Thunder On The Mountain: The theme of weather in popular music culture

It’s night time in the big city. Rain is falling, fog rolls in from the waterfront. A night shift nurse smokes the last cigarette in a pack. Curious about what the weather looks like? Just look out your window, take a walk outside.

These words mark the beginning of the first ever episode of Bob Dylan’s acclaimed radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, which first aired in May 2006 and ran for 100 episodes until April 2009. Each episode saw Dylan fulfilling the role of DJ, playing songs around a central theme.

The fact that Dylan should choose The Weather as his opening topic is fitting given that the subject has played a recurring role in his own songwriting over the past six decades. On this evidence, it would appear that Dylan is a weather buff – perhaps not in the scientific sense (although he does reveal an impressive knowledge of cloud types during the first TTRH episode), but certainly in the mysterious, romantic, wondrous sense, using meteorological imagery as both backdrop and metaphor. A good example of this can be taken from Dylan’s own biography from 2004, Chronicles Volume I, which details with great clarity his emergence from the folk scene of New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s:

I’d soon be hired to play at the Gaslight and never see the basket houses again. Outside of Mills Tavern the thermometer was creeping up to about ten below. My breath froze in the air, but I didn’t feel the cold. I was heading for the fantastic lights. No doubt about it.

Dylan continues to utilise the subject as a dramatic device in his art to this day. During an interview with Bill Flanagan in 2009 following the release of his 33rd studio album Together Through Life, Dylan was presented with a mysterious scene and was then asked if he was most likely to reach for his drawing pad or his guitar first in response. Dylan’s reply?

Oh wow. It would depend on a lot of things. The environment mostly; like what kind of day is it. Is it a cloudless blue-gray sky or does it look like rain?

It seems even now, his first thoughts relating to storytelling and subject matter are determined by the specifics of the meteorological conditions and the mood that this creates.

My original idea for this blog was to focus solely on the theme of weather in Dylan’s own songs. However, I soon discovered that this has been done already, and rather brilliantly at that (Robock 2005). So instead, I decided to cast my net wider and explore the influence of weather imagery on popular music as a whole, going back as far as the late 1940s, considering songs that make reference to meteorological phenomena in either the lyrics and/or the title. What I present here is a summary of my findings in the form of my own personal top 20, in no particular order (admittedly I couldn’t resist throwing in a couple of Dylan numbers). I hope you enjoy it, and perhaps even discover a new song or two along the way. And remember, you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows…

1) Make It Rain (Foy Vance / Ed Sheeran , 2014)

I first saw Foy live by accident when he appeared as the support act for blues guitarist Buddy Guy at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester back in 2008. Foy performed an amazing set that was worth the admission price alone, and this song was one of the highlights. A live version was released on 2014’s Live at Bangor Abbey. Ed Sheeran has also recorded a fine studio version for season 7 of American TV crime drama Sons Of Anarchy.

2) Tokyo Storm Warning (Elvis Costello, from the album Blood and Chocolate, 1986)

Costello teamed up with his backing band The Attractions to record this album, which saw a return to the post-punk energy of his earlier work from the late 70s. In the liner notes from his 1989 Best Of collection, Costello shed light on the motivation for this song:

"Fatigue can play cruel tricks upon your perceptions, but arriving early one violent morning, among the frenzied commuters, with the storm clouds down beneath the tops of the tallest building, Tokyo DID seem like the setting for a particularly brutal science-fiction story (perhaps something by Philip. K. Dick). So thinking 'Why stop there, let's trash the world', I recalled twenty years of nightmares, actual or altered, to present this thug's eye view of the planet."

3) Midnight Lightning (Jimi Hendrix, from the album South Saturn Delta, 1997)

A full band arrangement of this song was released on the posthumous 1975 compilation album of the same name, but this version from the 1997 rarities collection South Saturn Delta is superior for me - just Hendrix playing an out of phase Fender Stratocaster through a classic valve amplifier  in the delta blues style, creating a wonderfully brooding, eerie atmosphere. “Midnight Lightnin’ …flashing all around me…Lord, see it flashin’ all around the trees…Thunder crashing…See where the fields lie on our tree in our little dream.”

4) A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall (Bob Dylan, from the album The Freewheelin’, 1963)

Hard Rain paints a vivid picture of a post-apocalyptic world, the exact cause of which Dylan was clever enough not to reveal in the song’s lyrics. Although it was almost certainly inspired by the Cold War and the threat of the atomic bomb, Dylan was always quick to deny this and instead leave it open to interpretation. This was a masterstroke that made the song timeless; indeed given lines like the following it is perhaps just as relevant today as when it was first released: “I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests/ I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans”…“I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warnin’ / I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world"

5) Summer Breeze (The Isley Brothers, from the album 3 + 3, 1974)

With a killer guitar riff and smooth, soulful vocals, this is the definitive sound of summer. It also takes me back to my childhood. I have a vivid memory of going on a family holiday to Spain when I was about 11 or 12; we flew from Manchester and, after we landed, we were immediately hit by a wall of heat with this song playing gently over the plane’s PA system as we disembarked: “Summer breeze / Makes me feel fine / Blowing through the jasmine in my mind.”

6) Texas Flood (Stevie Ray Vaughan, from the album Texas Flood, 1983)

This, the title track from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s debut album, is a cover of a Larry Davis slow blues number from 1958. Stevie’s version contains extended improvised guitar soloing that doubles the length of the original recording. Interestingly, Stevie’s second album was called ‘Couldn’t Stand the Weather’, and featured a single of the same name. Tragically Stevie died in a helicopter crash in August 1990, aged 35. Despite only seven years in the mainstream, he was a hugely influential figure in the 80’s blues revival, and is revered by many guitar players for his virtuoso talent.

7) Here Comes The Sun (The Beatles, from the album Abbey Road, 1969)

Possibly my most favourite of all the Beatles songs. The sound of George Harrison’s joyous opening guitar is the musical equivalent of being woken up by crepuscular rays gently breaking through your bedroom window after the soundest of sleeps.

8) Like A Hurricane (Neil Young, from the album American Stars n’ Bars, 1977)

An eight minute tour de force about desire and unfulfilled longing. The song flies out of the blocks, fully established with little warning, all raw and ragged,  and yet somehow managing to fuel and sustain itself with its own intrinsic energy. Like a hurricane indeed.

“You are like a hurricane / There’s calm in your eye / And I’m gettin’ blown away / To somewhere safer where the feeling stays / I want to love you but I’m getting blown away”

9) Rain (The Beatles, single, 1966)

Featuring the line “Sh—iiiii—nne, the weather’s fine”, this is a song that Liam Gallagher has effectively spent his whole career apeing. Almost instantly recognisable as a John Lennon song, ‘Rain’ was the flip side to ‘Paperback Writer’ as part of a double A-side release in 1966. It was the first Beatles song to feature backwards lyrics, pointing the way to the psychedelia of Revolver that was released later that same year.

10) Riders On The Storm (The Doors, from the album L.A. Woman, 1971)

This song begins with samples of a real thunderstorm, and Ray Manzarek’s opening piano mimicking the sound of falling rain. Indeed Manzarek’s electric piano riff is central to the mood of the song – a subtle, reaching melody that adds to the sense of slow foreboding through unrelenting conditions. This feeling is amplified by Jim Morrison’s rather creepy lyrics referring to “a killer on the road”. Riders on the Storm was the last Doors single to be released before Morrison’s death in Paris in July 1971, at the age of just 27.

11) You’ll Never Walk Alone (Gerry and the Pacemakers, from the album How Do You Like It?, 1963)

When you walk through a storm / Hold your head up high / And don’t be afraid of the dark / At the end of the storm / There’s a golden sky / And the sweet silver song of the lark / Walk on through the wind / Walk on through the rain / Though your dreams by tossed and blown”.

Originally written for the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, this  song has been covered numerous times over the years, with many considering the Gerry and the Pacemakers version to be the best. YNWA is a song about hope, belief, strength and solidarity in the face of adversity, and has been adopted as the anthem of several football clubs, including Glasgow Celtic, Borussia Dortmund, and most famously, Liverpool FC.

12) Chimes Of Freedom (Bob Dylan, from the album Another Side Of Bob Dylan, 1964)

When I first discovered this song it took me a few listens to figure out what it was about, but the basic premise revolves around Dylan taking shelter from an evening thunderstorm in a church doorway. Amidst the “majestic bells of bolts” and “wild ripping hail”, Dylan experiences a series of images reflected as truth in the raw power and beauty of nature – “the Chimes of Freedom flashin’ ”.  Another landmark early Dylan composition that revealed his exponentially developing ability for blending traditional melodies with surreal, poetic lyrics in a way that tore up the rulebook and redefined pop and rock music for ever.

13) Summertime (Sam Cooke, from the album Songs of Sam Cooke, 1957)

What a voice Sam Cooke had. Summertime was written by George Gershwin for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, and is one of the most covered songs of all time. But Sam Cooke’s version stands out for its soulful, effortless brilliance and laid-back feel. “Summertime and the living is easy / Fish are jumping and the cotton is high / Your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good looking / Hush little baby, don’t you cry.”

14) Get Off Of My Cloud (The Rolling Stones, from the album December’s Children (And Everybody’s), 1965)

The Stone’s follow-up single to their hit I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction). The song’s title refers to a hipster expression, with the ‘cloud’ referring to a happy place – cloud nine perhaps? – and hence ‘get off of my cloud’ is like saying  ‘stop bringing me down, man!’ “It’s three a.m., there’s too much noise / Don’t you people ever wanna go to bed? / Just ’cause you feel so good, do you have /  To drive me out of my head?” /  I said, Hey! You! Get off of my cloud”.

15) Five Feet High And Rising (Jonny Cash, from the album Songs Of Our Soil, 1959)

“How high’s the water, mama? Five feet high and risin’.” Not a song about weather directly, but rather the impacts of weather. There is no-one better to explain the background to this song than The Man In Black himself, so, over to you Jonny…

16) Sunny Afternoon (The Kinks, from the album Face to Face, 1966)

The descending chromatic riff that runs through this song, coupled with lyrics that tell the tale of a rather odious character who deserves little sympathy for his situation, bely the happiness implied in the song’s title. “The tax man’s taken all my dough / And left me in my stately home / Lazing on a sunny afternoon.” This type of social commentary was typical of Ray Davies’ songwriting style, a mantle later taken up by Damon Albarn in the nineties. Talking of whom…

17) This Is A Low (Blur, from the album Parklife, 1994)

With lyrics inspired by the shipping forecast, this is the only song I could find whose lyrics attempt to quantify the intensity of a mid-latitude cyclone (“On the Tyne, Forth and Cromarty / There’s a low in the high forties”) The song makes specific reference to several shipping areas, including the Bay of Biscay, Malin Head and Dogger Bank. To my ears this remains one of Blur’s finest ever songs, and features a swirling, geostrophic guitar solo by Graham Coxon.

18) Emotional Weather Report (Tom Waits, from the album Nighthawks At The Diner, 1975)

Thanks to @BogdanAntonescu for bringing this one to my attention. This song contains a plethora of very specific meteorological references, and uses them as metaphor for relationship troubles. We have pretty much the full range here, from cold fronts and tornadoes, to high pressure regions and ridges. Tom Waits’ voice has been described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding like “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.”

19) Weather With You (Crowded House, from the album Woodface, 1991)

“Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you”. Most of the songs on Crowded House’s third studio album, including this one, were co-written by the talented songwriting duo of the Finn brothers, Neil and Tim. Weather With You was the third single taken from Woodface. Indeed this wasn’t the only weather-themed song from this record; Four Seasons In One Day was also released as a single, and both songs featured on their 1996 compilation album Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House.

20) Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just As Bad) (T-Bone Walker, single, 1947)

The oldest recorded song on this list, also known more simply as ‘Stormy Monday’. T-Bone was an early pioneer of the electric guitar as a lead instrument and a real showman – he was playing the guitar behind his head when a certain James Marshall Hendrix was still a toddler. T-Bone is a true legend of the blues, and much of the modern lead guitar style can be traced back to the techniques that he invented and utilised.


Dylan, B., 2004: Chronicles Vol. I. Simon and Schuster UK Ltd, London.


Written on July 5, 2015