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The top summer songs of ’74 and ’84

Some became classics, others remembered for light, easy, listening

By Peter Larsen, The Orange County Register
Published: June 11, 2024, 6:03am
3 Photos
English pop star Elton John relaxes on a sofa and listens to music on Sept. 12, 1974.  His &ldquo;Don&rsquo;t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,&rdquo; topped the charts in summer on 1974 (D.
English pop star Elton John relaxes on a sofa and listens to music on Sept. 12, 1974. His “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” topped the charts in summer on 1974 (D. Morrison/Express) Photo Gallery

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Summertime, and the listening is easy, songs are rockin’ and the volume is high. Which is to say, it’s time to talk about songs of summers past.

Songs of the summer anchor us in a time and place. You remember who your friends were, what you did, and where you went.

There are absolutely people this summer who will always remember their love for Sabrina Carpenter’s “Espresso” or Billie Eilish’s “Lunch,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Not Like Us” or Post Malone and Morgan Wallen’s “I Had Some Help.”

It’s too early to evaluate those, though. Come back in 40 or 50 years when I, or some AI simulation, will tell you how the summer and history turned out for those songs.

This, though, we know: The Summer of ’74 was wild, man, with classic songs alongside some “what-were-we-thinking?” tunes. The Summer of ’84 was much better, with breakthroughs by a number of artists still relevant today.

Summer songs are in the ears of the beholder. I picked 10 songs for each year, and yes, your list might differ. But I did try to cast a wide net and survey as much as personal memory and online research turned up.

So tune in, and drop out of 2024 for the spin of the dial through summers past.

Summer songs of ’74

  • “Band on the Run,” Paul McCartney & Wings. Released in April, peaked at No. 1 in June.

“Well, the rain exploded with a mighty crash, as we fell into the sun!” Oh my, what a terrific song this is. A suite in miniature, it opens with our heroes in the band sorrowful for their confinement, shifts into a second movement making plans for breaking out, and then, pow! Two minutes and 22 seconds into the song’s 5:13 run time, they’re off, and we’re off too, singing, “And the first one said to the second one there, I hope you’re having fun. Ba-a-nd on the run!”

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  • “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods. Released in April, peaked at No. 1 in June.

“Billy, don’t be a hero, don’t be a fool with your life!” There was a time when I would, uninvited, entertain a party with my rendition of this classic. (I never did figure out why everyone’s drinks needed refilling just then.) There’s no rule, you know, that a summer song has to be good. It just to be memorable, and that’s what we had here. “Billy, don’t be a hero, come back and make me your wife!”

  • “Rock The Boat,” the Hues Corporation. Released in May, peaked at No. 1 in July.

“So I’d like to know where you got the notion …”. Not only was this a call to the dance floor the moment the needle dropped, it’s also considered by some to be the first disco song to top the charts. A perennial favorite at weddings and parties in Ireland, it’s so beloved there’s a dance fans do, as seen on Netflix’s “Derry Girls,” that includes sitting on the floor to rock an imaginary boat. “Rock the boat, don’t rock the boat, baby.”

  • “Annie’s Song,” John Denver. Released in June, peaked at No. 1 in July and August.

“You fill up my senses, like a night in a forest …’: We’ll confess we considered making up a rule that a summer song had to have more oomph than this limp little love song has. It’s just so … weak. But according to Billboard, this baby was the biggest cumulative hit of the summer of ‘74. Maybe it was the come-down from the Vietnam War, Watergate and all needed something soft on the ears. “You fill up my senses, come fill me again.”

  • “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” by Elton John. Released in May, peaked at No. 2 in July.

“I’d just allow a fragment of your life to wander free.” Exhibit A in the case against “Annie’s Song”: It blocked this Elton John classic at No. 2 in the summer of ‘74. It’s a beautiful, melancholy song with some of John and lyricist Bernie Taupin’s most poetic work of the period. Gorgeous piano, glorious harmonies, it remained a staple of John’s sets thereafter. “But losin’ everything is like the sun goin’ down on me”

  • “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” by Roberta Flack. Released in June, peaked at No. 1 in August.

“Strollin’ in the park, watchin’ winter turn to spring.” Now this is how you do a soft summer song. Flack’s mellow vibes are as cool as a summer breeze, and the love song here is something you’d play at a party or for your special lady or dude in the mood. It was also No. 1 for five weeks on the Hot Soul Singles, so, yeah, it was huge that summer. “Ooh-oo-oo, that’s the time, I feel like makin’ dreams come true.”

  • “The Night Chicago Died,” by Paper Lace. Released in June, peaked at No. 1 in August.

“In the heat of the summer night, in the land of the dollar bill.” A fitting bookend to ‘Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” both as guilty pleasures but also authorship: Paper Lace wrote and recorded “Billy,” which flopped, only for Bo Donaldson to take it No. 1. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was not a fan, his rep suggesting that the band “jump in the Chicago River, placing your heads under water three times and surfacing twice.” “Brother what a night it really was.”

  • “Tell Me Something Good,” by Rufus. Released in April, peaked at No. 3 in August.

“You ain’t got no feeling insi-i-de …”. Stevie Wonder wrote this and gave it to Rufus for his friend Chaka Khan to sing, and man, does she sing it. After this hit, the band changed its name to Rufus and Chaka Khan. The funky wah-wah guitar, one of the very uses of a guitar talk box, and just a groove that lasts all day long. “Tell me something good, tell me that you like it, yeah.”

  • “Waterloo,” by ABBA. Released in March, peaked at No. 6 in August.

“Waterloo, I was defeated, you won the war.” The breakout single from ABBA, “Waterloo” uses Napoleon’s fateful defeat as a metaphor for a love affair. They’re Swedish, they knew their European history, and, smartly, that might have helped win the Eurovision Contest in 1974. To American audiences, that didn’t matter as much as the bouncy run of the up-tempo ballad. “Waterloo, promise to love you forevermore.”

  • “(You’re) Having My Baby,” by Paul Anka and Odia Coates. Released in June, peaked at No. 1 in August and September.

“What a lovely way of saying how much you love me.” People loved this song, and yes, I can sing this at your party, too. There’s no defense for how bad it is other than that Anka really loved his wife and their four daughters, all of whom it was inspired. Interesting side note: One of Anka’s daughters Amanda is married to actor Jason Bateman. “I’m a woman in love, and I love what it’s doing to me.”

Also on the Summer of ‘74 jukebox: “Sundown,” by Gordon Lightfoot; “Rock Your Baby,” by George McCrae; “Hollywood Swinging,” by Kool and the Gang; “I Shot the Sheriff,” by Eric Clapton; “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” Barry White

Summer songs of ’84

  • “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” by Phil Collins. Released in February, peaked at No. 1 in April and May.

“How can I just let you walk away? Just let you leave without a trace.” Phil Collins’ moody ballad from the film of the same name connected deeply listeners, in part due to the massive clout the still-new MTV had on the pop chart then. The song became Collins’ first U.S. No. 1, bumping Kenny Loggins’ springtime hit “Footloose” off the top spot. “And you comin’ back to me is against all odds, It’s the chance I’ve gotta take.”

  • “Relax,” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Released in March, peaked at No. 67 in May, but …

“Relax, don’t do it, when you want to go to it.” The English duo’s innuendo-filled single didn’t make it far up the Billboard 100, but listeners to KROQ-FM in Southern California heard it in heavy rotation. It was voted the alternative rock station’s No. 1 song of 1984 in a year-end listeners poll. And if there were a poll of popular T-shirts that summer, those white “Frankie Say Relax” tees were pretty popular. “Got to hit me (hit me!), hit me with those laser beams.”

  • “Time After Time,” by Cyndi Lauper. Released in March, peaked at No. 1 in June.

“Lyin’ in my bed, I hear the clock tick and think of you.” Cyndi Lauper’s debut single, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” climbed to No. 2 at the end of 1983 and start of 1984. This ballad, which Lauper co-wrote, not only did that one better, one better being all there was to do, it’s also become her signature song even more than its predecessor. (Even jazz legend Miles Davis covered it.) “If you’re lost, you can look and you will find me. Time after time.”

  • “The Reflex,” by Duran Duran. Released in April, peaked at No. 1 in June.

“Oh, why-y-y-y don’t you use it? Try not to bruise it.” The glamourous synth-fueled rock of Duran Duran was at its peak in the early ’80s, but it was “The Reflex,” not songs such as “Hungry Like the Wolf” or “Rio,” to achieve their first No. 1 in the U.S. Simon Le Bon’s vocals sparkle as the rest of the band race to the finish in fine form. “The reflex is a lonely child who’s waiting by the park / The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark.”

  • “Dancing in the Dark,” by Bruce Springsteen. Released in May, peaked at No. 2 in July.

“You can’t start a fire. You can’t start a fire without a spark.” The debut single from “Born In The USA” lit the fuse for Bruce Springsteen ‘s rocket into superstardom. It was blocked from No. 1 by “The Reflex” and the next song on this list. In this classic age of MTV, the music video was directed by filmmaker Brian De Palma with an unknown Courteney Cox featured. “This gun’s for hire, even if we’re just dancing in the dark.”

  • “When Doves Cry,” by Prince. Released in May, peaked at No. 1 in July and August.

“Dig, if you will, the picture, of you and I engaged in a kiss.” Even more than “Born in the USA” boosted Springsteen’s fame, the release of the film and soundtrack to Prince ‘s “Purple Rain” transformed him into a global superstar. This song, written in one night to fit a scene in the movie, is classic Prince, funky, sexy, and cool as cool can be. “Why do we scream at each other? This is what it sounds like when doves cry.”

  • “Eyes Without a Face,” by Billy Idol. Released in May, peaked at No. 4 in July.

“I’m all out of hope. One more bad break could bring a fall.” Billy Idol’s first single off “Rebel Yell” was its title track, a hard rocking number like “Dancing With Myself” and “White Wedding” before it. Here, though, he slowed things down with a ballad that still finds space for some meaty guitar riffing by his musical partner Steve Stevens. “Eyes without a face, got no human grace, your eyes without a face.”

  • “State of Shock,” by the Jacksons with Mick Jagger. Released in June, peaked at No. 3 in August.

“She looks so great every time I see her face.” Two things you must know about this song. First, when it was released on June 5, 1984, DJs at KIQQ (100.3 FM) decided it would be fun to play it over and over again. And they did, for 22 consecutive hours. Second, the Insane Clown Posse has covered it. Juggalos! Can I get a “Whoop Whoop”? “She put me in a state, a state of shock.”

  • “People Are People,” by Depeche Mode. Released in March, peaked at No. 13 in August.

“People are people, so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully?” Here’s another one that Southern Californians surely heard more than the rest of the nation thanks to KROQ’s alternative rock programming. The British electronic band Depeche Mode uses everything in its toolbox – melancholy vocals, clanging percussion – as well as ever it did. “I can’t understand what makes a man hate a man, help me understand.”

  • “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” by Tina Turner. Released in May, peaked at No. 1 in September.

“What’s love got to do, got to do with it? What’s love but a second-hand emotion?” Tina Turner ‘s well-deserved comeback started with the 1984 album “Private Dancer,” and this single from the record was a large part of her success. Sultry and sleek, the modern pop instrumentation behind Turner’s powerhouse vocals still thrills. “What’s love got to do, got to do with it? Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?

Also on the Summer of ‘84 jukebox: “Cruel Summer;” by Bananarama, “Hello,” by Lionel Richie; “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” by Deniece Williams; “Drive,” by the Cars; “The Longest Time,” by Billy Joel; “Sister Christian,” by Night Ranger