Music blog Music Belinda Carlisle’s Summer Rain is an 80s power ballad worth its weight in nostalgia
It became a surprise top 10 hit in Australia and still gets played in clubs and karaoke halls. So why has the song’s appeal endured?
It starts with a slinky, bass-licked groove before the vocals come in: “Whispering our goodbyes, waiting for a train / I was dancing with my baby in the summer rain.”
That may not be the most distinctive opening, but Belinda Carlisle’s Summer Rain makes the most of such universal scene-setting, unlocking its full power-ballad potential with a sultry slow build, funky string accents and one hell of a heart-on-sleeve chorus.
Maybe that’s why Australians still can’t shake it after three decades. While the song peaked at only No 30 in its native US, the third single from the Go-Go’s singer’s third solo album became a top 10 hit down under. That surprise success helped its parent LP, 1989’s Runaway Horses, become one of that year’s bestselling albums in Australia, eventually going double platinum.
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At the tail end of this southern summer – naturally – Carlisle will return to Australian shores to celebrate the album’s 30th anniversary. Runaway Horses may not have matched the sales of Carlisle’s 1987 smash Heaven on Earth, but the album enjoyed a local boost from Summer Rain’s anthemic melodrama.
Penned by Robbie Seidman with Maria Vidal, whose backing vocals with Donna De Lory enshrine the chorus as a nagging singalong, the song is actually a young widow’s elegy for her soldier husband. Yet it resonates much more broadly as a testament to the ripeness of looking back (“I remember laughing till we almost cried”) and the recharging power of tapping into some inner sanctuary.
Observe how its mantra-like chorus openly worships nostalgia: “Doesn’t matter what I do now / Doesn’t matter what I say / Somewhere in my heart I’m always / Dancing with you in the summer rain.” Now that 80s and 90s nostalgia have aged inevitably into their own comfort-food industries, this decade-straddling song has only acquired new layers of tantalising longing.
So it’s no wonder that fans connect to Summer Rain as an empowering fantasy about defying time, space and even death to relive lost love. The acclaimed 2016 Black Mirror episode San Junipero constructed a similar premise around two women who struggle to stay connected in a digital afterlife – using Carlisle’s more popular Heaven is a Place on Earth as a poignant, on-the-nose bookend.
Both Heaven and Summer Rain were produced by Rick Nowels, who helmed about a dozen other Carlisle solo cuts and, more recently, a lot of Lana Del Rey. While nowhere near as globally successful as Heaven, Summer appears on all of Carlisle’s greatest hits collections. And its nostalgia-steeped video, cleaved to a sepia-toned past (complete with old-timey band and stock footage of bygone warplanes) and full-colour present, has amassed 1.5m views on YouTube.
The already fluky song enjoyed a strange second life in Australia when Melbourne dance act Slinkee Minx hit No 5 locally with their 2004 cover. Further remixes followed, including one from Germany’s Groove Coverage, while gay English songwriter Matt Fishel retained the lyrics’ male pronouns for his anthemic rock version in 2014. If the original’s predominant single edit trims the album version to a tidy four minutes, Justin Strauss’s contemporaneous extended remix inches closer to that San Junipero-style dream of a blissful vibe lasting forever.
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Carlisle picked Summer Rain as the highlight of her own songbook in a 2013 Billboard interview. Despite the song’s broad lyrical message, there are more specific details to appreciate, from a steamy metaphor citing the Santa Ana winds of Carlisle’s native southern California to a couched reference to Mickey & Sylvia’s romantic 1958 treat Love Is Strange.
As an album, Runaway Horses is more of a mixed bag: Whatever It Takes is an over-polished duet with Bryan Adams, while none other than George Harrison lends slide guitar to Leave a Light On and Deep Deep Ocean. The title track balances emotive synth-pop verses with a big rock chorus, and Valentine echoes Summer Rain’s swaying mix of triumph and pining. The classical Spanish influence of the vibrant La Luna neatly foretells later Carlisle detours like 2007’s French-inspired cover albums (featuring keyboard arrangements from ambient godfather Brian Eno) and 2017’s arty collection of Sikh chants.
Carlisle also has a longtime passion for Buddhism. Now 60, she moved to Thailand last year, after she and her husband raised their child in France. If she’s touring Australia next year firmly in the role of a victory-lapping 80s solo star, she’ll always have the bonus credibility of not just fronting power-pop chart-toppers the Go-Go’s – who still play live from time to time – but briefly drumming for the LA punk legends the Germs in the lead-up to their first gig.
Given all those colourful twists of fate across Carlisle’s career, is it so odd that Australia has developed a particular fixation on a song that’s at best a minor hit elsewhere? That just means more summer rain for us – every bittersweet drop.
• Belinda Carlisle is Australia for her Runaway Horses 30th anniversary tour from 19 February until 11 March 2019
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- Pop and rock
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