Dennis Wilson, drummer and vocalist with the legendary Beach Boys, died in a tragic diving accident in Marina del Rey, California, on December 28, 1983. He was 39.
As a member of the Beach Boys, Dennis was instrumental in creating the sound that represented a California life-style and philosophy to fans for two decades—beginning with their first hits in the early ’60s, and continuing through periods of declining record sales but sellout personal appearances during the ’70s, and finally enjoying a resurgence with a fresh, second-generation audience in the early ’80s.
The Beach Boys were created by Brian Wilson, along with Dennis and youngerbrother Carl, and additional members Mike Love (a cousin of the Wilson brothers) and neighbor Al Jardine. At that time, all of the members were in their teens. The sound they created was a combination of early Chuck Berry-influenced lyrics and vocals (mainly the nasal drive of Mike Love) and the twangy guitar stylings of the Ventures. The Beach Boys did not invent “Surf Music” (Dick Dale & the Deltones and the Ventures laid claim to that), but they came to personify it. Ironically, Dennis Wilson was the only real surfer in the group, and it was he who suggested the name in order to capitalize on the “Surf Sound” the band was producing.
In later works, the group would be redirected by Brian Wilson into more introspective lyrics, carried by haunting melodies and close-harmony work heavily influenced by the Four Freshmen. Ballads such as “Surfer Girl” and “In My Room” would stand along with the good-clean-fun anthems such as “Surfin’ Safari” and “I Get Around.”
As the group progressed into more sophisticated material under the direction of Brian, the singles became less frequent, and album sales tended to drop off. During the late ’60s, the group had only a few major hits, with the surfing-cum-psychedelia “Good Vibrations” standing as perhaps their greatest success.
Although the record sales were less than optimum for several years, the Beach Boys continued to reign as a sellout attraction on the concert circuit, playing to hard-core ’60s/surf fans, and an increasing number of new fans—young people who had not been present when the California sound was represented by “Surfin” and cruising in your “Little Deuce Coupe,” not “Life In The Fast Lane.” The Beach Boys had found an entirely new generation, somewhat depressed by the emptiness and lack of optimism represented by the bleak music of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Not surprisingly, two albums of pre-1965 Beach Boys material, re-released recently as “Endless Summer” and “15 Big Ones” both went gold, selling over two million and one million copies, respectively.
Dennis was a contributor to all this musical history, and perhaps the greatest contributor to the sincerity of the Beach Boy image. Whether or not the group will carry on without him is yet to be seen, but his presence will be felt whenever happy songs about good times, pretty girls and the California sun are heard.