Monday, February 11, 2013

Beach Boys -- "Heroes and Villains" (1967)

I've been in this town so long 
That back in the city
I've been taken for lost and gone

Brian Wilson had a large sandbox in his living room, with a piano right in the middle of it.  That's where he composed his magnum opus, "Heroes and Villains."  

The previous Beach Boys single, "Good Vibrations," was an astonishing creation that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Brian Wilson was a pop-music genius -- perhaps the pop-music genius.  

"Heroes and Villains" raised the ante considerably.  It is a musical extravaganza that exceeds anything that Wilson created before or after.  (I would be amiss not to mention Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the lyrics for "Heroes and Villains.")

Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks
I think that "A Day in the Life" -- which was released at about the same time as "Heroes and Villains" -- was the greatest single musical accomplishment of the Beatles.  It may be a more profound work of art than Wilson's song, but it can't hold a candle to "Heroes and Villains" when it comes to sheer musical beauty.  

Unfortunately, "Heroes and Villains" was the beginning of the end for Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.  The song was the planned centerpiece of Smile, the never-released album that was intended to be the follow-up to Pet Sounds, and which Wilson hoped would cause the world to put the Beach Boys on an artistic par with the Beatles.  

Wilson began work on Smile in August 1966, promising to deliver the album in January 1967.  But Wilson's increasingly heavy use of LSD and other drugs and increasingly fragile mental state (characterized by depression and paranoia), combined with dissension within the group (Mike Love was supposedly especially antagonistic to Wilson and Parks), doomed the Smile project.  

The album's projected release date was postponed several times, and the project was officially shelved in May 1967 -- only a few weeks before the release of Sgt. Pepper

There's a rumor that Wilson heard a tape of "A Day in the Life" and other Sgt. Pepper material before the album was officially released, and that Smile was abandoned because he felt that it would suffer by comparison to the Beatles album.  (Van Dyke Parks later said that Sgt. Pepper "broke [Wilson's] heart.")

The 2004 Smile cover
Bootlegs of various Smile songs began to circulate in the 1990s, and Wilson and Parks eventually released Brian Wilson Presents Smile in 2004.  In 2011, Capitol Records released a box set titled The Smile Sessions, which was an attempt to present something close to the album as it might have been released in 1967, plus a lot of archival material from the original Smile recording sessions.

I own Brian Wilson Presents Smile, but I don't think I've listened to it all the way through more than once or twice.  Somehow I'm just not that interested -- too much time has passed, or perhaps I'd really prefer that this legendary album had remained legendary rather than being released so many years after its music was created.

The Brian Wilson album includes a longer version of "Heroes and Villains" that includes what has come to be known as "the cantina scene."  Some believe that a much longer version of the 1967 single exists that includes not only the cantina scene, but a segment known as "bicycle rider" and other material as well.

Here's the Brian Wilson Presents Smile version of "Heroes and Villains":

The Smile Sessions box set includes over an hour of "Heroes and Villains"-related material recorded on as dozen different recording sessions between October 1966 and June 1967.

Here's track 22 off the first CD of The Smile Sessions, which strings together various "Heroes and Villains" segments -- it's a big mess, but it's also amazing:

I prefer the three-and-a-half-minute 1967 single of "Heroes and Villains" to any of the alternate versions that have been subsequently created or released.  (At some point, less is more -- and that's why Pet Sounds is better than Smile could have been.)  The single made it to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100, but seemed like an utter flop compared to the Beach Boys' previous single, "Good Vibrations," which was a #1 hit.  

Mike Love called the song "a nuclear disaster," which it certainly wasn't.  But the song was comparable to the neutron bomb, which was designed to maximize the release of radiation rather than explosive energy.  Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev famously called the neutron bomb a "capitalist bomb" because it would kill people but leave buildings standing.  The "failure to launch" of "Heroes and Villains" left Brian Wilson standing, but killed his artistic confidence.  

Here's the 1967 single version of "Heroes and Villains":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. "Heroes and Villains" is a favorite when the Chaos Band does a Beach Boys tribute session (they also do a great cover on "Good Vibrations"). The ultimate Beach Boys tribute CD is "Long Promised Road", which covers songs written by Carl and Dennis (some never released as recordings). It also has songs by Alan Boyd (who just won a Grammy!!) and the only recorded version of Evie's "Don't Look Back (Don't Look Down)" plus Evie's 21st Century version of "I Can't Let Go". The whole CD was recorded live at Brennan's Pub in Marina del Rey, and I was there. I had spent the day at the Railway Museum, and when I told my wife I was going off to the AMCB gig, she said "You're crazy!" But I wouldn't have missed that show if someone had offered me a cab ride in a Santa Fe steam engine.