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Michael's Number Ones: "The Boys of Summer" by The Ataris

Updated: Apr 24



September 13, 2003


Cover songs are a risky proposition for any artist, especially one that's relatively unknown. That's usually why they're relegated to tribute albums or one-off singles, and not included on a proper studio album. I remember the endless supply of Punk Goes... compilation albums featuring a litany of punk and punk-adjacent bands covering recent and classic pop songs. Most of the time they're either a way to pay tribute to an influence, or a fun alternate take on a song from a different genre.

The Ataris didn't expect their take on Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" to blow up the way it did. That was probably naive on their part because the original was a smash in its time, and the band's version stands up on its own. Unfortunately for The Ataris, it's pretty much all they're known for today.

The Ataris are essentially the project of lead singer Kristopher Roe; Wikipedia lists 27 other men who have been band members at some point in time since the band formed in 1996. Roe grew up in Anderson, Indiana and liked to collect Atari video game cartridges. He formed a band in Anderson that became The Ataris, and moved the band to California when they came to the attention of independent record label Kung Fu Records. Shortly after the move, the group disbanded and Roe lived in a van for a time. He considered moving back to Indiana and ending the band, but was able to recruit new members in time for a tour with ska band Dance Hall Crashers and punk-pop group Unwritten Law. (Unwritten Law's biggest hit on my chart, 2002's "Seein' Red", peaked at #6.)

The tour wound up being a success, and Roe pressed on with the group. In 1999, the band released their first full-length album for Kung Fu Records, Blue Skies, Broken Hearts... Next 12 Exits. Two years later, the album End Is Forever was released, and the band became enough of a commodity to get a slot on 2001's Vans Warped Tour.

After their deal with Kung Fu Records ended in 2002, Roe made the leap to a major label, bringing The Ataris to Columbia Records. The band worked with veteran alternative rock producer Lou Giordano on their major label debut, So Long, Astoria. Roe says he was inspired a chapter in by punk legend Richard Hell's book Go Now, saying, "I wanted this record to portray that life is only as good as the memories we make."

The first single from the album, "In This Diary", encapsulates this feeling. Roe sings wistfully about the best summer he ever had. "Being grown up isn't half as fun as growing up/these are the best days of our lives". That line almost felt like a warning to me in high school. Being 17, there was no way I could appreciate how true that sentiment was. The song was a decent hit nationally, the video getting lots of play on MTV2 and Fuse. On the Billboard Modern Rock chart it peaked at #11; on my top 40 it got as high as #7.

Roe also sings about "All the nights we stayed up talking and listening to '80s songs", almost foreshadowing what would come next for the band. Roe initially wanted "My Reply" to be the second single. Radio programmers had other ideas. KROQ, the legendary Los Angeles alternative station, started spinning "The Boys of Summer" soon after "In This Diary" became a hit and the song gained enough momentum that it became the official second single instead.

Mike Campbell initially wrote the music for "The Boys of Summer" in 1984 for his band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty didn't feel like it fit with the sound of the album they were working on at the time, Southern Accents, so Campbell played the demo for Don Henley instead. Henley took the song and wrote the lyrics for it during the recording of his second solo album Building the Perfect Beast.

Henley was 37 when "The Boys of Summer" was released. The title comes from Roger Kahn's book about the Brooklyn Dodgers. The song is a meditation on getting older and how people change as time passes, but our memories tend to romanticize the past. The guitar hook at the beginning and really throughout the song, is haunting. Henley's voice sounds a little stentorian, as though he's aware just how far away his youth feels.

The song touches on many of the same themes The Ataris did with "In This Diary". It probably spoke to an existential dread many boomers must have felt in the mid-1980s. "Nobody on the road/nobody on the beach/I feel it in the air/the summer's out of reach". Ultimately, Henley is singing about a lost love. "Now I don't understand what happened to our love/but babe when I get you back/I'm gonna show you what I'm made of".

Henley never embraced the music video culture that emerged with MTV, but the stately black-and-white video for "The Boys of Summer" got tons of airplay in 1984 and 1985, and the song peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. By 2003, it was a staple on oldies and classic rock stations, and most people around my age would've been familiar with it. It also makes sense within the concept Roe was going for with So Long, Astoria.

The song diverges with Henley's original at one crucial point. At the beginning of the third verse, Henley's narrator observes "A Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac". Henley wrote the lyric as a critique of yuppies who went from embracing 1960s idealism to 1980s consumerism, while trying to have it both ways. Roe figured a Grateful Dead reference didn't make sense in the context of the album, so he changed the lyric to "A Black Flag sticker on a Cadillac".

In an 2016 interview, Henley noted he was not cool with that change, but did nothing to stop it. He went on to say, "if you noticed, we haven't heard much from the Ataris since then."

Henley may have been a dick to take a shot at the band in the interview (my impression of him is he's kind of a dick in general), but he wasn't wrong on that point. "The Boys of Summer" was easily the Ataris' biggest hit. It got to #2 on the Modern Rock chart, and crossed over to pop radio, peaking at #20 on the Hot 100. The band's third single, "The Saddest Song" only got to #27 on the Modern Rock chart, and barely made it onto my chart, spending a week at #40 at the end of 2003.

After the So Long, Astoria album cycle ended, members continued to cycle in and out of The Ataris. The band left Columbia Records and started their own label. Their next album, Welcome the Night, didn't come out until 2007, but it made almost no impression on the world; none of its singles charted.

We won't be seeing The Ataris again in this column. They released an album last year on Bandcamp and the page describes the group as "the enormously successful and still loved Indiana pop punk band". My guess is Roe wrote that himself. If anyone thinks of them today, it's probably because of "The Boys of Summer". Roe wanted to write an album reflecting on the fondness of childhood memories, and in the process made childhood memories for a new generation of music fans. That's a pretty good legacy for any artist to make. Pissing off Don Henley in the process is just a bonus.


Evanescence's gloriously goth opening track to Fallen, "Going Under", peaked at #2 behind "The Boys of Summer".

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