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Old New Hope

Half-Baked Record Nerd Oddities From Dennis Wilson and Droids Resurface

Alex Fine

By Brandon Soderberg | Posted 7/2/2008

Three decades after their original releases, both Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson's 1977 stoner-pop album Pacific Ocean Blue (Epic/Legacy) and the Droids' 1978 space-disco relic Star Peace (Repressed) are receiving the re-release treatment, and the coincidence is plenty apt. In the late '70s, both these albums were wonders of displacement--either too far behind or ahead of the time to achieve much more than a ripple.

If getting Brian Wilson out of the sandbox, onto the stage, and into the studio for 1976's 15 Big Ones and 1977's Love You failed to pique interest, Dennis Wilson's even hazier mix of nostalgia and over-the-hill ennui wasn't going to top the charts. And the disco novelty appeal of Droids is only superficial: Star Peace is fully-realized electronic music light years ahead of Studio 54, all wrapped around a utopian, sci-fi conceit.

For those that have heard the Beach Boys '70s work--especially sun-baked hodge-podge Surf's Up or Holland's muddy folk--Dennis Wilson's solo material isn't too much of a departure, but it's more focused and makes the group's implicit sadness really explicit. Every song on Pacific reaches as far as it can to make the listener feel what Wilson feels and although a few reach too far, the cumulative effect is devastating: 40 minutes of wistful songs that reside somewhere between pop brilliance and drunk-on-the-beach sing-along.

Musically, the album is similar to brother Brian's production wizardry but looser, more lived-in, with less interest in perfection. Instrumental suites stumble into place rather than flow seamlessly together. "Dreamer" is a lazy soul-funk vamp that, in lieu of a proper chorus, explodes into a jarring tangle of horns. For the song's verses, Wilson's coarse croon declares idealist platitudes such as "let the wind carry your blues away" but rhymes it with "that's all I'm trying to say," a resigned qualifier.

There's a bleary earnestness that makes it an almost too-personal listen. A painfully sincere letter to fans from Wilson published in the re-release's extensive liner notes contains the same murky regret as his lyrics: "This is my first solo album away from the Beach Boys. I'm sure you understand that I'm a bit nervous about this endeavor." Album highlight "Thoughts of You" is a heart-on-the-sleeve lament. It begins as piano-twinkle and mumbly vocals--Wilson in 1977 basically sounds like Brian on 2004's SMiLE--then breaks-out into multi-tracked voices repeating "All things that live, one day must die" and quickly crawls back into its shell for a final depressed coda.

"End of the Show" is a Beach Boys ballad, but the anchor is now Wilson's creepy drawl and some faint electronics. Toward the song's end, some crowd noise pops up, then fades out prematurely, and the album comes to a close: It's Wilson's foggy memory, looking back to the huge crowds and happier times of the previous decade.

On Star Peace, the Droids also look back to 1960s optimism, but they don't look back longingly. Despite the first-glance goofiness of the project and a deceiving "the '70s Daft Punk" tag on the re-release, the Droids' rigid space-funk is about as ironic as Dennis Wilson's white-soul wail. The Droids thread faded hippie ideals through future electronics to preserve for the next generation. Tellingly, the cover to Star Peace is an angular spaceship hurtling through space with a large peace-sign on top of it.

Inspired by the 1977 release of Star Wars, Yves Hayat (synthesizers and sequencers) formed Droids along with Richard Lornac on keyboards and Jean-Paul Batailley on drums and tablas. Two of the guys performed the single "(Do You Have) The Force" on French TV in 1977 dressed as robots--which could explain the Daft Punk comparison. Star Peace came out a year later, and then the Droids were out. The LP is sought after for its kitsch appeal but also killer electronics and good vibes.

Star Peace's connection to George Lucas' space-opera is essentially negligible. Except for a few signifiers, namely the two-part "(Do You Have) The Force" with its R2D2-ish synth squelches and blaster sounds, the whole thing has less to do with Star Wars and more to do with the big astral-plane ideas of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Droids' main asset is a sense of constant motion--propulsive, ever-shifting rhythm and arpeggios that slow down and build back up at twice the speed. Star Peace is essentially a 30-minute mix. "(Do You Have) The Force" makes way for the ominous synth gurgle of "Interspace," an interlude before the Darth Vader-on-muscle-relaxers hum of "Tchoung Fou." Then, after the brief calm, "Be Happy" bounces back and does pretty much whatever it wants. Proto-industrial buzz meets some cornball fusion keyboard work and at one point, out of nowhere, the song wanders into a Bo Diddley-esque chug.

The final track, "Renaissance De L'Amour," is an eight-minute whirl of electro ambience that ends with the exhilarating cries of a newborn baby. It's hard to know exactly what the baby cries mean--likely something about hope and rebirth--and bare-bones liner notes give little indication outside of the bio stuff about Star Wars inspiration and French TV, but the mystery fits Star Peace's stand-alone cohesion and the Droids' enigmatic group persona.

In contrast, the "legacy edition" of Pacific Ocean Blue explains and contextualizes everything, but the palpable weariness of Wilson still comes through clearer in the music. Included is an entire disc of songs from the abandoned follow-up Bambu--Wilson's alcoholism and 1983 drowning death prevented its completion--and it's another bittersweet mix of weary rock and morose piano.

Unlike most weirdo records finally on CD, these albums won't have you wondering what the fuss was about; semi-obscurity has done these albums no favors. As dusty LPs, they sell for too much on Ebay, thanks to the cult appeal of the goofy Beach Boys brother's solo album and an out-there space-craze disco cash-in. But in nicely packaged cases with remastered sound, listenability and emotions are the focus instead. In any decade, Wilson's tough-minded honesty and the Droids' starry-eyed sincerity would be hard to come by--and that's the real appeal here.

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