It was the winter of 1984. Two guys sat in the basement studio of a Vancouver town house, working on a song that neither of them was particularly satisfied with. One was Jim Vallance, a songwriter-for-hire who had made his reputation writing hits for such heavyweights as Joe Cocker and Kiss. He owned the studio. The other guy was Vallance’s writing partner from those early days, and the singer in their band (although Vallance’s contributions were now confined to the studio). His name was Bryan Adams.
Adams and Vallance had already enjoyed a creditable amount commercial success, with Straight From The Heart, Cuts Like A Knife and This Time in 1983 making numbers 10, 15 and 24 respectively in the US singles chart and parent album Cuts Like A Knife reaching No.8, and having earned support slots with The Kinks and Foreigner.
Adams’s tour diary was gruelling that year, with around 283 days on the road, but his reputation in the US was growing. Now he just needed a bona fide hit; a signature song that would open doors on both sides of the Atlantic and provide the backbone to his forthcoming new album, Reckless. But he wasn’t sure that Summer Of ’69 was that song.
“I had no idea it would become such a classic,” admits Adams today. “Originally the song had been called The Best Days Of My Life, but we had always played around with the idea of writing a song about summertime. At one point while we were doing the demo, I just threw in the lyric ‘It was the summer of ’69’ and it stuck. And the guitar intro is about the only thing I can play, so that was pretty easy.”
Bryan Adams was nine years old in the summer of ’69. He didn’t join his first band (Shock) until ’76. Which doesn’t quite fit the song’s lyrical content, which appears to rue the break-up of a teenage band (‘Jimmy quit and Jody got married’) and the collapse of a love affair (‘I think about you, wonder what went wrong’).
In reality, Adams’s clean-living image has helped disguise one of the most blatant innuendos of modern rock: the ‘69’ in question doesn’t refer to the year 1969, but to the sexual position. Adams has announced as much from the stage, and even appears to sing ‘me and my baby in a 69’ during the song’s outro.
“The song is a bit autobiographical,” Adams explains, “but it’s really about summer love and, in my, case being a musician. I love the song Night Moves by Bob Seger, which is about getting laid in the summer, and I always wanted to write an answer to that. There is a huge misconception that this song is about 1969, but it’s not. The reason I chose 69 is because of the sexual position.
"The imagery in the song is about romance, nostalgia, being a struggling musician and making love. Jimmy and Jody are real people though. Jimmy is a drummer who quit the band, and Jody [Perpik] is still my soundman on tour after 25 years.”
Co-writer Jim Valance offers more insight: “I remember Bryan and I going back and forth on that line. I suggested ‘Woody quit and Gordy got married’, but Bryan thought ‘Jimmy’ and ‘Jody’ sounded better, and I agreed. Jody and his wife appear in the video for Summer Of ’69, driving away with a Just Married sign on the back of their car.
“I also suggested the lyric ‘I got a job at the railway yard’, because that’s what my friend Chuck did. The ‘railway’ lyric survived our first two drafts of the song, then Bryan’s radar went up. He thought it sounded too much like Bruce Springsteen, so we scrapped it [in favour of the line ‘I should have known we’d never get far’].
"Maybe he was right, but I still prefer ‘I got a job at the railway yard’. ‘Standing on your mother’s porch’ was where a bit of Springsteen found its way into the song. I was listening to a lot of Bruce at the time – Bryan was, too – and one of my favourites was Thunder Road. Bruce sings ‘from your front porch to my front seat’, and that’s probably where the ‘porch’ reference came from.”
While Summer Of ’69 had come together fast in Vallance’s basement, recording it proved an arduous process. Realising he was sitting on a song that could ignite his career, Adams stopped at nothing to capture the sound he heard in his head.
“The track was recorded three separate times,” he recalls. “I wanted to capture a special energy on the track – and nearly lost my team doing it. I basically fought with everyone until it became the way it is today. It wasn’t easy getting it there.”
Released in August 1985, Summer Of ’69 ultimately hit No.5 in the US and a relatively lowly No.42 in the UK. Such was the slowburn success of the song, however, that its parent album re-entered the chart as late as 1991; it has sold 12 million copies.
Today, Adams is philosophical: “Charts don’t matter. What matters is that the song is great. And it is. It proves that people who program radio don’t always have their finger on what people want.”
Vallance isn’t tired of Summer Of ’69 either: “I think it was Bryan and I at our best. We hadn’t had any real success yet. In January 1984 we were still writing songs for all the right reasons. Everything started to unravel after Reckless."