THE QUINTESSENTIAL CALIFORNIA KID LEFT US 25 YEARS AGO TODAY
The Beach Boys wouldn't have been The Beach Boys without Dennis Wilson. The middle Wilson brother gave the group its initial identity, a vastly appealing blend of rebel doo wop, surfer culture and California sunshine. Behind his drum kit, Dennis often went unnoticed with the alpha males up front but his presence and, more importantly, his spirit infused every Beach Boys chapter up through his untimely drowning death in 1983 in Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles. While Dennis rarely took the spotlight in The Beach Boys, he did venture out once during his lifetime and produced one of the most beloved jewels of the 1970s, Pacific Ocean Blue. Released in 1977, the first solo album from any of The Beach Boys is a lonely hymnal placed in one's hands; a leathered, weary collection that nonetheless punches through the darkness and finds twinkling hope dancing on the shore.
When the piano and street choir of opener "River Song" roll in it's tough not to be swept up by as sweet a wave as anyone ever caught. There's the honest ache of gospel music and early Springsteen to Wilson's album. Heard outside the overhanging shadows of Brian Wilson and Mike Love, Dennis is revealed as a sensitive, hugely imaginative musician. Pacific Ocean Blue melds the melancholy singer-songwriter mood of the era with music that's anything but timid, even when it shudders and creeps. This is orchestra of someone who'd spent a lot of time barefoot and never tired of the thousand-yard reverie of the seaside. There's so many beautiful touches on every single cut - a rushing horn swell here, a quivering vocal break there – that one is always rewarded by repeat spins. Dennis' only solo album builds upon the quieter yet equally artistic strengths of The Beach Boys' early '70s albums like Holland and Surf's Up and then betters them. Unlike his bandmates, Pacific Ocean Blue shows evidence that Wilson was listening to what was happening on FM radio at the time, and there's lovely echoes of Steely Dan, 10CC and Stealer's Wheel. Amongst the pervasive bittersweet vibe one finds the bounce of "What's Wrong" and the title track. Hindsight is a killer but listening to Pacific Ocean Blue one feels The Beach Boys missed out by keeping Dennis in a primarily support role, which may in turn have fueled his feeling of being a second class citizen amongst greater talents. This platter puts the lie to that idea and then some.
Benchmark setting Legacy Recordings reissued Pacific Ocean Blue this year in a spectacular 30th Anniversary package that includes the unissued follow-up album, Bambu, and other rarities. Arguably the archival release of 2008, this new edition helps set right the great wrong of the many years where Pacific Ocean Blue was out of print, left to build a cult amongst vinyl lusters and pop-minded musicians (Matthew Sweet told JamBase he ordered this reissue in several formats just because he could and would then never be without a copy again). Simply put, this is bloody magic stuff and there's not enough of that in this weary world. Scoop it up and spare a few thoughts for the lost Beach Boy. Some of us miss him more than we can possibly express.
Here's Dennis with The Beach Boys in 1977 talking about the joys of playing live before singing "You Are So Beautiful" followed by old fave "Barbara Ann."
For more background on this album check out the reissue EPK over here.