“Kokomo” Turns 25

25 years ago:
Love it? Hate it?
“Kokomo” was #1
for the Beach Boys

david fpIn 1988, the Beach Boys were toast.  Done.  Only in their 40s, they were already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is life’s way of saying, “We love what you did for us, but we’ve moved on.  Now run along and play your oldies at Riverbend, and those other little fairs and festivals.”  They hadn’t had a number-one hit (“Good Vibrations”) in 22 years.  Their most recent top-10 hit, “Rock and Roll Music” had been in 1976, and even that was a nostalgia piece recorded by Chuck Berry in 1957.  Radio stations were playing Whitesnake, Guns ‘N Roses and Def Leppard.  Brian Wilson, the troubled genius behind the Beach Boys’ solid-gold 60s sound, was off recording a solo album.  Younger brother Dennis, the drummer, had drowned five years earlier, leaving Carl as the only Wilson still active with the group.  He and cousin Mike Love, family friend Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston, Brian’s longtime fill-in, made up the rest of the act.  One of the top-selling groups of all time didn’t even have a record label.  So how did this happen?

In early 1988, a Tom Cruise movie called “Cocktail” was being prepared for a summer release, and it needed some soundtrack tunes.  Producer Terry Melcher and songwriter John Phillips (Papa John of the Mamas and the Papas) had collaborated on a little tune about a tropical getaway.  After seeing some footage from the movie, they thought their song would be a good fit, and Melcher’s old friends the Beach Boys would be the perfect group to record it.  Mike Love changed a few words and contributed the chorus and opening lines, “Bermuda, Jamaica…” which he admits were inspired by this song from 1955:

The song was completed, the movie was released, and for a while nothing happened.  Elektra Records didn’t think it was strong enough to be released as a single.  The Beach Boys started performing it in their summer concerts, but compared to familiar sing-along hits like “California Girls” and “Help Me Rhonda,” it was getting little audience response.  Someone then came up with the idea of producing a music video, mixing a lip-sync performance by the group with movie clips featuring Cruise juggling bottles behind a bar.  The video was shot at the newly opened Grand Floridian Resort at Walt Disney World in Florida, with “Full House” heart-throb John Stamos pretending to play the drums.  Cheerleaders who were staying at the resort provided a bikini-clad audience backdrop, and the video was quickly a hit on VH-1.  By late October, “Kokomo” was the most popular song in the USA.

It was not without its detractors, however.  Some Beach Boys purists disapproved because it was the group’s first big hit with no involvement from Brian Wilson.  He didn’t write it, didn’t play on it, and didn’t sing a note, so how could it be a true Beach Boys song?  In later years, VH-1 itself named it one of the era’s “40 Most Awesomely Bad Songs,” and Blender magazine included it on its list of “50 Worst Songs Ever.”  Even now it gets limited play on oldies and satellite radio outlets.  Programmers say their research shows people either love it or hate it, “and we try to avoid playing songs that people hate.”

At least the folks in Vermont have cooled down.  When the song was getting all that airplay in 1988, a commonly-misheard lyric was Mike Love’s spoken “Martinique…that Montserrat mystique.”  Many people, including Vermonters, thought he was singing, “Vermont’s a rotten state.” In the context of the song, it made sense.  After all, it was about tropical climes, not chilly old Vermont.  Eventually, most of us figured it out.

Twenty-five years later, many of us are still looking for that fictional place off the Florida Keys, where we go to get away from it all.  The song that dominated the airwaves in the fall of 1988 still says “summer” especially when you hear the angelic voice of the late Carl Wilson: “We’ll get there fast, and then we’ll take it slow…that’s where we want to go…way down to Kokomo…”

It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since the song was released.  At that time, my wife and I were taking a fall trip to Myrtle Beach hearing this song get played over and over, so it brings back pleasant memories. In fact, a few days ago it came in handy again.  I was undergoing a rather painful procedure in the doctor’s office (nothing serious, but it did involve some discomfort).  The doctor said, “This is going to sting for about ten minutes, so try to think about something that will get your mind off the pain.”  So there I sat, singing “Kokomo” to myself 2 or 3 times until the pain began to ease.  Unlike most songs in my top-40 mental database, I actually know all the words to this one!  So call it one of the worst songs of all time if you like.  All I know is, it made me feel better for a few minutes.  If I could write a song like that, I’d feel pretty good about myself, no matter what the critics say.

Oh by the way, the Muppets took a shot at “Kokomo” a few years later.  It’s one of their better music video efforts:

 

About David Carroll

David Carroll grew up surrounded by the sights and sounds of broadcasting. As a teenager, David began his radio career in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee before making it to the “Great Jet-Fli,” WFLI, the 50,000 watt rock ‘n roll voice of Chattanooga. David was the first voice on the city’s powerful KZ-106 rock station before switching to TV. Since 1987 he has anchored the evening news on WRCB Channel 3, the NBC affiliate. Since April 2013, he has blogged purely for his own amusement, but hopes others enjoy it as well. To contact David, Email: 3dc@comcast.net

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