If you find yourself in a gritty bar in summer, downing pints with a couple of buddies and revelling in the fact that there indeed exists a season like this, my recommendation for an accompanying playlist would definitely include the Brooklyn-based post-punk band The Hold Steady. Any of their songs would be a shoo-in for such a list but none more than Constructive Summer, a track from their excellent 2008 album Stay Positive.

The Hold Steady’s Minneapolis-bred frontman Craig Finn’s whisky-drenched and spoken-sung vocals have lyrics that are often self-referential; Constructive Summer is about life in an obscure town where nothing ever happens, and about wanting to change all that. On it Finn sings (with a nod to the frontman of the British punk pioneers, the Clash): “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer/ I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher/ Getting older makes it harder to remember we are our only saviours/ We’re gonna build something, this summer."

Nearly universally, summer is holiday time. In the colder northern parts of the world, it is earnestly anticipated after bitter winter turns to spring. In hotter parts too, it is holiday time and people plan vacations and getaways as schools shut. So what’s better on a summer playlist than American shock rocker Alice Cooper’s title track from his 1972 album School’s Out? It’s a subversive shout-out at the school system that says school’s not just out for summer but “forever". A defiant song, School’s Out was instantly endearing when we heard it as teenagers bristling against authority, and its lyrics (“School’s out for summer/School’s out forever/School’s been blown to pieces") brought out the inner rebel in us.

Many people have done versions of Summertime, composed by George Gershwin in the mid-1930s for the opera Porgy And Bess. Originally, it was a lullaby in the opera, but, over the years, numerous artists have interpreted it with their own tweaks. There are versions by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone and even The Zombies, but my pick for a summer playlist would be the instrumental version that Miles Davis did in 1959. It’s from Davis’ jazz interpretation of Porgy And Bess on an album of the same name, and his trumpet sounds so sweet, spare and languorous on Summertime that it just has to feature on your summer playlist.

When the Rolling Stones released Emotional Rescue, their 15th album, in 1980, the title song with hues of disco climbed instantly to the top of the charts. The album, however, also has a gem of song titled Summer Romance. It’s actually about the impending end of a brief summer romance, an experience that is not uncommon. On it Mick Jagger sings: “Just a few days and you’ll be back in your school/I’ll be sitting around by the swimming pool/And you’ll be studying history and you’ll be down the gym/And I’ll be down the pub, probably playing pool and drinking." The imminent end of a romance isn’t exactly something that induces a happy mood but the Stones were able to make the song a fun one that fits neatly on an upbeat summer playlist.

In 1960, when Eddie Cochran died in a road accident, he was only 21, but his influence over rock, pop and country musical styles lasted much, much longer. The angst of youth on Summertime Blues, his song from 1958, makes it an evergreen tune (“I’m gonna raise a fuss, I’m gonna raise a holler/About a-workin’ all summer just to try to earn a dollar/Every time I call my baby, try to get a date/My boss says, no dice son, you gotta work late/Sometimes I wonder what I’m a-gonna do/But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues"). And despite the bluesy frustration of its lyrics, it’s a tune that can make you tap your summer flip-flops-shod feet.

The most iconic Led Zeppelin songs have all the band’s biggies—Jimmy Page (guitar), Robert Plant (vocals), John Paul Jones (bass and keyboards) and John Bonham (drummer)—firing on all cylinders, but there are the instrumental ones that also shine brightly. Page’s White Summer is one of those. He plays solo, and it is steeped in Arabic and Indian musical influences. There is a live version from a 1969 Paris concert that segues into another instrumental, Black Mountain Side, which must find its place on any summer playlist.

Lyrics aren’t the jam band Phish’s strongest suit. They excel instead in their instrumental virtuosity. But on Summer Of ‘89, lead guitarist and vocalist Trey Anastasio sings an intimate ode to his wife, reminiscing about their enduring love and itinerant life on the road. You are unlikely to find Summer Of ‘89 on streaming services or on Phish’s official albums; you will have to look for it on recordings of their live gigs, especially a 2010 gig at the Comcast Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut.

There are dozens of other summer-themed songs that could vie for a spot on a playlist. Such as the Grateful Dead’s Black Muddy River, which has lyricist Robert Hunter’s brilliant lines: “When the last rose of summer pricks my finger/And the hot sun chills me to the bone/When I can’t hear the song for the singer/And I can’t tell my pillow from a stone/I will walk alone by the black muddy river/And sing me a song of my own/I will walk alone by the black muddy river/And sing me a song of my own." Or on Summer In The City by The Lovin’ Spoonful, the New York band that formed in the mid-1960s, which features street noises of a bustling city and catchy lyrics—there’s a black and white video of the song from 1966 that sounds and looks astonishingly timeless more than half a century later.

There’s also a cover version of it by the late Joe Cocker. Summer songs can be contagious.


Five tracks to bookend your week

1. ‘Constructive Summer’ by The Hold Steady from ‘Stay Positive’

2. ‘Summertime’ by Miles Davis from ‘Porgy And Bess’

3. ‘White Summer/Black Mountain Side’ from the Led Zeppelin Boxed Set

4. ‘Black Muddy River’ by the Grateful Dead from ‘In The Dark’

5. ‘Summer Romance’ by the Rolling Stones from ‘Emotional Rescue’

 First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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