There aren’t many bands who are so intrinsically linked with their location as The Beach Boys are to California. Though The Beatles were always attached to the Cavern Club and the city of Liverpool, the truth is the group became global quickly enough that it simply became a note on their bio as the Fab Four found homes across the country. However, for The Beach Boys, the sunshine coast of California was in their make-up from the very beginning.
Aside from the slightly more vague nods to the west coast through songs like ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘Surfin’ Safari’, which relied heavily on the state’s love of the newly crowned sport of the rebels, there is, of course, the more obvious connections too like the classic ‘California Girls’. But there is also a lesser-known homage to the state; the band’s chronicling of Californian history with ‘Heroes and Villains’. The song would focus on the salad days of the state but, inadvertently, almost spell the end of the band.
If you’ve not heard the song before, you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself. Though the track was originally intended for The Beach Boys’ 1996 unfinished Smile project, it eventually found a spot on their 1967 record Smiley Smile. It saw the unique partnership of Brian Wilson, the band’s leader, and Van Dyke Parks combine as chief-lyricists as they attempted to write a comedy musical number about the history of California and surpass the work of ‘Good Vibrations‘ in the process.
The duo of Parks and Wilson would go on for some time, but this song acts as their inaugural moment in the limelight together. Parks later called the song “historically reflective” and a “visual effort”, saying it was meant to mirror the balladry of Marty Robbins as the lyrics looked at the brutal beginnings of California, including references to the state’s noted Spanish influence as well as Native Americans.
While Parks was an integral contributor to the song, the track had been in Wilson’s head for some time before he requested help from his friend. In a 2000 interview, frequent Beach Boys collaborator Al Jardine said the song had arisen from an impromptu scat singing session: “We all became instruments for Brian’s barbershop concept. He said, ‘Let’s all do this, let’s sing this idea.’ Carl would be one instrument, I’d be another. Mike would be another instrument. With none of us really being players, we would just scat in the car going to a show or something or going to school, anywhere.”
It would need Parks’ vision to turn the song into something more structured and befitting Wilson’s initial vision: “To me, ‘Heroes And Villains’ sounds like a ballad out of the Southwest,” he recalled. “That’s what it was intended to be—as good as any of those—and, really, to be a ballad. This Spanish and Indian fascination is a big chapter in Californian history, and that’s what it’s supposed to be—historically reflective, to reflect this place. I think it did it.”
Others, however, have suggested that the song is more a reflection of Wilson’s own thoughts rather than a history of the state he lived in. Wilson’s then-wife, Marilyn, said of the track: “There are so many screwed-up people in the music industry. The good guys and the bad guys…that’s one thing Brian had in mind when they did ‘Heroes and Villains.'” It’s a sentiment that Wilson’s biographer Peter Ames Carlin agreed with, saying the track was a projection of “all of the feelings sensed inside of himself…into vibrantly coloured, abstract glimpses into another parallel world.”
Such a complex and colourful construction may be why the song became Wilson’s most elaborate concoction. Though Parks claims most of the song was written in “one sitting”, Wilson endlessly toyed with the track across another 29 session dates, at an estimated cost of $40,000, which is roughly $310,000 when accounting for inflation. Wilson and Parks went through many different versions of the track, with as many as a dozen different versions apparently being constructed. It’s easy to see how Wilson would comment: “‘Heroes and Villains’ sent me on a whole trip. I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I went on a two-month bummer over that record.”
Eventually, the song’s intended resting place, the 1966 Smile project, was axed. While Wilson proclaimed most of the material from that album to be off-limits, he did allow for ‘Heroes and Villains’ to be re-recorded for their new album. However, Wilson still held on to the tapes for a little longer than he needed, only relinquishing them when his astrologer said it was the right time to do so.
The record was released on July 24, 1967, and plummeted compared to ‘Good Vibrations’. Commercially, the song was said to have removed all of the fans the band had gathered after Pet Sounds, which is a damning indictment considering the unique position from which it was made. The single would even lead Jimi Hendrix to give his own verdict on the band: “Don’t particularly like the Beach Boys. Makes me think of a psychedelic barbershop quartet!”
The song is also regarded as one of the moments which contributed to Wilson’s mental health decline. Seen as a failure, the track released to the public has been lambasted for not being anywhere as good as Wilson’s original. “When I first met Brian,” said Darian Sahanaja, a member of his touring band, “You couldn’t even mention the words ‘Heroes and Villains’; he’d turn around and walk away or he’d say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.'”
With revisions arriving in 2004 and 2011, the song has taken on a mythical status in the iconography of The Beach Boys. While it could have spelt the end of the band, they still marched on as a unit, delivering records and performances that would leave this song in the dust of history. However, there is no denying how easily this track could have meant the end of The Beach Boys.
For some, it remains the moment Wilson lost his mojo and quite possibly his mental health, whereas, for others, the track acts as a reflective piece of pop music writing that shines a light on one of the industry’s finest. For all, it should represent the very duality of life its title refers to.