It’s been godawful hot in central Texas of late and, when it gets so blistering that I wonder if I’m on another planet, my mind always calls up Kool & The Gang’s classic 1974 funk track “Summer Madness,” one of my earliest science fiction experiences.
Kool & The Gang’s classic 1974 funk track opens up primal memories for me: faux wood-grain stereo speaker enclosures, oppressive heat and the sensation of floating away into trance-like sleep in the back of my mom’s gigantic 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. I was two years old when the song came out, which means way before I ever read my first comic book or saw my first episode of Star Trek, I’d almost certainly heard “Summer Madness.” That initial listen—probably via radio, 8-track, or vinyl record—was the first time a creative work felt like it spoke of other vistas of possibility. I’ve been hearing “Summer Madness” all my life. It sounds like music from space, transmitted through the fingers of homo sapiens.
There’s a little teaser of the journey to come at 0:41 with a short blast of synthesizer chords, which feels like an initial scan of our little planet Earth. Whispering strings murmur underneath the groove, suggesting that the data from the first scan is being processed. Meanwhile, the musical arrangement creates images of prosaic idylls. Those gentle guitar licks at 1:31 could maybe be kids playing in tall grass or sprinkler spray or the mellowing murmur of cookout chatter after children have gone to bed. Then the keyboard solo comes in at 2:20, painting a picture of something portentous, like the arrival of a UFO. The vibrations of the synth chords come across like the heat shimmer of too-hot asphalt streets and the powering-up of faster-than-light engines. The up-and-down structure of the synth solo evokes visions of sine waves on a console screen as knobs turn and switches get flipped. By the time the song ends, you know that gravity is already a faint memory and you’re gliding in a tractor beam to whatever is out in the great unknown.
“Summer Madness” stretches time in my mind. The track has played tricks on my brain for decades because it feels like it’s seven, eight minutes long and not the 4:17 it actually is. Moreover, Kool & The Gang’s classic song feels welcoming, like opening of a door to an advanced yet friendly alternate universe. It sounds like an invitation to exploration and discovery, not conflict or imminent doom. If this tune’s in the air when extraterrestrials make themselves known, it’ll let them know that we want to, like, just chill.