The Number Ones

November 5, 1988

The Number Ones: The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

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“He’s always been chickenshit to get onstage with the Beach Boys.” That was Mike Love, visibly seething, talking about Mick Jagger. Love stared steely-eyed at the crowd in the ballroom of New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and he didn’t like what he saw. That night, Love’s group the Beach Boys were being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame alongside the Beatles, the Supremes, and Bob Dylan, among others. Love was pissed about something, though it’s never been entirely clear what. Love’s response was to turn heel in front of the entire world.

When Love made his speech that night, his cousin and sometime bandmate Brian Wilson, looking shaken but healthy, had just read through a warm, pleasant thank-you to the Hall Of Fame for letting his group in. Carl Wilson had made a brief statement about how his late brother and bandmate Dennis would’ve been honored at the tribute. (Dennis had died about four years earlier, drowning while diving in the water off of Marina Del Rey. He was 39.) But Mike Love wasn’t having any of that. Mike Love was going to let this room know that he was not into what was happening.

That night, Love seemed enraged that certain notable figures, like Paul McCartney and Diana Ross, weren’t there for the induction, as both had issues with their ex-bandmates at the time. (Love would learn all about that soon enough.) In making his statement, Love, looking like the villain in a B-movie, somehow managed to insult Ross, McCartney, Jagger, and Billy Joel. He also tried to say the word “internecine” twice and failed both times. It seems like he was trying to make the point that the Beach Boys still played shows all the time and that the rest of the world should aspire to their level of excellence. The statement was not well-received. Immediately afterward, Elton John, who’d given the Beach Boys’ induction speech, grabbed the mic and said, “Thank fuck he didn’t mention me!”

There’s a reason why the Beach Boys had been staying on the road. For decades, the group had been a commercial nonentity. They’d made the conscious decision to hit the oldies circuit in the early ’70s, when that circuit was first becoming a thing. Brian Wilson, the troubled genius at the center of the Beach Boys, had tried to push the group into the psychedelic ether, but Love resisted, and he won. After Wilson’s masterpiece “Good Vibrations” topped the Hot 100 in December of 1966, the Beach Boys went more than 20 years without a #1 hit. In fact, between 1966 and 1988, they’d only made the top 10 once — in 1976, when a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock And Roll Music” peaked at #5. (The Beach Boys’ “Rock And Roll Music” is a 5.) But less than a year after that Hall Of Fame speech — and 22 years after “Good Vibrations” — the Beach Boys somehow returned to #1 with a song that didn’t involve Brian Wilson at all. It would’ve been a feelgood comeback if Love wasn’t such an asshole.

People hate “Kokomo.” The Beach Boys’ improbable late-career hit has a reputation as a monument to mediocrity. To this day, it serves as a textbook cautionary tale of a once-beloved group poisoning its own legacy and goodwill by making smarmy ’80s yuppie pablum. That reputation isn’t wrong, exactly, but it makes “Kokomo” out to be something more spectacularly bad than it ever could be. It almost gives the song too much credit.

I don’t want to explain away anyone else’s gut reactions, but I think the antipathy toward “Kokomo” has more to do with Mike Love than with the song itself. Mike Love is not a sympathetic figure. (Neither, for that matter, is “Kokomo” co-writer John Phillips.) The whole Beach Boys story is firmly established rock-canon stuff now. Brian Wilson got so ambitious with his productions that he alienated his bandmates, who didn’t especially want to explore new sonic frontiers but who did want to make as much money as possible. Brian, battling drug problems and schizoaffective disorder, spent years under the control of an opportunistic therapist, as Mike Love took charge of the group and used it to tour state fairs and to make ever-chintzier music.

Mike Love has filed a whole lot of lawsuits against his former bandmates. He’s played Trump fundraisers and posed for pictures with the man. His Beach Boys kept touring last year, during the pandemic. Everytime he’s got a microphone pointed at him, Love makes some wildly self-aggrandizing claim. He’s bad news. But Mike Love really did have a hand in writing many, many classic Beach Boys songs, “Good Vibrations” included, and his voice was key to the group’s everlasting choirboy appeal. You don’t have to like the man, but you do have to acknowledge him as a musician.

In any case, the Beach Boys were not a fantastically relevant act when Love made his Hall Of Fame induction speech. The Beach Boys had made a hit in 1987, but it had been a total novelty. The Beach Boys recorded a version of “Wipeout,” which hadn’t even been a Beach Boys song, with joke-rap group the Fat Boys, and the track made it up to #12. It’s not exactly a Beach Boys classic.

At the time that they recorded “Kokomo,” the Beach Boys didn’t even have a record label. The group did, however, have an agent who was actively looking for movies that could use a Beach Boys song on the soundtrack. The group got ahold of the script for Cocktail, the terrible Tom Cruise hotshot-bartender film, and the group seized on the part where Cruise temporarily fucks off to Jamaica to mix drinks on a beach. (That same segment of the movie also included Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” which topped the Hot 100 a few weeks before “Kokomo.”) The Beach Boys figured that soundtracking this beach scene was within their skillset, and they found a song that fit.

“Kokomo” itself has a long and twisty history, which Brad Shoup laid out in this 30th-anniversary piece for Stereogum a few years ago. The track didn’t start its life as a Beach Boys song. John Phillips, the leader of former Number Ones artists the Mamas And The Papas, had come up with the title for “Kokomo,” and he’d recorded the original demo for the song. At the time, Phillips was, if anything, doing worse than the Beach Boys. The Mamas And The Papas had broken up in 1968, and Phillips’ solo career had not been a raging success. (Phillips’ only charting solo single, 1970’s “Mississippi,” peaked at #32.) In 1981, Phillips was convicted of drug trafficking, and he did a short prison stint.

After his release, Phillips got a new version of the Mamas And The Papas together, but he and bandmate Denny Doherty had to work with replacement Mamas. Mama Cass had died in 1974, and Michelle Phillips had divorced John in 1970. (One of the replacement Mamas was Phillips’ daughter Mackenzie, who later accused her father of incest.) In 1987, when Denny Doherty quit, Phillips was the only original Mama And The Papa left, and he replaced Doherty with an old friend: The singer-songwriter and one-hit wonder Scott McKenzie, who had once been in a folk group called the Journeymen with Phillips. (McKenzie’s one hit, 1967’s “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” peaked at #4. It’s a 6.)

Together, Phillips and McKenzie recorded the original demo of “Kokomo,” a song about a horny vacation. Phillips had made up the idea of Kokomo, a little place off the Florida Keys. (Kokomo, famously, is not a real place, though plenty of bars and resorts started calling themselves Kokomo once the song became a hit.) That original demo of “Kokomo” is extremely boring and self-satisfied yacht-rock, and it never would’ve been a hit in that state.

When the Beach Boys got ahold of “Kokomo,” they rewrote it, and they had help from a friend. Terry Melcher, the son of the singer and movie star Doris Day, had gone way back with the Beach Boys. In the early ’60s, Melcher had been a member of the Rip Chords, a group that had some success by shamelessly aping the Beach Boys’ harmony-heavy surf-pop style. (The Rip Chords’ highest-charting single, 1963’s “Hey Little Cobra,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.) While in the Rip Chords, Melcher went to work for Columbia, his mother’s label, where he produced the Byrds’ two #1 hits. Then, in 1968, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson introduced Melcher to Charles Manson.

Dennis knew Manson because he’d picked up two hitchhiking girls who turned out to be members of the Manson family, and Manson essentially moved his whole cult into Dennis’ house for a while. Dennis temporarily fell under Manson’s spell, and he tried to help Manson get a record deal. The Beach Boys released a version of a song that Manson had written as a 1968 B-side. Melcher flirted with the idea of signing Manson, but he ultimately decided against it, which enraged Manson. In August of 1969, Manson sent some of his followers to the house where Melcher and his girlfriend, the actress Candice Bergen, had been living. Melcher and Bergen had moved out/ The Manson family killed the four people they found there instead, including Sharon Tate. Melcher went into seclusion for a while.

By the mid-’80s, Melcher was back to producing, and he made some records with the Beach Boys. (Brian Wilson, who’d produced all of the Beach Boys’ classic hits, was an off-and-on member of the group by that point.) One of those Melcher-produced tracks was a 1986 cover of the Mamas And The Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” so maybe that opened up lines of communication with John Phillips. (The Mamas And The Papas’ original “California Dreamin'” peaked at #4 in 1966. It’s a 9. The Beach Boys’ cover peaked at #57.)

Together, Terry Melcher and Mike Love rewrote “Kokomo.” They gave the song a chorus, which just reels off the names of various Caribbean locations, and they changed the song to present-tense, not wanting it to sound too nostalgic. Melcher produced the single. The drums on “Kokomo” sound like a drum machine preset, but that’s really legendary session drummer Jim Keltner. Brian Wilson’s old friend and collaborator Van Dyke Parks came in to play accordion and to arrange the steel drums. Brian himself didn’t have anything to do with “Kokomo,” possibly because his therapist wouldn’t let him or possibly because his therapist demanded money and/or songwriting credit to allow Brian’s participation.

I get why so many people, Beach Boys fans in particular, can’t stand “Kokomo.” It has the uncanny effect of sounding like the Beach Boys while not sounding like the Beach Boys. Mike Love and Carl Wilson sing horny nothings about afternoon delights at beachside resorts, and the song could work as a hymn to upper-middle-class indolence. All the vaguely tropical trappings of the production — the steel drums, the congas, the Spanish-ish guitars — come off like aging white people’s ideas of island music. I feel like I’ve heard “Kokomo” playing in at least a half-dozen thrift shops in my life, and it’s always fit there, wafting gently over the dirty tiled floors and the stained polyester shirts.

But that’s kind of what I like about “Kokomo.” “Kokomo” is not a good song, certainly, but there’s something absorbing about its cheapness. The song is utterly free of actual emotion, but the sax solo and the accordion scratch weird little mental itches, and the chorus — “Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya,” etc. — has a strange and catchy magnetism that will sink its way into your brain. The song isn’t psychedelic in the way that the best Brian Wilson tracks are, but it’s hypnotic in its own way. “Kokomo” sticks with me, and I can’t bring myself to hate it.

The song’s video has its own strange appeal, too. Carl Wilson sings those pubescent harmonies like he doesn’t have a giant grey Santa beard. Mike Love rocks the all-the-way-open pastel shirt and the stupid-looking baseball hat that he’d already made a permanent part of his ensemble, and he mimes out a saxophone solo that he absolutely did not play. John Stamos is in there, pretending to play congas and steel drums. (Stamos, a friend of the band, had taken to playing percussion at occasional Beach Boys shows. When Stamos was in the cast of General Hospital, Mike Love had seen him hiding backstage from screaming girls, and he’d demanded that someone put this kid onstage right away.) Girls in bikinis dance. The Beach Boys taped the clip at Disney’s Grand Floridian resort, which hadn’t yet opened, and the whole spectacle makes for a powerful combination of pleasant and unpleasant — much like the song itself.

In his 2016 memoir I Am Brian Wilson, Wilson wrote about hearing “Kokomo” after having nothing to do with the song: “The first time I heard it on the radio, I loved it, though I didn’t even know it was the Beach Boys. When someone told me who was singing, I couldn’t believe it. It had such a cool sound and such great harmonies, and the lyrics were nice and relaxing.” Brian didn’t even learn that Kokomo wasn’t a real place until after the song had been out for a decade.

“Kokomo,” like “Don’t Worry Be Happy” before it, benefitted mightily from being on that Cocktail soundtrack, and it briefly reignited the Beach Boys’ career. A year after its release, the song appeared on a new Melcher-produced Beach Boys album called Still Cruisin’, which clearly existed just to capitalize on “Kokomo.” The group signed to Capitol just to release that album, and it actually went platinum, but the album’s title track peaked at #93. Since then, the Beach Boys haven’t had any Hot 100 hits. Today, Still Cruisin’ is out of print, and it isn’t on any streaming services, though you can still find “Kokomo” just fine.

Since “Kokomo,” the Beach Boys have had a complicated history. Lots of people have sued lots of other people. Al Jardine left the group. Brian Wilson made a triumphant return to public life, finally releasing his own version of the famously unfinished Beach Boys album Smile. There’s been a biopic and a Stamos-produced ABC miniseries. Wilson and Jardine briefly rejoined the group for one more tour and album in 2012 before Mike Love kept it going without them. Carl Wilson, Terry Melcher, John Phillips, and Scott McKenzie all died. “Kokomo” stands as a weird little footnote in the Beach Boys’ endless, factitious saga. The Beach Boys won’t appear in this column again, but the children of Brian Wilson and John Phillips soon will.

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: A few weeks after “Kokomo” hit #1, the Beach Boys — Brian Wilson included — appeared on their buddy John Stamos’ show Full House, where they sang “Kokomo” in a stadium. Here’s that magical moment:

(The Beach Boys’ version of “Barbara Ann,” the other song in that Full House clip, peaked at #2 in 1965. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Muppets’ 1993 version of “Kokomo,” which is probably a very large part of the reason I don’t hate the song:

(Kermit The Frog’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “Rainbow Connection,” peaked at #25.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1999, the Seattle radio DJ Bob Rivers recorded a “Kokomo” parody called “Kosovo,” the joke being that that’s where you don’t want to go. In 2005, a group of Norwegian soldiers who were serving in Kosovo made a video of themselves lip-syncing the song, and it stands as one of the benchmarks of early-YouTube edgelord comedy. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the somehow-not-snotty-enough snot-punk “Kokomo” cover that the Vandals released in 2000:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the big moment in a 2020 episode of Space Force where Steve Carrell sings “Kokomo”:

THE 10S: INXS’ sighing, moaning, dramatic-pausing sax-as-sex monster ballad “Never Tear Us Apart” peaked at #7 behind “Never Tear Us Apart.” Don’t ask me what you know is true: It’s a 10.

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