The first solo album from any member of the Beach Boys was “Pacific Ocean Blue” from the drummer Dennis Wilson, released in 1977. It reached No. 96 and went out of print by the time of his death in December 1983, becoming over the last decade one of those albums available only through eBay auctions. It makes its U.S. CD debut packaged with Wilson’s never released “Bambu,” his oft-bootlegged follow-up. Both are testimony to Wilson’s compositional skills, which shine consistently, even when the patina of mid-’70s production techniques mask his artistry.
Wilson’s solo deal was inked with James William Guercio, who had produced and managed Chicago, built a mammoth recording studio in the mountains of Colorado and signed the Beach Boys as clients as well. The studio, and its attendant label, were named Cairbou; Elton John named his 1974 album for the enclave. At that time, Dennis was the lone Beach Boy arguing that the band continue the development it had experienced with “20/20,” “Sunflower” and “Holland”; the others opted to parlay the commercial success of “Endless Summer” into making the band tops in the oldies marketplace.
All of that history is present on “Pacific Ocean Blue” an album that has that distinct Caribou sound despite being recorded in Santa Monica, a lush and layered collection of instruments and voices, which occasionally teeter into artificiality, in addition to an element of grandeur. The grand instrumental “Common,” for example, lands somewhere between “A Chorus Line” and Chicago.
Sonically, the album reveals Dennis had only tangential connections to the music of his brother Brian, although it can easily be argued that, in retrospect, “Pacific Ocean Blue” had a significant influence on Brian’s solo debut recorded more than a decade later.
Dennis Wilson’s music navigates variances within the realm of mid-tempo, both as a composer-performer of pop music that settles in at a meter a pinch more brisk than a ballad, and as a pianist jamming late-night on some funk or blues.
His rough and bluesy voice belies the smooth harmonies he participated in in the background during the 1960s. Wilson mostly plays keyboards and among the great musicians on the sessions were legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson, drummers Hal Blaine and Ricky Fataar and guitarist Earle Mankey, who would go on to become one of L.A. preeminent post-punk producers. Disc closes with Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins singing the words he wrote for for the Dennis Wilson-Gregg Jakobson instrumental “Holy Man.”
Among the newly released material are two remarkable pieces: “I Love You” from “Bambu,” a suite of themes that ventures from the bluesy to beachfront gospel to light classical piano; and “Only With You,” written with Mike Love and one of three bonus tracks for the “Pacific” sessions. “I Love You,” at only two minutes, feels like a half-realized sketch, one that could have been fleshed out in the spirit of the Beach Boys’ ecology-minded “California Saga.” “Only With You” displays greatness of the Beach Boys at their best, the fusing of the intimate and the grand, sounding like friends gathered around a piano and producing glorious music that works in the living room and the concert hall.