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The late Dennis Wilson's only solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, was perhaps the last great out-of-print record from the Beach Boys universe. It's finally being remastered and reissued, along with a second disc of tracks originally intended for Bambu, his aborted follow-up. This means that for the next several months, Rolling Stone and MOJO and a gazillion blogs lifting quotes from those venerable mags will regale us with the Story of Dennis: ladies' man, surfer dude and serviceable drummer slips out from under his big bro's massive shadow and delivers a song cycle about love, spirituality and the environment.
"Dennis deserves to have some sort of recognition," says close friend and fellow surf-rock icon Dean Torrence (of Jan & Dean), who also co-designed Pacific's layout. "Brian kind of sucked the air out of everybody. He is probably one of the most talented and prolific songwriters of our time, so it would have been hard for anybody around him to get any recognition. And Dennis did a fairly good job putting together his music, especially for somebody who had never done it before."
Dennis' first songs, Brian-inspired nursery rhymes such as "Little Bird" and "Be Still," started popping up on Beach Boys albums in the late '60s. At the time, practically nobody, outside of maybe a young Lindsey Buckingham, cared about one of pop's great acts. Flash forward just six or seven years to 1977, when Caribou released Pacific Ocean Blue to an always-attentive Buckingham and more deaf ears (some things never change), and Dennis was his own man, employing synthesizers and a black gospel choir while fusing lush, Isaac Hayes-inspired soul to ambient pop from somewhere near the dark side of the moon.
So, yeah, Dennis' evolution as a songwriter, musician and producer is indeed mind-blowing. But let's not kid ourselves. What you really want to know before dropping $35 on mid-'70s soft rock instead of gasoline is this: Will I dig Pacific Ocean Blue as much as I do Pet Sounds? The group's masterwork, Pet Sounds is the record to which all Wilson-related output is inevitably compared. So here's your answer: You will—but first you'll have to tweak your expectations. While Pacific is obviously the product of a Wilson brother (those layered harmonies don't lie), it's just as radical of a break with what came before as Pet Sounds was to its predecessors ("Fun, Fun, Fun," "I Get Around," etc.).
Beginning with the album's bombastic opener, "River Song," and following through to the end, Dennis echoes Brian's love for Phil Spector. "He had a genius brother for a teacher," explains Gregg Jakobson, who co-produced Pacific Ocean Blue, as well as wrote a good chunk of its lyrics. "There's definitely a Spector influence there, but instead of a wall of sound, it's more of a wash in the background—total and big."
The Beach Boys released a slew of classic albums, but Pacific Ocean Blue (which contains uncredited assistance from Dennis' mates) is really the only record besides Pet Sounds to fully embody that "total and big" aesthetic, as if its creator somehow cracked open his heart and allowed its contents to drip onto magnetic tape. The music is really that far removed from the methodical, detail-oriented studio work that bore it.
Yet Jakobson is right. Pet Sounds is finely cut Swarovski shimmering with sharp angles and bold lines, while Pacific ripples like a lazy, ocean-fed lagoon just before high tide. And, of course, these contrasting qualities reflect the fundamental differences in character between the two brothers. "Brian was ethereal, very much up in his head," says Jakobson. "But Dennis was on the ground. He was a real street person. He was a tough guy."
Brian is the sensitive, very eccentric Californian suburbanite. Dennis, however, urbanized himself over the years. He was a funky beach rat too in love with booze who lived borderline homeless in Santa Monica (which, according to Jakobson, isn't romanticizing his daily existence in the mid '70s). The guy didn't croon about spectral insecurities; he grunted and moaned about life's base needs, as on "Pacific Ocean Blue": "We live on the edge of a body of water/Warmed by the blood of the cold-hearted/Slaughter of the otter."
Ultimately, Dennis sounds like one of those LA characters from a Tom Waits or Warren Zevon song (good-natured, but coarse and flawed) who somehow found himself in a foreign part of the city—that is, in the Beach Boys' studio, backed by the legendary Wrecking Crew.
Then again, even if you accept Dennis as an artist in his own right, Pacific Ocean Blue still might not blow you away, as it strays far from Brian's concept of West Coast pop. But while Pacific Ocean Blue probably isn't Pet Sounds' equal, it undoubtedly is, along with such cultish albums as Fleetwood Mac's Tusk and Gene Clark's No Other, one of the most profound and distinctive musical statements to come out of 1970s California.
Not bad for a dude who was "just the drummer."
Pacific Ocean Blue is released June 17 on Epic/Caribou/Legacy.