“They say I live a fast life. Maybe I just like a fast life. I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. It won’t last forever, either. But the memories will…” – Dennis Wilson
In the annals of American drum history perhaps no one is more overlooked than The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson. Known more for his good looks than his chops, Dennis was an intricate part of the band’s live rhythm section. Coming from a musical family, he was originally made the band’s reluctant drummer by his multi-talented brother Brian. Dennis took to the instrument quickly and learned the fundamentals of drumming at school lessons. Music teacher Fred Morgan later referred to him as “a beater, not a drummer but a fast learner when he wanted to learn.” The rest of his abilities were honed “on the job.” As with many drummers of the time, and even today, studio musicians performed the recorded version of the drums with the band member taking over for live performances. Brian realized Dennis’s limited drumming technique early on and, as the mid-60s approached, he often hired virtuoso Hal Blaine to perform on studio recordings. Many of them became hits.
Dennis selflessly bowed to more experienced players for the good of the band, but still played with an infectious energy on stage that often drew screams of the girls who witnessed it. He eventually developed his own sticking-style prompting a New Musical Express writer to use the phrase, “as crisp as a Dennis Wilson rim shot.” Ricky Fataar, a substitute drummer for the Beach Boys, once described Dennis Wilson’s playing: “He can’t roll or do fancy fills, but he can play out a backbeat, which is what their old records are all about.” Dennis was also an early endorser of Camco Drums. As a smaller manufacturer Camco almost entirely missed the rock music wave, picking up only a small handful of high-profile players like Dennis. His endorsement helped to keep the company afloat. Although he rarely sang backing vocals on stage, occasionally taking a lead, his raspy-sounding vocals were a key ingredient to the group’s vocal blend in the studio. Tragically Dennis struggled with alcoholism and accidentally drowned at the age of 39.
Here is an early concert from 1964 showcasing Dennis’ simple, surf-infused drumming: