A Summer Top Ten
"Street Fighting Man" - The Rolling Stones, 1968"'Cause summer's here ...," are you ready for a brand new beat? Those forceful strums and pounding drums signal a new calling out around the world. Though now this most challenging of singles is just an oldies-station reminder of when rock 'n' roll rebellion almost meant something, it's good to take that and remember those who went down in the streets - for free speech, for civil rights, or to stop a war we still can't assimilate into the sleepy London town of our consciousness - and sing "Get down!" with renewed vigor and respect.Little Deuce Coupe - The Beach Boys, 1963The obvious place to start, but not a surf album. For those who didn't have an ocean, hot rod culture provided the same summer excitement with the revving of "409," the hormonal acceleration of "Car Crazy Cutie," the pride and competitive spirit found in "Shut Down," the camaraderie of "Our Car Club," the nostalgic "Ballad of Ole' Betsy," and the grief and confusion of finding "A Young Man Is Gone.""Summer" - WAR, 1976Of the many songs written for the season with anthemic aspirations, this is the only one that still brings it on with church-picnic politeness and a low rider's charm.Grease - Soundtrack, 1978When I told my sister in Chicago that I was compiling a Summer Top Ten, she exclaimed "Oh! Anything from Grease." Grease? Somehow it had entirely escaped my notice that a whole generation of early-thirtysomethings associate the season with the faux-'50s antics of Olivia Newton-John Travolta. How low can you go?"Summer Nights" - Marianne Faithfull, 1965Our heroine before heroin. With a flip of her daffodil hair she surrounds you with that Euro-au-go-go sound of discotheques and little cafes where music plays and quavery, raindroppy voices like Marianne's waft from the rafters. In an incredibly quick clicking few minutes this record captures all the rush and foreverness of romantic love as, hearts pounding, seeing the city in rich reflections from light rain on tar, you go running across the roof tops - hand in hand."Sweet Baby James" - The Pooh Sticks, 1991>From "A Hard Days Night" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the designation "summer single" conjures visions of unbelievable beauty with blasting vocals and top-down guitars that galvanize a time and provide private moments of cream-your-jeans abandon; if these adventures occur mostly in our imaginary hit parades than on radio itself, that detracts little from every artist's - and every listener's - pursuit of the Perfect Pop Single. "Sweet Baby James" is not a Perfect Pop Single. But in spite of itself, it comes closer to impersonating one than anything else by this decidedly contrived band of merry pranksters. By reviving the hook from the Four Seasons' "Who Loves You" (a late-summer single 16 years earlier), references to James Taylor's first Number One (June '71), and the requisite blasting vocals and top-down guitars, Hue and company put together a darling record that ends each verse saying "... you've got a friend," and makes it worth driving around the pool one more time just to sing along with the repeat: "... who loves you so much.""Everything's Gonna Be Alright" - The Christianaires, 1997For those summertime blues that have to do with more than overtime and access to the car, there's a new compilation called Movin' On Up - Songs of the Civil Rights Struggle featuring classics from black pop's first inspirational era by The Impressions, Staple Singers, James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone and others. Meanwhile, on gospel stations across the country, the message to move on up lives on in beautiful three-part harmony and lean, relaxed leads. It'll be a summer to remember if this crosses over to the R&B charts."The Boys of Summer" - Don Henley, 1984Out on the road today I saw a grown man crying to "The Boys of Summer"; he had his windows down and the radio up, singing and sobbing in great long lines. A voice inside my head said "Don't look back, you can never look back." But I couldn't take my eyes off those Wayfarers in the rear-view nor turn my ears from a wailing reminder that some things last well past the summer."The End of the Summer" - Dar Williams, 1997Dylan Thomas wrote: "But seasons must be challenged or they totter/Into a chiming quarter/Where, punctual as death, we ring the stars." So the title selection to Dar's new album challenges us to find fresh meaning in archetypal end-of-summer situations: friends moving away, romantic abandonment, going off to school, friends moving away again. Knowing how shaped by events and memories we are, Williams takes those from childhood and spins them into golden metaphors as means of return to the interdependence and emotional directness of that time."Racing in the Street" - Bruce Springsteen, 1978"... and the time is right" for - what? The Martha & The Vandellas recast is complete ten years later with Springsteen's loneliest song - and also one of his most beautiful. Though his characters often seem to accept their fates with grim determinism, the boy and girl here (perhaps the same couple who find renewal in "The River") appear to derive a real will to live from hot-rodding and memories of their glory days; but these're all cheap thrills, losing their luster. The defeat in Springsteen's greatest works is his characters' inability to mine depth and - for his listeners - the perilous choice of refusing his call to compassion for angels with dirty fingernails.