Dennis Wilson was the hidden heart of the Beach Boys. Sure, brother Brian was correctly acclaimed as a pop genius and brother Carl was gifted with a voice beamed straight out of heaven, but behind that dumb good-time-boy public personna their brother Dennis was quietly & modestly nurturing a musical talent of such proportion that it remains a matter of wonder and mystery to the increasing number of admirers whose lives have been touched by his work. In the beginning, of course, he was the kid who laid down the beat for the band who would now & again take a turn as lead singer on the occasional song. What is seldom remarked, however, is that something happened to Dennis during the unfortunate Smile sessions that saw Brian's production methods unravel before his very eyes. Dennis was as moved by what was happening to his brother as anyone else, perhaps even more than most, but he is on record as having being deeply affected by the music created for the most famous lost album in rock history and it's as if in tracks like 'Surf's Up' & 'Cabinessence' he heard hints of his own way forward.
The first manifestations of his development arrived with two exceptional contributions ('Be Still' & the ever popular 'Little Bird') to the Beach Boys' Friends album in 1968. He then added his mark to the subsequent 20/20 & Sunflower albums and issued an impressive solo single that suggested the launch of a solo career. This activity was followed by a worrying silence. When Surf's Up was issued in 1971 Dennis was conspicuous by his absence and I have no doubt that this great album would have been elevated to classic status had it included work by Dennis. It's not that he wasn't making music- evidence of what he was fashioning in the studio at that time eventually surfaced on the band's Good Vibrations box set in the form of 'San Miguel', featuring Carl taking the lead vocal on a track written and fashioned by Dennis, & it's so gorgeous that it beggars belief that a production of such sumptuous quality could have been deliberately omitted from an album of which it would have been an obvious highlight. It was probably intended for a solo Dennis Wilson project that failed to take off, but there was even better to come. Dennis was back in the creative fold for both Carl & The Passions and Holland, and by now it was clear that he was proving to be the band's most consistent creative force. Those of us looking forward to hear more from him were nevertheless disappointed by his alarmingly low profile on 15 Big Ones & Beach Boys Love You, but it turned out that his absence was attributed to a re-engagement with a solo project. This time around, he delivered Pacific Ocean Blue- a masterpiece which hit the shops during the high summer of punk in 1977.
This album provides ample evidence that Dennis Wilson was possessed of more than an occasional talent. Here was a musician/composer with a genuine vision, genius even, who specialised in creating soundscapes of dramatically epic scope but delivered with sublime finesse & impeccable musical taste. Pacific Ocean Blue was & still is a thing apart from standard Beach Boys fare & yet it still stands tall as the greatest single artistic achievement of any member of that band in the aftermath of Smile. Here were great wide-screen vistas of sound which you could explore in the company of a creator who introduced you to passages of breathtaking beauty amidst others invested with an undertow of turbulence that was indeed evocative of the ocean- as exemplified by the rhythmically scored backing vocals on the album's opening River Song. No one but no one else (including Brian Wilson) was making music of such heartfelt, haunting grandeur in the mid 1970s and this lovingly remastered re-issue is as warmly welcomed as recovered treasure. It might still be regarded as an 'acquired' taste but if that's so its a forever kind of taste- which goes some way to appreciating the value of its status as arguably the most revered cult album of the rock era. It also demonstrates that this music is timeless. This record envelopes me as effectively today as it did on first hearing, but the enhanced sound quality enables me to enjoy even more detail than before, filling me with renewed awe.
Like Pet Sounds, Pacific Ocean Blue was bound to be a tough one to follow, as Dennis was soon to discover. Included here on the second disc are the remnants of its intended successor Bambu, which turned out to be the artist's very own personal Smile in that it was abandoned when its architect lost sight of the overall design. Like its predecessor, this record was endowed with some half dozen stunning performances but on this occasion the gap between the very best and the rest was far greater. The makings of another terrific album are here in the likes of 'All Alone', 'Love Surround Me', 'Wild Situation' & 'Love Remember Me', with strong hints of Dennis telling the story of a love affair (he & Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac were an item at this time). Unfortunately for us he left behind rather too many tracks that had yet to be moulded into coherent shapes, thus denying us much more than a blurred snapshot of what might have been. Among those unfinished items was an incredible backing track for a song titled 'Holy Man', for which Dennis had yet to supply either full lyrics or a lead vocal. The biggest surprise of this reissue is the inducing of Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters to take on the daunting task of not only 'finishing' the lyric but providing a lead vocal which complements the tone, timbre and delivery of Dennis' own voice so effectively that it emerges as a triumph in its own right. In fact, it's utterly magnificent & my personal favourite 'new' track of the year by a very long stretch indeed. On the strength of this performance, Taylor Hawkins should be encouraged to make an album of his own as soon as possible (perhaps it's happening as I write, I don't know but can only hope so).
I have no way of ending this review other than to admit that for me this record is one of the crowning glories of rock music. Enough.