Bermuda Bahama come on pretty mama
Key Largo Montego baby why don’t we go
Off the Florida Keys, there is no place called ‘Kokomo’ – it’s a fictional idyll, an idealised holiday destination:
everybody knows a little place like Kokomo
now if you wanna go to get away from it all
go down to Kokomo
Mike Love on Brian Wilson, 1993:
He’s a paranoid schizophrenic, and he feels guilty because he cheated me out of millions of dollars and credit for for things. His ego was distorted at the time that he couldn’t come to grips with the fact that there was a catalyst necessary to bring out the greatness in him. It was me with the concepts and Brian with the music, and that’s where the strength lay. I am always into the concept and the lyrics and the rhymes and things that encompass a lot of meaning…mean one thing to someone who is eight years old and something completely different to someone 28 years old. I am always thinking of those kinds of things when I am writing a lyric – same as I did with Kokomo, which was No.1 in 1988, whereas Brian’s solo album came out and didn’t have one hit record on it.
(quoted in The Beach Boys In Their Own Words, ed. Nick Wise, Omnibus Press 1994)
it’s hard out here for a Beach Boys fan. I’m always having to explain myself. (I’m not joking.)
and it is hard being a fan. It’s been that way, for me, for the past 25 years.
Every Smile cassette or CD-R comp I made for people functioned as an attempt to tip the balance – away from the tired oldies that everybody knows, and few listeners valued beyond a nostalgic overfamiliarity – the stuff that a loyal fan always needs to apologise for.
Pet Sounds‘ canonical status as The Greatest Album Ever Made™ may be a given now, but this is a ’90s construct, and as part of the rock-list mind. For years I took the Uwe Nettlebeck/ Faust comment (in the header above) as a provocative poke at the seriousness of Germany’s 1960s avant-garde. And in an NME interview in 1984, when Paddy McAloon (of Prefab Sprout) also said ‘I like The Beach Boys!’, we thought he was joking. Hearing Cabinessence a year later, I realised that he was probably serious. The heavy dependence upon tape editing throughout Faust’s early albums probably came from Good Vibrations as much as it did from the influence of Pierres Henry & Schaeffer. Brian Wilson’s real skills had nothing to do with kitsch, surfing, girls or nostalgia.
I really had no idea.
See, in the UK, no one really liked The Beach Boys apart from real dedicated fans – who kept the spirit alive, through fan magazines and conventions. But, upon the larger canvas of music appreciation, in the 1980s, this kind of fandom was mainly the private domain of crazed cultists. You didn’t often meet these people. They were probably rarely seen by daylight, and met in secret, in small groups, to discuss fragments of long-forgotten tapes. I imagine.
And even with the consolations of a parlous hotch-potch of back-catalogue scraps, cherrypicked from otherwise abominable Beach Boys albums, collated on a cassette and fraudulently labelled ‘SMILE’, the kind of Beach Boys fandom I was creeping towards was often supported by a fairly thin argument.
So, when this was released, in 1988,
here, finally, was some contemporary proof that yes, Brian Wilson was The Beach Boys! Brian Wilson was always The Beach Boys! And even if some of the lyrics were simplistic and dumb, and even if some of the arrangements were electronic rather than acoustic – this album was proof, if proof be need be, that what made The Beach Boys interesting in the past, was what made this album interesting in the present: the singular mind that was the source of the music on this album.
Rio Grande alone was the vindication of any belief in what Smile might have been – and what Brian Wilson could do again. And, however many years later, it’s quite difficult to convey just how significant this album felt – and how liberating much of it sounded. Ignore Eugene Landy – Rhino’s 2000 reissue does.
But, unfortunately, The Fates were against us all; 1988 was not a good year to be a Brian Wilson advocate.
One has to assume that the Beach Boys Reunion Self-Celebration is all a roaring success – and a deserved one – and that Beach Boys Corps’ re-registering of their brand in 2012 is bringing financial reward to their shareholders.
(The Beach Boys, 2012)
However, wordpress search terms increasingly offer up a narrative of their own – and recently someone reached this blog with
‘why isn’t the beach boys reunion tour selling out’
Realising quite quickly that their answer was not here, I’m sure they read no further.
But if this tour isn’t selling out, there could be all kinds of different reasons. Current economic climate and a lack of disposable income could easily be one factor; Brian Wilson’s solo tours in the UK were hugely successful, artistically, commercially and emotionally – but the first of these was over 10 years ago.
Many critics and fans came away from the Pet Sounds and Presents SMiLE performances with the impression that there was no longer a need for any version of The Beach Boys. This 2012 reunion, if it is successful, may prove otherwise; but if it’s not the world-changing anniversary some of its participants need it to be, the consequences could be unpredictable.
The 2012 ‘reunited’ version of the band does have more Real Beach Boys onstage than the brand has had for many years – and Mr. David Marks is finally getting his deserved due.
The backing band features some of Brian’s mainstays from his solo tours: Paul Von Mertens, Darian Sahanaja, Nick Walusko, Probyn Gregory, Mike D’Amico, Nelson Bragg, Scott Bennett, Jeffrey Foskett…had these Brian Wilson solo tours (and solo records) never happened, and this augmented version of The Beach Boys suddenly materialised out of nowhere, any hopeful fan, caught in that endless thankless apologia Michael Leddy references above, might finally, finally, feel their faith vindicated.
The reunion encores? Good Vibrations, Barbara Ann, Fun Fun Fun – and Kokomo.
In November 2011, Beach Boys Corps. facilitated our right to legally purchase
But, somehow, despite the genuinely momentous Smile Sessions release coinciding with this ‘historical’ band reunion, someone within the Beach Boys’ offices has, bizarrely, forgotten about The Smile Sessions – and worse yet, is failing to promote it. Instead there’s That’s Why God Made The Radio. Another recent wordpress search term:
‘beach boys live 2012 why no smile’
Something here seems quite remiss: many thousands of the Beach Boys faithful paid over a hundred pounds for the deluxe Smile release, sight unseen. Many of them have paid the same and more over the years for variations of this release. Many of them have no justifiable reason for owning all of this, in multiple formats, official or otherwise – but still see The Smile Sessions release as a real cause for a real celebration.
The June 2012 Mojo Magazine has a substantial promo tie-in with the 2012 tour/album/half-centenary. A respectable effort has been made to assist the band’s celebration (and sales).
From the sparkling surf to the well of melancholy…we present the cream of “America’s first great rock’n’roll band”. Brace yourselves for a surprise Number 1.
At number 11,
and at Number 1?
What, no Kokomo?
I see neither Cabinessence nor Surf’s Up in The Beach Boys’ reunion setlists – and despite their previous presence in Brian’s solo sets.
And I do not see Kokomo (nor the Beach Boys’ 1982 cover of California Dreamin’, another tour inclusion) anywhere in Mojo’s own celebration of the Genius of The Beach Boys.
Like most ‘rock lists’ – and Mojo loves lists – this one has no real authority. But it’s a pretty nice selection, and would make a very broad 2CD Best Of The Best Of The Beach Boys. Alongside Cabinessence and Surf’s Up, Do You Like Worms is straight in at 21; Our Prayer is number 22. Good Vibrations is obviously in there as well, plus Heroes and Villains and Cool Cool Water.
Kokomo itself does feature in other music lists, even if it isn’t in Mojo’s. It earns a respectable placing in a 1998 list from Blender Magazine:
Run for your Life! It’s the 50 Worst Songs Ever!
12. THE BEACH BOYS “Kokomo” 1988
They might as well have just pissed in Brian’s sandbox
The Boys’ Cocktail soundtrack single was their first number 1 since “Good Vibrations” 18 years earlier. But chart position is all the songs have in common. “Good Vibrations” is a glorious slice of Brian Wilson–penned pop perfection; “Kokomo” is a gloopy mess of faux-Carribean musical stylings cowritten by Mike Love. It’s all anodyne harmonizing and forced rhymes (“To Martinique, that Montserrat mystique!”) that would have driven Brian totally nuts had he not been totally nuts already.
Worst Moment The most diabolical rhyme is saved for, um, first: “Aruba, Jamaica, ooh, I wanna take ya!”
This is just someone’s opinion, obviously.
Kokomo came to our planet via the soundtrack of this 1988 Hollywood hit
which tells a typical tale of 1980s entrepreneurship: Brian Flanagan, an ex-soldier with no college education, wants to make a million dollars out of his meagre talents,
his ego and his capacity for self-promotion.
However he fails to convince prospective business employers on Wall Street etc. Everyone suggests he get an education first.
But when he happens across a talented and charismatic barman, who shows him his own power, and suggests where bar tending can lead,
Flanagan quickly realises that studying for a business degree is a pointless pursuit,
and he ridicules his business tutor in front of the rest of his class (partly prompted by his tutor failing his business plan homework),
who, as an academic, is ‘hiding from the real world’. Mr. Flanagan has his own ideas about what kind of study works;
and, naturally, selling alcoholic beverages, in various colourful combinations, assisted by the medium of dance
is going to take him to The Top. However, his own hubris
initially causes a breach with his mentor, and Flanagan flees to Jamaica:
(37 mins in: ‘…we’ll be falling in love to the rhythm of a steel drum band…’)
Flanagan struggles on alone; but, eventually, he is reunited with the talented man that originally touched his life with the joys of bartending – and greater financial, romantic and social successes follow, as Jamaica becomes the first of many colonial conquests for their ‘Cocktails And Dreams’ NY bar-brand franchise.
Or something – dunno, couldn’t watch the film past this point. I’m sure it all works out well.
Brian Flanagan is played by a notorious celebrity egomaniac (he’s also a man with a huge hangup about a small physical failing, and a personal life coloured by vaguely-cultish associations):
(when this gentleman pours, he reigns, apparently)
and the image above is the cover of the Cocktail OST, which facilitated the record-buying public with their first physical copy of The Beach Boys’ Kokomo. The rest, of course, is history.
But sniping at the success of this Brianless Beach Boys and their achievements with Kokomo is unkind – the band had a hit all around the world.
Brian Wilson’s own solo record was a much more moderate commercial success, but, on the whole, a substantial critical success; however Kokomo, Cocktail‘s soundtrack album, and Still Cruisin’, The Beach Boys compilation album that followed, each sold by the shitload. Critical opinion be damned.
Mike Love is on record with some curiously-bitter comments about the ‘failure’ of Brian Wilson in comparison with Kokomo; from an interview with Goldmine Magazine (and archived here) from 1992:
Goldmine: Did you like [Brian Wilson’s] first solo album?
Mike Love: No.
GM: You didn’t like it?
ML: Fuck no.
GM: What didn’t you like about it?
ML: First of all the lyrics. Second of all the arrangements weren’t commercial enough. Third of all it sounded like shit compared to what he could sound like.
There’s a backhanded compliment in the last comment, but still…and again, in ’95, in a Mojo interview:
Who wants to hear about Brian’s mental problems anyway? [Smile is under discussion] I mean, to call a record Sweet Insanity, imagine that. A whole album of Brian’s madness that no one wants to release and still everyone says he’s a genius! I make Kokomo, it goes to number one in the charts and l’m still the dumb, know-nothing, talentless Mike Love.
Note that Mike is cautious not to claim that he wrote Kokomo.
So who were its authors?
(from Cocktail’s closing credits)
According to Peter Ames Carlin:
asked to come up with a beachy song about the Caribbean to go along with a scene in Cocktail, a movie starring Tom Cruise as a celebrity bartender, [the band] had gotten their hands on ‘Kokomo’, a song former Mamas and Papas leader John Phillips (who had also been a neighbor of Brian’s in Bel Air) had written several years earlier with Scott McKenzie, whose song ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)’ had been a smash in 1967. The existing song had a pleasant, Jimmy Buffett—like sensibility, but as Mike gave it a listen and took up his pen, he made a few changes, shifting the lyrics into the present tense and adding a bass vocal part that gave the song the percussive, Chuck Berry—like alliteration he°d put into so many of his early collaborations with Brian.
(Catch A Wave – The Rise, Fall & Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, p.266-7)
Mike’s own input undoubtedly made Kokomo the hit it became; Cocktail (as film and soundtrack album) was its showcase; and,
released in late summer with the momentum of Cocktail behind it, Kokomo rode all the way to the top of the Billboard charts. It was the group’s first number one single since ‘Good Vibrations,’ almost exactly twenty-two years earlier. And Brian Wilson had nothing to do with it.
Blender Magazine just can’t leave Kokomo alone; in 2009, in The Top 5 Worst Songs To Have Sex To, it’s their Number One!
Despite the presence of tropical beaches, women in bikinis, evening campfires, and booze, there is nothing sexy about this latter era Beach Boys video, or song. “Kokomo” is the anti-”Darling Nikki,” a song so devoid of sensuality that it’s amazing any American or Australian babies were conceived in the fall of 1988, when this track inexplicably sailed to the top of the charts both here and down under.
Other non-sexy tidbits: “Kokomo” was written for the soundtrack of Cocktail, starring Tom Cruise. Actor and part-time Beach Boy John Stamos appears in the video as a percussionist. It was the first Beach Boys single to reach No. 1 without the help of Brian Wilson, who was unable to attend the recording sessions. The video was filmed at Walt Disney World. And if you needed any further reasons to never, ever have sex to “Kokomo,” well… noted alleged molester John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas is one of the song’s writers.
Labelling John Phillips as a ‘molester’ is a bit of a low blow; wikipedia says that, despite Phillips’ daughter Mackenzie’s allegations of a 10-year sexual relationship with her own father, not everyone believes this to be true. However, if it were true, Phillips’ blueprint for Kokomo was probably written within this time period.
And, in Phillips’ defence, he didn’t (allegedly) fuck his own daughter until she was over the age of consent. He did however share his drugs with her from the age of 11 onwards (allegedly), including (allegedly) injecting her with cocaine.
But, obviously, Mike Love cannot possibly have known this. This is a man with some very strong views about the destructiveness of drugtaking.
And, if he had been aware of his Kokomo collaborator’s sexual and chemical peccadillos, he surely wouldn’t have rerecorded Kokomo in 2006, for a children’s charity, with kids accompanying him, as an otherwise uncalled-for ‘Christmas remake’:
Phillips is, obviously, also the co-author of California Dreamin’, that other Beach Boys hit single currently being performed on the Reunion Tour.
In the (fictional, televisual) Star Trek universe, there is a ‘pleasure planet’ called Risa, where Federation crew members relax between missions:
Known for its beautiful tropical resorts and abundance of pristine beaches, Risa was a popular tourist destination in the Alpha Quadrant since at least the 22nd century…Risa is most noted for the frank and open sexuality of its native population. (from here)
The Beach Boys’ Kokomo seems to offer similar liberations:
we’ll put out to sea
and we’ll perfect our chemistry
by and by we’ll defy
a little bit of gravity
cocktails and moonlit nights
that dreamy look in your eye,
give me a tropical contact high
way down in kokomo
but one would be somewhat in error to take this as purely sexual. From the 1992 Goldmine interview:
Mike Love: There’s a line in “Kokomo”: “We’ll put out to see and we’ll perfect our chemistry. By and by we’ll defy a little bit of gravity.” What nobody knows is that when I was writing that there’s endorphins that flow in the body when you’re in love, chemistry. There’s a thing that happens to your heart. There’s actually a thrill of emotions that goes through. There’s actually, physically, chemistry, that’s why there’s the line, “We’ll perfect our chemistry.”
Why did I say defy gravity? Because in the practice of the TM city programs there’s sutras, where you develop the ability to levitate.
Have you ever levitated?
Yeah, I practiced doing this as part of my TM city programs.
And it’s worked?
Yeah, well, I mean we’re fledging hoppers. But the idea is with perfection of the mind and the body you can actually defy gravity. So it actually showed up in the song “Kokomo.” A hundred years from now people will be defying gravity as a normal course.
So, within this seemingly-simplistic paean to holiday-resort hedonism is hidden a whole other layer of meaning.
Mike Love’s Beach Boys favour these sorts of holiday destinations – their quarter-century celebration came from another Risa, Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach, and all of the tropical tropes of Kokomo are here, in spades:
Mike: Well, it’s been 25 years have been singing about the California Dream, and for us that dream has always included one MAIN ingredient:
(more softly) girls…so we want to dedicate this song to the Californian spirit
and girls everywhere
ESPECIALLY all of you here in Waikiki!
(From here. Worth studying in full.)
Kokomo distills this essence of sun, sea and sex into a three minute pop song. And as a pop song, it obviously works – it couldn’t have been a commercial success otherwise.
I’m not entirely sold on the idea that Kokomo is one of the worst songs ever…while Mike’s own Christmas rewrite does sound rather like an attempt to avoid any accusations of plagarism (maybe Mike was concerned he might get sued by his own lawyers), here is a rather excellent cover version:
What Kokomo‘s point or purpose is in 2012 is, however, a rather different question; as a Beach Boys’ encore, it seems about as appropriate a choice as 1989’s dire Still Cruisin’, or anything from Summer In Paradise (from ’92).
Of Brian Wilson’s own ’88 solo album, only Love And Mercy survived into his 21st century live sets – and, in part, because it’s ‘message’ is a very personal one. Mike Love has made a strong argument that Summer In Paradise‘s title track (promo video here)
deals with things like deforestation and the ravaging of the earth by the commercial interests that are out there
and this is obviously an admirable cause. But the fact that Kokomo was a pop hit in 1988 is surely not justification enough for it to be performed – as an encore, by a band with such a rich back catalogue – in 2012? How many of Mojo’s 50 Greatest Beach Boys Songs would be so much more pleasing to a loyal audience?
Domenic Priore’s original 1988 edition of Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! reprinted reviews and press for that year’s Brian Wilson album, and with the same fan’s sense of jubilation, vindication and pride that I have tried to convey at the start of this post. Here, finally, was contemporary proof of a continuity, from the unrealised Smile album in 1967 through to the present day. Brian really was back. Kokomo was the work of some oldies band he had been trying to leave behind for years.
The revised editions of Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! had even more to celebrate, reprinting reviews of the Good Vibrations box set from 1993, which featured a full half hour of Smile tracks and sessions.
One such review (by Michael Kemp, from Pulse! Magazine) opens:
In the year 802,701 AD, HG Wells’ Time-Traveller finds himself “Doing Time On Planet Earth” with two main variants of human being for company: the childlike gentle Eloi and the subterranean carnivorous Morlocks. This is not unlike attending the annual Beach Boys Convention in Greenford, Middlesex, and checking out the two distinct camps of Beach Boy fanatic.
Extending this metaphorical duality, Mr. Kemp continues:
Camp A – The Morlocks – tend to go surfing on a regular basis, wear striped candy shirts way into their middle-age, have an inexhaustible penchant for cars, girls and hamburgers (but not necessarily in that order), appear physically healthy, mentally dogmatic and “know what the public wants”.
Camp B – the Eloi – are rarely seen by daylight, wear rose-petal shirts stitched together with gossamer thread, huddle together in small groups and whisper achingly about fragments of long-forgotten tapes. Apart from Greenford gatherings, they are only glimpsed in public being escorted out of department stores in Century City for playing in the tree house; or turning up silently at Capitol Records board meetings with pre-recorded tapes that say “Yes”, “No” or “Well, maybe”.
Both of these tribes have something very special to celebrate now with the release of Good Vibrations — 30 Years Of The Beach`Boys , a six-CD box set containing 141 tracks and over six hours of music. And the Eloi in particular are in for a big surprise because Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks and the Beach Boys have finally sanctioned the release of 30 minutes worth of finished and unfinished tracks from the legendary lost Smile album from 1967 which appear in ghostlike form towards the end of the second CD.
The inclusion of the Smile tapes may appear at first glance to be the jewel in the crown, but there’s far more to this mammoth retrospective set than just that. Forget all those countless Capitol re—issues – 20 Golden Greats, Summer Dreams, Bug-In, Let’s Recycle Barbara Ann Again (great stomping Morlock music, that) – this one is the business, from the early demo of Brian Wilson pounding away at ’Surfin’ USA’ to the ubiquitous ‘Kokomo’.
This Morlock/Eloi dichotomy is a useful model for Beach Boys fandom, up to a point…the ‘great stomping Morlocks’ do not eat the whispering Eloi
and the Beach Boys’ Eloi archivists are rather more careful with their library
but the Eloi do utilise the superior audio storage format
and obviously favour the better playback system.
But Michael Kemp’s Pulse! review was written in 1993 – almost 20 years ago. Since then, following on from a number of false starts, Brian Wilson’s solo career, separate from The Beach Boys, continued into the 21st century (this has all been covered elsewhere). And 2004’s Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, while seeming utterly momentous at the time, now seems preparatory for 2011’s yet more momentous Smile Sessions release.
Brian Wilson’s live audiences (who were obviously also Beach Boys fans) couldn’t have been more spoiled by the career-spanning nature of his touring band’s repertoire, or their astonishing capacity to replicate Brian’s own arrangements onstage…
BUT, to my knowledge (I’ll check the setlist archive), Brian Wilson never played Kokomo live. And somebody, somewhere was maybe, possibly, once, perhaps, slightly disappointed by this exclusion.
There was no peace between the Eloi and the Morlocks in 802,701 AD; in 1993, the Good Vibrations box set seemed like a stepping stone to a more peaceful future – and now, in 2012, surely, there is, with The Smile Sessions finally available, a place for both Eloi and Morlock in these 50 Year Celebrations?
George Pal and HG Wells’ vision of a de-evolved humanity (in 1960’s The Time Machine) portray the underground-dwelling Morlocks without linguistic skills – but there may yet be hope: I think I have a trans-temporal comment from one of them, beamed in from 802,701 AD:
Just Watch Beach Boys Fifty Years Reunion Internet Yes I Am Beach Boys Fan
Been Twenty Years So Amazing Video I Love Medly I love It. So Proud You And
Guys Come Back i’m Always Having Plain Go Biloxi Again My Birthday.
Thanks for reading!
Mojo’s 50 Greatest Beach Boys Songs, from the June 2012 issue, offers readers the chance to rectify any exclusions:
Perhaps, like Mike Love, you’re wondering what happened to The Ballad of Ole Betsey…mail your Top 10 Beach Boys songs, and/or a brief appreciation of a track we were mad enough to miss…and we’ll print a Readers’ List in a future issue.
Mark Paytress’ comments about Mojo’s Number 11 touches upon aspects of Smile I’ve not seen mentioned in too much detail elsewhere:
Cabinesssence is Smile in microcosm. Vast in scope, unprecedented in its ambition and as much an unsolved sonic riddle as the album it had been written for, this was the misunderstood masterpiece that caused Mike Love to crack and the project to flounder.
And thus, leaving Kokomo, Risa, Morlocks, Cocktails and Dreams behind, I’d like to finish the series of Cabinessence posts (previously: 1, 2, 3 & 4) with a few tentative conclusions, before, finally, winding up all of this.