Now I like the Beach Boys. Or rather, I like the idea of the Beach Boys. I mean sure, I love Pet Sounds as much as everyone else, and I absolutely love Brian Wilson’s 2004 remake of Smile, but I really don’t care that much for a lot of the earlier stuff, and I really don’t know much at all from the after the aborted Smile. The fact that I skipped a whole decade of Beach Boys history to go to the band’s drummer’s first and only completed solo album might seem a little crazy. But I’m fine with that. I bought it because I heard it was an underrated classic.
Also, can’t go wrong with a cover consisting of a reasonably weathered bearded man looking grumpy under the massive black text “WILSON”…
Pacific Ocean Blue has a very strange feel given it was released in ’77. It’s very much a surf pop record in that Beach Boys mould, but what stands out here is the quality of Dennis Wilson’s songs. After all, he was the drummer Wilson. He hit things with sticks. Also, take note of how aged and gravelly his voice has become by this point. The man is in his mid thirties, but sings like a man in his fifties. This in itself lends a very effective melancholy to the proceedings. Given the tragic outcome of Dennis’ life, there’s a sense on this album that he is unburdening himself of some regrets but still clinging to a hopeful outlook. River Song, and Rainbows are incredible examples of where The Beach Boys should and could have gone post-Brian Wilson’s departure, full of reflective joy and warmth.
Not everything is a classic here, some songs are middling at best. What’s Wrong pales in comparison to River Song‘s Beach Boys choir, classic backing vocals and sweet melody. It’s a fairly varied album though, so chances are if one song swims too much in any one direction, another will totally float your banana boat – though be prepared, the album holds some some surprising twists. See Thoughts of You, a piano ballad that takes a haunting turn in the middle. Or next track Time, which similarly mutates from Wilson’s piano, strings, and an oddly lascivious guitar solo, into the pounding of menacing brass stabs and snarly over-driven guitar solo.
Lyrically, most of these songs are a maturation of the Beach Boys aesthetic – water and sun and sand and relationships, only expressed in a tone of contemplation rather than celebration. The title-track protests ocean exploitation for example. Others, and the ones I personally find the most compelling, are poignant personal reflections and tearful dedications that speak more of the slow moments in Dennis’ fast life. Thoughts of You stands out especially – a true masterpiece of melancholy.
There are a few fairly stunning bonus tracks at the end of this release from this album’s recording sessions, and those of a failed attempt to produce a second album, which finally unravelled after Dennis Wilson’s tragic death in ’83. Holy Man in particular features about as beautiful a simple melody as a Beach Boy ever conceived, though weirdly Wilson never recorded his vocals for this song, so Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters sings it on this reissue, and sounds surprisingly close to Dennis. Maybe a little less burnt-out sounding.
There are summer albums, and The Beach Boy’s catalogue largely fits into that category. This is a summer record for sure, but it’s the tail-end of summer, reflecting on good memories, missed opportunities and some hard lessons learned. Pacific Ocean Blue absolutely deserves its “lost classic” status, and Dennis his position amongst his venerated brothers. You like music right? You should check it out. With your ears.