It’s been derided. it’s been lauded. wait, no…it’s just been derided. But it’s also been listened to. A lot. Its pastel harmonies were a peppy elegy for a passing era, and its commercial success was the last stand of boomer dominance in a business on the brink of the hip-hop revolution. As such, it deserves our reminiscence, if not our reverence. The year was 1988. ”Cocktail” was in theaters. And suddenly, unaccountably, there was a place called ”Kokomo.”
How did that magical imaginary island come to be? Through the hard work of a weird assortment of master musicians, rock legends all, who for a few days in the late ’80s joined forces to evoke the innocuous, anonymous beach resort of the American imagination, giving this country a tropical contact high it would never forget. No matter how hard we tried.
Indeed, ”Kokomo” proved positively metastatic. It sold more than one million singles and gave the Beach Boys their first No. 1 since ”Good Vibrations.” It helped propel the ”Cocktail” soundtrack (which also included tunes like Starship’s ”Wild Again” and Robbie Nevil’s ”Since When”) to quadruple-platinum sales and the Beach Boys’ comeback album ”Still Cruisin”’ to gold. John Stamos thumped bongos in the video. And critics absolutely loathed it. ”Because it’s just sooo syrupy pop,” explains session drummer Jim Keltner (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello), one of several uncredited famous musicians who helped create the song. ”But while the critics killed it with their words, they couldn’t kill the ‘hitness’ of it. It’s just a bona fide hit record, that’s all there is to it.” Bermuda, Bahama, come on, pretty mama…
It was the Beach Boys…and yet, not the Beach Boys. Not all of them, anyway. Drummer Dennis Wilson had drowned five years earlier. The emotionally fragile Brian Wilson, estranged from the group he guided to greatness in the ’60s, was recording his own comeback album with therapist/caretaker/Svengali Dr. Eugene Landy.
The Beach Boys had been recruited to record a tune for ”Cocktail,” a cheesy romantic comedy about a studly bartender in the tropics. Tom Cruise — fresh from success with ”Top Gun” and ”The Color of Money” — was set to star. It wasn’t exactly a glamour assignment, but the Beach Boys needed the gig — in the late ’80s the band was floundering. Label-less and without a new album since 1985, they paid the bills playing oldies gigs at state fairs and amusement parks. In 1987, they had been reduced to recording a cover of ”Wipeout” with corpulent rappers the Fat Boys.
The Beach Boys took on the assignment, but they were only partially involved in its composition. That task mostly fell to a weird trio of well-respected California-rock veterans. There was the late Mamas and the Papas founder John Phillips, the man who brought us ”California Dreamin”’ and ”Monday, Monday.” Also on board: Scott McKenzie, a longtime Phillips collaborator who’s best known for his 1967 smash ”San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”; and Doris Day’s son, Terry Melcher, an L.A. music veteran whose numerous claims to fame include producing the first two Byrds albums and a tragic acquaintance with Charles Manson, who once tried to recruit Melcher to produce his music. (Not long after, Sharon Tate was murdered in the house she and Roman Polanski had rented from Melcher and his then girlfriend, Candice Bergen.)