How many times have you heard a song, analysed the lyrics and really thought you knew what it was about and then realise that it it’s not what you thought at all. I had a conversation with someone recently about Gloria Gaynor’s hit I Will Survive where, like most people, naturally, thought it was about a woman who sent her man packing and telling how she’ll get on fine without him, where it’s actually about the song’s writer, Dino Fekaris, getting fired by Motown where he was a staff writer. This week’s story is Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer which is not about leaving your youth behind and entering middle age.
The Boys of Summer is very much about looking back on a past relationship and wanting your ex back – wanting to return to what you had. Don co-wrote the song with Mike Campbell who is Tom Petty’s lead guitarist in the Heartbreakers. Mike explained how it all came about, “I used to have a 4 track machine in my house and I had just gotten a drum machine – when the Roger Linn drum machine first came out. I was playing around with that and came up with a rhythm. I made the demo on my little 4 track and I showed it to Tom (Petty), but at the time, the record we were working on, Southern Accents, didn’t really sound like anything that would fit into the album. The producer we were working with at the time, Jimmy Iovine, called me up one day and said he had spoken with Don, who I’d never met, and said that he was looking for songs. He gave me his number and I called him up and played it for him and he called me the next day and said he put it on in his car and had written these words and wanted to record it. Basically, he wanted to recreate the demo as close as we could. We ended up changing the key for the voice. We actually cut it in one key, did the whole record with overdubs and everything, and then he decided to change the key like a half step up or something, we had to do the whole record again, but it turned out pretty good.”
The title comes from a baseball book by Roger Kahn called Boys of Summer. The book is about The Brooklyn Dodgers, who broke the hearts of their fans when they moved to Los Angeles. The opening lyrics, ‘Nobody on the roads, nobody on the beach’ refer to the California coast as summer turns into fall. It becomes a much quieter place when the weather gets cold.
The rest of the first verse depicts how the subject is left behind because his ex has moved on but he hasn’t and how he still hangs onto hope: ‘But babe, I’m gonna get you back, I’m gonna show you what I’m made of / those days are gone forever I should just let them go’ The standout line in the song was the ‘deadhead sticker’, Don explained in an NME interview in 1985, “I was driving down the San Diego freeway and got passed by a $21,000 Cadillac Seville, the status symbol of the right-wing upper-middle-class American bourgeoisie – all the guys with the blue blazers with the crests and the grey pants – and there was this Grateful Dead ‘Deadhead’ bumper sticker on it!” Incidentally when the song was covered in 2003 by The Ataris, they changed that line to ‘I saw a black flag sticker on a Cadillac.” Black Flag is a hardcore punk band that Henry Rollins fronted.
In 1985, MTV held their second ever Video Awards ceremony and The Boys of Summer won Video of the Year, Best Director, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography. The video’s director was Jean-Baptiste Mondino, a French graphic designer who had made a video for the song Cargo de Nuit by a French singer named Axel Bauer. Mondino sent that video to Jeff Ayeroff, an executive at Henley’s label, Geffen. Ayeroff flew Mondino to California and had him meet with Henley, who was baffled by the pitch but decided to go with it and let Mondino do his thing. When Henley collected the award for Best Video, he admitted to having no idea what was going on when they shot the clip, but said that Mondino and his crew made “Southern California look like the South of France.” Apparently it was hard enough getting Henley to show up to awards because when The Eagles won the Album of the Year Grammy for Hotel California, Henley and the rest of the band skipped the ceremony completely.
The song reached number five in the Billboard chart and number 12 in the UK. It was re-issued in the UK in 1998 where astonishingly it reached number 12 again. The Ataris version petered out at number 49, but the biggest hit version came in early 2003 when Spanish DJ and producer, DJ Sammy took his version to number two, just four months after his chart-topping version of Bryan Adams’ rock classic, Heaven. If you have the DJ Sammy version on CD single, you’ll probably remember that it came with 11 different mixes. One was bad enough!
In 2010, Henley won a lawsuit against Chuck Devore who was running for a US Senate seat in California. Republican Devore used the song, alongside another Henley song All She Wants to do is Dance, in his advertising campaign which didn’t go down well with Henley. A California judge didn’t buy Devore’s defence that he was making “fair use” of the songs. Devore didn’t get the nomination, finishing third in the Republican primary.