August 16, 1966
“Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful
#1 on the Billboard Hot 100, August 13 – September 2, 1966
The Beach Boys aside, few mid-’60s bands seemed as destined to record a summer standard as the Lovin’ Spoonful, what with the group’s sunny outlook and gentle humor, their country folk/Chuck Berry/jugband-influenced style of “good time music,” and John Sebastian’s eternally untroubled croon. Hits like “Daydream” and “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” were made for lying in the sunshine, easygoing enough so as not to break a sweat.
But the song that would end up soundtracking a million heat-wave montages (and become the band’s biggest hit) was one where the Spoonful traded their genial persona for something a little tougher. “Summer in the City” is the sound of the mercury rising one degree too high, the heat no longer pleasant but oppressive.
It takes as its setting the peculiar hell of a Manhattan summer: millions of people packed onto a concrete island, the air foul and tempers short. Even the most affable Greenwich Village hippie is liable to lose his cool.
The intro to “Summer in the City” builds dread via a trio of warning shots: a pair of long-short organ notes (anticipating the main theme from Jaws, another tale of warm-weather horror), each punctuated by a single snap of snare drum. Sebastian rips into the song like a guy who doesn’t irritate easily but who has finally been pushed over the edge. The band breathlessly courses through the verse, gathering momentum until the line “walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head” bursts forth in a single rush of syllables like a blast of steam from a pressure cooker.
The chorus shifts the setting from summer day to summer night. The introduction of the Autoharp to the song, a familiar presence from many of the Spoonful’s mellower hits, signals a bit of relief accompanying the drop in temperature. Even without the sun beating down, though, the chorus is scarcely less propulsive.
The difference is that the band has gone from fleeing the summer heat to pursuing a different, more enjoyable kind of warmth: someone with whom to spend the fleeting hours before the sun’s return. The chase extends into the second verse — “cool cat, lookin’ for a kitty” — but the intensity that read as frustration in the first verse now feels like exhilaration.
By the end of the second chorus, the band seems at last content, Sebastian’s voice softening as he repeats “in the summer, in the city.” This reverie, however, is soon interrupted by reminders of the irritants that will return with the sunlight. Some of these, like the car horn honks and jackhammer effects, are literal sounds of the summer street.
Others are more suggestive: the start-stop traffic rhythm of the guitar/keyboards combo; the sustained organ note, piercing like a sunbeam directly to the eye; the mirage-like haze of the keyboards bathed in reverb. The reprise of the first verse confirms the day’s return, and the song cycles at least twice more between day and night into the fade-out. But the intense heat no longer seems quite as threatening as it used to, now that there’s the night to look forward to.
A version of this essay previously appeared on No Hard Chords.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.