Amazingly, for a band that seemed fragmented into factions since the mid-1960s, it took until 1977 for a solo album to emerge from any of the original Beach Boys. Dennis Wilson’s lush, romantic Pacific Ocean Blue sold comparatively to The Beach Boys’ Love You, and gained a cult following after being out of print for many years. He never released a followup before his drowning in 1983, but recording sessions were later released as Bambu, firstly as part of a deluxe edition of Pacific Ocean Blue then as an individual album in 2017.
Brian Wilson didn’t embark on a solo career until after The Beach Boys had largely wound down as recording artists, in 1987. His solo career is patchy, but has enough of his harmony arrangements and sophisticated chord progressions to make it interesting for dedicated Beach Boys fans. His albums of original material that I’ve heard all suffer from unflattering production choices, but there are a pair of fascinating 1960s remnants; Pet Projects, a compilation of his 1960s productions, and Smile, a 2004 recording of the aborted Beach Boys album.
The two older Wilsons are the only Beach Boys I’ve covered; I wouldn’t touch Mike Love’s solo work with a barge-pole, Carl Wilson’s two solo albums in the early 1980s are generally regarded as uninteresting, and Al Jardine’s first solo album was released in 2010.
Brian Wilson Album Reviews
After nearly overdosing in 1982, Brian Wilson spent almost ten years under the guardianship of psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy, an arrangement that was later deemed unethical by Califonia courts. Part of Landy’s contract included a share of the profits on Wilson’s creative output, so he interfered heavily in the recording process and gave himself writing credits. Wilson’s main collaborator, however, was fan and producer Andy Paley, who along with Wilson plays a lot of the instruments on the record. The album certainly sounds like a product of the late 1980s, and hasn’t aged gracefully, but at the same time there are plenty of glimmers of Wilson’s talent. The album was Wilson’s first set of new material since The Beach Boys Love You in 1977, and Wilson had written a lot of songs over the previous five years.
The best known song is the opener ‘Love And Mercy’, with a beautiful chord progression, and uplifting chorus, while the closer ‘Rio Grande’ is a respectable attempt at a ‘Cabinessence’ style epic, clocking in at eight minutes. But the strongest song is arguably ‘Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long’ – it’s lyrically dopey, but it takes flight with its soaring melody and stacked vocals. It’s probably representative of the album as a whole – there aren’t many major songs, but enough great moments of pretty, distinctive Brian Wilson chord sequences and vocal arrangements that it’s well worthwhile.
It’s dated, but there’s enough strong material on Brian Wilson to make it a notable comeback.
1991, not rated
A rejected, but legendary and widely bootlegged album with Eugene Landy producing. I haven’t heard the whole thing, but the most infamous track is ‘Smart Girls’, where Wilson samples his 1960s Beach Boys hits in a hip hop track.
Orange Crate Art (with Van Dyke Parks
1995, not rated
I don’t have this album, but I’m listing it as I’m interested in hearing it sometime. Wilson is reunited with Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks, and it’s effectively driven by Parks, with Wilson contributing lead vocals.
This album’s a strange beast – on one hand, it has some of my favourite Brian Wilson solo songs. But on the other, it’s drowning in glossy adult contemporary arrangements, and co-producer Joe Thomas, who’d previously worked on The Beach Boys’ country album Stars and Stripes Volume 1, has generally taken the blame – according to Wikipedia “Thomas took it upon himself to ensure that the new work would sound as close to adult contemporary radio as possible.” If nothing else, Imagination is the last album where Wilson’s voice is still relatively intact – he’s still hitting the high notes here, but by his 2004 albums his voice had thickened to a growl.
The material’s hit and miss too – there are a couple of reworkings of 1960s Beach Boys album tracks, which are pretty but unnecessary. But there are also newly written cheese fests like Jimmy Buffett co-write of ‘South America’ and the banal ‘Sunshine’. But there’s also some really good material here – ‘Lay Down Burden’ is a beautiful tribute to Carl Wilson, ‘Your Imagination’ is hooky and memorable, while ‘Cry’ is simple and heart felt. Even songs like ‘Dream Angel’ and ‘She Says That She Needs Me’ have strong tunes, even when they step too close to adult contemporary.
It’s unsatisfying as a whole, but there’s some really great material here, enough that it’s worth sitting through the glossy arrangements and tossed off songs.
Pet Projects compiles Brian Wilson’s non-Beach Boys projects during the 1960s and early 1970s. There aren’t a whole lot of major songs, as Wilson was keeping his best work for The Beach Boys, but there’s plenty of enjoyable second tier material. Artists featured include Wilson’s wife, Marilyn Rovell, with her vocal groups The Honeys and Spring, as well as surf producer Gary Usher, Glen Campbell, and The Survivors, a thrown together group with Brian on lead vocals. Due to label constraints, Pet Projects doesn’t collect all of Wilson’s endeavours, but it’s the best way of getting a bunch of Wilson’s extra curricular work on one CD.
And there are some excellent songs here. The most sought after song is Glen Campbell delivering a beautiful vocal on ‘Guess I’m Dumb’, a song that was inexplicably omitted from Beach Boys Today!. Sharon Marie’s ‘Thinking ‘Bout You Baby’ is an early version of ‘Darlin”, later a Beach Boys hit. Of Rovell’s work, ‘Fallin’ In Love’ is a beautiful take of Dennis Wilson’s ‘Lady’, while ‘Goodnight My Love’ is a pretty closer.
Not all of the 23 tracks here are gems, but there’s enough good work on Pet Projects to make it worth sifting through for Wilson’s fans.
Gettin’ In Over My Head
Gettin’ In Over My Head is essentially a hodgepodge of songs from aborted Wilson projects – some of the songs come from Sweet Insanity and others from mid 1990s recording sessions with Andy Paley. But almost uniformly, it’s poor – Wilson sounds disinterested and the songs are rote, and even though the production is less dated than his previous solo records, it’s a very sluggish record. Wilson’s voice has deteriorated markedly since Imagination – he’s lost his high range, and he’s reduced to a croak.
The most worthwhile piece is ‘Soul Searchin” – featuring co-lead vocals from Carl Wilson, who passed away in 1998, it was rescued from earlier sessions with Paley, and even it suffers from a predictable key change. The title track is also pretty, and drawn from the same Paley sessions. There’s a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks on the closing ‘The Waltz’ – it works musically, but the line “She had a body you’d kill for/You hoped that she’d take the pill for” is jarring enough to derail it. And elsewhere Gettin’ In Over My Head has all the hallmarks of ageing rock star phoning it in – ‘Desert Drive’ is a lacklustre rehash of the early Beach Boys sound, while Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, and Elton John all make guest appearances.
Gettin’ In Over My Head is the weakest album I’ve covered to date on this site – it was enough to deter me following Wilson’s new material any further, although I hear that 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun is worthwhile.
Brian Wilson Presents Smile
The failure of Wilson to complete The Beach Boys’ Smile in the mid 1960s had always been an albatross around his neck – for years he refused to discuss the project or perform songs from it. But in 2001 he played ‘Heroes and Villains’ live for the first time in decades, and when members of Wilson’s band suggested that he play the entire suite live, he surprisingly approved of the idea. Wilson, original lyricist Van Dyke Parks, and Darian Sahanaja of The Wondermints worked together to edit The Beach Boys’ Smile recordings into a cohesive whole. The Smile performances were a success, and the suite was arranged into a studio version.
Coming to Smile after hearing The Beach Boys’ albums, the most disappointing thing is that the key tracks from Smile had already appeared – the album’s core is comprised of songs like ‘Surf’s Up’, ‘Cabinessence’, and ‘Our Prayer’ that had appeared on their later 1960s and early 1970s albums, and the remaining tracks are mostly shorter link tracks that reinforce the song cycle. Wilson’s voice had lost its high end, and the overall vocal blend lacks the magic of The Beach Boys. But this is nit-picking in 2004, it was simply a privilege to hear Wilson conquer his fears and recreate his lost magnum opus. And even though it lacks The Beach Boys’ vocal synergy, it has its own charms – the version of ‘Good Vibrations’ uses some of Tony Asher’s lyrics, and it’s a convincing take that stands proudly alongside the celebrated original, while the arrangements are cleaner and crisper.
I would have rated Wilson’s version of Smile even more favourably when it was released, but in hindsight The Beach Boys’ 2011 The Smile Sessions (which was edited from the original Beach Boys sessions to follow Wilson’s template) is now the definitive version.
Live Review: December 18 2004, Wellington
It’s not often that we get rock legends playing in Wellington, and indeed Wilson was pretty sure that 2004 was the first time that he’d ever played in New Zealand. The result was often heart-warming – Wilson looked uncomfortable on stage most of the time, perched on a stool, relying on prompters and hiding behind a keyboard that he rarely played, but he had the audience on his side nonetheless, aware of what he’d been through and exuberant that he’s functional enough to play live at all. Wilson bolted off the stage as soon as the vocals section finished in the first bracket, looked at his watch in the middle of ‘Help Me Rhonda’, and headed the wrong way for the exit at the end of the show, but while the music was playing he was caught up in it, connecting with the audience through his humorous hand gestures. His vocals were strong and enthusiastic, even if he missed the occasional high note. When a bass was handed to him for some of the songs in the encore it was almost poignant to see him stand up and become part of the group on the same instrument he played live with The Beach Boys in their early days, even though there was another bass player in the band and it was merely a tokenistic gesture on most levels.
His backing band the Wondermints along with as the eight piece Stockholm strings and brass, managed to recreate most of the intricacies of the Beach Boys’ sixties and early seventies records, as well as providing a sense of humour without being patronising, with the orchestral musicians chewing on their carrots, wearing fireman’s helmets and miming swimming when required. The first set trawled through The Beach Boys back catalogue with familiar songs like ‘California Girls’ (“this is a song about girls from California”, Wilson quipped) and ‘Little Saint Nick’ (added especially with Christmas only a week away), as well as more obscure 1970s material like ‘Forever’ (dedicated to Dennis) and an amped up version of ‘Marcella’. After a twenty minute intermission, the second set was Smile in its entirety – with the same musicians who’d played on the recording it wasn’t revelatory or anything, but the elements suite made more sense as a concept with visual effects playing, and it was gratifying to see the audience recognise the opening of ‘Surf’s Up’ with applause. For the encore, the group shot through another brace of hits, with the audience on their feet to ‘Do It Again’, ‘Fun Fun Fun’, ‘Barbara Ann’, and ‘Surfing USA’, before ending with a subdued ‘Love And Mercy’.
While Wilson isn’t a confident front-man by any stretch of the imagination, his mere presence on stage was almost miraculous in itself, and seeing him make jokes and play the introduction to ‘Marcella’ was more than I’d been expecting from him. The chance to see arguably the most talented musician of his generation in person with a sympathetic and backing band was amazing and I don’t have a bad word to say about it.
Dennis Wilson Album Reviews
Pacific Ocean Blue
Dennis Wilson was the first of the original Beach Boys to release a solo album, with 1977’s Pacific Ocean Blue. While he showed plenty of glimpses of song writing talent on The Beach Boys’ late 1960s and early 1970s records, the songs here are more fleshed out, and more consistent in terms of mood. It’s his gentle and spiritual side that’s represented, more akin to songs like ‘Forever’ or ‘Be With Me’. That means it’s mostly stacked with ballads, although there’s the odd rock and roller like ‘What’s Wrong’ and ‘Friday Night’ to break things up. The album is given a lush late 1970s production job, which works fine; Dennis’ gritty and vulnerable voice is alone enough to ensure that the album retains a vital air of intimacy and resonance, while he’s also credited with all the keyboards and some of the drum parts on the record.
The record opens with the pretty ‘River Song’, with a cowrite and backing vocals from Carl Wilson, a Tom Sawyer themed piece that should have been a hit, more alive and vibrant than contemporary Beach Boys records. None of these songs are particularly innovative, but Wilson is playing around with modest multi-part structures, and it’s more complex than you’d perhaps expect, with pretty songs like ‘Time’. He also captures a range of emotions, from the starry-eyed ‘Moonshine’ and aggressive ‘Friday Night’ to the eulogy ‘Farewell My Friend’ and the kiss off ‘End Of The Show’.
There aren’t too many examples in rock history of a drummer producing an excellent solo album, but Pacific Ocean Blue bucks the trend. It’s on a par with worthwhile Beach Boys albums like Sunflower and Wild Honey, and if you’re a fan it’s worth making the effort to track it down.
Dennis Wilson never completed his followup to Pacific Ocean Blue, due to his substance abuse issues and his responsibilities as a Beach Boy. He did make plenty of recordings in the late 1970s, and these only saw release on bootlegs, until they were released as a bonus disc on the deluxe version of Pacific Ocean Blue, before seeing release as a stand-alone album on Record Store Day 2017. For these late 1970s sessions, Wilson’s main collaborator was keyboardist Carli Muñoz.
While Wilson proclaimed the album was one hundred times better than Pacific Ocean Blue, I find it weaker, lacking standouts like ‘River Song’ and ‘Time’, and the released version is an hour of music, not yet shaped into a forty minute album. ‘Love Surrounds Me’ is one of the stronger songs, and was used on The Beach Boys’ 1979 L.A. (Light Album), although the version here is rawer and more effective. Another interesting curiosity is ‘Holy Man’ – Wilson never completed his vocals, so Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, who has a remarkably similar voice, contributed vocals. It’s one of the stronger pieces here, and it’s a shame it’s only on the Pacific Ocean Blue deluxe version, not on the standalone LP.
Bambu isn’t as strong as Pacific Ocean Blue – it’s not a fully finished album, and it doesn’t have as many standout tracks. But in a discography as small as Dennis Wilson’s, it’s well worth hearing.