automobile stereo system. It's no accident that every time radio stations do one of those "Memorial Day 500" polls, "Satisfaction" is in the Top 10.
2 -- "Schools Out for the Summer," Alice Cooper. Boy, I can remember when Alice Cooper first came out ... how disgusted people were by him. This always amused me. Vincent Furnier may have had a macabre sense of humor, but that's all it was. There's really nothing subversive about him other than a healthy sense of the absurd, which, of course, he took to the end zone for a few years. Alice Cooper, in a short amount of time, put out some classic songs, with classic hooks. This was the best of them. "Well we got no class/And we got no principles/And we got no innocence/
We can't even think of a word that rhymes. Clever, funny ... loud ... all the things that make up a great rock song.
3 -- "Summertime Blues" ... take your pick. This could be one of the most covered songs in rock, and why not? Eddie Cochran did did it first, in the late 1950s, and it was later covered by The Who, Brian Setzer and Blue Cheer -- to name three (Blue Cheer's version is probably my least favorite while I could listen to Brian Setzer's all day long). If you can remember being a teenager, with an odd job in the summer time, scrounging for money so you can go out on a date, being forced to beg your dad for the car and having your pleas fall on deaf ears, this is your song. Also, I remember hearing a comedian one night in a Boston night club do a version of this that just put me away. The part where Cocharn said, "I asked my congressman and he said, quote, I'd like to help you, son, but you're too young to vote," this guy changed to "I asked my senator and he said, quote, "when I returned to the bridge, Mary Jo and the cahhh were gone." He did a good Teddy impression too.
4 -- "Hot Fun in the Summertime," Sly and the Family Stone. The 60s and 70s would have been a lot poorer, culturally and musically, without Sly Stone making this kind of music. What a wonderful, wonderful song. It's not particularly profound. It doesn't advance any kind of social cause. It doesn't open up any new doors with regards to funk, or anything like that. It's just a nice song about summer romance and the kind of fun that one can only have in the good weather. And I swear, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey used it as the template they wrote "Summer Lovin," one of the more memorable songs from "Grease."
5 -- "All Summer Long," Beach Boys. A lot of people put "California Girls" on this list, and they're justified. But this song's better, as far as I'm concerned. It's almost poignant. Because if you grow up in the northeast, one of the more depressing times of the year is Labor Day -- which signifies the end of summer, as we know it (even though the calendar says otherwise). School starts up again, and all that summer fun everyone keeps writing and waxing nostalgic about becomes just another memory. And contained within "All Summer Long" is that feeling ... that summer, especially here in Boston, always goes by much too quickly, and that you'd better get the most out of it. It's probably different in California, where the Beach Boys grew up. But here ... the song takes on a sense of urgency!
6 -- "Summer in the City," Lovin' Spoonful. This song came out when I was 12 years old, hanging around my neighborhood, during the very hot summer of 1966. There wasn't a whole lot to do back in '66 other than hang out, try to keep yourself occupied, and listen to the radio. Things probably haven't changed much either. The images in this song are tremendous, especially lines like "hotter than a match head," combined with the backdrop of a jackhammer for effect, made this a very memorable song.
7 -- "Maggie Mae," Rod Stewart. I know what this song's about. It's every teen aged boy's fantasy to be taken to school by an older woman, if you get my drift (though this song deals more with what happens when it dawns on us that school's out). But that's not why I like it. It's a great song because it frackin' rocks. It has, easily, the best opening bars in rock, and sounds great on the car radio (and did so in 1971, the year I graduated from high school, which has an awful lot to do with why I like this song so much). This was the opening cut off "Every Picture Tells a Story," an album filled with classic material. Listen to "Mandolin Wind" off that album. Simply gorgeous.
8 -- "Ramblin' Man," Allman Brothers. One of the great things about summertime up here is outdoor concerts. This may not be so special in the deep south, or in San Diego, where the weather lends itself to this all year around. But here, you get all your really good concerts crammed into a four-month period from about June through September. After that, it really becomes too cold for outdoor concerts (though I remember freezing my ass off in Foxborough one October night listening to the Rolling Stones). Back in the day, the Allman Brothers would come to this area around the fourth of July every summer. They'd exhausted themselves (and us) playing incredibly long sets ... and I was there for all of it. And to me, nothing says "summer" than listening to Dickie Betts playing his guitar at ear-piercing decibels.
9 -- "In the Summertime," Mungo Jerry. I'm serious. This was a great song. Well, it still is a great song. It got popular in the summer of 1970, and it was the perfect counterpoint to all the other crap that was going on in the same year ... crap like the Kent State fallout, for example (the country was still in a deep, deep funk over that going into that summer). It was just a nice, little skiffle song about hanging out in the summertime, doing nothing, and just groovin'. Wish there were more songs like that these days.
10 -- "Sunny Afternoon," The Kinks. As this song suggests, nothing beats "sitting here, sipping on my ice cold beer, lazing on a sunny afternoon." Except that this is Ray Davies signing ... man of biting, ironic wit. Of course, "Sunny Afternoon" is not about mindless idling nearly as much as it is about a broken man who's been taken to the cleaners by a vindictive ex. It's just that the lines are priceless. "Save me, save me, save me from this squeeze, I got a big, fat mamma trying to break me." Sounds to me like Ray had good thing going with the big, fat mamma ... and it's all coming apart. Sort of tragic, really ... except that, in typical Ray Davies fashion, he makes you laugh as he tells his tale. Great song.
11 -- "Got to Get Your Into My Life," The Beatles. Summers back in the mid-60s were never truly complete without a new Beatles album to chew on. In '64 it was "Hard Day's Night," '65 it was "Help!" and in '66 it was "Revolver." Those albums were loaded with great songs, of course, but to me, this is the best of them all.
12 -- "Lazy Day," Spanky and Our Gang. This was one of those "Summer of Love" songs, full of flowers and walks down the lane, that just gave you a great feeling of being alive.
13 -- "The Story in Your Eyes," the Moody Blues. Another Summer of '71 song. Nuff said.
14 -- "The Boys of Summer," Don Henley. Another look-back song about youthful summers balanced with adult reality. Great tune.
15 -- "Pleasant Valley Sunday," The Monkees. All right. Go ahead and laugh. I'll wait. Truth is, the Monkees -- probably without even knowing it -- did one of the great 60s social songs about what it's like to live in "Keeping Up with the Jonses" America. Carole King had a had in writing this, and you can see her fingerprints all through it.
That's all she wrote. I'm sure you all have yours. I'd be interested in hearing some of them.