Seven Great Summer Driving Songs, and Six Misses

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 11, 2015

Ah, summer songs. The best ones are instantly evocative of time, place, sandy shoes and hot vinyl car seats. The worst ones, well, they were flogged to death by repetition and make me dive for another preset, whatever season they start blaring out of the speakers.

First, seven good ones.

“Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. This was the summer song of 1969, at a time when songs had to penetrate through your car’s tinny AM radio speaker. No song does that better than John Fogerty’s songwriting masterpiece. There are more than 20 cover versions, including a country take by Jerry Lee Lewis. The lyric "there's a bad moon on the rise" is frequently misheard as "there’s a bathroom on the right."

“In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry. I remember being by the beach in the summer of 1970, a new high school graduate, mooning over a pair of girls I’d later get to know better. This was playing, as it was everywhere then. “In the Summertime” is a pre-rock skiffle tune with hint of ska, and all the better for it. Banjos in a hit! Mumford and Sons are spiritual descendants. It still sounds good enough to occupy #20 on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest summer songs.

“Summertime” by George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward (who wrote the lyrics). There are approximately 25,000 versions of this song, but let’s go with Billie Holiday’s, the first version to make the charts in 1936. The song was written for “Porgy and Bess” in 1933, and it’s still going strong more than eighty years later. I never get tired of it, or indeed most of the stuff in the Great American Songbook.

“Groovin’” by The Young Rascals. Even though this chill-out conga-led jam doesn’t specifically mention summer, it definitively evokes it. This song came out at the end of July, 1967. That was the summer the Detroit riots exploded, and, thankfully, "Groovin'" cooled the nation down better than a GE electric fan. The same group’s “It’s a Beautiful Morning” is a more obvious summer song, but I’m still going with “Groovin’.”

“Under the Boardwalk” by the Drifters and “Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison. When the sun beats down and heats up the tenement roof so much that you’ll wish your tired feet were fireproof, where are you gonna go? “Under the boardwalk, down by the sea/On a blanket with my baby is where I'll be.” So sings the New York bards in a song penned by the famous songwriting duo of Lieber and Stoller. Sadly, the Drifters' later lead singer Ben E. King just passed away. “Brown-Eyed Girl” locates a very similar place for covert summer loving: “Making love in the green grass/Behind the stadium with you/My brown-eyed girl.”

“Summer in the City” by The Lovin’ Spoonful. Number one during the summer of 1966. I always loved the jackhammer sound effects on this song, because dirty old lower Manhattan was always under construction in those hot summer days. And John Sebastian, a folkie turned rocker like Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, was never better than when he opened with, “Hot town, summer in the city/Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty/ Been down, isn't it a pity/ Doesn't seem to be a shadow in the city/ All around, people looking half dead/Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head.”

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys. I’m skipping the obvious choices—“Surfin’ USA,” “California Girls,” “I Get Around,” in favor of the transcendent piece of pop that opens the group’s 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is about teenage summers when you can’t grow up fast enough. You had to get married in those days. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?/Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long.” In a gentler age, this was a Top Ten song. Listen to this, then go out and see Love and Mercy, the biography of the band's mercurial and deeply troubled lead singer, Brian Wilson.

Honorable mentions: “Saturday in the Park” by Chicago; “A Summer Song” by Chad and Jeremy; "Summer" by War; “Airplanes” by B.o.B featuring Hayley Williams; “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” by Nat King Cole; and “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran-- with alternate versions by The Who, Blue Cheer and, believe it or not, Alan Jackson.

And here are six summer misses, tension headaches in the making.

“California Gurls” by Katy Perry (featuring Snoop Dog). This grated on me almost immediately, ruining the summer of 2010. Seeing her do this song live—at a Volkswagen Jetta debut event, no less—didn’t improve my outlook. The Beach Boys she ain’t, though she blatantly rips off their oeuvre. The dumbo chorus is an assault. I’ll melt her popsicle. The following video has been seen 173 million times, so there's no accounting for taste.

“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. Singers are always aghast when I turn thumbs down on this artist, because she’s such a technically “good” vocalist, but, well... screw that. She’s bombastically bad and overblown in every way, and her recent pilgrimage to Vegas was not a moment too soon. Here, she infects James Cameron’s blockbuster 1997 Titanic with a sappy love theme—that went straight up the charts to Number One. Note the half-hearted Celtic overtones.

“Umbrella” by Rihanna (featuring Jay-Z). An aural assault from the summer of 2007. My kids knew they could torture me with this one. Where was Amnesty International when I needed them?

“Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett. I don’t actually hate this 1977 song, or at least I didn’t, but hearing it sung drunkenly by a bunch of yahoos in a Maui parrot bar killed it forever for me. And that’s even without knowing the commercial tie-ins. Let’s see, Margaritaville has been used as the name for….a “casual dining” chain peddling Buffett merch; a satellite radio station; a margarita mix, tequila, malt beverages and beer; chips and salsa and chicken wings; beachwear and beach furniture; and more. No wonder Jimmy can afford to waste away in some high-priced shore town.

“Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. Never has a girl thrown herself at a boy to greater profit than in this September 2012 release. The clueless chorus repeats so many times you’ll be throwing something, too. The video has 689 million views.

“Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus. Just think, if this idiotic piece of pop (masquerading as “country”) hadn’t broken big after its release in March 1992, there would have been no Hannah Montana, and likely no music career for Miley, the man’s daughter. Can we press rewind, please?

Honorable mentions: “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” by Whitney Houston; “SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake; “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” by Bryan Hyland.

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