30 Years Ago: The Beach Boys Release Their Last No. 1, ‘Kokomo’
Watching the video for the Beach Boys’ last No.1 single, “Kokomo,” you'd probably be forgiven for thinking they look a bit shell-shocked. It had been 22 years since they’d topped the charts with an original song, and the gestation of this one -- released in July 1988 -- seemed almost as fictional as the island in the title.
It was bad enough the group was still reeling from the 1983 death of drummer Dennis Wilson (the only member who actually surfed). It was bad enough, without a label or a strong LP release in some time, the band was reduced to the golden-oldie circuit of state fairs. But worse, when the time came to record "Kokomo," the Beach Boys' resident genius, Brian Wilson, “wasn’t available,” as a result of the strange relationship he had with his psychologist, Eugene Landy, at the time.
“We tried to get [Brian] to record with us on that song,” bandmate Mike Love later recalled, “but he was under the tutelage, if you will, or under the spell, as some people would say, of Dr. Landy … who governed his every move. Landy wouldn’t let Brian record with us – only if Landy could be the co-writer or co-producer of the record.”
That wasn’t in the cards.
Because – unlike the 1985 album The Beach Boys, in which Landy grabbed three writing credits – the “Kokomo” project was on a much larger scale than the band’s current career. It had been commissioned for the soundtrack of the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail, and went on to receive Grammy and Golden Globe nominations as a result.
The movie's director, Roger Donaldson, had asked the band to get involved, and its producer, Terry Melcher, went to work. The son of actress Doris Day, Melcher had a background including producing the Byrds’ first two albums. He’d also – along with Dennis Wilson – been a friend of Charles Manson, and it was in the house rented from Melcher that the Manson family murdered actress Sharon Tate, among others.
Melcher had gotten hold of "Kokomo" through John Phillips -- of the Mamas and the Papas -- who had written the song with Scott McKenzie, the singer-songwriter behind the Top 5 hit “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)." In the end, the writing credits went to Phillips, Love, Melcher and McKenzie.
Even though Wilson was absent from the recording session (his backing vocal was added for a later remix), he did appear in the video for the song. But that was after he heard the song and hadn’t recognized his own band in action – though he said he loved the production and the “relaxing” lyrics … before asking if he could visit Kokomo himself.
Calling the track “the least obvious thing: a has-been pop act, minus their creative engine, scoring a No.1 hit,” Stereogum noted that almost all those involved with the song never achieved chart success again, making it “a peculiar last cultural gasp.” However, the article argued, it would never have happened at all without Love’s contribution, because he was the one who created the chorus that runs down a list of tropical islands.
Love was “desperately trying to keep all the stakeholders happy and productive," noted Stereogum. "His gift is punch-ups: tweaking phrases and adding earworms. He scrapped Phillips’ past tense. It sounded like regret, which is not Love’s bag. All he’s ever wanted to do is provide escape.”
“Kokomo” propelled the Cocktail soundtrack to quadruple-platinum sales and also helped drive the Beach Boys’ next album, Still Cruisin’, to gold status. It proved to be something of an escape from the Beach Boys’ own nightmare – taking them back, albeit briefly, to the paradise they’d always sold the world.