Friday, February 1, 2008

Summertime After Dark

(Versión en español:

When I was five years old, I was not a very discriminating listener. That’s why half of the 45s my Uncle Tom bought for me didn’t get dumped in the trash. I’d like to think I was open-minded and saw value in everyone’s attempts at musical expression. My keeping all the 45s I received as gifts doesn’t mean I gave them all equal playing time, though.

The B side of Epic 45 5-9299, “When the Sun Goes Down” by the Jamies, struck five-year-old caithiseach as a far better tune than the A side, “Snow Train.” For one thing, “Snow Train” was a winter song, and while I loved Christmas and making snowmen, who would want to play a song about winter in the summer? That was a dumb idea. And while trains were cool (my mother’s father was an engineer for the EJ&E railroad), what was a Snow Train? If the songwriter, Sherm Feller, couldn’t sell that corny idea to a little kid, how could the Jamies sell it to the hip teens who had found the saucy lyrics of “Summertime, Summertime” so attractive?

The hip teens ignored the winter sequel, of course. But I wonder what might have happened if DJs had flipped the 45 over and begun to play “When the Sun Goes Down.” Epic was big enough to work the B side of the 45 when the A side tanked, so maybe they tried, and the B side was also a flop.

“Summertime, Summertime” survived on a sparse arrangement (harpsichord and someone beating on a cardboard box with his hands), thanks to clever lyrics. This second single required a typical pop arrangement to attract what little audience it drew. I believe, frankly, that the perceived need for a sequel to the hit, and the route taken to create that sequel, doomed the Jamies.

Sherm Feller wrote “Snow Train” by himself. Apart from writing a song that had a lot in common with late-1950s Christmas recordings and thus was sentenced to two weeks of annual sales, the lyrics are not particularly evocative. Here’s the entire song:

Here comes the Snow Train!
(tepid yay from the Jamies and train whistle)
Snow Train, Snow Train, merry merry merry go-go-go train
Snow Train, Snow Train’s on the way
Up hills, down trails, stocking caps and flying pony tails
Snow Train, Snow Train’s on the way
Rain, rain, go away
Come again some April day
When you see the snow is flyin’
We’re all through with
summertime, summertime, summertime, summertime
Snow Train, Snow Train, rockin’ rollin’ ho-ho-ho train
Snow Train, Snow Train’s on the way
Key change and repeat all lyrics.

The song has nothing in common with the writing style of “Summertime, Summertime.” It has nothing in common with hit songs, either. That doesn’t make it a bad song, but it was never going to make anyone a lot of money.

The in-your-face rebellious nature of “Summertime, Summertime” made it a hit. Compare these lyrics, the first set from “When the Sun Goes Down” and the second from the hit. (I am tired of writing “Summertime, Summertime.” Sorry.)

“When the Sun Goes Down” (partial)
Early to bed and early to rise is what some people say
But the gals I know and all the guys, they just don’t live that way
The night was made for people like us who enjoy the finer things
We live our lives without the fuss that normal living brings

Come on, you sun, roll across the sky and sink into the west
’Cause I can hardly wait till I start living the life that’s best
When the sun goes down, I’ll be goin’ to town
Just to look around for you
Just to look around for you

“Summertime, Summertime” (partial)
Well shut them books and throw ’em away
Say goodbye to dull school days
Look alive and change your ways
It’s summertime . . .

Its time to head straight for the mills
Its time to live and have some thrills
Come along and have a ball
A regular free-for-all

Well are you comin’ or are you ain’t
You slowpokes are my one complaint
Hurry up before I faint
It’s summertime

Well I’m so happy that I could flip
Oh how I’d love to take a trip
I’m sorry, teacher, but zip your lip
Because it’s summertime

“When the Sun Goes Down” shows some of the liveliness of the hit, with the added feature of an internal rhyme in each phrase. Both “Sun” and the hit ooze teen perspective, whereas “Snow Train” is close to sterile in both teen appeal and Christmas validity.

The difference? Tom Jameson contributed his songwriting skills to both the hit and “Sun,” while he was absent from "Snow Train." An astute music detective might hypothesize that the hit was mostly written when Sherm Feller discovered the Jamies, and that “Sun” was mostly the work of the writer who gave the hit its cleverness.

If that hypothesis is correct, then Tom Jameson might have been a writing talent worth developing. As it is, he wrote just five tunes, four with Feller and one, “Evening Star,” by himself. That song’s lyrics would be a key to deciding who was the bold lyricist of the pair, but to be fair, I would also have to examine a number of Feller’s solo composition (42 total registered works). So far, I haven’t been able to gain access to other songs by either songwriter, so I hope to revisit the topic sometime this year.

I’m not knocking Sherm Feller’s legacy. It would make more sense (in the way things were done then) for the unestablished writer (Jameson) to give some credit for minor tweaks on a song to Feller, rather than Feller adding Jameson to the song’s writing credits out of kindness. Keep in mind that I am speculating on the song's authorship and could be completely wrong.

Now, take yourself back to a time in your personal music history when everything was new, and what was good was what you liked and not only what Rolling Stone endorsed. The Jamies, with their innocently broad Dorchester accent, seem to be having fun on this side. Listen to the song, and be sure to comment!

Next week, I’ll look at an artist who really is obscure. See you then, and thanks for reading.

Jamies, When the Sun Goes Down

When the Sun Goes Down label

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