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Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue

After bandleader/songwriter/producer/arranger/brother Brian Wilson’s breakdown in 1967, the Beach Boys had to fend for themselves. It was a strange, tumultuous time, producing some of the band’s most ecclectic and bizarre music. Some of it is great; most of it is awful. In one of the band’s many hilarious-if-it-weren’t-so-depressing ironies, Dennis stepped up as the brother who was by far the band’s best songwriter (after Brian).

Rarely taken seriously by the other band members, mostly because he rarely took the group seriously, many of his songs were rejected in the group’s democratic selection process for album cuts. Dennis was considering a solo album as early as 1970, and Beach Boys versions of songs that would later appear on Pacific Ocean Blue were being played live as early as 1969. If you look at the band’s creative output from 1969 (when his first compositions appeared on Friends) through 1979, the standout songs are nearly always written by Dennis. (One notable exception, Brian’s “‘Til I Die” from 1971’s Surf’s Up, remains one of the Beach Boys’ best songs.)

With Dennis’ rampant drug and alcohol abuse and womanizing, it’s probably not a huge surprise that a solo album originally conceived in 1970 was not finished until 1977. But part of this has to do with the difficulty of his recording process; despite many liner-note attributions to the usual gang of Beach Boys session musicians (no actual Beach Boys, because even back then Mike Love was lawsuit-happy and threatened to sue if Dennis Wilson tried to release a solo album featuring other Boys), legend has it that Dennis played every instrument and most of the vocal parts himself, meticulously experimenting with arrangements (thanks to the relative safe haven of Brother Studios, where he could record for free).

The third contributing factor was that the Beach Boys simply didn’t have enough material for complete studio albums. Even though nobody respected Dennis’ efforts (or perhaps they were jealous that somebody who was so much more interested in having a good time could write songs that were far more interesting, mature, and contemporary than anything they could create), he still wrote and produced a whole lot of songs for the Beach Boys, many of which were originally intended for the solo album. That put him behind, and unlike Bruce Johnston and Mike Love, he wanted a solo album that wasn’t just rerecordings of material from Beach Boys albums.

The end result of Pacific Ocean Blue came at the Beach Boys’ weakest period. After a hiatus partially prompted by a total lack of good material and extensive touring*, a huge “Brian is Back!” campaign led up to the release of 15 Big Ones, fifteen songs, most covers of hits from the 1950s. It has a few supposed Brian Wilson originals that don’t sound like anything Brian wrote before or since, leading to theories that these had music by Mike Love and lyrics by Love and either manager/scumbag Jack Rieley or therapist/scumbag Eugene Landy. It’s easily the worst album in their history. Even worse than Wild Honey.

They followed 15 Big Ones with Love You, the most bizarre album I’ve ever heard, and I’ve listened to a lot of weird shit out of morbid curiosity. Weirdly, repeated listens (which come as a result of the initial amusement/”what the fuck?” factor) actually reveal the album as something…well, “good” is too strong a word, but it’s not nearly as bad and off-putting as it initially seems. It was also a mild triumph because, insane as the music is, it’s all pure Brian Wilson. He wrote and produced every track, and you can tell because it sounds like the kind of album a lunatic would love.

This was followed by 1978’s M.I.U. Album, 1979’s L.A. (Light Album), and 1980’s Keep the Summer Alive. And holy shit, if there’s a worse run of albums in any band’s catalog, I’d love to hear about it. The uneven output from the late-’60s through mid-’70s all had at least a few great songs that transcended the mediocrity (or outright shit—thanks for “The California Saga,” Mike and Al!). Excepting Love You and the tiny offering of Dennis Wilson songs on these albums, there is nothing to redeem these albums. They are absolute shit from start to finish, with Light Album tamping down the shit with its 10-minute disco remix of a song from Wild Honey (their worst ’60s album) that wasn’t even good in the first place. Shit!

It’s really tough to believe that Pacific Ocean Blue even came from the same universe as the Beach Boys of the late-’70s. An album full of passionate, heartfelt, depressing songs, with boundless surprises and an interesting contemporary sound—the total opposite of the cold, calculated, deliberately out-of-date style of lounge-lizard-wannabes Mike Love and Bruce Johnston. At this point it seems like Carl had just given up, Al was along for the ride, and it’s a known fact that Brian went back to bed after Love You. How could the same band—the same lead singer, in this particular case—produce a song as bad as “Mona” [download link removed 3/13/08] in the same year Pacific Ocean Blue came out?

I guess the important thing is we have it, the one and only Dennis Wilson solo album. A second album, supposedly titled Bamboo, was in the works, but only a few songs (of varying quality and stages of completion) survived. Brother Studios—and Brother Records, the band’s imprint—were shut down shortly after Pacific Ocean Blue, so he had nowhere to toil. He had no money. He—I swear I am not making this up—knocked up the illegitimate daughter of cousin Mike Love (he knocked up his assistant in the mid-’60s) who had been largely disowned by the family. She was underage at the time, but he was determined to see this through—and only a year and a half after the baby was born, Dennis drowned. He had alcohol and drugs in his system (no surprises there), but at the time he was pretty beaten down and many of his close friends suspected suicide. Quite a downer. But it’s nice that we have this one album…

…Oh, except we don’t. Even though you can buy the entire late-’70s Beach Boys shitfest (a shitfest that continued through the ’80s and ’90s, CDs of which are all currently available), Sony Music has left Pacific Ocean Blue out of print since 1992. Does the twofer release of Light Album and M.I.U. really sell that well?** Jesus.

So fine, then. Fuck Sony. I have it. And I’m putting out there for the Internet masses (all both of you who read my blog, who have probably stopped reading by this point because as soon as you realized this was me ranting about Beach Boys history, you checked out). Because what will Sony do? Say I’m depriving them of money from an album they no longer print? Hell, if anything, I’m promoting this album, exposing them to it so Sony realizes there’s demand for this album and it will make money. Also, I’m saving all the people trying to buy out-of-print copies for hundreds of dollars. Sure, maybe the CD copy will be better—if it’s actually one of the original CDs and not just somebody burning a CD-R of these same lower-quality MP3s. So download to your heart’s content.

Update, 3/13/08—Sorry, random Internet folks. I offered a download of this album, in its entirety, for the reasons above—but some sites have abused it. These spiders troll the Web, looking for illicit MP3s, so if you do a search, up pops all the MP3 links—without this entry. Consequently, the server was getting hammered to hell with requests. It has nothing to do with a C&D from Sony or anyone else, which once again demonstrates how little folks care about this album. It has more to do with bandwidth abuse and reducing the server load. (A site with virtually nothing but HTML text—even six years’ worth of my long, rambling entries—should not be approaching 1GB of bandwidth usage 13 days into the month. That’s inexcusable.)

If you aren’t a Beach Boys fan but like ’70s rock, this is worth checking out. It sounds absolutely nothing like the Beach Boys (from any era), even to the extent that Dennis Wilson’s voice was so ragged by the late-’70s that it doesn’t even have a sunshine-pop vocal sound. It’s more like Bob Seger with a sore throat.

*Ironically, their biggest hit album of the ’70s was a compilation of all their old hits that coincided with American Graffiti and exploited the nostalgia craze for all it was worth. Even more ironically, while the band could barely play their instruments during their initial wave of popularity, the mid-’70s incarnation of the Beach Boys was one of the best live acts around, despite Mike Love’s horrid between-song “banter.” [Back]

**I’m aware that Capitol owns all the old Beach Boys stuff and Sony owns the Dennis Wilson album, but come on! [Back]

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