In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
A song starts out as a dark, sneering joke. A dying man sings goodbye to the world — his friends, his pastor, his wife. But as he sings goodbye, he also sings that he knows about his wife’s affair with one of his friends. Maybe he’s dying by suicide. He could be reaching out to his loved ones even despite the things that they’ve done to him, confirming their common humanity and letting them know that he forgives them. Or maybe it’s all one last passive-aggressive jape. But the song doesn’t stay that way.
Instead, the song changes over the years, as other people cover it. It loses things in translation, both musical and literal. And when it hits #1 in the US and across the world more than a decade later, it becomes a soft, sad farewell, one with no lingering meanness. The affair, which was maybe the whole point of the original song, is gone. It’s just a song about death. There’s nothing funny about it, except maybe in the story of what happened to the song in the first place.
That’s the story of “Seasons In The Sun,” which went from bleak comedy to sentimental mush over the course of 13 years. Before “Seasons In The Sun” was “Seasons In The Sun,” it was “Le Moribond,” a bittersweet 1961 death song from the Belgian poet and composer Jacquel Brel. Brel, a layered songwriter, wrote it as a chanson about warmth and despair and anger, letting them all sit comfortably next to one another.
In 1964, the Kingston Trio, who’d already had a #1 hit with their version of the folk standard “Tom Dooley,” covered “Le Moribond.” The American poet Rod McKuen translated Brel’s lyrics into English, keeping the stuff about the cheating wife intact. The Kingston Trio’s version is a bit of a stentorian march, but they let some melodic sweetness creep in, too. And that newly rewritten chorus — “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun” — was straight-up stupid-catchy.
Enter Terry Jacks. Jacks, raised in Edmonton and Vancouver, started out his musical journey as a member of the Chessmen, a Vancouver garage band who were part of that great mid-’60s Pacific Northwest scene. The Chessmen’s sound was surprisingly raw and gnarly, and it was nothing like where Jacks would eventually end up. (Decades later, Jacks would return to some variation on that sound when he did some production for Vancouver hardcore greats DOA.) One night when the Chessmen were performing on a Canadian TV show, Jacks met a singer named Susan Pesklevits. They fell in love and formed the starry-eyed folk-rock duo the Poppy Family, who scored exactly one massive North American hit, the jangly 1969 swoon “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” (That song peaked at #2, and it’s a 7.)
The marriage and the group both broke up in 1973, and the Beach Boys, who’d become friendly with Jacks, asked him to produce a song for them. Jacks had just seen a friend die of leukemia, so he suggested “Seasons In The Sun,” which he knew from the Kingston Trio version. They went to work on the song together, but the Beach Boys were in a state of flux. Brian Wilson was the band’s troubled production genius, and he wanted to work on songs until they sounded perfect to him. Other members of the band disagreed. Wilson kept trying to tinker with Jacks’ production, and Jacks eventually got sick of all the intra-band drama and decided to record the song himself.
In recording his version of the song, Jacks rewrote it, taking out all the cheating-wife stuff and replacing it with uncomplicated declarations of love: “Goodbye Michelle, my little one / You gave me love and helped me find the sun,” that kind of thing. (Jacks didn’t think to give himself songwriting credit, even though he was well within his rights to do so.) Even without its complicated malevolence, the twice-removed lyrics of “Seasons In The Sun” have a certain power. It becomes a song about pure heartbreak, about knowing you’re going to die and realizing that you really liked being alive: “Goodbye my friend, it’s hard to die / When all the birds are singing in the sky.” I imagine that in an America that was still reeling from the Vietnam War, when a whole lot of people had dead friends, those lyrics struck an extra chord.
The real problem with “Seasons In The Sun” isn’t those rewritten lyrics; it’s Jacks himself. If he’d ever managed to finish that Beach Boys version of the song, he might’ve really had something, especially if he’d let Brian Wilson make the tweaks he wanted to make. But as a singer, Terry Jacks was no replacement for all five Beach Boys. His voice is a thin, tremulous squeak, a vehicle that’s simply not equipped to convey the song’s feeling. In that voice, “Seasons In The Song” doesn’t sound like a sweeping and loving farewell to life. It sounds like whining. The production fits squarely into that mid-’70s cheese-pop aesthetic, too. There’s a nice sustain on the opening guitar chords, but soon enough, all the obligatory strings drown those sounds out. And in Jacks’ hands, the chorus becomes a maddening earworm, an unshakable jingle.
Jacks would make a few more minor hits, but he mostly left his music career behind in the late ’70s. Instead, he became a Christian and an environmental activist. He’s won a bunch of awards for his environmental work. So even if I don’t like his one #1 hit, Jacks deserves some kind of salute for trying to extend the rest of our seasons in the sun.
BONUS BEATS: Kurt Cobain once wrote in one of his diaries that “Seasons In The Sun” made him cry and that it was the first record he ever bought. In 1993, a shifted-around lineup of Nirvana — Cobain on drums, Dave Grohl on bass, Krist Novoselic on guitar — recorded an intentionally sloppy demo cover of “Seasons In The Sun,” and it came out on the 2004 collection With The Lights Out. Here it is:
(Nirvana’s highest-charting song is 1991’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which peaked at #6. It’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the genuinely lovely cover of “Seasons In The Sun” that the orchestral-Britpop group Black Box Recorder released in 1998:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here is the inevitable Me First And The Gimme Gimmes cover of “Seasons In The Sun,” from the 1997 album Have A Ball:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Eddie Kendricks silky proto-disco stomper “Boogie Down” peaked at #2 behind “Seasons In The Sun.” It’s an 8.