Webmaster's note: Rock journalism arguably hit a zenith in the mid 70's, and periodicals like ROCK magazine were instrumental in sparking intelligent dialogue about contemporary music, suggesting that Rock and Roll could be analyzed as an art form. This article by Carol Rose remains one of the most thoughtful pieces on Dennis to appear in the rock press during his lifetime. The piece includes some interesting interview material from Max Weinberg, as well as rare quotes from Pacific Ocean Blue co-producer Gregg Jakobson.|
While Brian Wilson has spent the past year discussing his schizophrenia with magazine reporters, who return to their
typewriters convinced that the Second Coming of the Beach Boys is at hand under Brian's direction. Dennis Wilson, the
sexy, sandy haired surfer-drummer, has been holed up in a Santa Monica studio recording the first solo album of a
And, if the initial cuts I heard are any indication, it looks like Dennis, and not Brian, will be the one to rise and reclaim the legend.
During an interview this winter, when the album was about half done, Dennis was as nervous as he was excited about his first chance to express his own ideas. "I want you to be able to see how my imagination works," he said, making it clear that the process of recording was just as important to him as the result.
Playing with the Beach Boys for 15 years, he'd learned to cherish those moments when everything worked perfectly. For him, the high point of performing came when he felt hypnotized within his own rhythms, and flowed with them into the band and out into the audience.
"I never liked guys who were soloist drummers," he said. "I like the hypnotic rhythm that's consistent -- something you can get lost in. It's a perfect feel. The feeling within that rhythm is something I like very much. Then it makes the whole song and program work together. The thing I love about music is, if you play and let go of yourself it becomes timeless."
But now, like it or not, he is a soloist, playing not only drums, but violin, piano, tuba, clavinet, oboe, moog and harmonica, as well as doing the vocals on his own album, which he'd been recording since September at Brother's Studio in Santa Monica.
He was in New York for the Beach Boys Thanksgiving concerts (three sold-out nights, highlighted by Brian's first appearance in years), staying at the Sherry-Netherland and carrying the interview load for all the boys, since Carl was incapacitated with a bad back and Brian wasn't talking (Who was there left to talk to?)
Dennis was scared. "It's so nerve racking to play an album you've just done for people. I'm scared. I really am. People say, 'Don't worry, you're going to be a star.' But that's not the point. I just want to do it well enough so I can do it again."
The first song he played was called Time; it amazed me because it was the last thing I'd expected to hear. The tune had a softly classical-jazz sound and reminded me of George Gershwin. It started out slow, with the haunting, moving voices of the Double Rock Baptist Choir, accompanied by Dennis on electric violin, oboe, piano and moog, and Bill Lamm on trumpet. Then, it swelled out into a joyous, festive sound full of stomping, infectious rhythms.
"I like the way it gets fast," Dennis commented. "I like to change the texture of the track. It will be replaced by a vocal."
He put another cassette into the recorder. This song was called Dreamer, with Dennis on bass harmonica. In contrast to Time, it sounded almost whimsical, with a strong, steady drumbeat, and the words:
"I like people who want to go far
As in Time, Dennis delights in the way this song, too, changes textures abruptly, with the drums coming in very fast at one point. "I'm going to put a tuba solo over it," he said. "It's very incomplete. I'd like to play this one live."
Does he have any intention of touring by himself to promote the album?
"If people want me to I will," he said. "I'd hate to force myself on people."
Dennis' album was recorded on the Caribou label, a division of Columbia. According to the Beach Boys' contract with Warners, he's allowed to do a solo album as long as he doesn't record any Beach Boys material or use any members of the band on the album. Gregg Jackobson, a long time friend, is co-producing the album and writing some of the lyrics.
The next song, Walking By A River One Day, contrasts the beauty of the countryside with the growing ugliness of cities with the line: "River, I would love to be like you," offset by a background chorus of women's voices singing a low, sweet lament about why cities aren't pretty anymore. It has gospel-blues sound that resembles some of Ray Charles' work.
"I love some of Ray Charles' stuff", Dennis said. "I also love women's voices."
On the next tune, Friday Night, a more conventional rock and roll song about the frustrations of love, Dennis plays drums, three clavinets, bass and piano.
Each time he put a cassette into the recorder, played it and took it out, the weighty question hung in the air: Do you like it?
"You know, when you do something, you really want people to love what you do. It's just like when you meet someone, you want them to like you," Dennis said.
As I was leaving, he remarked again, "No bullshittin', you really liked some of it?"
"Yes, I swear to God," I said, wondering how to get my point across.
"Damn!" Dennis said.
That night the Beach Boys played the best concert of their three-night engagement, and afterwards Max Weinberg, the drummer with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, came backstage to congratulate Dennis. Later, Max admitted that Dennis has been his long time idol and one of his major influences. Dennis, he feels, is everything a rock and roll drummer should be.
"I've seen over 30 Beach Boy concerts," said Max. "The first was in the spring of '64 at the West Orange (New Jersey) Armory. Dennis projected such power. He plays the drums and hits this groove and for me it always made the corners of my mouth turn up in a smile.
"He really kept the band together and provided that energy," Max continued. "He projected this strength behind the drums of knowing where to hit in each measure, to pick the groove right out and put it in his pocket.
"There's a certain groove you pick that makes the music flow, and when you have it it's in your pocket. It's the feeling behind the rhythm. He knows where it is. And to me, the hardest thing to strive for is that feeling, behind the groove.
"There are a lot of sides to Dennis," Max went on. "When he's happening, he's really happening. He plays magnificently on every record they ever did tastefully, simply and really beautifully, slapping the backbeat. The backbeat is what you dance to: it's what you feel.
"Brian Wilson's production techniques were heavily influenced by Phil Spector (the legendary '60s producer of the Crystals, Ronettes, Righteous Brothers and Darlene Love), who put a heavy backbeat on four. There's a loud explosion of the snare drum on four, and Dennis executes this beautifully.
"He knows what notes not to play," said Max. "This is very important. This is the heart of rock and roll. It can really get cluttered up with fancy drumming."
Dennis, according to Max, plays a great rock and roll beat, a straight 2/4 rhythm characteristic of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley as well as the Beach Boys.
"It's called a backbeat because it's not on one; it's behind the first beat," Max said. "The accent is on the two and the four."
"Dennis was always what I strove for," Max admitted, "to make that projection, to make the drummer noticeable. I'm really into performing. There's a whole generation now getting into the Beach Boys who have never heard of them before. They really shaped my identity. I was a really crazy kid. I'm still a crazy kid. That's the nice thing about being in a rock band. You can feel 14 forever.
"Dennis," Max said, "was really a focal point for the band, an image. He still is. He was happening onstage and drummers became very important. Ringo also helped do this. He plays classic rock and roll. It's timeless. They don't assault your head. They caress your head. When a good rock band hits a groove, it's irresistible. They just will carry you away. They were big when being big really meant something. There's a reason they've been around 15 years.
"On Dance, Dance, Dance, the drum parts are really so interesting," Weinberg says. "The Beach Boys have a strong, slow shuffle groove. It became very apparent when Brian played the bass the other night. When you can get a feeling across in two and a half minutes, that's when you're really saying something to someone. That's the time of a real hit record. You have to have simplicity with real dramatic effectiveness. And drums used in that way can be very effective."
Max feels there are similarities between the way the Beach Boys relate to Brian Wilson and the way the E Street Band members relate to Springsteen,
"Dennis said the Beach Boys are Brian Wilson. They're his messengers. That's the way our band is. Bruce is the visionary and we're his colors. We're the interpreters of his material. I love to be in that situation because democratic bands do not work and never have."
I said I agreed with him that Brian's performance showed he epitomizes the band's rhythmic style. His solos were met with raves and applause by the audience during the November concert at Madison Square Garden. Even though he was visibly nervous, the sweet, rhythmic melodies he wrote sounded perfect when he sang them. Listening to him do Back Home with such obvious emotion and intensity and sincerity, I found myself fighting back tears, It was as though, with his voice and his presence, the very essence of the band materialized, and the music flowed as never before.
But Brian isn't the only genius in the group. Dennis' new record gives every indication that he can transcend himself. We're going to see an artist, whose individuality up until now has seen its greatest moment in a group, flower into a performer with a new and unique contribution to make to American music-one that's sure to knock most people off their feet.
"That raw roughness of Dennis' " is retained on the album titled Pacific Ocean Blues, according to Gregg Jakobson, who co-produced it and wrote some of the lyrics.
"It's a homemade kind of album," Gregg said, "without a lot of studio players. Dennis created it as he's gone along, track by track. It was really built in the studio. We've written words in the studio. That's pretty unique.
"From where I'm at it's crazy. It's one of the things you don't do," Gregg continued.
The advantages to having unlimited access to the studio, as Dennis had during the recording of this album, are that you can hear your mistakes right away and correct them. The making of the record becomes the important thing, rather than the result. Gregg gives the picture of Dennis during this time as someone totally absorbed in his work.
"We'll have a concept, and go from there, without any lyric ideas," Gregg said. "Dennis comes into the studio in the morning and stays until he's tired. I think it's innovative in the way it's produced and evolved. The songs range from real slow ballads, Thoughts of You, to some really big rock and roll stuff. In between, there's everything from really nice, soft rock ballads to rock and roll."
The other musicians include Bobby Lamm, Baron Stewart on background vocals, Hal Blaine on a few drum tracks, Steve Douglas on sax, and Eddie Carter on guitar.
While the Beach Boys are "officially not supposed" to be on the album, Jakobson acknowledges that, "you might hear some of them in the background."
The album is generally "up," with many love songs, Gregg said, but the title track deals with the theme of pollution, hardly something that would have surfaced on a Beach Boys album in the '60s, when the ocean was a source of escapism and pleasure. Now, that pleasure is marred by man's greed, and Pacific Ocean Blues is really a paradoxical song, with the lines "We live on the edge of a body of water/ Cold-hearted slaughter of the otter/And that's why the ocean is blue" portraying the ocean as having been betrayed by man.
"Dennis has been wanting to flex for a while," Jakobson said, "and Jim Guercio, the president of Caribou, gave him the go ahead." Guercio is the producer of Chicago, and apparently has a lot of faith in Dennis' ability to make it as a solo artist. Guercio, Jakobson says, "has never lost yet."