To be honest I’ve never been all that much of a Beach Boys fan, as sacrilegious as that may sound to their millions of followers. I guess it’s a bit like saying that you love the electric guitar but dislike Jimi Hendrix. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few songs I genuinely adore, and a few more I regard as absolute classics, and don’t mind hearing from time to time. But as a teenager I was too busy being a beatnik (and a very awkward one at that), more into blues, jazz and Jack Kerouac, along with all that other hip intellectual stuff, probably none of which I truly understood, yet instinctively seemed to follow. No sun and surf for me. Twenty minutes in the sun and I’d go home looking like a lobster, which perhaps explains my aversion to the whole ‘surfer girl’ culture. Oh, and the fact I used to get picked on by all those bronzed and blonde-headed dickheads in board shorts probably didn’t help matters either. But that’s neither here nor there, because what we’re here to discuss is Dennis Wilson’s first and only studio album, a man who was indeed the dark horse of The Beach Boys, and an excellent songwriter in his own right.
When Pacific Ocean Blue was released in 1977, it was one of those masterpieces which quickly fell under the radar, before disappearing completely. God only knows why, because Pacific… is in my view one of the finest solo albums released by any member of The Beach Boys I’ve ever heard (and yes that includes Brian Wilson. Mind you, I’m not exactly an expert). Yet before you put the record on, take a moment or two to look at the album cover. Gone is the ebullient, youthful gaze of yore. Instead is a hirsute, world-weary gaze of someone who has stood at the edge of the precipice and for a few seconds wondered, before deciding that it was better to go home and write a song than the alternative.
The album gets off to a gleaming start with the gospel infused “River Song”, a snapshot of Wilson’s mind that is both melancholic and uplifting at the same time. Wilson’s voice sounds as if it’s about to crack (as well as his heart) at any moment, providing an emotional contrast to the angelic voices which ebb and flow around him. It’s a brilliant opener, and my favourite song of the album. “What’s Wrong” is an old-fashioned rock and roll number, in that Happy Days sort of way, and therefore not quite my kind of dish. However “Moonshine” is a different matter entirely. From the fragile piano intro, to Dennis singing “It was you who said there wouldn’t be tomorrow”, it’s an extremely moving and delicate piece of art.
Now one of the things I can’t imagine The Beach Boys doing, and that is sounding like Pink Floyd, but that is obviously what Dennis decided to do on “Friday Night”. Clearly the man had been listening to a bit of progressive rock in his spare time, and the first minute and a half makes that obviously clear. “Dreamer” is a funky, Little Feat inspired number, with dirty keyboards and a greasy brass section, while “Thoughts of You” seems as if it’s sung by someone who’s about to fracture under the weight of depression, even though it’s a love song. “Time” reveals Wilson’s imagination and easily puts him on a par with his more famous brother Brian. “You and I” has its own sweet and tender moments, in that Love Boat kind of way (or maybe it’s just me), before we get all funky again on the title track “Pacific Ocean Blue”. What Wilson is stating here is that he loves the ocean. Not surprising for someone who was in a band known as The Beach Boys.
The slightly psychedelic “Farewell My Friend” is a touching expression of longing, which sees Wilson aching over a lost loved-one. “Rainbows” has Dennis wishing for better days, and although his voice had deteriorated due to life and experience, he’s in good form on this short and uplifting tune. “The End of the Show” is another mellow, reflective composition, and something of a mini-epic which finds our central character wearing his soul on his sleeve.
The great news is that the album has finally been given the full deluxe edition release it always deserved, and includes a bonus disc of the never before issued Bambu (The Caribou Sessions), the intended follow-up, which are in themselves an intriguing and insightful essay into the man’s mind and genius. Tragically Wilson would drown off the shore of Marina del Ray in 1983. He was 39; thus closing an important chapter in the story of The Beach Boys forever.
Pacific Ocean Blue is an emotional record more than anything else, and should be taken and accepted as such. Whether he was an alcoholic womanizer is beside the point. The man was evidently haunted, and like Brian left emotionally damaged by his father, who was nothing short of an abusive control freak. This is a mature and sophisticated record, and in my view, on an equal with Pet Sounds. Believe me, it really is that good.