Na, na na na na, na na na na, na na na, na na na, na na na na.
Wilson Pickett, "Land of One Thousand Dances"
Play me a snippet of Pickett and I'm back in the summer of '66, a high school honey short on boyfriends and burger money. "You got to know how to Pony . . ." (Where's that skinny blond boy in the forest green Mustang?) "Do that Jerk . . ." (There he is, twitching on the dance floor with some Other Girl) "Watch me work y'all . . ." (Boring cashier job, ringing up charcoal and stupid chef hats for suburban patio meisters). "Forget it all and dance. I said a na, na na na na . . ."
Years later, on a muggy July night, I had occasion to meet Wilson (The Wicked) Pickett at a Manhattan club. Goofily, I thanked him for all the memories.
"I hope you ain't gonna tell me 'bout what you were doin' when you first heard that old song . . ." He ticked off the '66 memories fans have offered up at his latter-day shows:
"Johnny done got pinned to Susie at Delta Delta somethin'. Joey got his first . . ."
Summer songs have that Proustian conjuring power -- however funky the vision. They're not so much of a time and place as of a state of mind: easy, warm, romantic and restless. The best are the most evocative -- the songs that call forth soft tar mirages and smoldering looks. Sometimes it's just a phrase, like the suburban haiku in Springsteen's "Thunder Road":
The screen door slams.
Mary's dress waves.
For sensual summer holograms, you can't beat the scorching sidewalks and gritty necks in the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City"; the hot dogs, fries and carrousel sounds of the Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk." Their pop poetics rank just below Gershwin and Heyward's "Summertime" -- which, in fact, was composed on a December vacation in Palm Beach and debuted in the winter of 1935 with the premiere of "Porgy and Bess."
In this country, popular summer music has always been escapist -- a romantic Strauss waltz in 1867 or the sublimely ridiculous "Wooly Bully" in 1965. Traditionally, summer music has been light as lemon ice, and just as easy to swallow. We opt for silly songs. Car songs. Dance songs.
It behooves us to remember that before there was a Hot 100, it was just hot. With no air conditioning, summer music was the stuff of outdoor concerts, tent shows, gazebos and boardwalk amphitheaters. Despite the fact that Edison patented the gramophone in high August of 1877, summer concerts held sway as the best popularizers of sizzling new sounds until radio in the Roaring Twenties.
So it was that Wagner's "Lohengrin" -- conducted by Liszt -- entranced Weimar in August of 1850. Twenty-six years later, the first complete performance of the "Ring" cycle -- "Das Rheingold," "Die Walku re," "Siegfried" and "Die Gotterda mmerung" -- was presented at Bayreuth over four days in August. Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" boomed out over Moscow on August 20 of 1882; it is still the favored opus for fireworks displays. Some composers liked it hot -- Mozart blazed through both his Symphony No. 40 in G minor and No. 41 in C major from June to August in 1788.
In this country, Theodore Thomas, a New York orchestra leader, conducted the American debuts of important works by European composers like Strauss and Mozart at summer concerts in the 1860s. In 1867, four months after Strauss first presented "The Beautiful Blue Danube" in Vienna, that now-classic waltz was premiered in the States by Thomas' orchestra at an outdoor concert in New York City. You may now associate it with ice skating, but more than a century ago, it set a generation of whalebone stays swaying in the summer breeze.
Toward the end of the century, the brass force of Sousa marches flapped bandstand bunting. But in Sousa's home town of Washington, D.C., only those who couldn't afford to summer at the shore were around to watch the August sun superheat those big brass tubas.
Even the music critics left town, according to one J.D. Boering, Billboard's Washington correspondent at the turn of the century. Boering seems to have been a curmudgeonly sort who covered music and entertainment events as though they were tonsillectomies. In July 1900, he filed an especially limp dispatch, having fled to the Chesapeake Bay, where thousands of escaped Washingtonians were strolling the boardwalks. He noted that their chief amusement was minstrel shows, as well as one of that year's many productions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
"The perspiration is flowing from my forehead so rapidly the typewriter is floating," whined Mr. B. "So I will have to close to save the machine."
Under the boardwalk or in the ballroom, heat has never stopped them dancin' feet. In the first quarter of this century, "fox trot novelties" flew out of the sheet music racks. Jazz Age summers were jumpier still. It was May 21, 1927, when the cry "Lindy's done it!" reached the most heavenly dancers in Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, and the Lindy Hop was born. Blacks perfected that fast, agile two-step to the sophisticated rhythms of Basie, Ellington and the Savoy Sultans.
Summer nonsense quieted down during World War II. Jascha Heifetz fiddled for the troops on the Italian front lines, and Louis Jordan scored a July/August hit with "G.I. Jive." The lightest summer of those years was '44, when big-eared Bing Crosby had five of the Top 10 summer hits, leading off with "Swinging on a Star."
Radio was bigger than ever when the boys came home. Surveys indicated that there were an increasing number of radios in restaurants and factories. Portable radios had been invented, and, best of all, radios had become a popular feature in automobiles. Car radios brought back summer car songs.
In 1914-16, Billboard's sheet music charts showed scads of warm-weather hits devoted to Mr. Ford's open-top invention -- "That Little Ford of Mine," "Spooning in an Automobile" and "The Little Ford Rambled Along." After an initial romance, car songs tapered off until the big-finned, eight-cylinder highway madness of the '50s and '60s. Car culture came into its own with convertibles, drive-ins, drive-through car washes and, of course, car radios. Back when gas stations gave away glassware and bobble-head dashboard dolls, we took summer road trips with abandon, cruising to Chuck Berry's classic highway bop, "Maybellene," the "Route 66 Theme" and, later, "I Get Around," "GTO" and "Little Deuce Coupe."
All that driving didn't cut down on dancing. And though '50s summers produced hip shakers like "Rock Around the Clock" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," it was the '60s -- and the mobile freedoms of the transistor radio -- that produced the biggest boom ever in summer dance hits. "The Twist" exploded in '61, followed, over the next few summers, by the Pony, the Stomp, the Locomotion, the Mashed Potato and the Monkey. (I won't speculate on why "The Jerk" was a winter song in '65, beyond the itchy strictures of long underwear.)
Throughout the flaming late '60s, soul music, from Motown to Memphis, kept Young America twitching. Aretha's "Respect" was the summer of '67; in 1969, James (Butane) Brown got us on the good foot with the incendiary "Mother Popcorn."
Once '60s stalwarts came in off the streets and barricades, and tie-dyed passion cooled to polyester, summers brought disco dog days. Nearly all hits were dance hits: Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" and "Hot Stuff," and the Bee Gees' "You Should Be Dancing." The summer of '78 belonged to those three adenoidal Aussies with their thumping soundtrack of "Saturday Night Fever."
In the late '70s and '80s, summer passions have run highest when they coincided with a major rock tour . . . or a festival. Springsteen, the Jacksons, the Stones, the Police -- all made June to September hay in those yawning roofless venues. This summer, it's U2, Bowie and that pop tart Madonna; souvenir T-shirts will haul the memories back to school in September.
Twenty years from now, the current crop of boom-box, beach-blanket constituents may get all misty-eyed when they hear the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)." They'll think of sweaty T-shirts and the smell of Bubblicious gum. They'll remember a cute blond girl in a torn Megadeth T-shirt saying softly, across the gearshift box, "Turn up the A/C, dude, or I'm outta here." Oh, it was rad, the summer of '87. A wine cooler, the Beasties, and thou beside me on the Elvis beach towel. 'Tis gnarly paradise enow. :: MUSICAL ANTHOLOGY SUMMER SILLIES
Here, some musical equivalents of "Revenge of the Nerds II" and Princess Daisy:
"The Aba Daba Honeymoon" (1914)
"Oh! How She Could Yacki, Hacki, Wicki, Wacki, Woo" ('16)
"The No More Rheumatism Rag" ('16)
"Yes, We Have No Bananas" ('23)
"Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba" ('47)
"Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo" ('50)
"Yakety Yak" ('58)
"Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)" ('59)
"Alley Oop" ('60)
"Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini" ('60)
"I'm Henry VIII, I Am" ('65)
"I Got Ants in My Pants (and I want to dance) (Part 1)" ('73) SUMMER SURE SHOTS
"Summertime Blues" was such a sure thing it was a hit for Eddie Cochran ('58), Blue Cheer ('68) and the Who ('70). More bankable hot weather hits:
"Summer Song" ('64)
"Summer in the City" ('66)
"Summer Rain" ('67)
"Summer Breeze" ('72)
"Surf City" ('63)
"Under the Boardwalk" ('64)
"(Remember) Walkin' in the Sand" ('64)
"Grazing in the Grass" ('68) SUMMER SOBBERS
Memorial Day to Labor Day love can be brief and intense. Who could forget that 1960 Rubaiyat of teen death schlock, "Tell Laura I Love Her"? A sampler of sultry summer sobbers:
"Tears on My Pillow" ('58)
"The Tracks of My Tears" ('65)
"Crying in the Chapel" ('65)
"96 Tears" ('66)