Graham Reid | | 4 min read
It was a tragic irony that Dennis Wilson, the only genuine surf-rat in the Beach Boys, should have drowned. But by 1983 when he died in the waters of Marina Del Rey, he was a spent force who had succumbed to alcohol, depression and cocaine -- and he'd only recorded one solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue in 1977.
That was also a tragedy because POB suggested that if anyone could have carried the legacy of this band forward in the physical and emotional absence of his brother Brian Wilson, then it might be this good-looking drummer.
You need to put POB back into the context of the period: the Beach Boys were all but washed up musically and their previous release had been (as they are today) a reissue of their greatests hits. Prior to that there had been Brian-helmed albums which, while having a few sublime or dark moments, failed to capture the public imagination. There had been line-up changes too.
Even when Brian returned to the band around the time POB was being recorded he was retreading past riffs and glories, and pushing them into covers.
Elsewhere in the world a lot had been happening, notably Elton John and Bernie Taupin who dominated the middle of the decade, stadium-fillers like Wings, Boston, Kansas and MOR rock, and the household names were Bruce Springsteen, Abba and the Bee Gees.
For bands who had made it in the late 60s and early 70s it was a time in which many struggled to find their niche again, and some just took time out to indulge in their winnings. Dennis Wilson, in a volatile marriage at the time, was one of those.
In the band he co-founded with his brothers and cousin Mike Love at the start of the 60s, he had originally taken -- quite literally -- the back seat.
But by the late 60s he had emerged as a fine composer and good singer whose contributions to the band's albums had been consistently interesting. But the Beach Boys was always going to be Brian's band with Love wrestling for control.
Early on Dennis' laidback personality meant he preferred to push away conflict, but the other side of him was his love of the fast lane, which lead him to coke and partying, and a friendship with Charles Manson which many said he never fully recovered from.
By 1976 he had been burned by his lifestyle and was in a melancholy mood, but he decided to get serious about a solo album (the first by a Beach Boy) and started work with producer Gregg Jakobsen.
POB is a remarkable album for its burned-out and mature if melancholy quality: the powerful voice he'd brought to Beach Boys party songs like Do You Wanna Dance? had been ravaged by smoke and alcohol so that it was now a cracked and fragile thing, but capable of great emotion.
Although sometimes wrapped in BB-styled vocal orchestration his voice reminds you more of Harry Nilsson, and despite the album's title there isn't a lot of optimism at work: track titles include What's Wrong, Thoughts of You, the moving Farewell My Friend and End of the Show.
You may also hear the influence of Elton/Bernie as much as Brian Wilson (Dennis wrote on piano).
Throughout there is the sound of man coming to terms with his losses and regrets (on the otherwise upbeat What's Wrong the chorus is "I'm gone, I'm gone") which, if it isn't evident in the lyrics, is conveyed by the music. It is often orchestrated but downbeat rather than uplifting, and sometimes disconcerting (the noir opening of Friday Night).
California, which had once provided endless summers of optimism in song, was a very different place in the 70s and, as with the Eagles' Hotel California which was released nine months before, there are dark shadows, betrayal and tension everywhere in Pacific Ocean Blue. Wilson's voice is often set well back: on Dreamer -- which deals with the promises/lies of stardom before morphing into a completely different mood, in the manner of Nilsson -- Wilson sounds as if he is singing from the far end of a dark corridor.
In many ways he was.
POB received critical acclaim at the time and although it sold around 300,000 copies it only just sneaked in to the US Top 100 and quickly disappeared.
Over the years it became a cult item and gained in stature. It is now widely regarded as a masterpiece, not the least for it being a sometimes unhappy mirror of its maker.
It wasn't all darkness however and scattered about -- especially in the final track, End of the Show with the line "it's wonderful to know we're still alive" -- are hints that this Wilson could just get himself together.
He didn't unfortunately and crashed marriages and relationships, increasing alcohol dependency and damaged friendships all followed.
Dennis Wilson however did keep trying for a follow-up album (tentatively entitled Bambu) but it never happened.
The 2008 Legacy Edition reissue of Pacific Island Blue (with a book of essays, gatefold hardback sleeve and a bonus pdf booklet when you put the disc into your computer) pulls together those previously unreleased Bambu songs on a separate disc.
Most are not a patch on POB tracks (although a few are aching, and even more Nilsson-like) but they conclude with a vocal version of Wilson's Holy Man instrumental sung by Foo Fighter and fan Taylor Hawkins. It's not bad.
But it is that first disc of POB -- and four previously unreleased tracks including Holy Man which meld seamlessly with it -- which is where your attention is directed.
As we know the brightest sun casts the darkest shadows. For two decades under the bright glare of California days Dennis Wilson lived first in one, then the other.
From Pacific Ocean Blue you can trace a line back through Dennis Wilson's songs on Beach Boys albums, check other equally disconcerting California albums from the period (Hotel California, Neil Young's On The Beach, Jackson Browne's The Pretender), or go to Harry Nilsson.
Or trace the Beach Boys' long career with special reference to albums such as Holland, Pet Sounds and Smile.
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