“Summertime Blues” is a song premised on an oxymoron: Isn’t summer a time of liberation, irresponsibility, romantic potential?
Not here it isn’t. On “Summertime Blues,” released sixty years ago, Eddie Cochran, who wrote it with Jerry Capehart, is trapped in a cycle of frustration. It is the summer of his discontent. He needs to work to make money, but then he doesn’t have the time to spend with his girlfriend, and when he skips out on his job, his parents take away his access to the family car; no one is on his side. He considers making an appeal to the United Nations (although presumably Dag Hammarskjöld had more pressing matters on his desk), and goes to see his congressman, but that gets him nowhere. “There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues,” he decides. The record is like a hot rod that lurches forward for a few seconds, then stalls, lurches again, stalls, with a repetitive eight-note riff that punctuates all of Eddie’s complaints. It has three scenes, three chances to turn things around, but each time it ends up in the same place: “There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.” Cochran might as well be waiting for Godot.
It was the only top 10 single Cochran had in his brief career, his breakthrough song. By 1958, he’d already appeared in a couple of movies, The Girl Can’t Help It and Untamed Youth (vehicles for Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren, respectively), and released a few charting 45s on Liberty (the top 20 hit “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” “Drive In Show” and “Jeanie Jeanie Jeanie,” the latter a rockabilly cousin to Little Richard’s “Jenny Jenny”), but it was “Summertime Blues” that established his musical character, a pop James Dean: he was a teenager hopped-up with adrenaline, eager to bust loose. “C’mon Everybody,” “Somethin’ Else,” “Nervous Breakdown” all had irrepressible impudence, a streak of bad boy. If there were obstacles, and there were, he’d forge ahead. He’d raise a fuss. What else could he do?
There were a bunch of songs in ’58 that grumbled in protest. In the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak,” parents barrage the singer with a litany of chores; the protagonist of the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job”—an adult, presumably, because his woman is the one who’s bugging him—is harangued about being unemployed. There were “Problems” by the Everly Brothers (“Can’t get the car my marks ain’t been so good”) and “Gas Money” by Jan & Arnie (“Well I done run out of bread/And that’s the only thing I dread”). The beleaguered and persecuted hero of “Summertime Blues” fit right in, except by all rights he should have been living it up and splashing around like the Jamies in that other big “summer” song of ’58, “Summertime Summertime”: “We’ll go swimmin’ every day/No time to work just time for play.” No swimmin’ for Eddie. He’s stranded.
Cochran died in a car crash less than two years after “Summertime Blues” cracked the Billboard chart, but the song quickly became a rock standard, and all these summers later, it’s still an archetypal protest song. Not everyone who’s sung it is a teenager, not even close, but everyone taps into its exaggerated adolescent sense of injustice (it’s not fair!) and nearly everyone gets that, really, the song is pretty funny, with the comically deep voice of authority shooting down the singer at each turn, the car privileges behind revoked, the absurd threat to involve the U.N. to settle the dispute. In the first half of the ’60s “Summertime Blues” turned up on the debut album by the Beach Boys (and what is “Fun, Fun, Fun” but a kind of turn-the-tables sequel, where the confiscation of the dad’s T-Bird is no big deal?), on a live Dick Dale album, and by Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vee, and probably some other Bobbys that don’t come to mind at the moment. Joe Meek produced a version by Heinz, and Jack Nitzsche arranged the one by Jimmy Griffin.
The second hit-single version came out almost a decade after Cochran’s, by Blue Cheer. If Cochran’s was a hot rod, this was a thundering, sputtering, fume-expelling truck, as this West Coast psychedelic power trio in the mold of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience (who also did “Summertime Blues” on occasion) turned irritation into a kind of road rage, with singer Dickie Peterson throwing a tantrum and Leigh Stephens coaxing agonized phrases out of his guitar. It was excessive and brilliant in its lack of subtlety, and it became the hardest rock record to hit the charts up to that point, peaking at number 14. But no band relied more on the pent-up aggression of “Summertime Blues” than the Who. It was a key part of their set during (and after) the period when they were, and I say this with no equivocation, the Best Live Band on the Planet (1967–1969). What they saw in the song was a predecessor to such Townshend angst-anthems as “I Can’t Explain” and “My Generation,” and there was nothing more exciting on a rock stage than the Who bashing away at it. They played it at the Monterey Pop Festival and at Woodstock; it’s on Live at Leeds and, along with two other Cochran songs, on the recently released set from the Fillmore East in April 1968.
And the “Summertime Blues” saga kept getting revisited. By T. Rex, and by Motorhead. By the Flying Lizards, and by Alan Jackson (a #1 country hit). Joan Jett made it sound like glam-punk, Rush like prog-metal. The Rolling Stones took a (not-released: it’s kind of mess) stab at it in the studio. It’s been made into perky country-pop by Olivia Newton-John, and replicated faithfully by Brian Setzer as Cochran in La Bamba. Tom Petty did it with his band Mudcrutch and it’s been a key cover in the repertoire of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band through the decades (most energetically on their 1978 tour). Of course Springsteen adopted it: the themes are like a template for him. “Workin’ all summer just to try and earn a dollar,” “Well my mom ‘n papa told me, son, you gotta make some money/If you want to use the car to go ridin’ next Sunday.” (Without a car, what are the possibilities for escape?) The joke about the dismissive congressman. As recently as 2016, Springsteen and his band were still doing “Summertime Blues.” Because as anyone can tell you, there still ain’t no cure.