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PACIFIC OCEAN BLUE (Caribou/Epic ZK 34354) [1977]

Dennis Wilson was the odd Beach Boy out. He was the one who, early on, wanted to quit the group, and although he stayed on as the Beach Boys’ drummer, they rarely used him in the studio – where Hal Blaine was Brian’s first choice for drums. His voice was the least suited for Brian’s rich vocal harmonies but Dennis was also the only Beach Boy who actually surfed – and whose enthusiasm for surfing fueled the Beach Boys’ early hit paeans to that sport. 

He was the middle brother of three, always in older brother Brian’s shadow while younger brother Carl was the coddled baby of the family. All of the brothers took what amounted to criminal abuse from their father, but Dennis got the worst beatings (his father once threw him against a wall) and retaliated with stunts like hot-wiring and taking off for joy-rides in his father’s car.

In the spring of 1968 Dennis picked up a couple of hitchhiking teenage girls who introduced him to Charles Manson. Manson and his “family” moved into Dennis’s house and maintained a deteriorating relationship with Wilson for the next year, during which time Dennis used at least one of Manson’s songs on a Beach Boys album (“Never Learn Not To Love,” released as a single and used on the album 20/20). Dennis was indirectly responsible for the Sharon Tate murder by the Manson “family” – it took place at an address he’d once taken Manson to, the home of his buddy Terry Melcher. Manson had expected Melcher to be there.

Dennis died shortly after Christmas, 1983, drunk, penniless and homeless, diving into the ocean in Marina del Rey where his repossessed boat once had been docked, bringing up muddy objects he’d thrown off that boat during earlier drunken moments. After one dive he simply didn’t come up. It was a sad end for a tormented and talented man.

Dennis wrote (or co-wrote) over a dozen songs for the Beach Boys, starting with “Little Bird” and “Be Still” on the FRIENDS album (1968), but his only solo album, PACIFIC OCEAN BLUE remains the best monument to his talent. Its 12 songs are surprisingly mature and well-presented.

When the album originally came out I played it on my Dr Progresso radio show, alternating each track with a Dennis Wilson track from the Beach Boys’ albums. It elicited many surprised but pleased phone calls from listeners. The surprise was because I did not normally play the Beach Boys on my show (King Crimson and Italian groups were my staples); the pleasure was because these were good songs and well worth the hour or so I devoted to them.

It’s been 24 years (as I write this) since PACIFIC OCEAN BLUE was originally released – nearly a quarter of a century. Recently a friend asked me about the album, having just heard of it and never having actually listened to it. “What’s it like?” he asked.

I found it easier just to put it on and play it than to try to describe it, but that obviously won’t suffice here. The closest point of reference is the 1970-73 albums by the Beach Boys – the period in which Dennis made most of his contributions to that group – and indeed the opening track, “River Song” (co-written with brother Carl) sounds like something intended for the last really good Beach Boys album, HOLLAND.  

The album was produced by Dennis and Gregg Jakobson (his frequent collaborator on these and other songs) and co-produced and engineered by the Beach Boys’ Stephen Moffitt, and the musicians employed are among those Brian regularly used for Beach Boys recordings in the ’60s – including Hal Blaine. (Wilson is one of four drummers used in these sessions – but he is the sole keyboard player, and acquits himself well thereon.) In addition to guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, and “horns & reeds” there are 12 backup singers (including Dennis’s then-wife, Karen Lamm) plus “The Double Rock Baptist Choir.”

Dennis used all these musicians and singers to create a thick “wall of sound,” both like and unlike Phil Spector’s famous productions of the ’60s. An ominous sustained bass builds under thick piano chords on “Friday Night,” for example, while a bass harmonica (an instrument Brian loved to use) holds the pedal tones in “Dreamer.” In many ways this album is a direct successor to what Brian Wilson had been doing ten years earlier.

Brian originally dominated the Beach Boys. He not only wrote the songs and arranged the vocal harmonies that distinguished the Beach Boys’ records, he took over production and the instrumental arrangements (which is covered in my review of the PET SOUNDS boxed set) as well. But after SMILEY SMILE and Brian’s “breakdown” the other Beach Boys – especially his brothers – tried to fill the gap. Carl was the first to flower as a songwriter and arranger, but Dennis also emerged from Brian’s shadow in the 1968-73 period.   But then the Beach Boys became an oldies band, celebrating past successes and releasing (in the mid-’70s) a series of lightweight and easily forgettable albums. Dennis had relatively little to do with those albums (while Brian was theoretically “back,” but tossing off minor ditties and rearrangements of ’60s rock classics) but worked for several years on PACIFIC OCEAN BLUE.

The album ENDLESS HARMONY (reviewed elsewhere here) has two other otherwise unreleased Dennis Wilson tracks: “Barbara,” a 1971 demo, is a spare piece, but “All Alone” was recorded in 1978 and intended for his second solo album, which was to be called BAMBOO. As I stated in my review of that album, “This piece is written and produced by Carlos Munoz, using musicians from the Beach Boys touring band, and apparently dates back (in composition) to 1968.”

Dennis Wilson never finished BAMBOO, and PACIFIC OCEAN BLUE stands as his only solo album. It reminds us of what a great talent Dennis had – and squandered. If you like the more ambitious recordings the Beach Boys did in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I strongly recommend PACIFIC OCEAN BLUE.

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