Brian prepares to record the scotch tape dispenser solo
Listen -Beach Boys – Heroes and Villains – MP3
I hope everyone had a most excellent weekend. Aside from some lingering ill effects of a medical procedure on Friday (mostly fatigue) things were pretty cool, with a nice day and a family party on Saturday and chilling with the immediate family on Sunday.
I should preface this entry by admitting that although I always liked the Beach Boys – one of my first, and most played records was a copy of ‘Endless Summer’ – but as an adult, with more developed musical tastes, I always found myself somewhat suspicious of folks that were willing to rate the Wilsons et al on a level with the Beatles (same thing goes for folks that do that with the Kinks, the ne plus ultra of 60s fanboy antics*).
On the surface, it seems like an absurd position to take (I still kind of feel that way, if to a lesser degree) since the Beach Boys (or more accurately, Brian Wilson) would never have entered their experimental phase without the influence of the Beatles. I’ve wasted lots of valuable time debating this subject, and as long as there are those who deify Wilson in such a way I will continue to.
However, over the last 15 or so years I’ve taken the time to really dig into the Beach Boys, and come away with a deeper understanding – and appreciation – of Brian Wilson’s abilities as a maker of records, and writer of songs.
This is due in large part to an understanding of the far reaching influence of the Wall of Sound, from Phil Spector’s productions to those of his acolytes, like Jack Nitzsche, Brian Wilson and even Sonny Bono.
I’ve also come to understand that Wilson’s was a lonely artistic life. It’s not hard to see him as a proxy for Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron in that he was an exceedingly talented and gifted individual who was eternally, unfairly handicapped, first by the lingering influence of his tyrannical, abusive father, and then by the rest of the Beach Boys, or more accurately the image they carried with them. This is not to say that the rest of the group was useless, which they weren’t, but no one among them was in the same artistic universe as Brian**. Wilson – like Spector – put the workable parts of the rest of the Beach Boys (i.e. their harmonies) to their best use on his records, in much the same way as a carpenter might employ a nail. The nails being necessary to hold the house together still cannot take any credit for its creation.
He was similarly hobbled by his own psyche, which was deteriorating rapidly during his most creative period.
The song I bring you today is for me, the intersection of his pop sensibility and his more experimental leanings. ‘Heroes and Villains’, cowritten by Van Dyke Parks, and composed by Wilson in his storied living room sandbox. It is lyrically inscrutable (Parks) but musically accessible, psychedelic in a truly original way with bits and pieces of avant garde-isms working their way in from the margins.
‘Heroes and Villains’ – which was recorded more than once, developing further in its iterations – has a chugging rhythm, wrapped in a number of choral interludes (the largest contribution by the Beach Boys as a group, since they didn’t play on the single) and one moment of pure bliss. Following the aforementioned harmony break (during which Parks inserts a vague reference to the R&B classic ‘CC Rider’) , with the group working against what sounds like a harmonium, there is an avalanche of voices that seems to strain the sonic limits of the 45.
‘Heroes and Villains’ was supposedly the centerpiece of the aborted, and legendary ‘Smile’ album. It was recorded over several sessions in 1966 and 1967. There was a planned release on Capitol, before it was withdrawn and released as the first record on the Beach Boys own Brother label (where the production is very generously – and unbelievably – credited to the entire group). It was a Top 20 hit in the US (Top 10 in the UK). It was the last of Wilson’s big/experimental productions to chart respectably, probably due to his worsening condition.
As it stands, it’s a little pop masterpiece, more rough around the edges than the songs from Pet Sounds, but while it does indicate a deterioration of sorts, it’s also – at least musically – a positive by product.
If you haven’t heard Wilson’s (with Parks) 2004 resurrection/completion of the ‘Smile’ project, it is nothing less that a work of subtle genius, and (hopefully) an indication that the Brian Wilson of old is still in there somewhere. It includes a long form version of ‘Heroes and Villains’ that is positively sublime.
I hope you dig the tune, and I’ll be back later in the week with something groovy.
*Listen…I love me some Kinks, I think Ray Davies is a hell of a songwriter and the Kinks a great band, but they ain’t the Beatles.
**I’ve always liked Carl Wilson’s voice a lot, but still consider Mike Love to be one of the most useless individuals in the history of rock. One need only witness Love in his hippy Grizzly Addams persona, disinterestedly fiddling with the theremin on the Ed Sullivan show to realize the Beach Boys could have done very well without him.