Forty-five years ago this week at United Western Recorders, near Sunset and Vine in Los Angeles, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, along with a radio interviewer, were hanging out in a studio with a grand piano, a microphone and a work in progress called “Heroes and Villains.”
Wilson and the disc jockey were discussing the band’s 1966 artistic breakthrough that culminated that spring in “Pet Sounds.” “This is the year that was,” said Wilson, then 24. “We blossomed.”
The conversation is captured on “The Smile Sessions,” a comprehensive box set that Capitol Records just issued last week. It’s the first time many of these recordings have been officially released, and the collection gives invaluable insight into one of the seminal and storied studio sessions in pop music’s history.
On a tape from the set, Wilson, piano before him, has just explained the importance of repetition so that the music “gets really emblazoned in your mind.” The singer, songwriter and producer had been working on “Heroes and Villains” for the last few weeks with the rest of the Beach Boys and some of the city’s great instrumentalists. He screams out Parks’ name -- “Hey, Van!” -- then kicks into the rolling piano rhythm of the song. He hits the keys hard, repeating the melody a few times, and what bursts out could be an early Philip Glass piece or a Ronettes jam. “I think this is a beautiful feeling,” he says.
If you’ve heard “Heroes and Villains,” chances are it’s through the fully orchestrated version as later issued or in the wind-sprint opening sequence in Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” or through the lesser rendition Wilson created alongside Parks in 2004. Originally imagined during a tempestuous artistic period for the group’s then-troubled mastermind, who rose in the early ‘60s with his brothers and cousin as the Beach Boys and crafted one of the most celebrated pop albums of the ‘60s in “Pet Sounds,” “Heroes and Villains” even in its most skeletal, earliest form, has an undeniable magnetism.
As is well known in musical lore, Wilson was pushed to the edge of sanity while creating the songs on “Smile.” When he got resistance from fellow members of the band, Wilson, drifting further from reality, pulled the plug.
“Truly,” writes Wilson in an essay on the project for the new box set, “my creative heart was broken. The music that was deepest in my soul had stayed there. Locked away.” In 2004, he and lyricist Parks partly unlocked it when the team reconvened to make a finished version of the album by re-recording the parts, adding structure, and sequencing the tracks in a logical order to create “Brian Wilson presents ‘Smile,’” released on Nonesuch Records. But this archival Capitol stuff, issued as a two-CD collection and a five-CD/hard-bound book/session masters deluxe box, nearly renders that 2004 effort moot.
This is especially true of the latter $370 deluxe offering, which presents the pieces of the puzzle that Wilson and Parks were unable to complete by the time the sessions were abandoned for good in April 1967. Compiled from more than 70 original 4- and 8-track session tapes, the magic within the five hours of tidbits, miniatures, rehearsals and trial-and-error recording experiments is at times astounding and offers a snapshot of some of the most visionary music ever to come out of Los Angeles.
Box sets of this scope aren’t new; in past years the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Neil Young and hosts of other artists have delivered comprehensive sets that aim to shine a light not only on the finished product but the process involved in the creation. Directed at fans who can afford to shell out hundreds of dollars for massive packages, some are more necessary than others.
“The Smile Sessions” content is essential history, the sonic equivalent to a film fanatic having access to the daily rushes of “The Godfather.” Curious as to how Wilson managed to cram all that stuff into “Good Vibrations”? An entire disc is devoted to the layers of sound and offers a clear look at how it all works so well together.
“Things were happening so quickly,” Wilson says in the book introduction. “The world within my head, the world outside my house. It was all a whirlwind.” It didn’t hurt that, according to Wilson’s autobiography, the genius brought in enough marijuana and hashish for a small army and he and Parks were eating “fistfuls” of amphetamines. Wilson sought to capture “the song of the universe rising and falling in wave after wave.”
Even now you can hear this rising and falling, best evidenced on the disc devoted to fleshing out “Heroes and Villains.” The parts, which comprise 33 tracks on the deluxe box, shine a light on the little things that make such a huge sound. From the demo that Wilson showcased on just piano, he added layers and layers: xylophone and alto saxophone sweetly intermingling; the Beach Boys vocalists harmonizing the words “run a lot, do a lot, never be lazy”; and a section that sounds like Ennio Morricone fused with Aaron Copland, temple blocks clomping along like hoofs.
Is it worth dropping so much money for the deluxe package? If you’re an obsessive fan, yes, though even they should ponder how often they dig into the similarly comprehensive “The Pet Sounds Sessions” multi-disc box that Capitol issued in 1997. But certainly every library of American recording history needs this; university composition departments, music professors, budding recording engineers and composers should study it. Anyone, in fact, who’s ever wondered how “Good Vibrations” remains as fresh and vital 45 years after it was made needs to spend time with this box.
You can hear the evidence in one snippet from the “Heroes and Villains” sessions, even if on the surface it seems inconsequential. A bunch of musicians are in the middle of a playful experiment featuring toy train whistles, tubas, a duck decoy, and a jug banged on by a mallet -- and someone hesitates. Wilson stops for a second. “Hey, listen,” he says. “Remember one thing: There’s no rules to this.”