Van Dyke Parks was already a major figure in the LA music scene before he started working with Brian Wilson, being involved in one way or another with Tim Buckley, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Mothers of Invention, but he was unknown outside the music scene — a genius looking for the right vehicle for his abilities. He needed a collaborator who would let him shine.
Brian Wilson, on the other hand, was looking for a different kind of collaborator. He’d been making music that was steadily growing more complex, but he wasn’t a great lyrical thinker. All his songs had been about four subjects — cars, girls, fun at the beach, and existential angst, mixed in varying amounts — and whenever he’d worked with outside lyricists they’d stuck to those topics too. But now he had his sights set on a bigger goal. He was going to make an album greater than anything he’d ever done — even greater than Pet Sounds, an album recorded in the same way as Good Vibrations. It was going to be a teenage symphony to God, and no matter how good Mike Love or Roger Christian or Jan Berry had been at writing lyrics about hot rods and girls in bikinis, none of them were right for this new project, and so, acting mostly on instinct, Wilson turned to the man Terry Melcher had introduced him to, who seemed to have the verbal skills he lacked.
The two started work on an ambitious project, at first called Dumb Angel and later to be called Smile. So many myths have grown up around this album in the intervening decades that separating truth from fiction is almost impossible, but one thing we definitely know is that from the start, a highlight of the album was going to be Heroes & Villains.
The song was apparently written together by Wilson and Parks on the first night they collaborated — and already here the myths already start to creep in, because that night they are also supposed to have written Surf’s Up, Cabinessence and Wonderful, which would make it possibly the most artistically productive night’s work of all time, given that at least two of those songs have as good a claim as any to the title of best song ever written. But what we do know is that Wilson had a title, Heroes & Villains, which was quite possibly just a working title in his head, much as California Girls had been called You’re the Lawn and I Am the Mower, and he played a simple vamp on the piano while playing a descending scalar melody which reminded Van Dyke Parks of El Paso by Marty Robbins, and Parks immediately responded with the line “I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time…”
What eventually emerged from that writing session was a deceptively simple song, at least musically — a three-chord verse with a stepwise melody, and a chorus that was based around a musical idea that was obsessing Wilson at the time and would recur throughout the Smile sessions — a two-chord riff (similar intervals to the Good Vibrations chorus, but a tone lower, and with the first chord in the riff being minor rather than major) repeated, which then moves up a whole tone (as in both Good Vibrations and California Girls).
But that musical simplicity gave the song an infinite mutability, allowing Van Dyke Parks’ wonderful lyrics to tell their psychedelic cowboy story while Brian Wilson threw every musical idea possible into the arrangement.
Listening to the session recordings, we hear attempts at Western film soundtrack music, baroque pastiche, lounge music, barbershop, doo-wop and more, as Wilson pulled together ideas. The eventual result, released as a single more than a year after Wilson started working on the track in the studio, included a verse backing track taken almost note for note from Phil Spector’s production of Save The Last Dance For Me for Tina Turner, a dazzling contrapuntal vocal section that Wilson had been teaching the band members since 1961, and whole sections where almost all the “instrumentation” is actually the Beach Boys’ voices. It was a masterpiece, even though it only got to number 12 in the US charts, and essentially marked the end of their career as a commercial force.
Because Heroes & Villains was, for a long time, the only publicly-available evidence that Smile even existed. Wilson and Parks had written a set of songs as good as any ever written to that time, and Wilson had recorded exquisite backing tracks for many of them. Vocals had been recorded for about half the tracks. But the album was left unfinished.
Many reasons have been put forward for this. Van Dyke Parks (probably the only person involved in all the sessions who has both an undamaged memory and a reputation for honesty) puts the blame squarely on Mike Love, who disliked many of Parks’ lyrics, thinking the band should be doing more relatable material. Others have blamed Brian Wilson’s drug intake and mental problems, personal difficulties between Wilson and Parks, Wilson second-guessing himself to the point he didn’t know how to make the record work, legal problems between the band and Capitol records, the music industry moving on so Smile felt outdated before it was even released, and other far more unlikely scenarios. Wilson himself simply says “it was inappropriate music for us to be making”.
Instead, the band released Smiley Smile, an utterly lovely, gentle, album of stoned fragments, Smile material reworked into hippy nursery rhymes, and novelty songs, with Heroes & Villains and Good Vibrations thrown in for good measure. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t Smile, and it was utterly, completely, uncommercial — it was outsider music, not the work of a band who the year before had been beating the Beatles as best band in the NME’s polls.
The Beach Boys had committed career suicide, and while the next few years would be their most artistically fulfilling, they would, at least in the US, be has-beens from this moment on.
Heroes & Villains
Composer: Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks
Line-up: (NB, this lineup contains everyone who played on any of the sessions that were used for the final master. Some of them may not appear on the sections used.)
Brian Wilson (vocals, keyboards,percussion), Carl Wilson (vocals), Dennis Wilson (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Al Jardine (vocals), Mike Love (vocals), Billy Hinsche (backing vocals) Carol Kaye (guitar), Bill Pitman (bass), Lyle Ritz (bass), Van Dyke Parks (keyboards), Jim Gordon (drums), Gene Estes (percussion, whistle), George Hyde (French horn)
Original release: Heroes & Villains/You’re Welcome, The Beach Boys, Brother 1001
Currently available on: Smiley Smile/Wild Honey, Capitol/EMI CD
Do you prefer the studio take, or the live versions they did of the song during the early 70s?
Studio, without question. Al does a great job on the live lead, but the 70s concert version, while fun, sort of bludgeons it into submission.
The studio version is certainly more artsy and creative, but I think the concert version makes the song more accessible. I guess I like both equally.