Did you see that episode of Angel where Angel fights with a vampire who has magical powers that allow him to walk around in the daylight? They fight under a pier just like the one the late Dennis Wilson is standing under in this photo. It happens in the daytime, but since it’s shady under the pier, Angel -- a normal vampire -- doesn’t burn up. Huh? If vampires could walk around during the day as long as they stayed in the shade, then they could rule the world; all they’d need are quality umbrellas. What does this have to do with the re- release of Wilson’s one and only solo album, 1977’s Pacific Ocean Blue, which you can read more about on the following pages? Nothing. But still, it’s interesting, no?
He is the overlooked member of one of pop music’s most troubled and talented clans. Dennis Wilson, the middle brother of the Beach Boys’ fragile genius Brian and angelic vocalist Carl, is known more for his rebellious reputation and personal excesses than for his musical skills.
Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could hear Dennis Wilson’s overlooked solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue? Now they can.
But on his one and only solo album, 1977’s Pacific Ocean Blue, Wilson shatters those shallow perceptions. A sonically sophisticated, stylistically adventurous, and beautifully emotional collection, the album once heralded the arrival of a bright new musical light. Sadly, that light was put out when Wilson drowned in 1983 at the age of 39. Since then, we’ve rarely had the chance to hear Pacific Ocean Blue. Other than during the time of its initial release and that of a short CD re-release in the early ’90s, the album has been largely unavailable to the public. Still, it has gained a devoted cult following among collectors and bootleggers.
Now the rest of us can join that group. Wilson’s friend and producer, Jim Guercio, has assembled a remastered version of Pacific Ocean Blue as well as a disc of songs that originally were intended for a follow-up called Bambu, which never was released. Sony’s Legacy Recordings will package the two together in a special edition set for release next month.
To give us some insight about what to expect from the album, we enlisted the help of musician and author Jon Stebbins. He wrote the acclaimed biography Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy, which came out in 2000 and is set to be republished in a revised and expanded edition this summer. An essay from Stebbins is included in the Pacific Ocean Blue reissue.
Stebbins on the original impetus for Pacific Ocean Blue: Dennis’s record followed the Beach Boys’ greatest-hits package Endless Summer (1974) and the covers album The 15 Big Ones (1976), which were very oldies, retro projects. They were doing stadium tours and playing all their hits from all those years in the ’70s, and it got frustrating for him.
Dennis … thought art was something you don’t go back with, but that you move forward with. So, the songs he was coming up with did not fit on the Beach Boys’ records at the time, and he decided to make a solo album. When Pacific Ocean Blue came out, it was a hard-rocking and progressive album compared with what the Beach Boys were doing. That was generally the reaction to it in the rock press. Rolling Stone and a lot of other magazines were knocked out by it because it was something very unexpected.
On why Wilson’s solo music is far more sophisticated than his reputation as the wildman drummer of the Beach Boys would lead you to believe: Being the character he was, he always tended to push the envelope. He was always in front of everybody. He was a cultural test pilot. He was the first Beach Boy to surf, first Beach Boy to meditate. He was the first to do a lot of things, probably a lot of bad things. But that instinct shows up in his music too. He was the one who was experimenting the most with synthesizers and more industrial sounds or edgier sounds -- darker things. And yet, I think there is a timeless quality to his music, because he didn’t ever really follow a trend. He didn’t try to be a certain thing. You’ll find him sort of straying into all kinds of different genres, and the arrangements are really eclectic. But he was never trying to be commercial. It really holds up well because of that.
On why Wilson’s solo career never blossomed: It was difficult because the band was a family to him, even though it was a dysfunctional one. He felt like that was the place he wanted to be -- with them, with the group. But it ended up hurting him as a solo act. He ended up not touring behind the solo record because of the pressure the band was putting on him at the time. They didn’t want him competing with them. Actually, Pacific Ocean Blue outsold the Beach Boys’ albums that came out directly around it.
On why Wilson didn’t complete Bambu, his follow-up to Pacific Ocean Blue, before his death in 1983: From 1974 through 1978, he was extremely prolific. He wrote and cut a bunch of music. But I think that by the end of 1978, his heart was broken, given the way things had transpired with the band and with his personal life. He’d just lost so much, so many things through those years, so many things he loved: his boat, his wife, his studio. And his solo recording career suffered as a result. It all went down the tubes because of that.
On what hope there is that Wilson, the solo artist, will get the recognition he deserves: I see a real possibility of his stuff getting into the media -- specifically, movies and television. His stuff lends itself really well to the cinematic environment, so I could see it ending up in a feature film and making a big impact. If you listen to the music, it’s kind of like [Phil] Spector on steroids. He’s taken the Brian Wilson sound and really run with it in a more progressive direction. So, yes, I think it’s long overdue for people to appreciate Dennis’s music. I hope it’s time.