Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Summertime: Classic summer songs

Music is the sound of holiday and especially the sound of holiday remembered. It's why the classic song has that much greater power than one of the current day. Fun in the sun of summers past and happy days, it is a song that can spark off the memories as much as a photo album can or spark off nostalgia as much as the smell from a grill can. 

Holiday music of today can have the same trivial frivolity of, say, a "Beach Baby Beach", but it is dominated by two genres which share a common lineage - club and chill. And of these, chill, despite its inoffensiveness, has acquired a ubiquity, predictability and familiarity that has left it hanging limply from the white, sanitised walls of the "chill" bar. Unattended to because no one actually listens to it, chill has become muzak wallpaper, deprived of the hippyish, beachside, sunsetting or sunrising ecstasy of Ibiza whence it originated in the '80s.

The classic, on the other hand, creates an emotion that catches the breath and transports you back to when a song, like the holiday itself, seemed to be suspended in time, suspended under the sun of a long, hot summer; moments of laughter, splashing, diving, dancing, all frozen like an ice-cool drink in a lyric, a melody or harmony.

Arguably, George Gershwin invented the summer classic, but "Summertime" was not exactly written with days by the beach in mind. It is the title that offers the allusion to holidays. As such, therefore, in order to be a summer classic, the word summer has to be somewhere in the title. Or does it?

The answer is yes and no. The greatest summer-classic song of all time shares its title with Gershwin's. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air (aka Will Smith) came up with the perfect, languid dance rhythm, sprinkled it with unforgettable imagery and sense provocation ("the smell from a grill", "the temperature's about 88") and borrowed the looking-at-girls summertime cruising of The Beach Boys, which had done more than anything to establish the summer-classic genre three decades before.

Almost any song you care to think of by The Beach Boys was a summer classic. Whether it was the euphoric burst of Brian Wilson's vocal on "Wouldn't It Be Nice" or the falsetto harmonies of "All Summer Long" (which was to become the song at the end of one of the ultimate summer films, "American Graffiti"), a Beach Boys song conjured up the atmosphere of sun, sand and sea. Indeed, with roots in surfing and California's beaches, an argument can be made for The Beach Boys having been the music of early mass tourism and even perhaps of having helped to inspire it.

While Brian Wilson was slowly going crazy, in 1967 there was the first summer of love, which, for all that you would have expected it to have produced otherwise, was notable for a song which was the total antithesis of the normal summer tune. "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" couldn't, in its title alone, have been further away from what people now required from a holiday.

Though Procol Harum had a monster hit, usual summer-classic criteria would exclude it from the ranks of the classic. It was just simply too miserable. Which was not the case when the second summer of love came along (two summers, if one is being strictly accurate). There was little chance of there being any misery. Why? In a word, ecstasy.

If you weren't loved-up in 1989, then you certainly weren't in Ibiza. But for all that this was the second summer of love - and perhaps it was just the sheer onslaught of music that emerged that year - it's hard to pinpoint any obvious summer classics: "Ride On Time", "Back To Life" perhaps. 

The onslaught since technology enabled pretty much anyone to make music has created bodies of work that are all but impossible to keep track of. Back in the day, when there was far less music, classics stood out. They were more easily identifiable with a moment in time, and so when Will Smith had his hit in 1991 (and the song contained the line "think of the summers of the past"), the second "Summertime" perhaps marked the last moment of the summer classic. Nowadays, it is lost in the weight of musical output, becoming a blur like all that chill. And somewhere in Majorca, there will be a chill bar that is playing what it calls a chill tune. It will be "Summer Madness". Kool & The Gang, 1974. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince reprised it.

Any comments to please.

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