While most musical "experts" seem to agree that SMiLE was the finest work by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, I find myself, to paraphrase Paul Ryan, just "not there" yet. But that's okay; I remember how Pet Sounds was an acquired taste back when I discovered it sometime in the mid-1970s. (That's probably considered their second-best album. While I've come to like it, I still prefer the earlier stuff about girls, surfing and cars. Sue me.)
But one song that's really catchy from SMiLE is "Heroes and Villains." Originally released as a single in 1967, the song had "an innumerable amount of alternate edits," according to Wikipedia.
The Beach Boys did at least 20 recording sessions for this song over a period of several months, as Brian Wilson was very particular about it. Sections known as "Cantina Scene" and "Bicycle Rider" were dropped, although The Beach Boys often included them in live performances of the song.
What the heck is it about? Good question.
Written in collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, Wilson has called SMiLE "a teenage symphony to God."
It is generally acknowledged that Wilson and Parks intended "SMiLE" to be explicitly American in style and subject, a conscious reaction to the overwhelming British dominance of popular music at the time. It was conceived as a musical journey across America from east to west, beginning at Plymouth Rock and ending in Hawaii, traversing some of the great themes of modern American history and culture including the impact of white settlement on native Americans, the influence of the Spanish, the Wild West and the opening up of the country by railroad and highway. Some historical events touched upon range from Manifest destiny, American imperialism, westward expansion, the Great Chicago Fire, and the Industrial Revolution.
When Wilson first played the melody [of "Heroes and Villains"] to him, Parks devised the opening line on the spot, modeling its lyrics in the style of Marty Robbins' "El Paso." Wilson credits Parks with the title, while Parks credits Wilson, explaining: "I think he made that up. I think it was a great title, and he suggested it. 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."
Though the lyrics are distinctly Western with some allusions to the American Indian genocides, former wife Marilyn Wilson claimed that Brian meant the "heroes" and "villains" to represent the ones in his life.
Either way, it's a good tune.
P. S. In my final semester of college I had to turn in a ten-page term paper on the last Friday of some class I was taking. We also had to take the final exam that same day and the grades needed to be turned in to the registrar's office by the following Monday. I remember thinking at the time that there was no way the professor could possibly read all those papers and correct all those finals (which were essays in blue books) in one weekend. So I decided to have a little fun and wrote smack-dab in the middle of my paper, "I can't believe you're actually reading this." He circled it in red.
And the moral of the story is, I wonder if anyone is actually reading any of these recent posts on the Beach Boys. If so, thanks for indulging me.