Dennis, Dennis! Oh, With Your Eyes So Blue.June 2, 2012
Poor old Brian Wilson, with his baffled, befuddled thousand yard stare, slack-jawed appearance and hang-dog melancholy, he’s rightfully earned his place atop the ‘genius‘ pedestal. Of that there can be no argument. Spare a thought, though, for wee brother Dennis. The underdog in a family full of musical prodigies, it was the Wilson boys’ mum Audree who made the other brothers find a place for him in their vocal group. Like many naturally ungifted musicians before and since, he was tasked with bashing the drums, giving The Beach Boys’ music a much-needed rock and roll backbeat that had been hitherto unplanned.
Dennis rarely sang on those early Beach Boys tracks, preferring to goof it up on stage and grow into his role as band heart throb. Image-wise, The Beach Boys were undeniably the squarest of the square, exuding about as much sexiness as a bucket of wet sand. But Dennis, with his surfer boy good looks and toned, tanned physique was the one bit of crowd-pleasing eye candy. Or so the ladies tell me. At early Beach Boys concerts, girls would scream themselves into a knicker-wetting frenzy and Dennis would reciprocate by winking at them and dazzling them with a pearly-white flash of Californian smile before pointing the hottest ones out to the roadies who would be dispatched to usher them backstage. Round round get around, he got around, you might say. As you can imagine, young Dennis had to quickly develop pugilistic tendencies as he would often find himself face-to-face with a pissed-off boyfriend or two, keen to land a punch square in the middle of those pretty boy good looks.
Somewhere towards the end of the 60s, Dennis found his feet as a songwriter. He regularly contributed terrific songs (and vocals) that deserved more recognition than they were given. By now he had somehow become a prolific multi-instrumentalist and could present fully-formed songs to his bandmates. A Dennis song would usually be found tucked in some obscure corner of the album, never given the honour of being released as a single in its own right. If he was really lucky, he might find one of his songs stuck on the b-side of the last single to be released from the album. So, while Dennis never wrote a Heroes & Villains or a California Girls or a Don’t Worry Baby or a Good Vibrations or a (insert your favourite here), to these ears at least, some of Dennis’s songs are just as thrilling as his big brother’s million-sellers.
A selection of Dennis Wilson nuggets:
Forever (from Sunflower) If every word I said could make you laugh I’d talk forever…….If the song I sing to you could fill your heart with joy I’d sing forever. This is The Beach Boys at their most introspective and melancholic. On the day that my coffin slowly slips behind those velvet curtains, this is the song that’ll be playing. So I’m goin’ away…….but not forever. S’a heartbreaker and no mistake.
Slip On Through (from Sunflower) The opening track on the best Beach Boys LP that isn’t Pet Sounds. Slip On Through bursts in waves of technicolour Wilson harmonies and frugging Fender bass and sounds like a proper Beach Boys record for it. You’d like the Sunflower LP, you really would.
Only With You (from Holland) Another introspective cracker. Piano ‘n plaintive vocals declaring undying love. If you’re getting married in the near future you could do worse than choose this as your first dance. And if you think this is good, you should hear Norman Blake’s heaven-sent cover. Oh man! Soaring Teenage Fanclub harmonies, chiming McGuinn-esque 12 string and tasteful string section.
Steamboat (from Holland) Downbeat piano tinkler with some spot on doo-wop vocals and atmospheric spooky slide guitar. On first listen, this might not grab you (possibly why the Wilson clan relegated it to LP fodder) but repeated listens reveal previously unheard depths.
Little Bird (from Friends) This is a superb mini potted history of The Beach Boys on record – various ‘sections’ jigsawed together by Fender bass, parping brass, see-sawing cello and the odd banjo. Features a key-changing na-na-na singalong and brilliant coo-ing backing vocals near the end. Much loved by that barometer of hip opinion Paul Weller, trivia fans.
Make It Good (from Carl & The Passions) Minor key piano and cracked little-boy-lost vocal that pre-dates the minor key and melodrama of Dennis’s ‘lost’ classic Pacific Ocean Blue LP by a good 5 years. A perfect closing track to a right mixed bag of a Beach Boys LP.
Never Learn Not To Love (from 20/20) Following his skewed friendship with Charles Manson, Dennis presented The Beach Boys with a new song that bore more than a passing resemblance to Manson’s own Cease to Exist. Manson was least pleased, to say the least, when the 20/20 LP came out featuring this track with some sugar coated lyrics in place of the original‘s dark subject matter, with nary a writing credit in sight. Possibly not the smartest move Dennis ever made. Having said that, The Beach Boys track is a thing of beauty, all stop/start sections with sleigh bells and flutes and clip-clopping rhythms, soaked in a gallon of reverb.
Lady (b-side from 1970’s Sound Of Free solo single) Much-loved obscurity (if that isn’t an oxymoron) in the Dennis Wilson songbook. All reverb-heavy acoustic guitars and minor key strings, it was rejected from the final running orders of both Sunflower and Surf’s Up and has been fairly heavily bootlegged since.
Carry Me Home was written for possible inclusion on Holland before, aye, it was rejected. Primal Scream did a decent downbeat Fender Rhodes ‘n pedal steel version on their Dixie Narco EP, when Screamadelica and all that jazz was just around the corner. Bobby G’s always had an eye for a good cover, even if he cannae sing it.
Everyone knows by now that Pacific Ocean Blue is the accepted Classic Album that Dennis made as he coke’d and screwed his way through the 70s. Just to fling my tuppence worth into the middle, I think it would’ve made a great bookend to this era with Rumours, even if Dennis’s sales didn’t quite match those of Fleetwood Mac. As a follow-up to Pacific Ocean Blue, Dennis recorded the Bambu (or Bamboo) LP, depending on where you read it. Of course, it never saw the proper light of day until 2008. How very Dennis. Here‘s All Of My Love, an outtake that didn’t quite make the final cut. How very Dennis again.
That should keep you busy. An excellent wee compilation! Happy listening!