The Album List #34: Dennis Wilson “Pacific Ocean Blue”

He was still the only Beach Boy who could surf, you know.

Some things in life are total surprises.

I talk about 1977 a lot. Since it was the year I was born, I kind of admit to liking a lot of really bad things simply because I was born in 1977. Avocado kitchen appliances is a major sticking point of taste.

I have somewhere in the neighbourhood of a half-dozen albums from 1977 on this list- Wire, Fleetwood Mac, Suicide, and the Talking Heads have all popped up. But in all honesty, none of those albums would surprise anyone. If you trotted out most critics best 1977 albums list, most of them would have those four albums, or at least three of them, in some configuration.

Dennis Wilson perhaps outshone them all.

The myth of rock and roll drummers is based around the antics of Wilson, Bonham and Moon. Charismatic, gifted, and troubled, these three drummers were larger than life personalities in their bands. While Bonham and Moon managed to outshine their frontmen, the equally talented and greatly underappreciated Wilson was dwarfed by the genius of the Beach Boys mastermind, his brother Brian. On top of that, he lacked the wholesome appeal and relative sanity of brother Carl, or even Carl’s gorgeous, angelic voice that lent itself so well to “God Only Knows”, a song so perfect it physically breaks me every time I hear it. Dennis was largely remembered as a strong drummer, the handsomest Beach Boy, a ladies man, the hard-drinking partier. His sandpaper voice was integral to grounding those sunshine California harmonies, but brilliant and insecure Brian controlled studio sessions with an iron fist. Few of Dennis’ ideas made it on a Beach boys record.

Somehow, in spite of all this nonsense, Dennis was the first Beach Boy to release a solo record.

I was never impressed by Carl’s solo work, and Brian has only recently recovered from a decades long journey into the abyss.  Dennis, despite his issues, and despite working with the Captain from Captain and Teneille, created a brilliant record. Sweet, introspective, contemplative, gentle, full of piano and strings and Dennis’ own rich, expressive voice, it is simply one of the loveliest things I have ever heard. It’s the gospel of rock and roll. A choir is included.

The undercurrent, though, is a haunting one. As Dennis sings about his great loves (the ocean, booze, women, music), you can hear this mournful tone in his voice as he tries to genuinely work his issues out. He isn’t just thinking of these things in passing, ignoring their implications. He takes his neurosis and wraps it up in orchestral pop, musical therapy that would inevitably fail. Many think that the character Matt Dillon plays in Allison Anders overlooked 1996 film Grace of My Heart is based on Brian Wilson. I think it was closer to Dennis. Dennis would drown, tragically, in 1983.

Whether it’s the funk inspired “Dreamer” or the Cali pop of “River Song”, the album shows a diversity and a musical taste level far beyond one might think. The horns and bass line of the former are outright borrowed from Sly and the Family Stone, and “River Song” was an unrecorded Beach Boys track that had become a live favourite. There is also more typical seventies fare like the country rock meets light blues of “Pacific Ocean Blues”, with its hippy dippy ecological message. There is the dark “Moonshine” where Dennis sings about his love of drink, the cheesy keyboards of “You and I”, the sweet and lowdown hymn “Farewell My Friend”, a song so lovely that it, like “God Only Knows”, breaks my spirit with its sheer beauty.

The loss of Dennis means that those of us who love and cherish this magnificent album were left hanging. I see the potential in this album, and the stories about the music of the next album. When those tracks were released, including the devastating “All Alone”, it just made me so sad. Brian survived, somehow, to become the grand man, the elder statesman of California pop, reconfiguring Smile ( a masterwork, I might add) and releasing albums full of Disney covers, Dennis sadly passed on and left just hints of where he was going. The sax solo on “All Alone”, I must say, is a bit of a genius thing.

The loss of what could have been plagues music history.  And this story is among the many “What if?” tales. But because he’s a Beach Boy, and because this album is just too beautiful for words, all I can say is, I wish it did.


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