There are many things about Good Morning, Vietnam that make the 1987 film so affecting, among them Robin Williams‘ stellar, often manic performance as Army DJ Adrian Cronauer; Peter Sova’s gorgeous cinematography (the film was shot in Thailand); and the supporting performances of Forrest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby, J.T. Walsh and others. Released Dec. 23 that year, it was a fine movie about one person’s Vietnam War experience, reaching audiences at a time when films like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill were filling theaters.
The music in Good Morning, Vietnam was another vital component of the film, setting its tone with the sounds of the era, namely the pop, rock and R&B of the mid-1960s. It all locked in perfectly, whether it was the Rivieras’ “California Sun” playing over a day-in-the-life montage of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese city life, the Beach Boys‘ “Warmth of the Sun” underlying the farewell scene between Williams’ character and the young woman who had caught his eye or James Brown‘s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” blasting out of studio monitors, matching the energy of Williams’ irreverent on-air raving.
The movie’s soundtrack interspersed these songs with Williams’ gut-busting interludes, giving listeners a taste of the best spots the film had to offer. Let’s take a listen to the music on the soundtrack, and learn a little more about the artists and the songs of Good Morning, Vietnam.
Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, “Nowhere to Run”
The Motown superteam of Holland/Dozier/Holland wrote this snapshot of romantic obsession, one that would be incredibly creepy, were it not so incredibly cool. As the story goes, the tune was originally intended for Mary Wells (“My Guy,” “You Beat Me to the Punch”), but when she couldn’t make the session, Reeves stepped up and hit it out of the park. “Nowhere to Run” was Reeves and the Vandellas’ fourth Top 10 hit, reaching No. 8 in 1965.
The Beach Boys, “I Get Around”
The Beach Boys’ first No. 1 hit in 1964 also provided them with their freedom from Murry Wilson – Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson’s father, the band’s manager and a malevolent presence within the group’s organization. As Brian Wilson recalled in his 2016 memoir, I Am Brian Wilson, his father had come by the studio on the day the Beach Boys were recording “I Get Around” and began criticizing his son’s work, ordering him to tone down some instruments and highlight others. “I didn’t want him there,” the younger Wilson recalled. “I knew how things should sound. We argued about it, and that time I reached my limit.” A physical altercation followed, with Brian Wilson pushing his father, who lost his balance but did not fall. Finally, Wilson remembered, “He just left. I didn’t see him for a while after that. The other guys and I talked it over and decided that he couldn’t manage or produce us anymore.” The song that prompted the split is two minutes of pure surf-pop perfection, one whose influence would span generations. “It’s like a Polaroid of a moment or feeling,” producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel) told writer Mark Dillon for his collection Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys: The Songs That Tell Their Story. “I like the way Brian wrote about the specifics of a rising culture. He brings the listener in through one philosophical moment – one thought, one emotion – and that is often the most powerful way.”
Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, “The Game of Love”
Speaking of philosophy, this British Beat group threw a little “meaning of life” jive at listeners in the opening line of this No. 1 1965 hit: “The purpose of a man is to love a woman,” Fontana (born Glyn Geoffrey Ellis) sang. “The purpose of a woman is to love a man.” It’s a confident assertion, with a look back to the Garden of Eden in the second verse to provide canonical support. Fontana and the Mindbenders would tour with other bands like Herman’s Hermits, including a raucous jaunt around the U.S. in 1965, which featured mobs of screaming young women and the occasional riot. Fontana left the group by the end of the year, though the remaining members stayed together and had a No. 2 hit in 1966, with “Groovy Kind of Love” (which was covered by Phil Collins 22 years later).
The Searchers, “Sugar and Spice”
When the Beatles burst into the public consciousness in the early ‘60s, several like-minded acts sneaked out in their wake, including this Liverpudlian combo, whose tight harmonies and jangly guitars helped them garner a handful of U.K. No. 1s. Their big hits in the U.S. were “Love Potion No. 9” and “Needles and Pins” (a favorite of Tom Petty, who recorded a live version in 1985). “Sugar and Spice” topped out at No. 44 in the U.S. but was a No. 2 smash for the band back home in England.
The Castaways, “Liar, Liar”
This group of Minneapolis frat rockers was the quintessential one-hit wonder. Though they released a brace of singles in the Twin Cities area in the mid and late ‘60s, only “Liar, Liar” broke nationally, peaking at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965. They did, however, catch the ear of New York-based punk guitar legend and producer Lenny Kaye, who included “Liar, Liar” on the classic 1972 garage-rock compilation record Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968. Singer Robert Folschow’s falsetto vocal and his and fellow guitarist Roy Hensley’s overdriven instrumentation are perfect complements to other likewise rough-and-ready singles by the likes of Count Five, the Blues Magoos and the 13th Floor Elevators.
The Beach Boys, “The Warmth of the Sun”
This languid ballad, co-written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, is ostensibly about the breakup of a teenage relationship; Wilson composed the melody, however, in response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “When the shooting happened, everyone knew instantly,” Wilson wrote in his memoir, I Am Brian Wilson. “It was all over the TV and on every kind of news. I called Mike and he asked me if I wanted to write a song about it. I said sure. It seemed like something we had to think about, and songs were the way I thought about things.” “The melody was so haunting, sad, melancholy that the only thing that I could think of lyrically was the loss of love, when interest slips and feelings aren’t reciprocated,” Love recalled in a 2007 podcast interview. “Though I wanted to have a silver lining on that cumulus nimbus cloud so I wrote the lyrics from the perspective of, ‘Yes, things have changed and love is no longer there, but the memory of it lingers like the warmth of the sun.’ I think it’s really impactful and memorable.”
James Brown, “I Got You (I Feel Good)”
Thanks to Good Morning, Vietnam and its soundtrack, this classic piece of brassy Brown funk had a fresh run on radio and a legit pop culture resurgence, extending the legend of the Godfather of Soul and his biggest pop chart hit to a young audience that may have been aware of him only as the “Living in America” singer from three years before. According to Nelson George and Alan Leeds’ The James Brown Reader: Fifty Years of Writing About the Godfather of Soul, Brown debuted the song in a 1964 Frankie Avalon teen movie, Ski Party, but could not immediately release it as a single, due to record company conflicts. “I Got You (I Feel Good)” was eventually released in October 1965 and hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Them, “Baby, Please Don’t Go”
Van Morrison was only 19 in 1964 when his band Them recorded this Big Joe Williams cut, yet he sounds like a man two or three times that age, as he works this sped-up blues to perfection. Recorded at the same session as another Them classic, “Here Comes the Night,” “Baby, Please Don’t Go” features guitar work from Jimmy Page, who would go on to fame and fortune with another amped-up blues band in just a few short years.
The Marvelettes, “Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead”
One of Motown’s most successful acts, this girl group hit No. 1 on the pop chart in 1961 with “Please Mr. Postman.” By 1965, however, the hits had slowed to a trickle, and “Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead” rose only as high as No. 61. Still, it’s a great track – a deeply soulful warning of impending trouble in a relationship, with a dollop of good advice: “When you find that you’re losing / It’s time to get on moving.”
The Vogues, “Five O’Clock World”
This Pittsburgh-area vocal group consisted of four high school pals who had gigged and recorded locally in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when they weren’t studying algebra or going to gym class. After graduation, the bandmates went to college or served in the military, then regrouped to perform and record once again. Their biggest year was 1965 when they scored a pair of Top 5 national hits: a cover of Petula Clark’s “You’re the One” and this smash about working men cutting loose when the work day is done.
The Rivieras, “California Sun”
This Indiana-based group of teenagers had only one hit in their short career, but what a hit it was. “California Sun” was originally released as a single B-side, got flipped over by DJs and rose to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. The band went through several membership changes shortly afterward, eventually splitting without ever being able to follow up their only chart success.
Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World”
In his 2011 book What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years, writer Ricky Riccardi reported Armstrong’s initial hesitation when presented with “What a Wonderful World” in 1967. “Armstrong’s first reaction to it was, ‘What is this shit?'” Riccardi noted. “[Clarinetist Joe] Muranyi said that Armstrong began to warm to it, perhaps because he related it not so much to the social upheavals of the 1960s as his own life. ‘There’s so much in “Wonderful World” that brings me back to my neighborhood where I live in Corona, N.Y.,’ Armstrong said in 1968.” Larry Newton, the president of Armstrong’s record company, disliked the song so much, he wanted to halt the recording sessions and fire the band and the producer. According to Riccardi, Newton had to be physically barred from entering the recording studio, just so work could progress. The original release of “What a Wonderful World” in 1967 was not a hit; when reissued in conjunction with Good Morning, Vietnam, however, it hit No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100.
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