Brent Johnson’s Essential Songs of Summer

brent johnson returns with his unconventional songs of summer …

Oldies radio got me thinking last night.

I was listening to 101.1 FM in New York, and the DJ was playing the top summer songs of all-time. There were standards (‘Surf City’ by Jan & Dean), some forgotten gems (‘Cruel Summer’ by Bananarama), the not-so-surprising song at No. 1 (‘Summer In The City’ by The Lovin’ Spoonful) — and one track that apparently fits the bill simply because it has the word ‘summer’ in the title (‘Endless Summer Nights’ by cheesemaster Richard Marx).

It reminded me of something I’ve often thought about: Why do quintessential summer songs have to be ABOUT summer? To me, the songs I play during summer — and the songs that define summer — are the ones that FEEL like summer. Allow me to explain.

Ironically, I’m starting with a song that actually does have ‘summer’ in the title: ‘Hot Fun In The Summertime,’ a 1969 No. 1 hit by Sly & The Family Stone, the great, oft-underrated mixed-race, mixed-gender soulsters. The track’s title is misleading: It’s not a romp, but a slow-churning pop tune. And it personifies a lazy summer day: The piano swoops in like the breeze, the melody feels like walking through the grass barefoot. That’s summer.

Along the same lines? ‘Saturday In The Park,’ a 1972 hit by Chicago. It’s bouncy, it’s bright, it’s incredibly fun to sing along to. It literally is a Saturday in the park set to music. And it just doesn’t feel the same when you play it in December. That’s summer.

(Full disclosure? I was mad for Chicago in middle school. They were the first band I felt was MINE. Something about them hit me: the joy of the horns, the cache of catchy tunes. They were better than critics allow us to remember — at least until they became hokey synth balladeers in the ’80s. But I digress.)

Another trait of perfect summer songs are those that affect me physically. Take ‘Tears Of A Clown,’ by The English Beat. In 1979, the British ska band covered the Motown classic by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, giving it a jittery, happy-jerky beat. And it’s one of the few songs where the moment it comes on, my legs feel like they should be dancing. That’s summer, too.

I get a similar feeling when ‘It’s A Hit’ by alt-rockers Rilo Kiley pops on my iPod. It jolts through my nervous system — the slowly building guitars; Jenny Lewis’ calm, wry vocals; the Burt Bacharach horns; the ‘shoo-bop, shoo-bop.’ It makes me happy. That also is summer.

But to me, more than anything else, a tip-top summer song makes me want to roll down the car window, feel the wind blast against my face and thrash my head along to the drumbeat. So my ultimate summer song? ‘Search And Destroy’ by The Stooges. Yep: Iggy Pop’s snarling band, the 1960s rockers who helped birth punk, crafted my favorite summer song. It bursts with energy, it’s beyond sexy and it boasts this opening line: ‘I’m a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm.’

That really is summer to me.

P.S. — Here is a cool live version of ‘Search’ when The Stooges were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame last year. My mother was aghast to see this group made it to the Rock Hall — that Iggy Pop should stand along the same lines as The Supremes. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

P.P.S. — Curious to see a creepy, modern-day performance of a standard summer song? Here’s the lead singer of Mungo Jerry reminding us of his one-hit wonder status just a few years ago:


  1. Summertime Blues – Eddie Cochran, One Summer Night – -Danleers, Summer time, Summer Time – Jamies, Summer Time – Sam Cooke (R’R version don’t remember who did the original. This guy should stick to writing stories of GC.