I've been in this town so long
That back in the city
I've been taken for lost and gone
And unknown for a long long time.
Fell in love years ago
With an innocent girl
From the Spanish and Indian home,
Home of the heroes and villains.
Once at night
Cotillion squared the fight
And she was right in the rain of the bullets
That eventually brought her down.
But she's still dancing
In the night unafraid
Of what a dude'll do in a town
Full of heroes and villains.
Heroes and villains
Just see what you've done. (5x)
Stand or fall I know there
Shall be peace in the valley
And it's all an affair of my life
With the heroes and villains.
My children were raised
You know they suddenly rise.
They started slow long ago
Head to toe healthy wealthy and wise.
I've been in this town so long.
So long to the city.
I'm fit with the stuff
To ride in the rough
And sunny down snuff I'm alright
By the heroes and villains.
Heroes and Villains is reportedly the first song that Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks wrote together, and the first tracks of the song were recorded in October 1966. However, the song went through several rewrites, including a long version with a Cantina scene, before the single was released in July 1967. Several of these versions have been released on YouTube. The single version was the same as that on the Smiley Smile album. Heroes and Villains was originally a song to be included in the abandoned project SMiLE (which was re-recorded in a different version by Wilson in 2004). The single version of Heroes & Villains was arrived at after the SMiLE project was shelved in May 1967 (reportedly in reaction to the comparative merits of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). Sparser, under-produced versions of some of the songs for the SMiLE project were released on the album Smiley Smile in September 1967.
It seems to me that Heroes & Villains is an abstract chromatic composition, and required words of equal abstraction. Van Dyke Parks would prove to be one of the most extreme of the surrealistic lyric writers, taking his cue from his love of James Joyce's word play. Low on personal expression, or anything that an audience might personally identify with, the lyrics tumble along the chromatic shifts in the song and fall on felicitous rhymes which are usually of a humorous nature. Extremely complex harmonies between the verses seemed to require that the melody be broken into sounds without language. Jimi Hendrix famously dissed the record as the sound of a "psychedelic barber shop quartet", but a revival of this sort of the aesthetic can be found in the recordings of Panda Bear and Bon Iver in the new millennium. These days the problem of lyrics with complex musical arrangements is being solved by immersing the melody in reverb to such an extent that only parts of the lyric emerge to give impressionistic accents. This happens sometimes in Heroes & Villains as well (I never knew the chorus included the line Just see what you've done)--there are moments when looking at the written lyric helped me to hear words when I couldn't figure them out by ear. Even with the written lyric in front of me I still have to change it to make sense of it--instead of the reported Catallian (a Spanish family name), I think Parks wrote Cotillion, an 18th century dance which involves the formation of a square.
Heroes and Villains starts abruptly with the lyric, just like Good Vibrations, the Beach Boys' previous hit had done, without musical introduction. Most of the attention is on developing vocal tracks. The instrumental accompaniment seems to be limited to an organ, a harpsichord, and an occasional whistle--with a standard rock band accompaniment mixed very low in the background. According to the lyric, there is some tension between living in town in contrast to living in the city that was left long ago. The city is where the singer's Spanish & Indian love used to live. (Or was it the town before it grew to be a city?) The project of SMiLE was to collect folk Americana music together, and "long ago" in this instance seems to stretch into the Wild West era of the United States. Indeed for kids that had grown up with Westerns on TV, heroes & villains lived there more than anywhere else. The last verse seems to reflect that America is tougher, its children have grown head to toe healthy wealthy and wise because of its lawless past.
It is at this moment in the discussion of psychedelic music, upon the release of the Beatles' All You Need Is Love and the Beach Boys' Heroes and Villains, that a turning point seems to have been reached, at least for the first wave of the genre (dominated by baroque rock). It is as if with Strawberry Fields Forever, the first Beatle single since Love Me Do in 1963 to fail to top the charts in the UK since 1964, the group had learned experimental music needed to be relevant to its audience in some fashion in order to succeed, even if that group was the most popular in the world. With All You Need is Love (as well as the follow-up by Paul McCartney, Hello Goodbye) lyrics were written with the widest possible application. Unlike Good Vibrations, which had been a number one hit for the Beach Boys, there was little in the lyric to Heroes and Villains that the majority of the teenage audience that bought singles and listened to Top 40 radio could identify with. Yes, that young audience was drawn to new sounds (which explained the success of psychedelic music on the charts when the genre was fresh), but they weren't drawn to complexity. Heroes and Villains is all about complexity of composition, having neither relatable lyrics nor new sounds. The audience for complexity bought albums, as Sgt. Pepper had shown. However good a composition, the Beatles were wise enough to know Day in the Life wasn't made for Top 40 radio. Ironically, after the Beatles' Hello Goodbye, the next psychedelic song in this collection to reach the #1 spot wouldn't be until Sly & the Family Stone's Sing a Simple Song (its success admittedly riding on the back of the A side Everyday People). With Sing a Simple Song there's a lot of the vocal complexity heard in Heroes and Villains, but the song structure is more easily grasped and the lyrics are as open to interpretation as All You Need is Love.
Brian Wilson had composed one of the first coherent pop art albums with Pet Sounds. After abandoning the SMiLE project, he lost interest in making an album for decades. With the "failure" of Heroes and Villains to break into the American radio Top Ten, he also lost interest in making challenging music for the radio. The Beach Boys quickly became the first retro-group. On the charts, they recreated the "good ole days" of surf music. Their only number one hit in the U.S. after Good Vibrations wouldn't be until 22 years later, when the surf music of Kokomo reached a new generation unfamiliar with the genre's first wave. On albums, Wilson would eke out until 1971 complex baroque cuts with lyrics by Van Dyke Parks from the SMiLE project, effectively demonstrating "the road not taken" by the genre. The Summer of Love took the wind out the Beach Boys' sails, and with the exception of Til I Die, Brian Wilson would not write psychedelic music again. In the immediate future, psychedelic music would gain inspiration less from baroque rock and more from the hard rock of Cream and most of all, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.