Dennis Wilson—Pacific Ocean Blue

Music Features Dennis Wilson
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1978 was a great year for music. Punk had finally filtered down to the mainstream, and the resulting New Wave mashup of snarling attitude and pop hooks actually made it fun to listen to the radio again.

Since 1978 is now officially 30 years ago, and since record labels are fond of releasing 30th Anniversary commemorative box sets and expanded special editions and the like, it’s a good time to rediscover some great music you may have missed (potty training was such a drag that year for some of you) the first time around. The recent superb reissues of Nick Lowe’s Jesus of Cool and Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model would be a great place to start.

But it was a pretty good year for the rock ‘n roll dinosaurs, too. Dennis Wilson is the Beach Boy Wilson brother you probably don’t know much about. Brian wrote and sang most of the great songs, Carl played great Chuck Berry guitar licks and wrote and sang. Dennis? Well, Dennis played the drums. Badly. Although he toured with the band, session drummers usually replaced him in the studio. And since his gruff and ragged voice was closer to Tom Waits than The Four Freshmen, he rarely sang on the Beach Boys albums.

But Dennis, the one Beach Boy who could actually surf, was a complex, gifted, and enormously conflicted human being, and you can hear all that and more on the reissue of his 1978 album Pacific Ocean Blue, which has been paired with a second disc of abortive tracks that were to comprise his followup album Bambu, which was never issued. It’s a quintessential California album of the time (Jackson Browne would have killed for a couple of these tunes), and it’s the sound of a man whose life is falling apart; full of tender ballads and almost jazzlike hymns, and pervaded by a sense of self-doubt and insecurity. It’s the great lost Beach Boys treasure, and it’s coming to a record store (do they still have those?) near you on May 13th. In one of the many ironies surrounding the Wilson brothers, the quiet, introspective Dennis actually released the first Wilson solo album. Alas, it was to be his last. In the crowning irony, the surfer drowned in 1983.