I’ve been on a real Beach Boys kick lately. Maybe it’s because I recently saw them live, maybe it’s the warm summer weather, or maybe it’s some good vibrations. This week celebrates what many music critics consider to be a “lost classic”. Making little impact upon it’s release, this album saw a rise in popularity in later decades. The album is Pacific Ocean Blue and it’s the debut album from Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson. Arguably the best Beach Boys related album since Pet Sounds, Pacific Ocean Blue is an album of raw power and serene beauty.
The middle child of the Wilson family, Dennis was considered the dark horse of The Beach Boys clan. His bad boy persona, addictions, and connections to Charles Manson made him a compelling if not controversial figure. His presence within the group grew in the seventies as group leader Brian Wilson battled personal demons and soon enough Dennis emerged as a talented singer/songwriter. In 1977 Dennis took his growing catalog of songs and recorded Pacific Ocean Blue, a soulful and strikingly affectionate record. Far more ambitious or compelling than anything The Beach Boys had done in years. Pacific Ocean Blue is a bright pearl in an otherwise dark era for the band.
The first surprise of Pacific Ocean Blue is how unlike The Beach Boys it sounds. With the exception of the upbeat “What’s Wrong” the songs on Pacific Ocean Blue are pure unadulterated Dennis Wilson. Wilson is soulful, emotional, and even at times sorrowful. There’s always been a certain sadness to Dennis Wilson’s gravelly voice. This could be partly attributed to his damaging addiction to alcohol and drugs. Though in way it’s that grittiness that makes Dennis’ voice so memorable.
What’s astounding is that such a dark and mature songwriter was hiding among an otherwise upbeat pop group. The opening track “River Song” is a gospel-like epic, while songs like “Thoughts of You” and “Time” carry a haunting sadness. In addition to vocal, piano, and drumming duties, Wilson co-produces alongside friend Gregg Jakobson to create a a complex listening experience. Like his older brother, Dennis is a fan of unconventional arrangements and uses a wide array of instruments and ideas. A song like “Thoughts of You” stands out in my mind for it’s reverbed soaked vocals during the song’s bridge. It sounds like something Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters could have dreamed up while recording The Wall.
Dennis Wilson is my favorite Beach Boy. Not only for his appealing rebel persona, but for his ability as a mighty musical force. Unfortunately, this was the only full album that Wilson finished before his tragic death by drowning in 1983. It’s interesting to think where Wilson’s career could have went, but that would have conflicted with his “live fast, die young” lifestyle. Either way we were fortunate to have received such a complex album from such a complex man.
Favorite Tracks: “River Song”, “Thoughts of You”, “Time”