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The Story Behind The Song: The madness of The Beach Boys’ ‘Heroes and Villains’


How do you follow an album like Pet Sounds? That was a question that the entire music industry faced let alone The Beach Boys themselves. Nevertheless, Brian Wilson remained profoundly upbeat, not only stating, “Our new album will be better than Pet Sounds,” but even venturing, “It will be as much an improvement over Sounds as that was over Summer Days.”

Sadly, that wasn’t to be the case. In fact, it would seem that the battle to topple Pet Sounds left Brian Wilson and his cohort of crooners hoisted by their petard. You see, The Beatles had picked up on the magic of the record and how it wove technology into art and suddenly the feat wasn’t quite as Promethean. Thus, rather than refine the invention of the lightbulb with a lamp shade, they went looking for the next musical advancement. 

If Pet Sounds was the product of soul and layered sounds, then ‘Heroes and Villains’ would take layering even further. As Al Kooper recalled, the song derived from “a Wilson revamping of ‘You Are My Sunshine’.” Wilson would then twist it beyond recognition. Furthermore, in search of musical advancement, he would also try to create a sort of key-less sensation with the lyrical concepts. 

Together with Van Dyke Parks, they would weave a cartoonish tale of the Old West inspired by the likes of Marty Robbins and his song ‘El Paso’. However, even Wilson with his slightly wayward radar knew that wasn’t all that hip in the counterculture crowd so it would be lighthearted, jokey, irreverent, with perhaps a touch of the spiritualism that they couldn’t steer away from. In short, it would be a wild west mishmash.

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Wilson felt strongly about the concept. This musical comedy was going to be an opus. In fact, he even once recalled telling his father that it was going to be “better than ‘Good Vibrations’, something that you could never do. I don’t know why in the hell I said that.” In truth, this was a paradigm for how Wilson kept setting himself up for a fall with a head full of ideas… and acid. 

There was simply too much going on. From the simple riff of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ a whole odyssey of musical techniques and lyrical concepts were being thrown into the typical poppy three-minute mix. As Michael Vosse recalled of the night that it came together when Wilson was casually plodding through the classic tune on the piano: “It hit him, man, right then that he wanted a barn yard—he wanted Old MacDonald’s Farm—he wanted all that stuff.”

“So, he immediately got Van Dyke over and they did a chart for ‘You were my sunshine’.” It then went through endless iterations. With the lyrical guidance of Parks on hand, they strived for some depth to the tableau of the west. As Parks would later opine, “To me, ‘Heroes And Villains’ sounds like a ballad out of the Southwest. 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.”

Indeed, in its mad little way, it did. As such it remained one of the works from the ill-fated Smiley Smile that wasn’t completely scrapped. The dozens of musical sections might make for a manic listen, but on this occasion, they tesselate nicely and find a sense of creative joy in the disordered mind behind it.

Other songs would fall victim to this studio-sound clutter, but there was enough to the core of this simple country tune, at heart, to ensure it remains the best-received track from the period. Even if the astrological advice of a mystic meant that it was released a little too late, was beaten to the punch, and suffered commercially. 

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