Hello there! This week’s post will review the song Summertime Blues. This is one of the few hits by an early rocker whose tragic death cut short a very promising career. We will also discuss a cover of this song by one of the great long-lived British Invasion bands.
Eddie Cochran and Summertime Blues:
Eddie Cochran was a 50s rocker who died at such a young age that his early promise was nipped in the bud. However, he left behind a few songs that showed his great potential. Furthermore, both his personality and his guitar work proved inspirational to a whole generation of rockers, particularly in Britain.
In 1954 young Eddie Cochran dropped out of high school in his freshman year to try his luck in the music industry. Proficient on guitar, piano, drums and bass, the young Cochran became a valued session musician, and he also appeared in some of the earliest 50s rock movies such as the 1956 Jayne Mansfield film The Girl Can’t Help It. Below is a photo of the young Eddie Cochran, just out of high school.
Cochran seemed a natural as a young rockabilly star. Although he came off as a rebellious young teenager, he was in fact a thoroughly professional musician. He was one of the first rockers to highlight “power chords” on the acoustic and electric guitar, and even his earliest studio work featured sophisticated overdubbing techniques in the style of Les Paul. Cochran was also one of the early rock music singer-songwriters, and hence served as a role model for British Invasion groups.
Cochran teamed up with songwriter and manager Jerry Capehart, who signed him to Liberty Records. Unfortunately, Liberty saw Cochran as more of a crooner than a rocker, and put pressure on Cochran to produce insipid ballads; but Cochran did manage to record a few rocking songs, and his popularity from those songs and the rock movies garnered him an invitation for a 1960 British tour.
Cochran was reluctant to go out on tour, particularly since he was shaken by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in a plane crash in February 1959. Cochran wrote a song Three Stars in honor of the three musicians, and apparently he developed a morbid premonition that he would die young. As a result, he tried to concentrate on songwriting and studio work, but he gave in to the financial inducement of a tour in England.
On April 16, 1960, Cochran was traveling in a taxi during his British tour.
The speeding taxi blew a tire, lost control, and crashed into a lamp post … Cochran, who was seated in the center of the back seat, threw himself over his fiancée (songwriter Sharon Sheeley), to shield her, and was thrown out of the car when the door flew open. … he died at 4:10 p.m. the following day of severe head injuries.
Cochran was only 21. His fiancée Sharon Sheeley and fellow rocker Gene Vincent survived the crash, although Vincent suffered severe injuries to his legs that affected him for the rest of his life. Below is a memorial plaque at the site of the car crash, that is still maintained today.
By far Eddie Cochran’s biggest hit was Summertime Blues. The song was released in July 1958 and made it to #8 on the Billboard pop charts. The song describes the frustration of a teenager who is put upon by all the authority figures in his life. The lyrics are a wonderful expression of generational tension and the anti-authoritarian sentiments of the rock music revolution.
I’m gonna raise a fuss, I’m gonna raise a holler
About a workin’ all summer just to try to earn a dollar
… Well my mom and pop told me, “Son you gotta make some money,
If you want to use the car to go ridin’ next Sunday”
Well I didn’t go to work, told the boss I was sick
“Well you can’t use the car ’cause you didn’t work a lick”
[Chorus] Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do
But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues
Here is Cochran performing Summertime Blues on “Hadley’s Town Party,” in February 1959. This was a country and western show that originated from Pasadena, CA. On that day, Cochran was sick with the flu and still reeling from Buddy Holly’s death just four days earlier.
This rockabilly classic features two of the guitar techniques popularized by Cochran. The first is his ability to ‘bend’ a note on the guitar, and the second is his trademark power chords. On the record, Cochran supplies the bass lines spoken by the adults, although on this show they are spoken by a fellow musician. You can see the potential that caused some critics to compare Cochran favorably to Elvis, and why the song lyrics would appeal so viscerally to young rebels.
And here is the audio of Cochran’s single record of Summertime Blues on Spotify.
During Cochran’s lifetime he issued only a single record album and had just three hit songs. However, even this tragically brief career influenced an entire generation of rock musicians, particularly in Britain. When Paul McCartney met John Lennon, John was sufficiently impressed by Paul’s knowledge of the chords and words to Cochran’s song Twenty Flight Rock that he invited McCartney to join his band The Quarrymen. Also,
Jimi Hendrix performed “Summertime Blues” early in his career, and Pete Townshend of the Who was heavily influenced by Cochran’s guitar style … Glam rock artist Marc Bolan had his main Les Paul model refinished in a transparent orange to resemble the Gretsch 6120 guitar played by Cochran, who was his music hero. [Cochran] was also a heavy influence on the nascent rockabilly guitar legend Brian Setzer from Stray Cats, whom he portrayed in the film La Bamba.
In 1987 Eddie Cochran was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Who and Summertime Blues:
When I was a graduate student in England from 1965-69, one of my great joys was traveling from Oxford to experience ‘swinging London.’ And London was indeed swinging during that period. In addition to the music scene, this was a fascinating era for everything from mod fashion to art to performance. But for me the main attraction was the live music scene. One of the groups I saw after arriving in England in fall 1965 was The Who. After 50 years my memory is beginning to fade so I can’t remember all of the details, such as the venue for the performance – all I can say is that the place was pretty much a dump. However, the concert is etched in my mind as it marked a turning point in my life, and I came away with vivid memories of The Who. Below is an early photo of the group: from L, John Entwistle, Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey.
One of the first songs The Who performed was My Generation, which was then a brand-new single from the group. On that song bassist John Entwistle gave a virtuoso performance, by far the most impressive electric bass solo I had ever seen. I had been an earnest bass player in my hometown band, but I was never very proficient and stuck to simple three-chord songs with a rudimentary beat. So at a time when thousands of young kids were buying guitars and picking up rock chords, I went exactly the other way. Entwistle’s playing was so daunting that I resolved to retire and never again pick up the instrument.
At that time, there appeared to be three main reasons to watch The Who perform: wallpaper-peeling volume; aggression; and showmanship. Perhaps it was the crowded hall with its genuinely crappy acoustics; perhaps I was standing directly in front of the guitar amplifier. Whatever, the sound was truly ear-splitting and was doubly impressive when combined with the extreme distortion from the feedback. The Who were among the first groups to utilize the great Marshall stacks amplifiers that transformed live rock music, and both Entwistle and Townshend were pioneers in using feedback for dramatic effect. I was quite unfamiliar with the decibel levels. It seemed that my ears were still ringing and my hearing noticeably impaired, even days after the concert.
Another point of interest was to see if a fight would break out amongst the band mates. Anyone who has played with a combo will recall the tensions that can exist between musicians; however, I was totally unfamiliar with a group whose members openly claimed to have nothing in common and zero sense of comradeship. Perhaps this is a British thing, as the Davies brothers in The Kinks seemed to share a similar dynamic. Another thing the Kinks shared with The Who was a fascination with power chords, that they picked up from Eddie Cochran. Anyway, one of the defining characteristics of The Who appeared to be naked aggression, which could spill over to arguments or fights on any given evening.
A related question at the end of a Who concert was: would Keith Moon destroy his drum kit, and/or would Pete Townshend smash his guitar? Moon had taken to occasionally trashing his drums at the end of a concert. Once or twice, he even smuggled explosives into his drum kit and blew the whole thing up. But he had to stop this after accidentally stowing an excess of explosives, nearly causing serious injury to himself and his mates.
After the band’s last number, Townshend would often accentuate the feedback from the guitar. He would shake his axe and stand directly in front of the amplifiers, in an attempt to maximize the feedback. Finally, he would hold the guitar (generally a cheap one that he substituted for his valued instruments) overhead, before dashing it to the ground repeatedly, occasionally smashing it to smithereens. Townshend did not destroy his guitar at the concert I attended; but after he had done this a few times, audiences seemed to anticipate this and it became a regular event at a Who performance.
The third novel feature of The Who was the showmanship. Vocalist Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle were relatively sedate. I have never seen Daltrey’s chest covered during a performance, and he could produce ear-piercing shrieks, but apart from that he was simply a fine rock singer with a voice that is still vibrant fifty years later. Entwistle produced electrifying bass lines and sported some flamboyant costumes, but otherwise stood around relatively quietly playing his instrument.
But it was Keith Moon and Pete Townshend who were totally over the top. Moon always appeared to be nearly incapacitated, and his drumming technique seemed so awkward it was hard to imagine why his drumsticks didn’t fly across the stage. However, his frenetic drum licks fit perfectly with Who songs. In performance, Townshend seemed to be in the midst of a methamphetamine overdose. He would fling himself about the stage – leaping in the air and kicking his legs apart; twisting his body around; and showing off his legendary ‘windmill’ style where he would swing his right arm in a gigantic circle, passing over the guitar at exactly the right instant to strike a power chord.
After attending a Who concert, I thought I could accurately predict the future career for the group. This was a bunch of crude, boorish louts who were big on aggression and showy displays but short on talent. They were primarily a novelty act and should rapidly burn out.
Granted, Keith Moon did die from a drug overdose in 1978. However, looking back on their long and distinguished career, I have to ask myself: How on earth could I have been so wrong about The Who? Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey still touring at age 70? I would have bet any amount of money they would be retired or dead at age 30! The Who were the last group I would have expected to produce a rock opera. And their body of work, including exceptional songs like Baba O’Riley and the song cycle in Quadrophenia, is far beyond what I would ever have guessed.
Here is a more recent photo of Townshend, Entwistle and Daltrey from 1989:
In my own defense, Pete Townshend’s songs became much more complex and nuanced than one might have suspected from his earliest work. And in retrospect, I believe that I mistook Townshend’s intensity for immaturity. It seems that Pete is constantly attempting to create a transcendent moment onstage. In performances he is apparently trying to break on through to the other side, to produce a spectacle that will transport him and his audience to a different dimension. When he achieves this (as with the thundering, apocalyptic ending to Baba O’Riley), the result is really stunning.
Below is a video of The Who performing Summertime Blues at Woodstock in August 1969. Their electrifying performance at this venue, combined with the success of their rock opera Tommy and the brilliant 1971 album Who’s Next, transformed The Who from brash, showy upstarts to rock legends. We see Roger Daltrey in his trademark costume, a fringed shirt that shows off his bare chest, occasionally throwing his mic up in the air and catching it. As usual, Keith Moon appears to be wild and out of control on the drums. Pete Townshend is dressed in a white one-piece suit, and pulls off many of his trademark moves, including his ‘windmill’ guitar routine. At the end of the song, Townshend produces some extreme feedback, and ends by smashing his guitar.
And here is audio of another live version of Summertime Blues by The Who, this time at the legendary performance at Leeds University, immortalized on the album The Who Live at Leeds.
Summertime Blues was one of The Who’s most popular tunes, and a staple at their concerts. Because of John Entwistle’s important contributions with the bass vocals and his dynamite descending riffs on electric bass, the group stopped performing the song after his death in 2002 from a heart attack. As a general rule Summertime Blues was the only song they performed in concert that was not written by Pete Townshend.
Eddie Cochran’s original rockabilly song was transformed by The Who into a hard-rock anthem, but the basic structure of the song remained intact, and the power chords introduced by Cochran fit right into Pete Townshend’s thrashing style. Furthermore, the song’s anti-establishment lyrics are just as powerful in Cochran’s 50s countrified version as for The Who’s 60s counterculture band.