So much more than just The Beach Boys’ drummer, Dennis Wilson (born December 4, 1944) contributed raw ballads and charged blasts of rock’n’roll that were highlights of the group’s albums from the late 60s until his untimely death, at just 39 years old, on December 28, 1983. While initially underestimated thanks to his pin-up looks and penchant for mischief, Dennis’ early songwriting and production demonstrated a deep and instinctive talent, which developed as his elder brother Brian’s influence on the group waned. Celebrating some lesser-known corners of The Beach Boys’ work, here are Dennis Wilson’s ten best Beach Boys songs.
10: Do You Wanna Dance? (1965)
Early in The Beach Boys’ career, it had become apparent that the majority of the lustful energy stirred up at their gigs was aimed squarely at the animated figure behind the drum kit. It made sense, then, to take advantage of Dennis’ heartthrob status by having him sing lead vocals on a 1965 single that would open The Beach Boys Today! album – a stomping version of Bobby Freeman’s 1958 hit “Do You Wanna Dance?” The band harnessed the power of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew – all crashing drums, surging saxophones, and surf guitar solos – for a backing track that was nearly as exciting as hearing Dennis sing, “Squeeze me, squeeze me, all through the night.”
9: In The Back Of My Mind (1965)
Dennis was also called upon to sing lead on … Today!’s closing song proper, the meandering and lovely ballad “In The Back Of My Mind.” Dennis was an inspired choice: his soulful, plaintive vocals bring added depth to one of the group’s most vulnerable early songs. Fans who screamed to “Do You Wanna Dance?” swooned to this one, an early indication of the two sides of Dennis that would be revealed as his writing developed.
8: Little Bird (1968)
The first Dennis-penned song to be released (initially as the B-side to “Friends,” in May 1968, and, the month after, on the Friends album), “Little Bird” was a co-write with the poet Stephen Kalinch and featured an uncredited helping hand from Brian. Musically, it’s brooding, with sunny intervals, and owes a clear debt to “Child Is The Father Of The Man,” a song from the group’s SMiLE sessions. Kalinch’s lyrics are a joyful celebration of nature, sung tenderly and with heart by Dennis. The surfer of the group was growing up quick.
7: (Wouldn’t It Be Nice) To Live Again (1971)
Unreleased until the 2013 box set Made In California, “(Wouldn’t It Be Nice) To Live Again” should have graced 1971’s Surf’s Up. An alleged disagreement with Carl over the album’s running order, together with pressure to keep material for a solo album that was allegedly close to completion, meant that this sumptuous wonder was shelved. From pastoral beginnings (with shades of The Beatles’ “Fool On The Hill”) and a peaceful vocal from Dennis, to a grandstanding, emotive chorus, the fact this song remained shelved for so long beggars belief.
6: Slip On Through (1970)
The opening track of Sunflower was a heady, soulful rocker that saw Dennis deliver one of his finest non-ballad vocals for the group over an energetic, irresistible groove. The lyrics may amount to one massive come-on, but when it’s this much fun, we’re not complaining.
5: Celebrate The News (1969)
While the June 1969 single “Breakaway” was a hit for The Beach Boys, its B-side, “Celebrate The News,” is arguably the better song. Co-written by Dennis and his pal, songwriter Gregg Jakobsen, it shifts masterfully through the gears until the ecstatic mantra, “I’ve got news for you, there ain’t no blues,” beckons in a rampaging end section, complete with exuberant, gospel-tinged vocals.
4: It’s About Time (1970)
A propulsive, funk-driven stormer of a song, with lyrics by Bob Burchman, a poet acquaintance of Dennis’, “It’s About Time” was the first song recorded after the band’s new label, Warner Reprise, had rejected an early iteration of the album that would become Sunflower. Concerns that the group were not “contemporary” enough were quickly disproven by Dennis’ dynamic production work here – all stinging guitars and frenzied percussion – that that brings the best out of his brother Carl’s gutsy vocals.
3: Cuddle Up (1972)
Originally recorded for a 1971 solo album that failed to materialize, “Cuddle Up” was re-recorded when The Beach Boys – short of material for a follow-up to Surf’s Up – came calling. One of a batch of songs co-written with Daryl Dragon, of Captain And Tennille, “Cuddle Up” was a highlight of The Beach Boys’ 1972 album, Carl And The Passions – “So Tough” (along with Dennis’ other contribution to the album, “Make It Good”). The song begins in intimate fashion, with softly-played piano and Dennis’ careworn vocals to the fore, before stirring strings and background vocals build to a climax steeped in equal parts anguish and ecstasy. Never one to shy away from wearing his heart on his sleeve, the sumptuously melodramatic “Cuddle Up” might be the song that best sums up the incurable romantic inside Dennis.
2: Be With Me (1969)
The Beach Boys’ 1969 album, 20/20, is a disjointed affair perhaps best thought of as a collection of distinct and disparate songs pulled together. “Be With Me” was the pick of Dennis’ contributions: an opulent arrangement pulled down to Earth by a tender vocal that announced the arrival of a remarkable talent. Check out the 2001 rarities set, Hawthorne, CA, for the staggering backing track to the song.
1: Forever (1970)
This stand-out from The Beach Boys’ 1970 album, Sunflower, sees Dennis at his most direct and loveable – a puppy-dog-eyed declaration of eternal faithfulness. The production is elegant and sumptuous, with beatific backing vocals from The Beach Boys (Brian, in particular – just check the fade-out). But it’s Dennis’ lead vocal that steals the show. When he sings, “If the song I sing to you/Could fill your heart with joy/I’d sing forever,” he sounds every inch the vulnerable romantic, convinced he can make it all better with the sheer beauty of his music. All these years later, his songs still touch hearts everywhere.
Looking for more? Discover the best Beach Boys songs.