By Drew Matlovsky
LET’S GO SURFIN’ now / Everybody’s learning how / Come on and safari with me. With three lines and a couple of chords, the Beach Boys “Surfin Safari” would go on to define the ‘sound’ of summer. It didn’t matter that the Beach Boys weren’t the first to tinker with the rockabilly-blues music they sold so well to white audiences. They had everything they needed for the perfect summer song. “Surfin Safari” was light and upbeat, detailing California beaches and the ubiquitous freedom that summer brings. It was a sound that would capture a generation, and propel the Beach Boys to stardom.
The Beach Boys had created the template for the “summer single,” a new idea record companies and A&R execs hoped to cash in on and it didn’t take long for other artists to start capitalizing on the Beach Boys’ success. Martha and the Vandals made motown magic with “Dancing in the Street” (‘64), Alice Cooper turned up the distortion for “School’s Out Forever” (‘72) and in July of 1989, the Beastie Boys sampled their hearts out on “Hey Ladies.” All of these tracks topped the charts; proof of the commercial benefits of distilling those three magical months into music.
As we move closer to the present, the tradition continues. Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” (2010) again references the summer sound of the Beach Boys. The title is a letter away from a Beach Boys single and Katy’s repeated exclamations about California beaches are certainly a call backs to the 1960’s musicians.
From the Beach Boys to the Beastie Boys, these musicians have produced music that is quintessentially summer. So what defines this ‘summer sound’? It’s certainly not something described by labels or genres. It’s music that evokes a feeling. It’s the feeling of dirt and sweat from playing baseball in the park. It’s the taste of a cold beer on a hot summer day and it’s the sense of awe and wonder, seeing the stars light up for the very first time. It’s the beautiful feeling of hope, that the summer might just last forever, the days endless, and ripe with possibility. It’s the wistful nostalgia for those who are too old to enjoy it, and the feeling of boundless adventure for those who still can. It’s a collection of feelings, thoughts, and moments, that define the summer, the ethos of those three months too great to be described with words. The ineffable beauty, and sadness, the summer brings has been channeled into poetry, art, and more importantly for us, music. It’s a rare talent, and a statue of true wit, for those who can distill this collection of human expression into song. As we move forward, let’s take a look at some of the better summer songs, those that aren’t necessarily ubiquitous with popularity.
The House That Heaven Built by Japandroids
When they love you, and they will / Tell em all they’ll love in my shadow
“House that Heaven Built” proves you can accomplish greatness with very little. A two man operation, Brian King turns up the distortion on his guitar, sticking to a few chords and David Prowse slams the bass pedal on his drum kit, creating a deadly combination. It’s a song that should not be listened to, but screamed: belted from the rooftops, howled in front of speakers and wailed from your car stereo. If the summer is the feeling of boundless energy, then “The House that Heaven Built” is your mantra, your war song, your piece of music that encompasses these moments. “And if they try to slow you down” King chants, “Tell em all to go to hell.” It’s a reaffirmation that nothing, and no one, will be stand in your way. A DIY-punk aesthetic, and the notion that with youth comes freedom, “House that Heaven Built” is a celebration of both. It’s a party song in all of the right ways. As Nas would previously state, “The world is yours,” and if so, as Brian King bellows on the last chorus, “Tell em all to go to hell.”
You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth by Meatloaf
On a hot summer night / would you offer your throat to the wolf with the Red Roses?
Meatloaf might just have a monopoly on nostalgia. Penned by Jim Steinman, “Bat out of Hell” was the the defining album of the 1970’s, it’s prog rock roots and sweeping nine minute operas the epitome of Rock n’ Roll grandeur. Oh, and how beautiful it was. There will hardly ever come an album as audacious and grandiose as “Bat out of Hell.” It worked, and the lyrics certainly helped too, detailing teenage lust. Stienman covers breakups, girlfriends, high school, and the summer. The jingle-jangle of sleigh bells begins the musical portion of “You took The Words Right out of My Mouth,” a snippet from a play preceding it. A chorus of voices envelopes the song, the ebb and flow of the choir surrounding Meatloaf’s emphatic cries of a past summer love. His fascination with her, “you took the words right out of my mouth,” and further regret, “I swear it’s true I was just about to say I love you,” form a mixed memory; the pain of losing her, and the joy of that hot summer night, when they first met. Nostalgia is a powerful tool, and one Jim Steineman uses well, encapsulating the a summer days of his youth, and the feeling, the painful feeling, of lost love.
Deadbeat Summer by Neon Indian
Deadbeat Summer / It’s just a deadbeat summer…
“Deadbeat Summer” by Alan Palomo, better known as Neon Indian, the lo-fi synth pop band from Texas, is able to wonderfully capture the sheer laziness that the summer can encapsulate. This is not a song for those who enjoy hiking on the weekends, instead this is for those who view the summer as three months of inactivity, a sheer laissez faire attitude, where everything goes, and where the world does not extend far beyond the reach of the couch and or pizza box. It’s a break from all the commitments of school, work and life, and a chance to relax, and escape into the sphere of video game synths, reverb, and laid-back vocals. Neon Indian’s “Deadbeat Summer” is pure relaxation at its finest.
Chamakay by Blood Orange
All good things must come to an end. Dev Hynes, the man behind Blood Orange, knows this well. “Chamakay” is the end of the summer, the peaceful feeling of watching the day end. His accompanying music video detailing a sunset, further adds to this sense of conclusion. Hynes’s is joined by Caroline Polachek, her and Dev sharing the vocals, and the story told. Reassuring each other of their relationship, and the loneliness of being apart, unfolds in “Chamakay”, leading to the eventual end of the song, and their relationship. Dev and Caroline’s story are certainly a stand in for the ubiquitous summer fling, but the importance of “Chamakay” lies in the production. Dev creates a lush atmosphere, the winding down a day, as reverb and echo provide the basis for this calming sensibility. It’s classic Prince, and as a saxophone enters the fray, it’s a soulful end, a reminder of time spent, and an end to something magical.
Mr. Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan
“Mr. Tambourine Man”, by singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, is the crowning achievement of summer songs. Hunter S. Thompson dedicates Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a journey of Thomson finding himself and searching for the American dream to this song, and it’s of little surprise why. Mr. Tambourine Man depicts a journey, one in which the Dylan goes to discover himself, following the enchanting sound of a tambourine player. He continues to follow him, this siren turning to be Dylan’s muse, his source of inspiration. Often confused as a drug trip, “Mr. Tambouring Man” a story of fascination, of finding something you are passionate about, and sticking to it. It’s a story of exploration, of following your heart’s every desire, and leaving the vapidity of the world for a day. It’s the ultimate adventure song, and the ultimate summer song too, a reminder that the summer can be a time to finds oneself, however big or small.