Review Summary: Dennis Wilson briefly breaks free from the clutches of the Beach Boys and addiction to put forth the most sincere and passionate record the band and its members would ever produce.
Perhaps the most prominent rivalry in popular music during the mid-1960's was that between the British-based Beatles and the American-based Beach Boys, two of the most innovative bands of their era, if not of all-time. Between the years of 1965 and 1967, up until the Boys' Smile
album was scrapped and the group subsequently saw a drastic reduction in critical relevance, the two groups battled in the arena of creative genius, attempting to outdo one another with each new album. In truth, this so-called "Clash of the Titans" was really nothing more than a three-person scrum when you got down to it: the dynamic songwriting team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney on one end, the one-man producer extraordinaire Brian Wilson on the other. While in both cases the other band members played valuable enough roles to their respective bands, it was rare (particularly for the California-based quintet) to give any sort of special attention to members outside of that three-person scrum, even after '67, when the Boys had faded into semi-obscurity and the Beatles had retired from touring yet were still producing some of the most popular records of the decade.
However, with such suppression of creativity comes discontent, and with discontent comes rebellion. That's what the Beatles were to discover for themselves around 1969, when George Harrison finally had enough of his songs being consistently rejected in favor of other, potentially lesser Lennon-McCartney originals. After leaving the band temporarily before being coaxed into returning and completing the Abbey Road
and Let It Be
albums, Harrison began work on a studio album of his own when it became clear that the Fab Four were soon to disband. The album in question would end up becoming 1970's All Things Must Pass
, a monstrous triple album chock-full of songs rejected from previous Beatles records and songs discussing Harrison's displeasure with said rejections. It's a record that has oftentimes been given the lofty praise of being compared to even the Beatles' best work, and if nothing else it certainly is the best of any of the members' solo records.
Who knows if Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson took any inspiration from Harrison's ambitious project when he first began pondering the idea of a solo album around 1970. Whether he did or not, the parallels are hard to miss. Often cited as a "late bloomer" from a songwriting perspective, the middle Wilson brother didn't have a song of his make it onto a Beach Boys record until the track "Little Bird" appeared on 1968's Friends
. And even though Dennis was quickly thrust into a more featured role in songwriting towards the end of the decade, one could argue that this was more out of necessity than out of good will: Brian Wilson was sinking further into drug addiction and was becoming disinterested in the whole Beach Boys idea, and Dennis's tracks were seen as more "hip" than those of the other members, causing them to be considered more for inclusion. As the 1960's turned into the 1970's, younger brother Carl became the de facto
front-man of the group, and Brian Wilson went from being in the group, to out, and then back in again as the centerpiece around 1975, Dennis's role in the band never increased; if anything, it was steadily decreasing, even though his creativity was at an all-time high by this period. Becoming more discontent with each passing year, Wilson finally sought an opportunity in 1976, during a particularly uneasy period in the band's history, to compile and record what had now become a large pile of rejected songs, with origins spanning the previous 7 years or so.
In many ways, Pacific Ocean Blue
represents the concept of freedom to a tee, even if such a concept may not have been a conscious decision made by Wilson himself. One of my complaints with post-Pet Sounds
Beach Boys production is how condensed everything is in the mix oftentimes. It gives a very confined, almost claustrophobic feeling to the soundscape, which I feel can often limit the effectiveness of a particular sentiment an album wishes to portray. Pacific Ocean Blue
doesn't have this problem at all; the production is expansive without abusing the limits of stereo width. A good number of the songs on this album feature prominent piano parts dancing over a shimmering backdrop, whether that be strings or backing vocals (note that little brother Carl contributes backing vox to a few songs on here), and that only gives an even more pleasant feel to this record. We truly believe that Dennis has shaken off the chains binding him to the Beach Boys and the limitations that band has brought him, if only temporarily.
Considering the extensive period of time that these songs were written in, it would seem natural that this album would utilize a number of different styles throughout its runtime. And yet Wilson still goes far beyond what one might expect from a Beach Boys solo album, taking influence from an extremely diverse array of genres. The track "What's Wrong" makes use of a rock-a-billy drumbeat and piano line, with the drummer even throwing in a vocal flair every now and again that someone like Elvis could feasibly have been seen doing. In a somewhat similar vein, "Rainbows" is blatant, unabashed country; the banjos and mandolins featured here complement the track nicely and never get too distracting. But then we have diversions such as the wonderful opener "River Song", the first half of which makes use of a makeshift choir of backing vocalists to give off an almost gospel atmosphere. The track never fully subscribes to the gospel moniker however, and following a terrific build-up where the vocalists alternate the lines "rolling, rolling on, river" and "gotta get away", we enter a much more melancholic piano feature with a dramatic string arrangement that could have fit in well on early 1970's Elton John album du jour. This track is the definitive highlight of the record for me, though not too far behind is "Dreamer", which utilizes a similar motif for its opening saxophone riff. Not only is this song shamelessly funky, it's genuinely *good* funk, even though the brass interludes are maybe more discordant than one would expect from the average 70's funk track.
Of course, most believe Dennis's forte as a songwriter to be piano ballads, and this album does deliver a fair few of those. Tracks like "Time" not only make usage of touching melodies and some fantastic complementary arrangements (might I add that all of the brass/string arrangements were done by Dennis himself), but they utilize Wilson's voice to its fullest extent. Always considered the weakest singer of the Beach Boys, Wilson's huskier delivery nevertheless traditionally lent itself well to softer tracks, even after a fight sometime in the mid-70's that resulted in substantial injury to his throat. There's a tenderness in its weathered nature that somehow manages to make his vocals seem more sincere. "End of the Show" is a great example of how well his voice works with these types of tracks. Listen to his pained cry on the line, "It's over" and you'll have a good understanding of the effect his beaten-down rasp of a voice can have on a song.
To compare this record to other Beach Boys solo albums would hardly be fair to the other albums, even piles of dreck such as Looking Back with Love
that don't deserve any more respect than your average convicted felon. For being the first true Beach Boys solo album (*** if anyone cares about Bruce Johnston's albums), it set a bar that no other record of that lot has come even close to matching. If anything, a more fair comparison would be seeing where this lies amidst the band's actual material, and even then putting it outside the top 5 would be a controversial decision. Only Pet Sounds
and maaaaaybe Sunflower
are unquestionably better records than Pacific Ocean Blue
; I could make a case for this record over anything else in their discography, and perhaps even Sunflower
depending on whether I'm feeling particularly cheery or depressed on the day in question. While probably not doing it quite so well as All Things Must Pass
, this album certainly echoes the George Harrison debut when it comes to the idea of a creative mind being stifled by egos and overall unfortunate circumstances, and as a result letting everything out in one fell swoop.
Unlike Harrison, though, Dennis would not get the opportunity to follow up on this genius, nor even to recognize it as such while he was alive. The debut was a total failure commercially, and his second record Bambu
was scuttled mid-production due to lack of funding. Following that, his drug and alcohol addictions rapidly took over his life, eventually leading to his being kicked out of the Beach Boys entirely and subsequently to his death in a 1983 drowning accident. These circumstances make Pacific Ocean Blue
a fairly tragic record, one beacon of creativity that was never given its proper dues while the creator was alive to see it, and even now still remaining an obscure record outside of well-versed Beach Boys fans. So if you're reading this, I encourage you to give this a chance, even if you're not a particular fan of the Beach Boys. And if you're a fan of the band who has yet to hear this, I recommend you do two things. #1: Repeatedly ask yourself how this is possible and potentially consider altering your way of life. #2: Ensure this is changed posthaste.