As with classical music, it has been a recurrent characteristic of songs that they easily lend themselves to the changes of the seasons, both lyrically and musically. Sometimes, the result can be surprisingly effective: Bettye Lavette’s powerful performance of Through the Winter is so desolate it makes the listener feel as bleak as the title. At other times, the association of song and season can be a bit, well, obvious. In the Chi-lites’ Coldest Day Of My Life, the lines “I remember, oh, yeah, the signs of springtime. There were birds, music everywhere “ are accompanied by a flute chirruping like a blue bird in a Disney cartoon.
The same applies to places and seasons. For various reasons - to do with geography, cultural association or just the peak time when tourists go there – some cities are musically linked more with one season than another. Paris and springtime, Rome and summer. Yet what is striking is how the musical images raised by summer, in particular, can change when linked to particular places. Take Greece, for example. The sub-Abba song In the Summer Sun of Greece by A La Carte is typical of musical visions of Greece - all orange groves, sparkling sea and sunshine. If, however, you focused in and imagined that there was such a song called Summer in Athens, the mood would be different. It might have to deal with darting from cafe to cafe to avoid the heat, standing in a bad-tempered queue of backpackers to get a glimpse of a bit of the Acropolis and wondering who on earth might buy the bear that has been hanging outside a butcher’s window for at least a week.
To some extent the same sort of difference can be found in summer songs of England and London. Summery songs about England tend to be about the countryside or seaside, like Seaside Shuffle or In the Summertime. Songs about summer in London, however, are more ambivalent. Madness described 'Summer in London' in A Day On The Town with a characteristic cynical perception - seeing the union jack t-shirts and mugs and £6 ice cream cones.: “Chip on your shoulder, chips in your mouth, Can you see the old lady, with tickets to tout. Getting the tourists into their traps, taking their money, the shirts off their backs”. The Pogues had a downright depressing picture in Dark Streets of London: “And every time that I look on the first day of summer takes me back to the place where they gave ECT, and the drugged up psychos with death in their eyes and how all of this really means nothing to me”.
For the outsider, summer in New York, however, carries a more stereotyped set of images gleaned from TV shows and films set in the city: sticky heat and rising tempers as electricity cuts hit, kids splashing in the jets of a sprinkler fire hydrant, a cop wiping sweat off his head as taxi sirens blare. The song here, Summer in The City, neatly captures that picture and mood, with its driving rhythm, pounding drums , sounds of traffic and descriptive lyrics; “All around, people looking half dead, walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head”. The song has been covered a number of times - by Joe Cocker and Quincy Jones amongst others - and has been used as background music in a number of adverts and films, including Die Hard: With a Vengeance: not surprisingly perhaps as there is a cinematic element to the song. The version here is the original one from 1966 by New York group The Lovin’ Spoonful , a contrast to their more familiar good-time and laid-back summery feel. In a relatively brief period of time in the mid-sixties, the group notched up an impressive number of John Sebastian-penned songs that remain timeless, with an instant feel-good effect: their first big hit, Do You Believe in Magic, with the priceless lines “I’d tell you about the magic , it’ll free your soul but it's like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll”; You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice (I would have liked you anyway); and a dozen more. (Sebastian was also a skilled harmonica player and can be heard to good effect on Judy Collins’ Thirsty Boots).
In the clip below, the group are miming. That is not unusual but it is an example of a performance when it is obvious that the act are miming through deliberate intent: guitarist Zal Yanovsky is having a conversation at one point. Some acts seemed to do this, possibly to show their disapproval of having to mime as it implied a slight on their capabilities. Guitars remained slung at the side, drumsticks hit the air, at times signs saying ‘We are miming’ were held up. This was different from those occasions when a technical hitch left an unfortunate act stranded and mouthing like a fish out of water. One such time was All About Eve performing Martha’s Harbour on Top of the Pops in 1988, when the group were unable to hear the backing track and sat patiently waiting for it to start.
There is another song - Up On the Roof - that does not actually mention New York but was clearly inspired by it and which acts as a neat counterpoint to Summer in the City – it takes the listener to rooftop level above the traffic noise and jackhammers drilling in the road. It was a Goffin/Carole King song - written in the Brill Buildings on Broadway that remain a landmark on the bus tours round New York - and was originally a USA hit for the Drifters in 1962. There have been several versions since, including Carole King herself, James Taylor and Ike and Tina Turner but oddly the hits of the song in the UK have been from unlikely sources. Singer-songwriter/entertainer Kenny Lynch had the first hit in 1962, followed in 1995 with a Number 1 by TV actors Robson and Jerome, the video of the song showing them prancing about against a Manhattan skyline with - being British-an obligatory afternoon cup of tea. Perhaps the most sublime version, however, was by another New York singer-songwriter, Laura Nyro, capturing hustle and bustle and serenity in 3 minutes: ironically for a prolific songwriter in her own right, this was her only hit as a performer.
Hot town, summer in the city. The words somehow imply the need to escape somewhere – to the roof top in New York, to the relative cool of a museum or café in Athens, to the shade of a willow tree in London’s Regents Park. Waiting for the autumn leaves to start to fall.
Link to song