Brian Wilson intended "Heroes and Villains" to eclipse the Beach Boys' previous number one hit "Good Vibrations", taking inspiration from Phil Spector's productions of "River Deep - Mountain High" and "The Bells of St. Mary's" — specifically the former's bass line. Composed in early May 1966 mostly in a large sandbox holding a piano built in Brian's living room, "Heroes and Villains" was the first collaboration between Wilson and Van Dyke Parks in tandem with the later-to-be-excised "Barnyard" and "I'm in Great Shape". When Wilson first played the melody 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."
Then-wife Marilyn Wilson said: "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.'" The song was thought to have been written about the Vietnam War, but Parks clarified: "'Heroes And Villains' had nothing to do with Vietnam, but with the Indian thing we were trying to exculpate our guilt, to atone for what we had done to the aborigines of our own place. There’s a lot of things about belief in Smile, and its very question of belief is what was plaguing Brian at that time. What should we keep from the structure that we had, the hard-wiring that we had with religion? He had religion beat into him, and I did in my own way, too. So there’s a lot of thinking about belief, and you can hear it in the section with 'Child Is Father of the Man'." Although "Heroes and Villains" was originally written as a standalone song, it eventually led to the creation of more Western-themed music associated with the Smile album, including references to eggs and grits, barnyards, cabins, and railroads.
Despite its early genesis, the recording of the song was a difficult and protracted process. Wilson halted work on the other Smile tracks at the end of 1966 and concentrated on producing a version of "Heroes and Villains" for single release. However, despite holding at least 20 recording sessions for the song over a period of several months and assembling several different edits of the track, he was unable to complete the work to his satisfaction until after the May 1967 announcement that Smile had been shelved. It underwent many changes during its production, and countless discrete pieces were obviated from the final edit. Vocal arrangements were recorded, discarded, and remade throughout its sessions.
The first attempt at tracking "Heroes and Villains" was on May 11, 1966 (2:45 in length), and was deemed unsatisfactory and subsequently taped over; it apparently included "My Only Sunshine" as a section of the song according to one of the session musicians.
In January 1967, the Beach Boys recorded a cappella sections labelled "Do a Lot", "Mission Pak", "Bridge to Indians", "Pickup to 3rd verse", "Children Were Raised", and "Whistling Bridge". Instrumentals entitled "Bag of Tricks", "Part 1 Tag", and "All Day" were also recorded, and so was a keyboard/vocal section called "Bicycle Rider". "Cantina", recorded between January and February 1967, was an unused section of "Heroes and Villains" that lasts about 30 seconds. It was projected to serve as a bridge between the second verse and the "Children Were Raised" section. The instrumentation features prominent use of a tack piano arranged in the style of old Western saloons. February and March saw the recording of stylistically diverse sections entitled "Fade", "Organ Waltz/Intro", "Prelude to Fade", "Part 2", "Part 3", "Part 4", and the song's "piano theme". The backing track for the song's verses was also remade in February, but was quickly discarded.
Capitol Records had scheduled January 13, 1967 as the release date for the single. Al Jardine believed that Brian sabotaged the song once it was destined for Smiley Smile.
After Smile was scrapped, the remainder of the track was worked on throughout June. The month's sessions involved scaling down sections such as "Prelude" and "Children Were Raised", into "Barbershop" and "Children Were Raised (2nd Version)". June's sessions were largely sourced for the song's final edit, which included revised vocals and Baldwin organ overdubs. The final edit also sources the verse backing track recorded on October 20, 1966 and the chorus backing track recorded on February 27, 1967.
A piece recorded by the group on December 15, 1966 entitled "You're Welcome" was chosen as the B-side to the July "Heroes and Villains" single. It is a chant sung by the Beach Boys over a thumpy background track featuring a glockenspiel and a floor tom, with a runtime lasting only 1:08. In 1967, Mike Love said of the piece: "[It's] incredible. The title is 'You’re Welcome'. No other lyrics. I don’t know how Brian did it, but there’s no accompaniment. 'Heroes and Villains' is going to be released as the first single on our new label, Brother Records…We are finishing it [the album] now." Terry Melcher was present for the public debut of "Heroes and Villains," as he recollects:
Brian was holding onto this single, like: "All right, world – I've got it," and waiting for the right time. He felt it was important to wait for the right time. It was a good record. This woman, I guess she was an astrologer–of sorts–she came by Brian's house. She said to him, "Brian – the time is right." He was waiting for the word from this woman to release the record, I guess. So he said, "All right." He called the whole group. It was like: 'OK. Look. Here it is.'A small disk, you know. Seven inches. It was very solemn, very important. Weighty. A heavy situation. It was all, "Brace yourself – for the big one." All the group had those limos. And there was a caravan of Rolls-Royces taking the record to KHJ. He was going to give the station an exclusive, just give it to them without telling Capitol. We got to the gate of KHJ. The guard wouldn't let us in. A little talking, a little hubbub, a little bullshit. The guard was finally intimidated enough by four or five Rolls-Royce limousines to open his gate. We got in the building, got to the disc jockey who was presiding over the turntable. It was pretty late, probably around midnight. Brian said, "Hi, I'm Brian Wilson, here's the new Beach Boys single. I'd like to give you and KHJ an exclusive on it." And this asshole turned around and he said: "Can't play anything that's not on the playlist." And Brian almost fainted. It was all over. He'd been holding the record, waiting for the right time. He'd had astrologers figuring out the correct moment. It really killed him. Finally they played it, after a few calls to the program director or someone, who screamed, "Put it on, you idiot." But the damage to Brian had already been done.
Wilson is said to have had enormously high hopes for "Heroes and Villains" as the follow-up single to the Beach Boys' previous "Good Vibrations". When the single failed to significantly replicate the success of "Good Vibrations", it destroyed his self-imposed competitive rivalry to The Beatles. According to Jack Rieley, Wilson would often recount in "agonizing detail" about how "Heroes and Villains" was supposed to lift the Beach Boys' public image from "surfing/car songs" to being perceived on "creative par with the Beatles". Wilson interpreted the failure of "Heroes and Villains" as an ultimate rejection by the public to his musical growth and artistry. Mike Love would go on to call "Heroes" as "the last dynamic Brian moment".
Upon its release and reflective of the general reaction, the single was purportedly dismissed as a "psychedelic barbershop quartet" by seminal rock figure Jimi Hendrix. British rock journalist Nik Cohn wrote in 1970: "It was good that [Wilson] should progress, that he should attempt outside his depth. But he took himself too solemnly, he was mildly megalomaniac about it all. Almost, he was ashamed of pop. He got snob. Running so fast and precious, his hat got away from his head." He then explained that the nature of pop music forces a stalemate on artists who wish to be experimental, because "pop is always teen music", and "the people who finally buy their records, are maybe sixteen years old, and by no means hooked on experiment". In 2012, Eric Luecking of NPR said that while "Heroes and Villains" was more adventurous than "Good Vibrations", listeners could not relate to the song's lyrics, which obscured the single's legacy.
The intended "Heroes And Villains" single was originally assigned as Capitol 5826 and issued with a white picture sleeve showing six pictures of the group members. However, Brian Wilson was still experimenting and creating further concepts for the song, thus the Capitol single was never pressed. By the time of the final single mix, the Beach Boys created their own Brother label and issued "Heroes and Villains" as its first single (Brother 1001) with the cartoon picture sleeve. The picture sleeve for the unreleased Capitol single is a rare, highly sought item among Beach Boys collectors.
An innumerable amount of alternate edits of the song exist; several so far have seen release. One Smile-era version was released as a bonus track on the Beach Boys Smiley Smile/Wild Honey two-fer in 1990. A 2001 stereo mix appears on Hawthorne, CA. On the Endless Harmony Soundtrack, there is a demo of the song which incorporates "I'm in Great Shape" and "Barnyard". In 2011, The Smile Sessions were released containing many alternate mixes of the song, plus extensive session highlights.
The song was part of "The Cocaine Sessions", an informal name for recordings made between Brian and Dennis Wilson circa November 1982.
As a solo artist, Wilson recorded a new version of "Heroes and Villains" for his 2004 album Brian Wilson Presents Smile.
There have been persistent rumors of a far longer two-part edit, reputedly running for six, seven or even ten minutes, and that this edit was intended for single release, split across the two sides of a single entitled "Heroes and Villains: Part One" and "Heroes and Villains: Part Two". Author Domenic Priore has said that when he questioned engineer Chuck Britz on the matter, he revealed that Wilson intended the 1990 variation to have served as the single's A-side, while the B-side was to have been three "Heroes and Villains" vocal chants strung together. During the 1960s, double-sided singles with different takes or different parts of the same song were common, and had been executed by Bob Dylan with "Like a Rolling Stone" and even Parks with "Donovan's Colours". These rumors have been said by some to have been a falsehood purported by Priore. However, it is possible that this rumored long edit, if it exists, may in fact have been an acetate disc meant to showcase different fragments of the song for Wilson's friends and family. A newly constructed two-part edit was packaged as a bonus 7" vinyl for the limited box set edition of The Smile Sessions.
In late 1967 during sessions for the unreleased live album Lei'd in Hawaii, the Beach Boys recorded a stripped down live-in-the-studio version of "Heroes and Villains". Later, Mike Love and Brian Wilson would overdub this version with a self-deprecating monologue satirizing the song, with Love calling "Heroes and Villains" a "nuclear disaster" and that "being basically masochists, [The Beach Boys] kind of enjoyed having this record bomb." Love also assures the listener that "it's all in fun," despite it harshly criticizing Wilson's musical ability and commercial shortcomings; the recording ends with Love thanking the listener for coming to the Beach Boys' stage performance and throwing objects at the group. Although the track was meant to be taken lightheartedly, it can be interpreted as a reflection of Wilson's extremely low self-confidence as a musician at the time.
The Beach Boys have released four different live versions of the song: on The Beach Boys in Concert; on Good Timin': Live at Knebworth, England 1980, as part of a medley with "Cotton Fields"; on the Endless Harmony Soundtrack, and also on the Beach Boys Concert/Live in London twofer, as a bonus track. It is also on Al Jardine's Live in Las Vegas album. While Brian was absent from the touring section of the group, Jardine sang lead on this song. "Heroes and Villains" was included in the Beach Boys' 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour in 2012 with Brian on lead, and was cited as one of the concert highlights.The Beach Boys
Mike Love – harmony and backing vocals
Al Jardine – harmony and backing vocals
Bruce Johnston – harmony and backing vocals
Brian Wilson – lead, harmony and backing vocals
Carl Wilson – harmony and backing vocals
Dennis Wilson – harmony and backing vocals
Hal Blaine – drums
Carol Kaye – bass
Lyle Ritz – string bass
Larry Knechtel – harpsichord
A brief adaptation of the 1953 song "Gee" by the Crows was recorded by the Beach Boys to serve as an introduction to an unused "Heroes and Villains" vocal motif involving the band singing the lyrics "dit — dit — dit — heroes and villains" in unison. With its master tape labelled "Heroes and Villains: Part 2", the Beach Boys recorded follow-up variations of the piece entitled "Part 3" and "Part 4" with no specific designation on how it would fit in sequence within the song's final edit. However, the outro consisted of the equivalent horn outro heard in The Smile Sessions main version of "Heroes and Villains", signifying a suitable lead-on to "Heroes and Villains" on the main album.
"I'm in Great Shape" and "Barnyard" were both considered for inclusion in "Heroes and Villains". Within surviving acetates unearthed in 2013, it's evident that Brian Wilson experimented with incorporating recorded sections of "I'm in Great Shape" as part of the projected "Heroes and Villains" single. A number of arrangements for "I'm in Great Shape" were attempted, each featuring significantly different instrumentation. Lyrics were penned for both songs, but never recorded by the group on recordings which have survived. However, "Barnyard" does feature animal noises roared by Wilson's Smile coterie. Participant Danny Hutton recalls: "Actually, the girl I was going with, June Fairchild, she was making all these noises. That was before the Beatles did 'Good Morning Good Morning'." In reference to both songs, Parks said:
"Eggs and grits and lickety-split, I’m in the great shape — of the agriculture." Obviously Brian had come up with some more notes there, so the lyrics once again are following the notes. He decided not to include those notes or that section in "Heroes And Villains", but put them in another place later. But it’s interesting how there was, all of a sudden, this turning to eggs and grits. It’s because it had something to do with the thought of a barnyard, and that related to that place we were trying to come up with in "Heroes And Villains". All those lyrics were visual efforts.
Brian stated at one point that there were intentions for what was known as "The Barnyard Suite", explaining: "[It] was going to be four songs—in four short pieces—combined together, but we never finished that one. We got into something else." In his 2004 live performances of Smile, "I'm in Great Shape" begins the third movement of the album, but on The Smile Sessions, it is presented earlier in the first movement as the link between "Do You Like Worms?" and "Barnyard". Brian Wilson Presents Smile music director Darian Sahanaja has explained:
Starting the third movement with "I'm in Great Shape" was probably a performance decision. I always felt that this song building into a feedback frenzy and breaking into "I Wanna Be Around" and "Workshop" was the disoriented, reality defying portion of the performance. Shaking things up and slightly derailing before getting back on track—as if a metaphor for life. It seemed to fit for those reasons. However, the tape session research shows that it was definitely part of the "Heroes and Villains" variations, and so the decision [with The Smile Sessions] was to keep it within that context.
A medley of the traditional pop standards "The Old Master Painter" and "You Are My Sunshine" was recorded and considered for inclusion in "Heroes and Villains" under the label "My Only Sunshine". On "My Only Sunshine", Dennis and Brian Wilson bookend the lead vocals. The ending of "My Only Sunshine" is stylistically similar to a scrapped closing section for "Heroes and Villains", which ended up being restored in The Smile Sessions.
During the recording which was engineered by Larry Levine and produced by Brian, the latter remarked that the session players should play as though they're far away, as the lyric suggests. Tying into the persistent spiritual themes in Smile, "The Old Master Painter" suggests God in the lyrics "painted the violets and the daffodils" and "then came his masterpiece and when he was through he smiled down from heaven and he gave me you". "You Are My Sunshine" ends with a string section descending to a low discordance where Brian used the adjectives "snappy" and "draggy" to instruct session players.
When asked about "My Only Sunshine" in 2004, Parks could not remember having been involved with it.
"Do You Like Worms?" contains prominent sections of the "Heroes and Villains" theme. In addition, the tracks "Vega-Tables" and "Love to Say Dada" began life as an interpolated section for "Heroes and Villains".1997 – Forms, Smiling Pets
2000 – Malcolm Ross, Caroline Now!
2000 – Gary Usher, Add Some Music to Your Day: 1970 Symphonic Tribute to Brian Wilson (as "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter / Good Vibrations / Heroes and Villains")
2002 – Phil Madeira, Making God Smile
2011 – Salyu, s(o)un(d)beams+ (as "Our Prayer ~ Heroes And Villains")