Music Features

Dennis Wilson - More Than Just a Beach Boy

Brian was the visionary composer, master producer, and fearless leader. Carl was the gifted singer with the angelic voice. Mike Love, well, he was the asshole. And Dennis, banished behind the drum set, was the rebellious middle child considered to be the Wilson brother possessing the least musical ability. That little stool in the background is traditionally reserved for the band member with the least talent and zero identity, or the one that needs to be hidden from view. But Dennis proved to be none of these things and rose above everyone’s expectations. Though always a Beach Boy at heart, Dennis Wilson was able to mature into a confident songwriter, performer, vocalist, and producer, forging an identity independent from that of his brothers.  

The only Beach Boy that actually surfed, Dennis fit the rock star bill all too easily and was quickly labeled the carefree, rebellious representative of the So-Cal lifestyle the Boys sang about. Other than being the inspiration for the group’s first single, Surfin’, Dennis was often left out of the creative aspect of the band’s early work. Ask the average listener and the Beach Boys tend to be identified by the two big hits that more or less bookend their career, Surfin’ USA and Kokomo (The latter, a dark day in the Beach Boys canon I choose to deny the existence of.) Someone a little more aware will mention the ubiquitous classic, Pet Sounds, almost more by rote than true adoration. Then there’s a lot of talk about Brian Wilson’s genius, collapse, and the whole Smile debacle. Amongst all of this, the productive era when Dennis was churning out a couple of songs for each LP is somehow overlooked.

After Brian disappeared into the confines of drugs, depression, and his bedroom, the other band members were forced to take more responsibility in terms of writing and producing. On 1968’s Friends, Dennis’ promise began to become apparent with Little Bird and Be Still, but on 1970’s Sunflower Dennis proved he could hold his own as a musician. It contains his rollicking Slip on Through and one of the most moving ballads in the Beach Boys catalog, Forever. Brian even proclaimed it “the most harmonically beautiful thing I've ever heard." Forever is the kind of heartfelt balladry that became a Dennis Wilson staple. His voice manages to be sweet and gruff at the same time, clearly distinguishing him from his brothers’ purer voices. The gruffness, as well as his ever-present passion would only grow and become even more prevalent on his masterwork, Pacific Ocean Blue.

Surprisingly, this was the first solo album to be released by a Beach Boy, and it remains the best solo outing by any member of the group (and yes, this includes Brian’s 2004 release of Smile.) Dennis himself quickly dismissed the album, but since it’s release in 1977 Pacific Ocean Blue has sold moderately well, garnered good reviews and gathered a cult following, especially after Dennis’ premature and tragically ironic drowning in 1983. Only released on compact disc for a limited time in the 1990’s, copies grew harder to get a hold of and Pacific Ocean Blue became one of the coolest albums to own, instantly giving any possessor of it an ocean of credibility as a Beach Boys devotee. But now it’s become available once again with extensive liner notes, photos and oft-bootlegged bonus tracks that were originally intended for the album’s anticipated but never completed follow-up, Bambu.

It’s clear that Dennis managed to tap into something with his solo work that he could never fully explore within the confines of the Beach Boys. Dennis is down. And even when he isn’t down an internal sadness is always present in his voice. His material doesn’t rest upon sunny surf themes, but rather melancholic longing and a romantic spirituality. River Song opens the record with a simple piano movement, but this is to be no quiet affair. A tremendous gospel choir soon joins in to celebrate this ode to all things natural and free, a running theme of the album. Dennis’ gravelly voice is restrained as he competes with the choir and the wash of sound that has risen out of that one crystalline piano figure. Followed by the chugging What’s Wrong, Dennis manages to change tone immediately with southern squeals of brass, and bluesy tempos.

Unconventional song structures are everywhere and can actually be a bit confounding at first listen. A quiet ballad breaks into sudden avalanches of sound on Time. In Thoughts of You he confesses, “I never see the light that people talk about,” while Rainbows is perfect summery pop. Dennis’ seemingly impulsive variances of musical styles parallel his personality, a headfirst approach and constant attempt to knock down any barriers, regardless of consequences. The Bambu material is definitely more straightforward rock, if not a bit more meandering. Similar in tone to Pacific Ocean Blue, tracks like Love Surrounds Me and It's not too Late are genuine standouts, with songs like He’s a Bum thrown in for some self-deprecating humor. 

Having finally broken free from the red tape that has kept it buried for much too long, Pacific Ocean Blue survives because it’s not just another Beach Boy’s album and Dennis Wilson is not just another Beach Boy. If anyone was going to separate himself from the label of surfboards and surfer girls, it oddly enough was going to be the only authentic Beach Boy. Always open and willing to display his heartache nakedly, a quote from the liner notes of this reissue explains the allure of Dennis’ music rather eloquently:

“Everything that I am or ever will be is in the music. If you want to know me, just listen.” -Dennis Wilson