For nearly 60 years, the Beach Boys have embodied summertime. Sun, surfing, the beach, pretty girls in bikinis, driving with the top down: Favorites like “Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Surfer Girl,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations” turned the warm-weather months into a blissful utopia where perpetual happiness, young love and endless freedom reigned.
Sure, it was a fantasy, but especially as we head into a summer where most of us will still be social-distancing, this band’s songs at least can put us into the headspace where we can hop on a virtual surfboard and hit those imaginary waves.
But there’s one Beach Boys smash that’s such an abomination it doesn’t deserve to be remembered alongside the group’s classics. I’m talking, of course, about “Kokomo,” that ungodly piece of shit that was only one of their two No. 1 hits. For three decades now, a lot of us have taken immense delight in hating this 1988 smash. It was terrible when I was a teenager, and it’s terrible now that I’m 45. The world has divided us into bitter factions on so many issues, but at least we can all unite around the idea that “Kokomo” is the worst summer song ever.
Part of the reason to hate “Kokomo” is to hate Mike Love. The story of the Beach Boys is a sad one — how the group’s resident genius, Brian Wilson, wrote exquisite, sometimes crushingly wistful mini-symphonies before he was laid low by his brittle mental health, as well as addiction issues. Alongside him was his cousin and bandmate Love, who co-wrote many of those hits, serving as the band’s frontman.
If Wilson was the fragile, soulful artiste, then Love was the crass sellout, reportedly quarreling with his cousin over his 1967 masterwork Pet Sounds, a landmark album that moved away from the simple joy of surfing to more mature themes of love, loss and growing older. As Wilson retreated from the limelight, Love fought to take control of the Beach Boys, including obtaining sole ownership of the band’s name. It was easy to paint Love as the villain — and that’s before it came out that he was a big Trump guy, too.
No surprise, then, that Love was instrumental in making “Kokomo” happen.
The song was initially written by the Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips and Scott McKenzie, who crafted it as a summer-bummer ballad about a heavenly getaway now far out of reach. Their “Kokomo” wasn’t so much about a place as it was about a time of life — the carefree exuberance of youth — that was rapidly fading away.
By the mid-1980s, the Beach Boys were far removed from their commercial heyday. Wilson was struggling to mount a solo career, while the band was mired in interpersonal feuds — not to mention mourning the death of Brian’s younger brother Dennis Wilson, who drowned in 1983. But a lifeline came in the form of Cocktail, a forgotten romantic drama starring Tom Cruise, who was hot off the success of Top Gun. Director Roger Donaldson wanted the Beach Boys to contribute something to the soundtrack, and the never-released “Kokomo” came to Love’s attention. But he decided he didn’t want it to be a melancholy lament — instead, why not transform the song into a mellow, hokey celebration of a tropical destination where you and your babe could chill?
Dressed up in romantic tones, complete with steel drums, saxophones and accordion, the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” seemed determined to dislodge Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” as the ultimate white-guy island fantasy. “It was just one of those catchy songs that when people heard it, they wanted to hear it again,” Love would later write in his memoir Good Vibrations. It felt like a resort ad written by a bunch of has-beens who used to be the Beach Boys.
The fact that Love was central to “Kokomo’s” success — and that Brian Wilson wasn’t involved (although the reasons why he wasn’t are somewhat disputed) — has made the song divisive among the band’s devotees, even though Wilson has said he’s a fan. But there was simply no forgiving the track’s schmaltzy tone and stupid lyrics — specifically, this excruciatingly “clever” earworm that Love came up with:
Oh, I wanna take you to
Come on, pretty mama
Key Largo, Montego
Baby, why don’t we go
Oh, I want to take you down to Kokomo
We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow
That’s where we want to go
Way down in Kokomo
Nevertheless, the culture couldn’t get enough of “Kokomo.” The song hit radio in the summer of 1988, and in early November, it reached No. 1, the first time a Beach Boys track had topped the charts since “Good Vibrations.” Suddenly, the band (sans Brian Wilson) was back in demand. They played “Kokomo” at halftime shows. It was central to the plot of a Full House episode. Hell, even the Muppets did a version of “Kokomo.”
But simultaneously, there were a growing number of brave souls who absolutely despised that song. When the now-defunct music magazine Blender (in conjunction with VH1) put together a list of the 50 Worst Songs of All Time for its May 2004 issue, “Kokomo” placed at No. 12, decried as a “gloopy mess of faux-Caribbean musical stylings” filled with “anodyne harmonizing and forced rhymes.” In July 2015, pop-culture writer Molly Lambert went after “Kokomo” even more aggressively, complaining in Grantland that songs like that and “Margaritaville” were inherently racist:
“As sung by white dudes Buffett and the Beach Boys, ‘Kokomo’ and ‘Margaritaville’ always make me think first of colonialism, because of the complex and harsh colonial histories of the tropical countries in which white vacationers Buffett and the Beach Boys suggest you take a totally carefree vacation free of any cultural context. There’s a clip in the ‘Kokomo’ video where you see white women splashing in the ocean and then a black woman walks across the frame carrying a tray of tropical drinks. Kokomo is not relaxing when you have to work there.”
But even if most people ignored the song’s uglier implications, it was fairly easy to just “OK Boomer” the track’s glib pursuit of brainless fun. (It was a little too perfect, really, that “Kokomo” appeared on the same soundtrack as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Bobby McFerrin’s similar ode to guilt-free docility.) Pretty soon, “Kokomo” became a cliché of Corona-on-the-beach escapism — the epitome of slick, empty yacht-rock hedonism.
If you want proof of “Kokomo’s” enduring awfulness, look no further than the many bands that have reinterpreted the song, either satirically or with a welcome restraint that’s nonexistent on the schmaltzy Beach Boys version. As a bonus track on the rerelease of their 1990 album Fear of a Punk Planet, the wisecracking punk band the Vandals did a sped-up, sarcastic cover of “Kokomo,” where lead singer Dave Quackenbush seems to be rolling his eyes the entire time.
On the other hand, former Moldy Peaches member Adam Green seems like a sorry-not-sorry admirer of “Kokomo,” even having buddy Macaulay Culkin join him on stage to turn the song into a drunk-at-karaoke-at-2-a.m. sing-along. As with a lot of yacht rock, who knows if they genuinely like “Kokomo,” but it’s clear they enjoy indulging in its cheesy sincerity.
But probably the best cover comes from the French art-pop duo Lilly Wood and the Prick, whose 2016 rendition strips away the steel drums and other accouterments to give us a dreamy, keyboard-driven version that feels a lot more hopeful. Neither snide nor sappy, singer Nili Hadida approaches “Kokomo” with the perspective of an outsider, almost as if she’s unaware of all the baggage the original has. The band supplies the song with a warm, optimistic quality — a delicate playfulness and innocence — that’s not even present in Phillips and McKenzie’s initial stab. This is the only version of “Kokomo” I want to hear for the rest of my life.
Even in 2020, we can’t escape “Kokomo,” despite being trapped in quarantine. In fact, two months ago, Minneapolis musician and comedian Jon Pumper decided to use the lockdown to make “My Corona Home,” a viral video sensation that chronicles his unexciting pandemic life, spoofing the song’s lyrics…
In my corona home
I’ve spent the last few days all alone
Playing with Styrofoam
In my corona home
“[It was] a way to laugh and commiserate at the way we are dealing with the challenges of quarantine,” Pumper said in April, “and remind ourselves that although we are isolated, we are still largely going through the same experiences together.” Rather than the sun and surf of “Kokomo,” Pumper’s song offers only the tedium of our cooped-up everyday lives, glumly acknowledging that the Beach Boys song is selling a fantasy that very few of us will ever experience.
As a new summer begins, I’m sure oldies stations will be tempted to assault us with “Kokomo,” if for no other reason than to remind listeners of alluring summer getaways that are now out of our grasp. But the song long ago morphed into a self-parody of what Buffett used to call his brand of “drunken Caribbean rock ‘n’ roll” — a version of party music for laidback bros with sand in their swim trunks.
The mocking attitude toward “Kokomo” couldn’t be more apparent than in the new trailer for the forthcoming Netflix comedy series Space Force, which stars Steve Carell as an arrogant, hard-as-nails U.S. general. When this tough guy has to let off some steam, what song does he choose? “Kokomo” of course — the utter antithesis of his stern personality.
I suppose you could interpret that needle-drop joke in one of two ways. Either it’s comically preposterous that such a dopey song would move an unsentimental military man — or it’s an indication that even someone made of stone is helpless in the face of “Kokomo’s” luxurious island rhythms.
Clearly, “Kokomo” is a song you love or a song you love to hate — either way, the pleasure seems to be immense.