Chart Week: January 12, 1985
Song: “The Boys of Summer” – Don Henley
Chart Position: #16, 10th week on the chart. Peaked at #5 the week of February 9.

You might wonder why I spend a few hours each week listening to re-broadcasts of a 40-ish year-old radio show that features songs I can listen to literally whenever I want. The biggest reason is for the times I hear a piece of music trivia that had eluded me all of these years. For example, this story behind Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.”

Until last week, I did not know that Mike Campbell, certified genius guitar player and Tom Petty’s sidekick in The Heartbreakers, wrote “The Boys of Summer.”

Campbell was messing around with a LinnDrum machine in 1983 when he came upon a rhythm he liked. He added synthesizers and guitar and quickly recorded a demo that he presented to Petty and producer Jimmy Iovine. Petty was underwhelmed, thinking it didn’t fit the sound he wanted for his next album. Iovine said it sounded like jazz, which seems like a savage diss to me. Still, the producer suggested Campbell reach out to another client, Don Henley, who was working on his second solo album.

Campbell tweaked the chorus, called Henley, and played the demo for him. The next day the former Eagle called back with lyrics he wrote while driving around. Henley’s most famous line, about seeing a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, was based on a real moment. He had seen a Cadillac Seville, which he viewed as the “status symbol of the right-wing, upper-middle-class, American bourgeoisie,” with a Grateful Dead sticker slapped on its bumper. He viewed that as a symbol of how his generation had sold out. (Henley has always held strong opinions on pretty much everything.)

Originally they planned on Henley singing over Campbell’s demo. However, after adding overdubs and mixing the song, they realized Henley’s voice would sound better in a slightly different key. Which meant Campbell would have to scrap his demo and re-record the entire song. Although that was a pain, it was a wise choice. As he laid down the new version, he improvised a simple solo over the song’s outro. That solo isn’t complex or showy in any way, but it is the perfect final statement.

A few months later, as “The Boys of Summer” turned into a hit, Campbell and Petty were in the studio working on the Southern Accents album. They had just wrapped up recording “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and took a cassette of the session out to a car to listen to it. When Campbell flipped the radio on, “The Boys of Summer” was playing.

Petty chuckled and said, “You know, you were really lucky with that one. I wish I would have had the presence of mind not to let it get away.”

That seems a little too cutesy for me, but it’s a story Campbell has told many times. I’m sure Petty thought it was a great song. But I’m also confident that he stuck with his initial impression: it didn’t sound like a Heartbreakers track to him.

As for my rating, it is hard to ignore nearly 40 years of history with this song. The moment it comes on, when I hear Campbell’s first guitar notes and that opening synth line, I instantly think about the past. There is a wistful, universal feel to the song. We are all always looking back in one way or another. Campbell and Henley perfectly captured that urge. The hazy synths mimic the haziness of our memories. There are little touches, both musically and lyrically, that speak to how memories pop up and grab us when we least expect them. And I’ve always loved the urgency in Henley’s voice.

Although a thoroughly middle-of-the-road song, it sounds a lot less dated than the other Dad Rock that rose in the late ‘80s. We might not have The War on Drugs if not for this song, and the album it came from, Building the Perfect Beast.

It won a Grammy for Best Male Vocal Performance and was selected as the Video of the Year at the 1985 MTV VMA’s. Those were legit wins. This is a classic.

D’s Grade: 9/10

One spot above “The Boys of Summer” was Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” You would be correct if I you guessed that I skip it any time I hear a January 1985 countdown. I suppose that’s one way the current charts are better than the old ones: rather than linger for a few weeks after the holidays, the classic Christmas songs that now crack the Top 10 each December disappear with our trees and decorations.

Good news for my readers who enjoy these posts: After my normal, end-of-the-year lull, I suddenly have a bunch of these stacked up for the next month or so.