Thursday, 28 April 2011
Dennis Wilson "Pacific Ocean Blue" (1977) (News, Views and Music 97)
“You know it’s rough getting round this place, so crowded I can hardly breathe, you can only see about a block or two in LA and that’s the truth” It breaks my heart to see the city, wonder why it ain’t pretty, oh I wanna cry” “It ain’t very funny how you spend all my money on rock and roll!” “Made me cry, like the end of a beautiful day” “What’s that feeling down inside of me? Rock and roll?” “I believe that Jesus is in my soul, wants me playing more rock and roll” “Heads off to the drummer’s little lady, sweet and sugar, so all alone, white punks play tonight...so play your guitar” “I knew a carpenter who had a dream, killed the man but you couldn’t kill the dream, who said it was easy? But people gotta be free! And the band played for me” “Like the sunshine, love comes and goes again” “All things that live one day must die you know, even love and the things we hold close” “Loneliness is a very special place, to forget is something I’ve never done” “I’ve never seen the light that people talk about – you open up my wallet and dust falls out, but that’s alright with me” “I’ll never make the headlines or the evening news, there won’t be a rags to riches story for me, but the songs that I sing won’t be blue, honey you and I” “WE live on the edge of a body of water warmed by the blood of the cold-hearted, slaughter of the otter, wonder how she feels mother seal, no wonder the Pacific Ocean is blue!” “Farewell my friend, my beautiful friend, you take the high road, I’ll take the low road till wer meet again, farewell my friend, I love you” “Thankyou very much for everything I’ve ever wanted, woooah, Thankyou very much for everything I’ve ever needed, woooah, Thankyou very much for everything I’ve ever dreamed of, wooooooooahh, Goodbye, It’s over!”
Dennis Wilson “Pacific Ocean Blue” (1977)
River Song/What’s Wrong?/Moonshine/Friday Night/Dreamer/Thoughts Of You//Time/You And I/Pacific Ocean Blues/Farewell, My Friend/Rainbows/End Of The Show
If you’d have asked a Beach Boys fan in 1964 who would be the first to make a solo spin-off record they’d have pointed at Brian or Carl Wilson, or perhaps the frontman Mike Love. If you’d have told them that it would be Dennis who’d be first and that his album would be a masterpiece, a record with such a high reputation that eclipses the previous half-dozen group albums before it, then they’d have laughed. Dennis wasn’t expected to be a star. He was only brought into the band at all because the Wilson’s ‘mom’ insisted that Dennis be let in on the enjoyment Brian and Carl were having with their early instruments and the middle Wilson brother ended up on drums because that was the only instrument left after the rest of the band had carved up their own line-up. Dennis doesn’t even play drums on most of the band’s records or on any of their post-1960s tours because the band thought so little of his own ability. By and large the wayward Dennis only remained in the group at first because he brought sex appeal to the band, causing teenyboppers to scream for him much more than his siblings or his cousin – and, of course, what happens to teenybopper sex appeal stars after a few years is unthinkable –they get old and disappear.
But Denny spent his life re-writing the rule-book, fighting against the pigeon holes people tried to give him, a singing drummer, a soulful deep growl of a voice quite unsuited to a teenage heartthrob, with a distinctly human capacity for excessive drink and drugs that never got in the way of his spiritual awareness or religious beliefs. At first Dennis was central to The Beach Boys by encouraging a faltering Brian to develop his work and give him the buffer he needed against Mike Love and Al Jardine’s demands that they stick to a formula, then taking over with brother Carl as the band’s de facto writer when Brian began to flounder and giving the band a whole new lease of life almost as magical as their first. It speaks volumes that Dennis is the first person in the band to get a composing credit apart from Brian and Mike, with two songs on 1968’s ‘Friends’, three on 1969’s 20/20’, four on 1970’s ‘Sunflower’, two on 1972’s ‘So Tough’ and two co-writes on 1973’s ‘Holland’. Many of these songs are the finest ever recorded by the Beach Boys: ‘Forever’ ‘Little Bird’ ‘Never Learn Not To Love’ ‘Cuddle Up’ ‘Only With You’. And then they stopped – a combination of drink and drugs and inter-band politics (something The Beach Boys would have won awards in) killing off Dennis’ creativity. And things might have stayed that way, with fans shaking their heads over all that lost talent, had Dennis not rekindled an old friendship with James Guercio, back in the mid-60s a struggling star-struck performer who’d supported the Beach Boys on tour and bonded well with Dennis – but by 1976 the owner of a new record label, Caribou, desperate to get Dennis and his band on board.
Dennis had gone from being seen as an embarrassment to being the band’s saviour in one fell swoop - something not uncommon in his life – and when the opportunity came to do a solo album, using up all the bits and pieces he’d been working on but hadn’t really fitted a Beach Boys sound, it was – from the passage of 28 years after his sad death – the best thing that ever happened in his life. For the first time Dennis’ songs weren’t obscured by the band’s name, his voice wasn’t obscured by the band’s harmonies and his piano playing wasn’t obscured by another instrument unless he wanted it to be. For the first time, 15 years into his professional musical career, people appreciated Dennis’ talents and loved him for who he was. Let’s not forget that this is the same musician who put a note in the album’s artwork, saying ‘I’m sure you understand that I’m a bit nervous about this endeavour ...and I would be very interested in any comments or suggestions you might have’ (can you picture Mike Love asking for advice with his solo albums?!) The fact that this album received glowing reviews from just about everybody and sold more copies than any of the previous three or four Beach Boys albums should have meant that ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ was just the start of a whole new chapter in Dennis’ life. Instead a series of unhappy affairs, marriages, breakdowns and money problems will see Dennis’ studio (three blocks away from the Pacific Ocean) taken away from him just at the point when he’s about to deliver follow-up album ‘Bambu’ and set the music world alight for a second time. This time there will be no respite and Dennis will end up a shadow of his former self, staggering drunkenly onstage to sing his one token song on Beach Boys tours (‘You’re So Beautiful’, a fine Billy Preston song – the band wouldn’t even trust Dennis with one of his own by the early 1980s), spending money faster than he could earn it, getting more and more miserable until finally cracking in 1983, drowning near to where his houseboat had been moored in the 1970s before being given up to fund his bills, Dennis desperately trying to replicate happier days by looking for mementoes he’d thrown off the boat in a rage years before.
I tell you this not because Dennis knew he was going to die during the making of ‘Pacific Ocean Blues’ (though it sounds like he did for much of the often scary ‘Bambu’ follow-up), but because Dennis’ death casts such a long shadow over this album. ‘Pacific’ should have been a beginning but – until 2008 when Dennis’ friends and family finally contributed on a beautiful CD re-issue of it and a half-completed ‘Bambu’ – it was the one and only chance we got to know Dennis better. Legal problems and shenanigans meant it took a staggering 23 years since the creation of the compact disc for this popular album to find a way back onto our shelves. The prices of ‘Pacific’ on vinyl had been reaching ridiculous prices until then, with curious Beach Boys fans who weren’t around at the time desperate to hear the talents of a Wilson brother who’d been all but written off by his own band. ‘Pacific’ sounds like a memorial, a beacon of light that’s so infused with Dennis’ DNA it positively reeks of drugs, booze and excess, but also a spirituality missing from 99% of Beach Boys tracks, a guiding purpose and a philosophy for all hippies and peace-lovers to savour.
Frankly it’s hard to take that this is it, that someone somewhere didn’t step into Dennis’ mess to save him and get him to push for just one more week so that ‘Bambu’ could have been completed and all his problems solved (for another few years at least) – but as all the many tie-in documentaries on radio, television and DVD in 2008 make clear, Dennis wasn’t that easy to live with by 1978 and the lack of a second album wasn’t from lack of trying on anybody’s part, be it Dennis’ , his family, Guercio’s, new writer Carli Munoz’s, even Carl Wilson who stepped in near the end to help his brother out. Everybody desperately wanted the album to happen, for Dennis to make it financially and artistically, but sometimes the forces around musicians are just too powerful to break. There are stories that John Hanlon, a technician working on the album, was haunted by the unfinished backing track for ‘Holy Man’ for over 30 years and made the album partly so they could finally finish it and send the ghostly song on it’s way – the 2008 re-issue includes both the ghostly original and a version with lyrics by Dennis’ friend Taylor Hawkins and I know exactly what they mean because it’s haunted me too ever since I first played the album – if ever a musician lived on in their music then this is surely Dennis’ ghost, reeking of sadness, gladness, madness and badness all at once. In fact, ‘Bambu’ in general is more than a little eerily reminiscent of ‘Smile’, coming 90% of the way to being finished, with just a handful of vocals and a properly worked out running order to go.
Talking of ‘Smile’ there’s an easy equation to make between that great lost Beach Boys album and ‘Bambu’ – yet the album we’re talking about here, ‘Pacific Ocean Blues’, sounds more like ‘Pet Sounds’ (sorry if the next passage is drowned out by the sound of thunderbolts, but I reckon ‘Pacific’ is that album’s superior in nearly every single way). The words might not be as polished as Tony Asher’s, but they’re just as revealing and honest and every bit as revealing, dealing with lost loves, broken promises, heartbreak and –occasionally - happiness. They’re also decidedly not like the lyrics on most rock or pop albums – the lyric sheets read more like extended poems with few rhymes and fewer symmetrical lines, giving the songs an unexpected, supernatural quality, technically complex even for brother Brian’s work. The music too is totally unique to Dennis’ canon, although lovers of Beach Boys songs ‘Cuddle Up’ and ‘Make It Good’ will know what to expect: a bed moody strings, quite unusual for a rock and roll record, with bits of piano and percussion laid on top. Which is odd given how many times Dennis makes his love for ‘rock and roll’ heard lyrically across the album – several times on this album it’s clear that his tenuous hold onto life is all down to the power music has over him and his happiness comes from making it, even though there’s very little up tempo music on this album at all (and certainly nothing that can be termed ‘rock and roll’- perhaps Dennis realised he’d already written perhaps the ultimate rock and roller on ‘20/20’s ‘All I Wanna Do!’). There are occasional harmonies as on Beach Boys records and even a choir on the album’s opening track (a first for any of the Beach Boys!), but by and large it’s just Dennis, with that wonderful warm lived-in gruff voice that seems to know so much more than he’s telling us on this record. Occasionally Dennis’ raspy voice can get in the way on Beach Boys records – and I know one or two Beach Boys fans who dislike it – but it sounds perfect here, because these aren’t pretty pop songs at all but life and death songs from someone whose been there, seen it all and only just hanging onto life in order to tell us the tale.
I’ve wanted to review this album ever since I started the site four years ago (the re-issue came out just when I was starting my second drafts of the 101 ‘core’ reviews and ‘Pacific’ was ever so nearly added to the list in place of something else), but I’ve delayed it because my mission has always been that if it hasn’t been in my collection for a few years then I won’t know fully what to make of an album, all of the nuances it has, what staying power it possesses or how it compares to an artist’s other work. For the most part I’m glad I made that unwritten rule because feelings about albums do change (and reviewing new releases is a bit different as I’m offering it as a service for what people might want to buy – and naturally a lot of fans already own what’s been out for years and what the releases that are new). But I was wrong about ‘Pacific Ocean Blues’ – it’s been one of my best friends ever since I played it for the first time and my opinion in it hasn’t changed after all these years. If you have even a little bit of emotion in your soul, aren’t put off by string arrangements or voices that exist for emotion rather than prettiness, then you need this alb um, whether you’re a Beach Boys fan or not. Haunting is the best word for this album, as it almost sleepwalks its way into your sub-consciousness and the resonance of its lyrics stay in your head long after other albums have faded. I miss so many of our missing leading lights and AAA brethren (John Lennon, George Harrison, Keith Moon, Carl Wilson, Jerry Garcia, Alan Hull, Syd Barrett, Rick Wright, Brian Jones, Chris Curtis, Otis Redding and John Entwistle) not least because I want to know what they’d make of our modern world and what great music it would inspire them to write – but in many ways I miss Dennis most of all because he had only just got going when he was taken from us and never had a chance to learn what an amazing talent he was. Brian was undoubtedly the talent behind the Beach Boys, but Dennis was a talent who just happened to be in The Beach Boys and there’s so frustratingly little evidence of his talent left.
You can hear plenty of evidence of that talent in opener ‘River Song’, even though by and large this song is nothing like the album to come. Most of this album is understated, even when it’s being overly dramatic, but this song is an epic: there’s two whole choirs, one made up of friends and family (including brother Carl on his only appearance on this album – he’s credited with co-writing the track with Dennis and the opening certainly sounds much more like the younger Wilson brother’s work to me) and another more ‘classically trained’ choir that kicks in during the second half of the first verse. ‘River Song’ is also a less personal song than all the other songs on the album – it’s more of an ecological plea, with moving lyrics about the narrator empathising with a mother seal watching her cub clubbed to death and wondering why humans do what they do to mother nature (the rest of The Beach Boys will follow Dennis’ lead for the ecologically themed 1992 album ‘Summer In Paradise’ but all other comparisons – especially that of quality – ends there). The rest of the track finds Dennis leaving the smog of LA to find a quieter, more peaceful life in the country, ending the track by urging us to join him, to ‘run away’ from our commitments because, for the sake of Mother Earth, we’ve got to ‘do it, do it, do it!’ The song then turns into a downright powerful riff, with the choir representing modern day humans ‘rolling on’ while the world and Dennis – screams over the top, trying to get them to pay attention to the real world beneath their feet, but it’s all to no avail – the song simply ends with the main tune steaming on, paying no heed to Dennis’ concerns. The result is a magnificently impressive song, the true heir of the Beach Boys’ more melodic 1960s songs and their growing ecological concerns on albums like ‘Surf’s Up’, but given an added depth and weight courtesy of the mega production and Dennis’ straining vocals. How Dennis manages to do this whilst juggling so many new sounds and still make the final product so moving and involving is beyond me. If this had been the 15th century, they’d have burnt him for being a witch. Unsurprisingly, this catchy track was chosen by Caribou to be the album’s lead-off single in Europe (American got the much less catchy ‘You and I’ for some reason) and deserved to do much better than it did. For years, too, this was the best known track off the album after appearing on the excellent Beach Boys compilation ‘10 Years Of Harmony’, where it sounds like the best song on the album even nestled amongst gems from ‘Sunflower’ ‘Holland’ and ‘L A Light Album’ etc.
‘What’s Wrong?’ sounds from its title like it’s going to be a mournful ballad, but no – it’s actually Dennis’ narrator having such a great time at a party that he can’t understand why her girlfriend isn’t enjoying herself too, and then being largely death to her reasons. I wonder if Dennis knew what he was doing when deciding the running order because this is the second song about somebody ‘not listening’ in a row and showing that Dennis isn’t some superhero out to save us but as fickle as the rest of us. To some extent this strutting slice of funk is a love song, one where Dennis ‘loves the way you move me, love the way you groove me’, but by the third verse – when the drink has worn – the narrator has gone from finding the way his girl spends his money ‘hysterical’ to being angry about it. Sudden moodswings in music are hard to pull off and this one is perhaps just a tad too subtle – neither Dennis’ hard-to-hear vocal or the pounding backing changes to accommodate his new feelings – but then the heart of this song isn’t about love for a girl (which is clearly a passing state, given this lyric), but for music. When he’s happy, music enhances this narrator’s feelings; when he’s down it protects him; when he wants to get away from her, making music is a great excuse; and finally at the end he’s ‘gone, saved by rock and roll’. It’s as if music is giving Dennis the constant he can’t get from anything else in his life – his uninterested band, his on-off relationships, his extremes of dink and drug highs and lows. Even though rock and roll is painted by the girl’s family as a ‘cursed’ and wayward profession, one that can only lead to ruin and destruction, for Dennis’ narrator it’s the only thing that keeps him on the straights and narrow because everyone else in his life has given up[ on him. The irony of all this is that the backing is decidedly not rock and roll at all – it’s a kind of cross between soul and funk, like the Elephants Memory band that backed John Lennon in 1972 slowed down to a crawl. The result is a complex song that’s hard to hear and not all that welcome to listen to compared to others on the album, but one that’s still very clever and revealing. After all, the question surely isn’t why the girl is scared off from the narrator’s extremely variable antics and feelings as to what’s wrong with him for acting that way.
‘Moonshine’ is another love song with a difference – it’s a love song to whisky and intoxicants. But unlike most boozing songs (Lindisfarne’s come to mind), the link between singer and stimulant isn’t an easy, simple, improving one but a whole new emotional release, one that takes him to a dark and mournful place, one that unlocks all of the thoughts he’s successfully hidden during the day. Dennis sounds suitably rat-arsed on the simple, almost mischievous opening line, but sounds deeply sober on the rest of this short track’s musings on the power of music to move and the inevitability of death and great things passing away. The narrator starts out by wondering which anonymous factory worker made his bottle and whether they knew it would help him see his truer self, before remembering first a disappointed lover who says there ‘won’t be another’ and a concert audience so moved by the music they ‘thought they would die’. The booze has created Dennis’ finest moments and his worst and this is him deciding whether it’s worth keeping the ‘moonshine’ in his life or not (alas for his friends and family but thankfully, given what he says in this track, for his audience he kept going). The song then ends on a most mournful minor key change, with Dennis rasping ‘gone away, gone away, gone away’ over and over, as if trying to come to terms with the enormity of that sentence. It sounds very like a Brian Wilson track from the same period (1977’s ‘Beach Boys Love You’ is roughly Brian’s equivalent of this confessional record but with synthesisers instead of strings) – so much in fact that this is the most Beach Boysy sounding backing track on the album.
‘Friday Night’ tries to lift the tempo and get happy, but by doing so and forcing the jollity it comes out as one heck of a scary song. The listener’s nerves aren’t helped by the wonderful opening, a cascade of piano chords, seemingly falling into the stark open chords of the violins and a mournful, feedback drenched Hawaiian guitar. This piece of music alone would have made for a fabulous song, but out of the chaos comes the strutting Dennis of old, stretching his frail vocal past its limits in his tale of people out enjoying a Friday night. Punks and motorcycle riders abound which, together with the dangerous sounding music, sounds like a raucous night – but even here Dennis feels Jesus ‘in my soul’ and knows that the music he plays this Friday night is his chance to exorcise his demons and take him to a better place, even if the audience aren’t the sort you’d traditionally associate with spirituality. ‘Friday Night’ should be quite a joyous song, the sound of one man stripping away his worldly problems for a short sharp release of emotion, but the magical eerie rumblings before the song show how much the narrator has to get off his chest – and how short a time it will be before they come back in to jump on his back again. Searching for a word to describe what all this pent up emotion can mean, Dennis can only answer with the words ‘rock and roll’, as if only that medium can sum up all the highs and lows he feels. But again, this isn’t really rock and roll – in fact, it sounds like nothing else ever created, with a quiet retro surf guitar riff being stomped underfoot by a very contemporary drum pattern and block chords on a synthesiser that wouldn’t sound out of place in a horror film. Altogether, it makes for an unforgettable sound quite unlike anything you’ll ever hear again.
‘Pet Sounds’ was full of deep bass harmonicas being played in unusual ways and with unusual combinations of instruments. But even Brian Wilson never came up with the soundscape of ‘Dreamer’ – half strutting, half scared, everything about this song is played in bass form: harmonicas, keyboard, Dennis’ voice, everything, as if to blot out any source of ‘light’ from the song. Only a passing Mariachi trumpet band offers release and even then it’s swift and sudden, as the pent up emotion is suddenly let go in short bursts between the tied-to-a-tempo drumming. ‘Dreamer’ is another song about how music is the only thing in life that makes sense, the only thing that won’t let you down and points to a possibly better way of life free from a 9-to-5 job, a demanding family and bill collectors breathing down your back. The song starts with another line about Jesus, clearly a preoccupation for Dennis at this time, claiming that although the powers that be killed the ‘carpenter’ they never killed his ‘dream’, with a chorus line of ‘people gotta be free!’ clearly coming from the heart. Dennis has heard it all before though – girlfriends, bandmates, celebrities, they all think they know how to be free, by gathering lots of money or getting recognition and Dennis knows none of that will matter a jot once everyone’d dead and gone (or, as he poetically puts it, they’ll never get to heaven in their flashy cars). Dennis famously couldn’t hang on to money at all, spending it at an alarming rate even bigger than it was arriving during the band’s commercial peak, but he rarely spent it on himself – it went on girlfriends, friends, business partners, charities and all the homeless people Dennis could find. This song sounds to me like the ‘giving’ Dennis turning with anger on his money-hoarding cohorts and demanding they change – with the band that keeps ‘playing on’ every chorus first a source of redemption (a chance to offer love and messages to millions) and then a source of anguish (just listen to the way Dennis cackles the last repeat of the line, as if the band are heartlessly ignoring the suffering of millions and don’t see what ‘he’ sees). Dennis’ message is clear: he’s not the dreamer even if his head is in the clouds – its all the money-grabbing capitalists who only live for power and success who are the real ‘dreamers’, because when you’re buried and in the ground your money and power will be no good to you at all. The result is another impressive song, so so different to anything around at the time, with a cracking tune and a set of lyrics that comes closer to most at getting to the truth of life.
‘Thoughts Of You’ ends the first side of the record on a mournful note, with Dennis sounding suitably lost and guilty at whatever it is he’s just done (we never find out). The ‘sunshine’ ‘blinded’ him and he was wrong, Dennis sings, to cast out the person he loves more than anyone else in the world. The trouble is, Dennis knows its not the first time it’s happened and he knows ‘we’ know it too and, fearing that his words sound hollow, he reaches out for the most outrageous middle eight. The rest of the song has been peaceful and beautiful, but this sudden swelling is huge, powerful and angry, with an electronically treated Dennis sounding like a vengeful God as he pronounces ‘All things that live one day must die...’ The problem is knowing what to make of this sudden switch – is this Dennis’ suppressed anger coming through again? Is his regretful action caused by the fear that he might be losing a loved one? Is it because he knows that this song is hopeless and that however sorry he sounds he just knows he’ll do it again one day and that the partnership is over? This is a tremendously impressive song, one that veers from cold detachedness to heartbreaking warmth in the blink of an eye and sounds equally plausible at both extremes. We haven’t really heard much of Dennis’ distinctive piano playing across the album till now, but it takes centre stage on this song, as if Dennis equates it with his real self (even if he knows he’ll keep making the same mistake, his hoarse breathless ‘I’m sorry’ at the end of the first verse being one of the most powerful passages on the record).
‘Time’ is kind of ‘Thoughts Of You’ part two, so it’s strange that the two tracks should be split by turning the record over. If anything, though, it’s even more powerful, with a simple mournful first verse about returning home to a loved one ripped open by a noisy brass band-filled riff that cuts in out of nowhere and takes the narrator, almost screaming, down the end of a long black tunnel. Lyrically, this is another song of regret, with the narrator admitting that although ‘I’m the kind of guy who loves to mess around’ nobody has ever meant as much to him as his loved one (presumably Karen Lamm, Dennis’ wife three and four during this period – the couple married and divorced twice in the space of two years!) The opening tune is truly lovely, just Dennis and a piano and echoing my beloved Beach Boys outtake ‘Barbara’ as his most moving melody and performance. A mournful trumpet phrase seems to have wandered in from ‘Smile’, too, echoing the silence and loneliness Dennis’ narrator feels as it occurs to him that his loved one really is no longer waiting at home for him, to brighten up his day. The playful piano chords during the middle section are very ‘Smile’ like, reminiscent of ‘Child Is The Father To The Man’, although even Brian Wilson’s nastiest nightmares (such as ‘Fire’) can’t prepare the listener for the sudden shock of the end section, which sounds clinical and chaotic and wild, just as it sounded for the narrator as if his life was back in control. Hearing the real Dennis lost in the mix, desperately trying to keep his opening tune going behind all this noise, is awfully moving and this is one of the best and most powerful tracks on the album, even if it is by far the shortest in terms of words.
‘You and I’ offers a much needed balm, as Dennis self-deprecatingly puts down the idea that he knows more than the rest of us and reiterates that he needs his love to write his music and needs his music to stay in love. The whole song is soothing, without the twists and turns of the last two pieces, with Dennis recycling many past thoughts from the rest of the album, such as having no money left to offer to others (‘you open up my wallet and dust falls out’) and how there’ll never be a ‘rag to riches story’ because Dennis is used to things going wrong somewhere. This isn’t an angry or even a really regretful song, however, but a realisation that the trials and tribulations the narrator goes through is worth it if there is someone to love him, with only a mournful ‘no more lonely nights’ riff (which Paul McCartney surely borrowed subconsciously for his song of the same name in 1983, so similar are the phrases – he is a big Beach Boys fan after all!) Dennis may sing that he’s ‘ never seen the light’ like other poets and musicians, but it sounds on this delightful track as if that’s exactly what he’s found on this lovely, understated, peaceful song.
‘Pacific Ocean Blues’ is a fascinating song too, in quite a different way. It’s a collaboration with Dennis’ big rival Mike Love, one of only two songs the pair wrote. You’d expect the band’s two biggest rockers and posers to come up with a strutting love song, but no – just as Holland’s glorious ballad ‘Only With You’ is the antithesis of what you’d expect the pair to write, so this album’s title track is a joyous ecological pop song. It’s also by far the most Beach Boysy track on the album, with Dennis group of friends and collaborators (Greg Jakobsen, Karen Lamm, Billy Hinsche , Curt Becher and a guesting ‘sixth Beach Boy’ Bruce Johnstone) doing a mean job of sounding like the early 70s Beach Boys. There’s even a ‘now now now now’ bass vocal riff which just has to be a Mike Love creation and a ‘water, water, water’ chorus that’s a close cousin of ‘American Saga: California’. However, even the tracks on the well received ‘Surf’s Up’ album never approached this song’s anger, empathising with the sight of a mother seal watching her cub clubbed to death, humans out cruising for whales to kill and the massed public not listening to those trying to tell the truth, dismissing them as cranks. The chorus line of ‘It’s no wonder the pacific ocean is blue!’ is a great gag, so obvious in retrospect that you wonder why Brian Wilson never used it during his days of ‘three albums a year full of surfing songs’. However, this song’s most impressive feature isn’t the lyrics or even Dennis’ excellent vocal but the fact that the song has got back to strutting again – sounding more like Dennis’ early Beach Boys than the uncertainty and guilt spread across the rest of this album. Whether you take this song as a Beach Boys pastiche, a meaningful ecological protest or just a great pop tune, it seems to work any which way.
‘Farewell My Friend’, however, is so bare and fragile that it can only ever mean one thing. It was inspired by the death of ‘Pop’ Hinsche – the father of Dennis’ close friend Billy – who pretty much adopted Dennis and became the father figure the middle Wilson brother had never really had (see any of our early Beach Boys review if you want to know more about Murray ‘Dad’ Wilson!) Mr Hinsche died close to the end of making this album – so close in fact that the song intended for this slot on the album, ‘the excellent if slightly less emotional ‘Tug Of Love’, got booted off at the last minute to make way for it - and the death hit Dennis hard. There’s a lovely story in the lyric booklet about album technician John Hanlon watching the song take shape, Dennis punctuating his grief to stab at the keyboard every so often and come up with a song to do his friend justice. Even though this song says very little except the title and largely stays on one note throughout, it’s very real outpouring of emotion that’s made it a very popular track with fans. Dennis wasn’t to know that he himself had only another six years to live at this point, but his lines about ‘taking the low road’ while his friend takes the high one are still emotional indeed. There are, however, two factors that stop this track being a masterpiece like so many on this album – the first is the lack of a middle eight (something that turns so many promising songs on this album into works of genius) and the second is the often annoying synthesiser bleeps and computer effects – this is a song, surely, that needs to be empty and sparse in its grief, best heard man to man. Still ‘Farewell, My Friend’ is a moving song, simple and profound all at the same time, with a very moving vocal from Dennis at the heart of it.
Things get brighter for ‘Rainbows’, a last burst of optimism on Dennis’ records before it’s gone for good. The song was started by Dennis’ occasional collaborator Steve Kalinich, who came up with the opening lines while spending the day at Dennis’ house and reflecting a very pleasant morning the two were having. Like Dennis’ best songs it’s very simple to the point of almost being trite, but Dennis’ energetic and joyous melody is the perfect match for Kalinich’s infectious lyrics, a glorious hymn to the delights of being alive and how wonderful it is when things go right in your life. This time around it’s the middle eight that’s weakest, ‘Ooh honey hold me and feel you close to me’ being possibly the least original thought on the whole album, but no matter – there’s still a whole feast of delights to point your ears at, from the pastiche Beach Boys chorus, to the string arrangement to the unexpected mandolin accompaniment on the second verse. There’s yet more evidence of Dennis’ lapsed religiousness in the lyrics too, with a subtle ‘Lord, how I really want to be with you’ reminiscent of George Harrison’s ambiguous love songs/God songs from the early 70s. Unlike the rest of this album, where Jesus seems to hang out with punks on Friday nights at concerts and carpenters get persecuted for speaking against the status quo, here, right in the middle of this hymn to life in all its glory, it seems to make perfect sense. For once on this album Dennis’ beliefs and his acts are in synch and even though this isn’t by any means the best developed or most thought out song on the album, it’s hard not to applaud this song’s sudden determination and hope.
The album ends on a much more typical note, however, with ‘End Of The Show’ and, well, it’s the end of the show. Forever for Beach Boys fans, sadly, after a glimpse of Dennis’ solo output away from his band, but it’s a very fitting place to end. This is really Dennis finally admitting that an up-and-down relationship (with Karen Lamm?) has run its course and that he has to back away now to save both of them being burnt. It basically says, well, even though it didn’t work out I’m thankful that I knew you at all. This opening verse is moving enough, especially the lovely lilting melody and Dennis’ pained ‘goodbye’ (the lyric booklet says that the line is ‘it’s over’ but that’s what my ears tell me he sings). But oh my goodness what an ending – the song swells out of itself, playing Jekyl and Hyde with us one last time, as Dennis says thankyou very much to his lover, over and over, before ending on a weary croaky ‘woooah’ and another pained ‘goodbye’ for good measure. Just in case we or his partner didn’t get the message that this is final, Dennis loops the backing track so that we begin to go through the whole thing again – before tailing sadly off into the distance midway through the song, with so much left unresolved. This is the second track in a row that tells us how it’s ‘wonderful to be alive’ but this time Dennis sounds on the verge of unhappy tears, a million miles away from his sentiments. Take this song as the last real gasp of Dennis’ output – there are great songs on ‘LA Light Album’ and after his death on the uncompleted ‘Bambu’ and even the Beach Boys excellent rarities set ‘Endless Harmony’ but this is the last he’ll fully finish in his lifetime without handing over to the other Beach Boys to finish – and this is even more moving, especially the concert applause that comes in near the end: this song is all about goodbyes and you sense that, even though ‘Bambu’ was half completed by the time ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ is in the shops, Dennis knows that this is his real goodbye to us. And what a super way to go out: like ‘Smile’ there’s not much going on here at all on what is such a short song, but the emotional resonance of the lyrics and the weight of the music sounds like we’ve been on one of the longest and deepest journeys of them all. Goodbye.....
History has forgotten how many replies Dennis actually had about improving on this album. Hopefully some fans writing in liked it, some like me even loved it and bored him to tears about it and hopefully there were only a few asking why there weren’t any songs about surf/cars/girls (Dennis wrote about all three, of course, but with a depth and realism missing from the Beach Boys’ earlier selves, in a world where the sea is polluted, cars are a means to an end not a prize in their own right and girls can break up with you and break your heart). But as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing really I can say. Yes there are a few production bits and pieces that don’t quite come off, a few too many sudden lurches between extremes and Dennis’ voice is kind of a guilty pleasure, ugly in every way but the one that really matters: putting the emotion and truth in the songs across successfully to the audience. To be honest, there’s very little I’d change at all – this album is timeless, it’s music and arrangements as fresh as the day it was made, if simply because no one else has ever made music quite like this before, then or now. You needn’t worry about the feedback Dennis – as far as I and many other Beach Boys fans like me are concerned, you got this album more or less perfect. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫♫♫♫♫♫ (9/10).