We’ll get the obvious out of the way: Yes, Bryan Adams was still a little kid in 1969. And if you think about it too deeply, it’s hard to watch a certified rock star making serious money on concert tickets waxing nostalgic about being in a failed high school band that didn’t get anywhere. But “Summer of ’69” isn’t about that summer, which is its genius. It’s about yours.
Can anyone listen to the line “standin’ on your mama’s porch” and not recall a girl from high school, tentatively waiting for her favorite guy to drive up? In my mind, she’s outside a little white house on a New Jersey street, black permed hair, white top, black shirt. There’s a green swing on the porch. I should point out that absolutely none of those images were actually part of my life. The song’s making me nostalgic for things that never happened.
When Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance got together in the winter of ’84 to create the song, nostalgia was clearly on their minds, nostalgia for something that has passed. 1969, the last year of the sixties, a decade that itself would not last forever. There was such a thing for 60s nostalgia practically as soon as the 70s began, and by the eighties people were ready. Think of 80s icon Tiffany, whose big hit, “I Think We’re Alone Now”, was a cover of a 1967 Shondells tune “I Think We’re Alone Now”.
Or Paul Davis’ 1982 tune “’65 Love Affair”, complete with upbeat cheerleaders chanting. Or go back even earlier and think of “American Graffiti”, a film wall-to-wall with old favorites on the soundtrack, whose poster asked 1970s viewers, “Where were you in ’62?” It’s hard to consider the specificity of the years and not bring it all back to Bryan Adams’ big hit. Something was missing in peoples’ lives, and wherever it was now, it was around in the 1960s.
Indeed, “Summer of ’69” is no stranger to taking music from the past, itself; co-writer Vallance claims to give a nod to twelve-string electric guitar breaks employed by the Beatles, the Byrds and the Searchers, with lyrics inspired by contemporary fare like Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” and Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”. (Ironically, “Summer of ’69” would often be reviewed as decidedly Springsteenian, if there is such a word, and numerous comparisons would be drawn between this and Bruce’s blue-collar Garden State anthems.)
The memories of the music, too, are floating in our minds in the mythical “Summer of ’69”. It doesn’t matter that Bryan Adams was only nine at the time; most of his audience probably hadn’t been born yet. It’s not the best days of his life they’re interested in, but their own.
The song’s power still must have a pretty good hold on people if more modern musicians like Bowling for Soup and MxPx have covered it for their own. (And what do you think a noted Bryan Adams cover band based in Canada calls itself?) It’s hard to think that it never hit #1 either in the States or in Britain, or that Vallance and Adams were initially less than fond of the final result.
It doesn’t hurt its popularity, of course, that there’s a sexual act in the title. It’s not supposed to sound that way. We’re told.
It’s sort of embarassing to listen to “Summer of ’69” at full blast. It’s also sort of fun. There was a time and a place for that hokey sort of musical exuberance, and it was the 80s. We’ll never get that back. Or is that just a little more nostalgia…