Heroes & Villains – The Beach Boys
I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost & gone & unknown for a long long time…
This extraordinary creation was one of the songs on The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, one of the handful of LPs in our council house in Sussex in the mid 70s. The album pulled together all the big singles, and had a couple of interesting choices including this song, which we also had on 45rpm Capitol Records black label 7-inch from 1967 when it was released. My mum must have bought it – I was 10 years old in ’67.
Back in those days, The Beach Boys were a chart-pop act for me, even when Simon and I hitch-hiked around the USA in the summer of 1976 the great discovery was their greatest hits LP Endless Summer which contained songs I hadn’t heard before like Be True To Your School and the exquisite jewel Girls On The Beach. I had no interest or awareness in their LPs until I got to college later in 1976 and my girlfriend Mumtaz had the LP Holland from 1973. I think Surf’s Up (1971) was the next Beach Boys LP I was aware of, during the LSE days, but they remained a singles band for me apart from those two exceptions. Pet Sounds you ask ? Didn’t hear it – in full – until the early 1990s when Jenny and I were living in Los Angeles. Perhaps it was because they are the quintessential LA band that I bought the box-set Good Vibrations in 1993 in Amoeba Records – an Aladdin’s cave of musical treasure – and played it endlessly due to the immense discoveries thereon – including the Pet Sounds songs.
The 1966 LP Pet Sounds is for another post – but for now I’ll simply acknowledge it as an extraordinary piece of music – a deep, rich, carefully arranged and orchestrated work of delicate beauty, terrible sadness & infinite fascination. It was Beach Boy’s head honcho and songwriter Brian Wilson’s response to hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, an inspirational leap into the studio and the possibilities of playing pop music in a completely different way. The Beatle’s responded with Sgt Pepper, itself influenced by Pet Sounds, but while they were recording Pepper, Brian Wilson was working on his own follow-up to the Pet Sounds album. One of the problems for The Beach Boys was that Pet Sounds hadn’t shifted large numbers of units, and even today it is considered complex and less obvious than most of the music of 1966.
Brian salvaged his pure pop credentials with the single Good Vibrations in October ’66 which outsold the Beatles and won Single Of The Year in all the polls. This pop rivalry was pushing the respective songwriters to unheard-of peaks of creativity. Good Vibrations was recorded at four different studios in Los Angeles and endlessly polished before release – but it is an undoubted masterpiece which was Brian Wilson’s first installment on the Pet Sounds follow-up LP – to be called “Smile”. The album never came out. But the second single Heroes & Villains did – and it is another towering slice of baroque harmony pop which goes where no 7″ single has gone before. Apparently the bigwigs at Capitol Records in Hollywood weren’t impressed with it (??) and the start of Brian’s great mental decline can be measured from this song. Which kind of makes this a peak moment in 1967.
I’ve always been obsessed with Heroes & Villains. Jimi Hendrix called The Beach Boys ‘psychedelic barbershop‘, and some people took that as an insult. But it applies here. The vocal arrangement is second-to-none in a pop milieu. It sounds impossibly complex, but the Beach Boys would happily sing it live. They had a natural blend – three brothers and a cousin plus one mate – and in a live setting they could pull off the most beautiful layered harmonies either acapella or rockin’ out. The 1993 Good Vibrations box-set though had something else going on – at least 3 other songs called “Heroes & Villains” with different words, different tempos, different arrangements, little pieces of music using parts of the song like strands of sound, stunning piano shapes, harpsichord modulations, vocal experiments, percussive expressions, doo-wop, strings, animal noises, hand-claps, swoons, cantinas, laughs, a whole universe of sound. A series of clues. This was like a suite of songs all with the same title. It’s just a little bit mental. The final release of SMiLE in 2011 had over 30 tracks called Heroes & Villains.
Indulgent ? LSD ? Genius ? Or just unable to settle – a spasm in D minor which couldn’t be resolved. Probably all of these. Brian Wilson was mentally disintegrating as he was writing his greatest work, and the pressure to compete with Sgt Pepper, the lack of support from other band members and the record company, and Brian’s own inability to shape the endlessly brilliant pieces of music he was giving birth to into a coherent whole meant that the SMiLE project was finally ditched in May 1967. It wouldn’t surface again until 2004 when I saw the Brian Wilson band playing it live onstage at The Royal Festival Hall in London – a world premiere. I went to see it a further five times that week. It is clearly a masterwork in the pop medium, but apparently, isn’t as it was originally intended. Sadly no-one can remember what was originally intended least of all Brian himself. My own theories are centred on this song, it was clearly a musical thread which was to run throughout the work, but don’t forget that in those days all tape was analog and pieced together one part at a time – not like today’s digital world where we can shuffle pieces of music at the touch of a click and experiment with what sounds best. Brian had written and recorded a musical puzzle which no-one could put together. He spent the first few months of 1967 shaping Heroes & Villains into a reasonably regular pop song, and it remains a high water mark of musical joy.
Original artwork for the aborted SMiLE LP by Frank Holmes
In September 1967 a Beach Boys album called Smiley Smile was released, with Good Vibrations and Heroes & Villains on it, and a few survivors of the abandoned project. It is an average album, a cobbled-together record-company compromise, not a masterpiece, and not a Pet Sounds 2. It would be 2011 when Alan Boyd and Mark Linnett would finally put together the box-set The Smile Sessions with the Beach Boys approval. It is everything I hoped it would be, a fitting companion piece to Pet Sounds, and better in many ways, even more adventurous musically containing humour, American history (care of lyricist Van Dyke Parks) and the masterpiece Surf’s Up – a kind of choral farewell. Wilson called SMiLE ‘a teenage symphony to God‘ and I can’t better that LSD-drenched description.
Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson, Mike Love & Dennis Wilson in 1967
When Stephen Wrigley and I formed The Brighton Beach Boys in early 2002 we started with In My Room, Surfer Girl and Surfin’ USA. Joined by Glen Richardson, Adrian Marshall, Charlotte Glasson, Rob Breskal, Rory Cameron and Theseus Gerrard we did our first gig later that year, in the Hanbury Ballroom. Paul Gunter joined on percussion, Rob departed and Tom Arnold arrived. Andy Doe joined on French Horn, left and was replaced by Dom Nunns. We started doing some of the more complex songs. Wouldn’t It Be Nice. And Your Dream Comes True. And – yes : Heroes & Villains. Glen did all of our vocal arrangements and taught us the notes, and week by painstaking yet thrilling week we pieced the song together. I sang the lead part – it’s right in my range – and it’s the easiest part – and we wheeled it out one night in a live show. It brought the house down because it sounds so impossibly complex, Glen’s brilliant arrangement giving us each a specific vocal job. And the song itself is so thrilling, a rush of words and music. It was an absolute privilege to perform it each time we played live.
Charlotte, Adrian, Stephen, Stevie, me, Rory, Dom, Glen, Theseus – Herne Bay 26.08.06
Later on the band would be introduced to beat poet and lyricist Stephen J. Kalinich who wrote a number of songs with Dennis Wilson, and later with Brian too. Stevie was in England for a mini-tour, and he sat in on a BBB rehearsal then travelled to a gig with us in Herne Bay, Kent, which I’ll save for another post. But I’ve been friends with Stevie ever since and we always spend time together when I am in Los Angeles. He is a gentle and lyrical soul with a unique sensitivity to life which he expresses in words and poems.
Stevie in Los Angeles 2012
Again I will save Stevie for another post (see My Pop Life #169) but he introduced me to Mark Linnett while Stevie was living in his house in Glendale in 2009-2010. Stevie also introduced me to other members of the wider Beach Boys family including David Marks, guitarist on the first five LPs, Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford, Brian’s first wife and her husband Daniel, and also the wonderful Alan Boyd, The Beach Boys’ archivist and the only person that all former and current members actually talk to. Alan is a beautiful man with a fine collection of vintage celluloid and 1920s pop music and it was he who laboured night and day to put the final 2011 SMiLE Sessions Box-Set together, with Mark Linnett engineering. He won a totally-deserved Grammy for his pains. I’ve talked to Alan about the Heroes & Villains conundrum and he agrees that the musical pieces are the cornerstone of SMiLE but the many parts mean that it is impossible to know how to assemble it satisfactorily or otherwise. Alan has spent more time with this song than anyone since Brian Wilson in 1966-67, and I think it drove him a little bit bonkers trying to piece it all together. In the end Heroes & Villains takes up a whole side of vinyl on the box-set, its different parts laid out for us to all to hear and make of what we will. It is astonishing. Me – I always liked the original single, but Al Jardine always said that the actual original was way better. I’ll leave you with the Stereo Mix from the 2011 SMiLE Sessions. It’s a little bit like the one The Brighton Beach Boys used to sing live, and perhaps will again one day…