From “River Song” and its amazing vocal layers to the moody soundscape of “Moonshine” to the life-affirming zest-for-life composition “Rainbows,” the 1977 record showcased brilliant aural tapestries.
2 September 2015
On Aug. 22, 1977, a rather important album was released.
It wasn’t a top seller by any means.
And it didn’t feature any hit singles.
And the guy who released it wasn’t exactly a household name.
But Dennis Wilson’s “Pacific Ocean Blue” did excite critics, and it was the first solo album released by a member of the Beach Boys.
The first solo album from the group — and arguably the finest.
Through the 1960s, Dennis Wilson was the sex symbol of the Beach Boys. He was a genuine surfer, he was the drummer, he was tall and muscular and had a mischievous smile. He seemed to attract trouble (you can fire up Google and look into his connections with Charles Manson; I won’t go into them here) and few took him seriously as an artist in his own right.
But starting with his song “Little Bird” in 1968, Dennis’ talent blossomed into an amazing tour de force. Rich in arrangement, palpably emotional, soulful to the extreme, and full of unconventional changes and structures, Wilson’s material in the 1970s rivaled that of his older brother Brian. That is no small feat.
In fact, considering Brian’s withdrawal from band activities and his frequent absence from the studio, it is fair to suggest that Dennis was the most important composing Wilson in the Beach Boys in the 1970s (though younger brother Carl also contributed some dynamite songs).
Contributing a song here, a few songs there, Dennis amassed quite a collection of compositions from 1968 through 1974. But it was 1977’s “Pacific Ocean Blue” that really showed that Dennis had come into his own.
Brian Wilson had a solo single under his belt (1966’s “Caroline, No,” from the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album) and Dennis Wilson had a 1970 single released (“Sound of Free” / “Lady”), but none of the other active members in the 1976-77 configuration of the band had released anything outside of the Beach Boys’ name.
To have a full album, 12 songs, without the Beach Boys brand to market under or gather interest — that was major. Other than Brian Wilson, none of the Beach Boys had widespread household recognition (and even then, Brian Wilson was no John Lennon or Mick Jagger). Why not contribute these songs to a Beach Boys album? Surely they’d get more attention that way?
In 1976, the Beach Boys launched the “Brian’s Back” campaign. After Brian’s well-chronicled decline into drug abuse, depression and mental illness, the Beach Boys soldiered on and became songwriters and producers in their own right. But the release of the greatest-hits compilation “Endless Summer” and the love for the classic goodies in live shows forced a demand for a new Brian Wilson product. After the services of Eugene Landy were secured and Brian’s health and activity improved, the albums “15 Big Ones” and “The Beach Boys Love You” were released. Brian was back in the spotlight, and the other group members were subordinates again.
That would probably have been all well and good, provided the quality of those albums had satisfied the group members. But Dennis and Carl were particularly unhappy with the song selections, performances and production on “15 Big Ones,” and that had them riled up a bit.
They’d been carrying the torch since 1967-68, they’d been writing and producing quality material, why take the back seat to recordings like “TM Song” and “Blueberry Hill” and the rest? The brothers knew that this material wouldn’t live up to the “Brian’s Back” hype and expectations (could any music have lived up to it?), and that a lot of it didn’t live up to a standard they’d been bringing to Beach Boys records since the “Friends” album.
So Dennis took his quality songs and he crafted his masterpiece. “Pacific Ocean Blue” peaked at No. 96 on the U.S. charts, which is pretty respectable considering the content (funky, emotional songs going against disco and punk) and the lack of name recognition.
“Pacific Ocean Blue” had fans and critics alike dizzy in anticipation of future works. And while Dennis did work on a follow-up album, the unfinished “Bambu,” his personal life, his drug demons and his emotional and mental issues piled up on him. He would contribute songs to Beach Boys albums through 1979’s “L.A. (Light Album),” but never again would he scale the solo heights of his 1977 album.
On Dec. 28, 1983, Dennis drowned. He was 39.
But “Pacific Ocean Blue” would see greater days. In 2008, a deluxe two-disc edition of the album was released on the Legacy Recordings imprint. This edition featured bonus tracks and included several songs from the “Bambu” sessions. The release thrust Dennis back into the spotlight, and contemporary critics and new fans alike sang its praises. The package also rose to No. 8 on Billboard’s Top Pop Catalog Albums chart.
Previously unissued songs like “Tug of Love” almost transcend words, being such remarkable pieces of audio craftsmanship. When Dennis croons “the world loves you, yes they do,” one wonders if Wilson himself knew just how much he was loved, how much his work was loved. The heart aches at the thought.
As we get closer to the anniversary, perhaps more people will pick up the album, be exposed to this amazing music and lend their voices to the choir of fans pleading for every last note of Wilson’s music they can get.
“Pacific Ocean Blue” is the single greatest distillation of Dennis’ music that one can buy, and it shows the quality of such songs as “Forever,” “Celebrate the News,” “Slip on Through,” “Cuddle Up” and “Baby Blue” were not only sustainable in an album form, but that they could create a record of such magnificent depth and emotion as to affect the hearts and steal the ears of listeners 38 years later.
Let the sounds of “River Song” envelop you. Hang out with the white punk on “Friday Night.” And sadly, let go of Dennis with the sublime “Farewell My Friend.” I defy anyone to listen to this album and not be moved.