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"In The Summertime" by MUNGO JERRY
A '70s summer anthem by Mungo Jerry, who wasn't just a guy with big sideburns.
You can stretch right up and touch the sky
The time it took to write one of the best selling singles in history could be measured by the minute hand of a wristwatch. Ray Dorset was, in fact, taking a break from his day job at a lab for Timex when he wrote “In The Summertime” in about 10 minutes, banging away on a second hand Stratocaster. His band didn’t even have its name at the time.
That band played their first gig as Mungo Jerry at the May 1970 Hollywood Music Festival, which drew 35,000 to a pig farm near Staffordshire, England. The festival featured sets by Black Sabbath and Traffic, as well as the first UK appearance by The Grateful Dead. So it may have come as a bit of a surprise when a band that had recently taken their name from the poem “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer” in TS Eliot’s Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, took the stage and… sat down. Mungo Jerry had no drummer; percussion came from Dorset and banjo and jug player Paul King stomping in heavy boots.
“In The Summertime” is one of the fastest selling singles in UK history and went on to sell 30 millions copies globally. It was released on the eve of the Hollywood Music Festival with a then-uncommon picture sleeve as the first maxi-single, a 7-inch record that played at 331⁄3 rpm so that it could hold an additional song, offering more value for just a few pence more1. For the single, the band had wanted Dorset’s raucous “Mighty Man,” which was more representative of their bluesy-ragtime-rock ‘n’ roll sound, but their label’s2 in-house producer and product manager Barry Murray disagreed, “I think we should go with ‘In the Summertime,’ It’s quite catchy.”
“Quite catchy” is an understatement; it’s a Dune-level earworm. The melody is eminently hummable, which Dorset accentuates with rhythmic grunts and dee-dee-dee dee-dee dah-dah-dah, dah-dah scatting. Double bass, banjo, washboard, piano, and stomps on the floor — it all feels like pop music in its primordial form. “In The Summertime” ruled that summer, but it doesn’t the least bit sound like 1970, when pop charts and prog rock alive were all reveling in excess.
The song is refreshingly slight, but it was also short, coming in at just over two minutes long. Dorset suggested adding the sound of a motorcycle to go along with its open-road theme. They didn’t have one handy, so the engineer went out and recorded the sound of an MG sportscar revving its motor. After adding that sound effect, they just spliced in the first 90 seconds from the original recording — the second half of the song is just 3/4 of the first half, again.
We're not gray people, we're not dirty, we're not mean
We love everybody, but we do as we please
When the weather's fine, we go fishing or go swimming in the sea
We're always happy, life's for living
Yeah, that's our philosophy
The loose, jug band sound fits a song that honestly seems like it was written in 10 minutes. The length of each line of the verses can vary by a few syllables, so that Dorset has to draw out or speed through his phrasings. This dashed-off quality reinforces the roguish insouciance of the lyrics.3 It’s less a pop song than an idyll, a dream of a simpler time and place.
The Hollywood Music Festival was the start of Mungomania. It was also its own sort of back-to-the-garden dream: The goal was to be the UK Woodstock. Its only similarity to that generational event, however, was that the organizers lost money. Mungo Jerry hit the stage in the afternoon of the festival’s first day. The sun had just come out, and Paul King recalled seeing the audience basking in it, presumably stoned. “We went straight in with the harmonicas and banjo, making a different noise to everyone else on the bill,” he said4. “The crowd all started getting up and clapping and dancing about.”
The Hollywood Music Festival is mostly a footnote5, remembered for its place in Grateful Dead lore. It was eclipsed as the UK Woodstock by The Isle of Wight Festival at the end of August 1970, which featured The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and the first live performance by Bob Dylan in three years. Mungo Jerry arrived at the Isle of Wight Festival happy to play even if they didn’t get paid, but their set time was moved so many times, they just went home.
The summer of “In The Summertime” was over.
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16 Song Playlist
Especially recommended if you are surprised that Mungo Jerry a) is a band and not a guy with heroic sideburns6 and/or b) had more than the one song.
One Hit Wonder is often used as a punchline, but I feel for artists whose song makes them famous in an instant, which then requires a long an arduous touring that takes them away from whatever it was that led to the magic of that hit song. Very few artists can write a song during soundcheck in a city on the other side of the Earth. Sometimes songs also are just very much of a time — even if they don’t sound like that time — which is in no way the artist’s fault. Hit songs depend on so many factors beyond an artist’s control; it’s unfair to mock those who didn’t manage a follow up.
Thanks, everyone7. I may have to take a short summer recess, but I hope to keep to the “Week” in The Best Song Ever (This Week) as best I can.
By the mid-70s, the maxi-single eventually evolved into a 12” vinyl record played at 45 RPM, often with extended remixes of the A-side to be played by DJs. This eventually led to the multi-format single approach, with a song released as a 12”, and the duo of 7” vinyl and the cassingle. The cassingle.
Dawn Records, a newly formed progressive rock offshoot of Pye Records
Lyrics like “have a drink, have a drive” haven’t aged well of course. There’s also the famous
If her daddy's rich, take her out for a meal
If her daddy's poor, just do what you feel
However disrespectful those lines feel now, they are at least honest reportage for those times.
Footnotes are nice
Seriously, his sideburns are described as heroic all over the internet.
And especially you. You know who you are.