When we think of the music of the early 80’s, we tend to think of glitz and glamour; it was the height of the MTV era, after all. But there were songs that were able to break through with substance lurking below the surface flash. “Suddenly Last Summer,” a top 10 hit by the Motels off their 1983 album Little Robbers, was just such a song.
This haunting lament for a loss of innocence was written by the group’s lead singer Martha Davis, who explained to American Songwriter that the composition of the song essentially spanned over a decade. “I was just sitting in the backyard and it was a beautiful sunny day in Berkeley,” Davis remembered. “It was the end of summer. All of the sudden this ice cold wind comes out. You know winter is right around the corner. You just feel that chill, and even though the sun is shining, there’s a coldness to it. And then I heard the ice cream truck. I thought that’s probably the last time I’m going to hear that ice cream truck.
“I didn’t even write the song then. It was just these different emotions washing over me. Years later in the 80’s, I’m down in L.A. and at 3 AM, I get woken by this “da-da-da-da-dum” (mimics the song’s instrumental hook). This little melody starts running through my head. And I got up and I wrote the song. All of the pieces that I had experienced ten years earlier in Berkeley were just manifesting themselves. I’ve never had that happen before or since. It just goes to show that all of the song fodder is these experiences in your life, stowed away in memory nooks and various places, and they decide at the time they will make themselves eminent.”
“Suddenly Last Summer” also benefitted from a fantastic performance, from Davis’ wistful vocal to Steven Godstein’s unforgettable descending keyboard part. Davis’ lyrics suggest that time passes in an instant, especially those moments to which you want to cling the most. “A place for a moment/ An end to a dream/ Forever I loved you/ Forever it seemed,” she sings in the first verse, a lovely evocation of the ephemerality of romance.
In the second verse, the narrator uses the word “sometimes” over and over to start off her lines, a technique that suggests that her ability to cope with her past comes and goes. “Sometimes I stay too long,” she sings, an admittance that the trip down memory lane can occasionally be a dead end. And when Davis sings, “Sometimes it frightens me,” you can hear it in her tremulous vocal.
The chorus wraps up all of these contradictions into a bittersweet package: “One summer never ends/One summer never begins/It keeps me standing still/It takes all of my will.” The title, borrowed from a Tennessee Williams play, suggests how life changes in an instant, how one cold wind can blow even of the sweetest of seasons out of your life forever.
The Motels carved out a niche in the 80’s with their film-noir sound and Davis’ combination of unique storytelling and charismatic performing. “Suddenly Last Summer” shows the band at the peak of their powers, and it also proves that a great song is always worth the wait.