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The top 10 songs about theme parks

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Published: May 15, 2014 at 9:03 AM

School’s almost out and summer’s almost here – which means that prime theme park season is about to begin. To get you roller coaster-ready, here’s a list of songs to add to your pre-park playlist. The 10 tunes below are all about specific theme parks, including some that are quite dear to the songwriters’ hearts. None are jingles or soundtracks created for play inside the parks – all are independently created songs that span pop, prog, alt-rock and garage rock. For your safety, hold onto any personal belongings, especially hats and glasses, until the playlist comes to a complete stop.

Palisades Park
Freddy Cannon 
Single (1962)

Fueled by an organ part that mimics a calliope, “Palisades Park” became a #3 hit for rock ’n’ roll singer Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon back in 1962. Future “Gong Show” host Chuck Barris wrote the two-minute romp about one of the most famous theme parks in the country at the time. Palisades Park was located in New Jersey, just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, and had been drawing families since it opened in 1898. In the 1950s and ’60s, NYC teenagers were coming on over – evident by the song’s story of a boy who experiences the park’s thrills, including a make-out session on top of the Ferris Wheel. Although the park didn’t last much longer (Palisades closed in 1971), the song would live on in cover versions by The Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen and The Ramones. (Side note: In the 1980s, Cannon re-recorded the tune as “Kennywood Park,” with altered lyrics that namecheck specific attractions, for an ad campaign.)

Cedar Point ’76
The Dirtbombs
B-side (2000)

Detroit garage rocker Mick Collins grew up taking trips to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, and the songwriter set this ode to teenage frustration at “America’s Roller Coast.” In the fuzz-rock gem, young Mick is trying to entice an older woman (she’s all of 13) into playing a game of pinball with him. But, darn his luck, Mom won’t give him any money. All he can do is watch as his “teen dream” vanishes in the queue for the Corkscrew coaster (which, in 1976, had just opened). In 2000, The Dirtbombs released “Cedar Point ’76” as the B-side to The White Stripes’ A-side, “Hand Springs.” All 2,000 copies of the single were included in issues of pinball fanzine Multiball – although the Dirtbombs track later became available on a singles compilation.

4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
Bruce Springsteen
From: The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973)

We return to Jersey, this time to the boardwalk amusements in Asbury Park, for another song that melds rides, youth and love. In one of the best songs he ever wrote, Bruce Springsteen sings about his waning enthusiasm for the delights of his “carnival life” on the Jersey boardwalk. The accordion swells and Bruce tries to cajole his old gal Sandy into going along with him to bust out of their hometown. He sings wearily of the usual seaside suspects before getting metaphorical with a story about the Tilt-a-Whirl. It turns out his shirt got caught on the ride and he kept spinning all night long – stuck in a place that had quickly lost its thrill. And it’s the Fourth of July and there are fireworks, but this is goodbye. Bruce is born to run and he’s off to discover the darkness that exists in the places the pier lights don’t reach.

The Heartbreak Rides
A.C. Newman
From: Get Guilty (2009)

Let me start by saying that I have no concrete evidence that this indie-pop tune is about Disneyland. But how could a song with a chorus of “Yo ho, Yo ho” not be about the Happiest Place on Earth? My interpretation is that A.C. Newman, best known as the prime mover in alt-rockers The New Pornographers, wrote the cryptic song about dealing with a personal tragedy by taking a trip to Disneyland. Lyrical clues include “‘L.A.!’ she cried,” “California adds some casual bedlam” as well as “yelling down the mountains.” We’re reminded again and again that “the heartbreak rides for free.” Maybe I’m way off… or maybe I’m not the only one who thinks a voyage on Pirates of the Caribbean is the solution to all of life’s problems.

Roller Coaster by the Sea
Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers
From: Rock ’n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers (1977)

Speaking of rides that can solve problems, singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman delivered this ode to a roller coaster that rescued him from feeling the weight of the world. Richman and his Modern Lovers were progenitors of punk rock, but the frontman went for a bouncy doo-wop pastiche on this tune, which references the park “down by the sea in Santa Cruz” (a.k.a. the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the oldest amusement park in California). The “roller coaster by the water” that made Jonathan “feel more as [he] oughta” is the legendary Giant Dipper, one of the oldest coasters in the world.

Lakeside Park
Rush
From: Caress of Steel (1975)

We go international with “Lakeside Park,” one of Rush’s early singles and a tribute to a park on the southern shore of Lake Ontario in Canada. Although bassist Geddy Lee sings the song, drummer Neil Peart wrote the lyrics, in which he waxes nostalgic for a childhood spent among “a thousand 10 cent wonders” and “midway lights.” Where Springsteen planned his story on the Fourth of July, the progressive rock titans remember the fireworks on the 24th of May – Victoria Day in Canada. Lakeside Park still stands in Port Dalhousie in St. Catharines, Ontario and (according to the ever-trustworthy internet) you can still ride the carousel for five cents a spin.

Amusement Parks USA
The Beach Boys
From: Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965)

We’re back in the U.S.A. – and quite a bit of it – for a Beach Boys tune that goes coast to coast in search of amusement. Apparently tired of catching a wave, the pop-rockers got around to cruising for girls at theme parks. The novelty tune – which features annoying screams and laughter in addition to a carnival barker spiel delivered by session drummer Hal Blaine – now stands as a mid-’60s theme park time capsule. Most of the parks that singers Mike Love and Brian Wilson mention by name, including Santa Monica’s P.O.P, Chicago’s Riverview Park, Cleveland’s Euclid Beach Park and New Jersey’s Palisades Park, would be dismantled in a matter of years. Then it was back to the beach for these boys.

Dizz Knee Land
dada
From: Puzzle (1992)

Alternative rockers dada – yes, with a lowercase “d” – scored a fairly big hit with their 1992 debut single. They also avoided a major lawsuit by creatively spelling the name of one of a famously litigious corporation. (Spelling, what can’t it do?) Admittedly the song has less to do with the Disn… ahem, Dizz Knee Land park and more with the famous slogan uttered by champion athletes on TV commercials. According to dada, the lyrics are meant to simulate a few moments spent channel surfing, in which someone witnesses random acts of violence interspersed with Joe Montana celebrating his Super Bowl win by planning a trip to the mouse’s house. Maybe dada could stage a big revival by writing a new song called “Show Us Your Dizz Knee Side.”

Big Dipper
Jethro Tull
From: Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! (1976)

If you love both prog-rock flautists and roller coasters, prepare yourself for your new favorite song. Ian Anderson wrote this track about young men getting wound up at Britain’s Blackpool Pleasure Beach, referencing its long-standing roller coaster, the Big Dipper, in the title. Of course, to the man who penned “Aqualung,” the “Big Dipper” isn’t just a theme park attraction but something that shouldn’t be discussed on a family website. Suffice it to say that Mr. Anderson starts with a day at the park but ends up taking a different sort of thrill ride by song’s end.

Skipper Dan
“Weird Al” Yankovic
Single (2009)

The clown prince of song parodies crafted this backhanded ode to Jungle Cruise skippers “doing 34 shows a day.” With Disneyland and the power pop of Weezer as his twin inspirations, “Weird Al” spins a yarn about an actor who thought he’d become a star of stage and screen, but ended up “stuck telling these lame jokes again and again and again” as the skipper of the Congo Queen. Yankovic serves up the song with sardonic references to Jungle Cruise elements (“Look at those hippos, they’re wigglin’ their ears / Just like they’ve done for the past 50 years”) and enough pent-up actor’s frustration to make it believable. You just don’t want to be onboard when Skipper Dan finally snaps.

Readers' Opinions

From 141.106.185.159 on May 15, 2014 at 10:21 AM
Tunnel of Love - Dire Straits. Classic of the sub-genre.
From James Koehl on May 15, 2014 at 11:12 AM
This was a great article! I have never heard "Cedar Point '76"...probably neither did anybody else ;+)
From Marc Ricketts on May 15, 2014 at 12:57 PM
I had the Tull album on cassette but can't recall the song mentioned, may have to find it. Since we're in the UK I would add Tunnel of Love by Dire Straits about Spanish City. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_City
Perhaps because of all the TV ads out of Santa Cruz I was expecting to see Under the Boardwalk on the list, too.
From Derek Potter on May 15, 2014 at 2:58 PM
I'm a Rush fan. Lakeside Park has always been one of my favorites. Neil Peart's words and the music paint a vivid picture of first a boy, then a teenager, then an adult.

"Midway hawkers calling try your luck with me
Merry go round wheezing same old melodies
A thousand ten cent wonders, who could ask for more
A pocket full of silver, the key to heavens door."

The guy really is a classics author trapped in a musicians body.

One honorable mention for the list...Coney Island Baby by Tom Waits, not to be confused with Lou Reed's song of the same name. It's not about a park, but about the girl he's at the park with. I've always liked this video with the song put with old Coney Island footage.

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