Instant Nostalgia, Not Quite Planned In Advance

The big summer hit, the summery pop song, the type of thing you listen to when you’re out BBQing or on the beach or merrily killing all the mosquitoes around you that adore your very presence, etc. We’ve all got our nominees and the reasons all vary, and none of that is surprising. How we all deal with them after the summer of fun or love or drugs or whatever is where things start to change, though it’s still usually the case that mention of The Big Summer Hit will usually provide a charge for all. Keep in mind that when I saw the “Hot in Herre” video for the first time last year, though, it was still getting out of winter in New Zealand, so context is all.

In my case my choices are actually full albums, and I find I just can’t hear them at any other time during the year. I have enough music now that I could cycle through everything and probably not hear stuff more than once a year anyway, I admit, but in this case it’s more of an intertwined feeling. I don’t feel any desire to listen to them at any other time but summer, while I can’t have actually had a summer without playing them at least once. They’re all fixed for me in a certain time and place as well, the summer of 1989, though only one came out then, and none are really my favorite records of that year or after. But they call up memories, sometimes vague, sometimes fixed, and often good.

The time and place for me would have been the last couple of months at my freshman year of UCLA, the intervening summer — the last time I actually spent more than a week or two at home — and then moving into my new apartment back in LA. It’s a beautiful muddle, that mix of locales, but I seem to always remember the weather the most, and mostly LA’s rather than my hometown of San Diego’s — dry but not humid, hot but not soul-sucking, somehow vibrant, somehow alive, with a certain tang in the air. Sure, part of this might seem like the usual looking-backward pretend-you’re-writing-“The Prelude” to-be-young-was-very-heaven hoohah, but I figure those feelings are after all there for a reason, and ultimately I don’t really want to be eighteen again.

I don’t remember when I first heard them all, actually — in fact one of them came out towards the end of summer, so the memories I have of hearing it in the height of summer is a trick of the mind that I’d rather not debunk, I prefer my flawed sense more than the real thing. But all the albums call to mind people, incidents, sudden moments — looking out from my dorm window, sixth floor on a building on a hill, down into Westwood and beyond as a sunset slowly took place, yakking with friends at the campus radio station, moving into a new spot and wondering where the heck my glasses had gotten to. Some of the choices might seem obvious or pedestrian, but they all work for me, as my truest endless summer.

The first is the most obvious — XTC’s Skylarking. It held such a pride of place among late eighties alt-culture circles – mine, at least – that I couldn’t but get interested in them, and though I had heard about “Dear God” a year or two before, this was the first time I was actually listening. In the end there’s a lot of other albums of theirs I enjoyed more — at the time it was English Settlement that was the main rival. But given that the album started out with “Summer’s Cauldron” and talks about seasons and cycles and all that, it fits in very well with a sun-drenched setting. I think it’s actually more down to Todd Rundgren’s production, though — if all the stories are true, he apparently dreamed what the songs and album would sound like and told the band what that would involve. Sorta like how the Aphex Twin was reputed to work except it sounds like Rundgren was annoyed he had to work with fleshy beings as his instruments.

But the reason why Rundgren makes it work is that it’s such a bright album even at its seemingly darkest moments — the artificially pure and wondrous crispness that I recall once described as the eighties’ best hallmark, the sense of the cocaine actually flashing off the laser beam as the CD spun. Which of course must have at least slightly disconcerted Andy Partridge and company, but as whatever meaning the songs once might have had for me sinks into a past the sounds remain: the looped synth bird chirp that kicks things off and seems to crop up time and again, the sparkles on the chorus of “The Meeting Place,” the swirling, stirring string surge on “Sacrificial Bonfire,” the way that “Earn Enough for Us” plays a more straightforward guitar/pop card but does so with a rich breadth, like Rundgren wanted to fill all the tracks (and probably did). It’s a concept album where the best concept was done in the mixing, a crisp computer animation for a season rather than a blurry haze.

A bit more of the blur cropped up in the Primitives’ Pure. At the time I didn’t really know about the Jesus and Mary Chain beyond a mention here and there. So when I heard the Primitives I was more thinking of the various Blondie comparisons, because them I knew from my callow youth and all. Turns out they didn’t have anywhere near Blondie’s ability to do all things for all people but they were nonetheless very pop and very good and I still like the early singles comp and the Lovely album and all that.

By the time of Pure the Primitives had smoothed out a few of the rough edges, but they were still loud when they wanted to be and the whole album is actually probably their best, energetic, loud, fun, the type of pure pop that makes some people happy by default but also works outside of the context that too many people want to keep it trapped in. I can easily hear songs like “Way Behind Me” and “Secrets” shimmering out of a radio somewhere in a car driving along to who knows where, top down along the coastal highway (and I say this without a car to imagine it happening in). But the summer stuff is really all about the start of the album, and there’s a three song sequence that is just sweetly, simply breathtaking, starting with “Outside,” a two-minute touch of psych pop holding to Wire’s principle of having just enough in a song and no more. There’s the slightly surfy guitar line, a bit of extra glaze, a touch of flute, Tracey’s singing, a sudden stop. At the end of the sequence is “Shine,” sung by the lead feller in the band, an invocation to a morning sun that darn well feels like a sunrise, a slow rising light that’s a steady drift upwards and out. But “Summer Rain” is smack dab in the middle and, well, what more is needed? Like “Shine” it adds more and more to the song as it goes, an arrangement that gets all the more full without losing the pace, Tracey invoking the titular object and just going out and having a dreamy laugh in an August cloudburst.

Yet the album of the three that’s the most dear to my heart these days is the one that has the least obvious tie to summer at all, aside from maybe a lyric or two about beaches. But the Dead Milkmen weren’t about summers so much as they were about snottiness, or so reports, good and bad, would have you believe about them and their debut album Big Lizard in My Backyard. Thing is, there’s so much attention focused on the lyrics and the way Rodney Anonymous sang ’em that there’s almost a running belief that there’s nothing else to the band, but if that were the case Rodney would have been doing things Neil Hamburger-style (as opposed to Henry Rollins-style or the like). And even if “Bitchin’ Camaro” is mostly a spoken-word goof over a sorta jazz blues stroll for most of its length there’s still a chorus and verse, but that’s all been nicely shoehorned towards the end.

So why summer and why the memories and why like this album so much? Really, I don’t know. I just remember being amused by the cover, figured the first album was where I should start, bought it and kept listening to it. It was already a few years old and I have no real idea where or how or why the album fit into anything specifically of its time and place, Philadelphia’s indie scene 1985 or however they should be catalogued. I still don’t, the whole warp and woof of 80s Amerindie has always been something I’ve known a lot about but never really felt emotionally as a lodestone. I just know I like how this album feels — short songs, warm performances, the whole thing a fun blast and not just because there are titles like “Gorilla Girl” and “Right Wing Pigeons” and even the theoretically inexcusable “Takin’ Retards to the Zoo.” It’s good time music of its own sort, not a bar band or a timekiller or dreams of being the greatest thing ever, just four folks and their instruments — not the only way to make something so cozy and memorable but on that album they just seemed to stumble across it. When they let some of their hearts bubble up as well — “Dean’s Dream” is just that, a story about a girl with long blonde hair that’s sung so winningly and wistfully — it’s all the more fun, an appropriate feeling for summer’s glazed beauty.

And I always loved the way it ended, on CD at least, with a bonus track (such were the days), “Tugena.” It’s an instrumental, there’s seemingly nothing to it, just the band jamming away while various random vocal tape samples are used and abused, slowed down, sped up, eventually descending into random cackles while earlier there’s a strange bit about some person asking ‘do you sell punk rock here?’ and being denied. Yet there’s enough structure to it to differentiate between nonexistent verses and choruses, and the whole thing to my mind calls up lazy afternoons maybe splashing around in a river or lake somewhere, sun peeking through leaves, random conversations about whatever the hell. It wasn’t like I was even doing much of that during that summer of 1989, actually, but somehow that song sounds like what it should all be about, somewhere in a corner of my mind and my time on this planet.