This is about looking back on a past relationship and wanting your ex back - wanting to return to what you had. The first verse depicts how the writer is left behind. His ex has moved on but he hasn't and still hangs onto hope: "But babe, I'm gonna get you back, I'm gonna show you what I'm made of / those days are gone forever I should just let them go but..." At first he is hanging onto hope but then he realizes that he must let go. The "Boys of Summer" could refer to the boys his ex is now seeing, and how they are just summer flings, while he is in it for the long haul.
Don Henley told the NME that he really did see a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. Said the Eagles frontman: "I was driving down the San Diego freeway and got passed by a $21,000 Cadillac Seville, the status symbol of the Right-wing upper-middle-class American bourgeoisie – all the guys with the blue blazers with the crests and the grey pants – and there was this Grateful Dead 'Deadhead' bumper sticker on it!"
The opening lyrics ("Nobody on the roads, nobody on the beach") refer to the California coast as summer turns into fall. It becomes a much quieter place when the weather gets cold.
The title comes from a baseball book by Roger Kahn called Boys of Summer. The book is about The Brooklyn Dodgers, who broke the hearts of their fans when they moved to Los Angeles.
The music was written by Mike Campbell, who worked with Tom Petty as a guitarist and producer for many years. He has also written tracks for many songs, including "Refugee," "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," and "Don't Do Me Like That." Campbell offered this to Petty, but he turned it down and the song went to Henley, who wrote the lyrics. Campbell also played guitar on this and produced it.
Mike Campbell told us about recording this song: "I used to have a 4-track machine in my house and I had just gotten a drum machine - it's when the Roger Linn drum machine first came out. I was playing around with that and came up with a rhythm. I made the demo on my little 4-track and I showed it to Tom, but at the time, the record we were working on, Southern Accents, it didn't really sound like anything that would fit into the album. The producer we were working with at the time, Jimmy Iovine, called me up one day and said he had spoken with Don, who I'd never met, and said that he was looking for songs. He gave me his number and I called him up and played it for him and he called me the next day and said he put it on in his car and had written these words and wanted to record it. That's kind of how it started. Basically, he wanted to recreate the demo as close as we could. We ended up changing the key for the voice. We actually cut it in one key, did the whole record with overdubs and everything, and then he decided to change the key like a half step up or something, we had to do the whole record again, but it turned out pretty good."
The video for this song was the big winner at the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards, just the second year the awards were held. It won for Video of the Year, Best Director, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography.
The director was Jean-Baptiste Mondino, a French graphic designer/photographer who had made a video for the song "Cargo de Nuit" by a French singer named Axel Bauer. Mondino sent that video to Jeff Ayeroff, an executive at Henley's label, Geffen Records. Ayeroff flew Mondino to California and had him meet with Henley, who was baffled by the pitch but decided to go with it and let Mondino do his thing.
Speaking about his connection to the song in the book I Want My MTV, Mondino said: "I was living in Paris, and we were into a new era, more modern. But I couldn't refuse to go to LA - it was like a dream. When I got there, I was very disappointed, because there's a big difference between what I saw when I was a kid in the beautiful old Hollywood movies, and what LA's actually about. When I listened to 'Boys Of Summer,' there was something nostalgic - he was looking back, talking about something that he's leaving behind. The '70s were dying."
Shot in black and white, (as were many of Mondino's videos), it was artistic and abstract. When Henley accepted the award for Best Video at the VMAs, he admitted to having no idea what was going on when they shot the clip, but said that Mondino and his crew made "Southern California look like the South of France." Getting Henley to show up to an awards show was no easy feat - when The Eagles won the Album of the Year Grammy for Hotel California, Henley and the rest of the band skipped the ceremony.
The Ataris did a cover of this in 2003. Mike Campbell's thoughts on their version: "I like it a lot. My son's 15, he has a punk band and he was excited about it. I thought it took some balls to try that song, it's not a song you expect a young band like that to do, but I kind of like their version of it. I listened to it closely and noticed that they had done a lot of the guitar parts and they had changed a little bit but not a whole lot. I like the way the guy sang it, they changed one lyric and I thought that was cool. I heard it on the radio three times in one day and I got kind of excited about it." (Read more in our interview with Mike Campbell
In The Ataris version, instead of saying "I saw a DEADHEAD sticker on a Cadillac" they say "I saw a BLACK FLAG sticker on a Cadillac." Black Flag is a hardcore punk band that Henry Rollins fronted.
The Ataris played their version of this at the 2003 Home Run Derby. ESPN used the song in various promos for the event. It may have been the last time one of Henley's songs was used on the network. A short time later, ESPN hired conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh as a football analyst. Henley can't stand Limbaugh, and has refused to license his songs to ESPN ever since they put him on the air.
In 2010, Henley won a lawsuit against Chuck Devore, who was running for a US Senate seat in California. Devore - a Republican - used "The Boys of Summer" and "All She Wants to do is Dance" in his campaign advertising, which didn't go over well with Henley. A California judge didn't buy Devore's defense that he was making "fair use" of the songs. Devore didn't get the nomination, finishing third in the Republican primary.
MTV exposure from this song's video raised Henley's profile but cost him a degree of anonymity. With the Eagles, he was tucked away behind a drum kit, and rarely on TV. Only one video was made for his first album - that was "Johnny Can't Read
," and MTV rarely played it. Once "The Boys of Summer" got in hot rotation, Henley found himself suddenly recognizable, which often made him uncomfortable.