Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#562 in the Series) is Dennis Wilson, Pacific Ocean Blue
The only member of the Beach Boys who actually surfed, Dennis Wilson always had that little brother chip on his shoulder. Even though he was the middle brother, he had an undeserved reputation as the Fredo Corleone to Carl’s Sonny and Brian’s Michael, along with a somewhat deserved reputation as the “Bad Boy” of the group. Showing up late for gigs and hanging out with Charles Manson did little to dissuade his detractors, and the almost “Ringo-esque” way he was spoon-fed songs to feature on Beach Boys albums did not help to spotlight his songwriting talent and his ability to stand alone as an artist, performer, and a talent that was at least on equal footing with the rest of the band.
Despite contributing generally two or fewer songs per album on any of the prior Beach Boys releases, Dennis released the first, and what some consider to be the best, Beach Boys solo album with Pacific Ocean Blue in 1977. The album charted inside the top 100 which was higher than any of the two next Beach Boys albums M.I.U and L.A (Light Album). It went out of print in 1979, was re-released in 1991 with no re-mastering done to improve the sound quality, and then largely disappeared until 2008 when it was re-mastered, re-packaged with new liner notes along with 20 unreleased tracks added to the multiple disc CD set, several of which were intended to be on Dennis Wilson’s follow-up album Bambu.
Written over a seven year time period between 1969 and 1976, the album represents collections of songs Dennis had been perfecting as an answer to those that were discounting him as a mindless, untalented drummer and essentially ignoring his musical talent. The reality was that while he was no Karen Carpenter on the drums, he was far from a no-talent hack. In reality, he was an excellent piano player with a keen melodic sense and a poignant songwriter.
Pacific Ocean Blue was an attempt to distance himself from his brothers and shed that white-pants Hawaiian shirt image that the rest of the band was portraying. The final product was a cult classic, and ironically enough a record that Dennis hated and Brian loved.
One of the reasons that Pacific Ocean Blue is so good as a departure for Dennis Wilson is that it doesn’t really sound like a Beach Boys Record. Sure, the background harmonies are there and the production value is top-notch, but the overall “vibe” of the record is much bleaker, melancholy, introspective and even a little desperate sounding and could have been written by Nick Cave. The vocals are not perfect, which is not a bad thing, and sound like a cross between latter-day Harry Nilsson along with a little bit of Randy Newman and Joe Walsh thrown in for good measure. In other words, the final product is not artistically brilliant, but pure and real which to my ears is often much better.
The first eargasmic moment we get from this album is right from jump-street on “The River” where a “Tiny Dancer”-like melody is played by Dennis on the piano, followed by some backing vocals, and then a gospel choir inserting itself with all its bombastic glory. Dennis did most of his writing at the piano and was clearly influenced by early Elton John, with “The River” clearly sharing some DNA with “Burn Down the Mission” and quite possibly “Take Me to the Pilot.” It has that same sweeping, grandiose quality. The lyrical content sets the tone for the rest of the proceedings and instead of praising the beauty and naturalistic qualities of a sweeping river, Dennis bemoans the fact that he lives in the city and says, “you got to run away, you got to do it, do it, do it, you go to run away.”
“What’s Wrong” is probably the closest to a classic Beach Boys-style song with a little bit of a “Do It Again” influence. The similarities start and end with the melody however as you would never hear the more introspective lyrical content on a proper Beach Boys album.
“Your mama thinks I’m Crazy, your poppa says I’m Lazy, ‘cause I play my Rock & Roll/ my head’s gettin’ hazy, my knees are gettin’ shaky, from playing that Rock & Roll/I’m gone, I’m gone, saved by Rock & Roll.”
The title track “Pacific Ocean Blues” is lyrically about as bleak as a song can get and talks about the slaughter of sea otters and the harpooning of whales. Co-written with Mike Love, it shows that many in the Beach Boys camp were wanting a departure from the fun in the sun, cars and girls band to a more politically, environmentally and politically aware version of the band.
“Farewell My Friend” is a melancholy and sad, almost personal assessment of his life. “You take the high road, I’ll take the low Road, and we’ll meet again” portrays a Dennis Wilson whose life is in somewhat of disarray with some question as to which direction his career and even his life might be heading.
“Rainbows” despite the flowery title is only slightly more up-beat where he seems to enjoy the sun on his shoulders and is admiring the beautiful rainbow, but it only serves to remind him of a lost love that he can’t be with.
Given the prism of historical perspective, it is not surprising that his life ended too soon after listening to this album. I find it difficult to absorb the entire thing in one sitting without an intense sadness of “what might have been” coming over me.
My brief second-hand experience with Dennis Wilson the person was a positive one. My friend, the most rabid Beach Boys fan since Mrs. Wilson, had somehow conned himself into a back-stage pass to a Beach Boys concert in Northern California. I was attending the same show, and as I was heading to the concert about an hour before the show, I saw his car coming out of the gates as I was heading in. When I asked him where he was going, he said he had to go, he had go get Dennis Wilson some tennis shoes, this said in a tone as if this was an everyday occurrence and that I should just go about my business and let him get on with his errand. As the story goes he was sitting on Brian Johnston’s piano bench backstage when Dennis came up to him and admired his tennis shoes, apparently Dennis was a big collector of tennis shoes. My friend asked him if he wanted them and was told he did not want his but would really love a fresh pair. So ever the “want to please one of my idols” fans he jumped in his car bought a new pair and returned to the concert. Upon presenting Dennis with his new sleds, as a gift, the Beach Boys drummer took his own shoes off autographed them and gave them to my friend.
Ultimately Dennis Wilson was a little bit of a tortured soul with a big heart. His drug and alcohol dependencies along with his relationships with various misanthropes only served to deepen the personal and musical alienation he was already feeling with the musical direction the band was headed.
Pacific Ocean Blue perfectly expresses this sense of alienation never more so than on the last song on the album “End of the Show”. It pretty much says it all.
There you are
At the end of the show
Mem’ries are real
It’s wonderful to know you’re alive
At the end
Thank you very much
For everything you’ve ever needed
Oh oh oh
Thank you very much
For everything you’ve ever dreamed of
- “River Song” (Dennis Wilson/Carl Wilson) – 3:44
- “What’s Wrong” (D. Wilson/Gregg Jakobson/Michael Horn) – 2:22
- “Moonshine” (D. Wilson/Jakobson) – 2:27
- “Friday Night” (D. Wilson/Jakobson) – 3:09
- “Dreamer” (D. Wilson/Jakobson) – 4:22
- “Thoughts of You” (D. Wilson/Jim Dutch) – 3:02
- “Time” (D. Wilson/Karen Lamm-Wilson) – 3:31
- “You and I” (D. Wilson/Lamm-Wilson/Jakobson) – 3:25
- “Pacific Ocean Blues” (D. Wilson/Mike Love) – 2:39
- “Farewell My Friend” (D. Wilson) – 2:26
- “Rainbows” (D. Wilson/C. Wilson/Steve Kalinich) – 2:55
- “End of the Show” (D. Wilson/Jakobson) – 2:55
30th Anniversary Edition
- “River Song” – 3:44
- “What’s Wrong” – 2:23
- “Moonshine” – 2:27
- “Friday Night” – 3:10
- “Dreamer” – 4:23
- “Thoughts of You” – 3:04
- “Time” – 3:32
- “You and I” – 3:25
- “Pacific Ocean Blues” – 2:37
- “Farewell My Friend” – 2:26
- “Rainbows” – 2:48
- “End of the Show” – 2:57
- “Tug of Love” (Dennis Wilson/Gregg Jakobson) – 3:44
- “Only With You” (D. Wilson/Mike Love) – 3:57
- “Holy Man” [instrumental] (D. Wilson/Jakobson) – 4:24
- “Mexico” (D. Wilson) – 5:31
Disc Two: Bambu (The Caribou Sessions)
- “Under The Moonlight” (Carli Munoz) – 3:55
- “It’s Not Too Late” (Carli Munoz) – 4:22
- “School Girl” (Dennis Wilson/Gregg Jakobson) – 2:31
- “Love Remember Me” (D. Wilson/Jakobson/Steve Kalinich) – 4:04
- “Love Surrounds Me” (D. Wilson/Geoffrey Cushing-Murray) – 3:40
- “Wild Situation” (D. Wilson/Jakobson) – 2:41
- “Common” (D. Wilson) – 3:34
- “Are You Real” (D. Wilson/Jakobson) – 3:38
- “He’s a Bum” (D. Wilson/Jakobson) – 2:50
- “Cocktails” (D. Wilson/Jakobson/John Hanlon) – 3:00
- “I Love You” (D. Wilson/Jakobson) – 2:02
- “Constant Companion” (Munoz/Rags Baker) – 3:22
- “Time for Bed” (D. Wilson/Jakobson) – 3:07
- “Album Tag Song” (D. Wilson) – 3:45
- “All Alone” (Munoz) – 3:44
- “Piano Variations on “Thoughts of You”” (D. Wilson) – 3:03
- “Holy Man (Taylor Hawkins Version)” (D. Wilson/Jakobson/Taylor Hawkins) – 4:25
- Dennis Wilson — Strings, Drums, Keyboards, Vocals, Producer
- Carli Munoz — Piano, Keyboards, Moog synthesizer, percussion, Producer
- Carl Wilson — Lead guitar, Vocals
- Bruce Johnston — background Vocals
- Hal Blaine — Drums
- Chuck Domanico — Bass
- Ricky Fataar — Drums
- John Hanlon — Guitar, Engineer
- Gregg Jakobson — Producer
- James Jamerson — Bass
- Earle Mankey — Guitar, Engineer
- Dean Torrence — Background Vocals
- Steven Moffitt — Chief Engineer
- Michael Andreas — Horn
- Lance Buller — Horn
- Sterling Smith — Keyboards
- Tommy Smith — Drums
- Dave Hessler — Bass
- Ed Carter — Bass, Guitar
- Bobby Figueroa — Drums
- Wayne Tweed — Bass
- Manolo Badrena — Percussion
- Janice Hubbard — Horn
- Bill Lamb — Horn
- Charles McCarthy — Horn
- Stephen Moffitt — Engineer
- Eddie Tuleja — Guitar, Vocals
- Sid Sharp — Live strings ensemble
- Alexander Hamilton’s Double Rock Baptist Choir
Listen to all of the original Pacific Ocean Blue release here. Just click the play button.
Dennis saying a few words about Pacific Ocean Blue