Thinker Express

News for nerds

I still had a day job at a laboratory when the melody for In the Summertime entered my head. The lyric took 10 minutes to write. When I was young, my family always went to Hayling Island, in Hampshire, for holidays; great affairs with about 20 of us. So, for part of the song, I was recalling lovely childhood memories. “In the summertime, when the weather is high” meant high pressure, when it’s not raining and you have that sense of euphoria where you feel “you can stretch right up and touch the sky”. Singing “have a drink, have a drive” meant just a coke, a coffee or a milkshake in the days before drink became a generic term for alcohol.

Rhythmically, the song was a mix of skiffle, Caribbean and the Latin American I’ve loved ever since hearing Edmundo Ros on the radio with my mum. But it sounded bare when we went into Pye’s Studio One to record it in 1970, so we added a lot of percussive effects. The jug band sound came from Paul King blowing into a glass bottle while playing banjo. I stamped with my feet on a piece of wood, a bit like John Lee Hooker. I went: “Ch-ch-ch-UH / Ch-ch-ch-UH,” and I’m told it was the first beat box sound on a hit record.

The single took off immediately, straight in at No 13. We did Disco 2, BBC2’s forerunner of The Old Grey Whistle Test, recorded at Shepherd’s Bush. Directly after the rehearsal upstairs, we had to rush downstairs for the filming, due to be aired that night. Thirteen of us piled into the lift, which got stuck halfway down, and we were panicking we wouldn’t get out in time.

Then it went to No 1. I was still at the lab and people upstairs who had never spoken to me before wanted to be friends. I’d go down to the factory floor and all the women were chasing me. It was a complete madhouse. When I look back at performance clips of the single, I see I’ve got this big grin and I’m wearing clothes that make no sense at all, with these massive sideburns, while the other guys in the band have a proper hippy look. I think I was trying to align everything to nature and spontaneity. It’s always been about the groove and the vibe for me, not technical mastery or seeing how many notes you can play, which leaves me cold.

Barry Murray, producer
When Pye Records started their underground label, Dawn, one of the first things I did was sign Ray Dorset. Previously, I’d been a gig booker for a couple of agencies and Ray had always impressed me. Whatever lineup he had behind him, he always generated terrifically rhythmic, syncopated music.

Mungo Jerry was a four-piece, drummerless band, with a stand-up bass (Mike Cole) and a piano (Colin Earl). They’d signed to make an album because, in those days, that’s what underground bands did. They didn’t want a big single because, heaven forbid, that was commercial. But they needed to support an album by building a following and I knew a successful single could achieve that.

Ray played me song after song, earmarking what would be good in the album context. But when he did In the Summertime, initially in straight time, I knew instantly it was a hit single.

The recording is riddled with hooks, trills and figures. It has that Brazilian baião-type rhythm, which [Jerry] Leiber and [Mike] Stoller used on Stand By Me. Double-tracking Ray’s voice on alternate lines was an old Elvis ploy.

But two minutes into the session, the band stopped playing. I asked why and Ray said: “That’s all we’ve got.” Making the record longer meant bigger performance royalties for each radio play, so, because Pye’s sound-effects library was dire, I got the engineer Howard Barrow to rev up his Triumph TR4 in the street. I stood out there with a mic under the exhaust pipe, practically giving myself carbon monoxide poisoning. But we edited the car sound on to the tape and copied the first part of the song, with a slightly different mix, on to the back. The single is really the same song played twice.

It sold 112,00 copies by lunchtime in one day. But what’s often lost in the story is what a phenomenal live band Mungo Jerry were. They made the front page of Melody Maker with the headline “Mungomania” not based on In the Summertime, but for a performance the weekend before when they blew the Grateful Dead, Free and Black Sabbath off stage at Newcastle-Under-Lyme’s Hollywood festival. It was surreal, but despite worries they’d be the biggest one-hit wonders of all time, they were back on top a few months later with Baby Jump.

In the Summertime sold 30m copies; not even the Beatles did that. But, to me, a hit is always redolent of a place in time. That was my greatest satisfaction: that, in future decades, when people heard that track, they’d remember the summer of 1970.