Friday, January 15, 2021

Heroes & Villains - Progressive Rock? Oh, Yeah.

Progressive rock in its most informative years was an exclusively British club (one need only discount the progressive-light banality of Styx and Kansas). It's odd then that the LP that AM commends as a catalyst for progressive music, The Mothers' Freak Out, is an American construct, as is AM's choice for catalytic song, The Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains."  Ask any stranger on the street to name 10 Beach Boys songs, and "Heroes and Villains" won’t make the list.

The track, in all its incarnations (ultimately deconstructed when released as a 45), "H&V" meets every prog criteria: epic in scope; time changes and odd time signatures; complex, sophisticated instrumentation and composition; conceptual ideas and heightened, lyrical content; classical and jazz influences; indeed "H&V" goes out of its was to meet the guidelines. One is hard-pressed to identify the track as a Beach Boys' song. Where the equally complex "Good Vibrations" is so obviously a BB tune, "H&V" is so painstakingly obtuse that the fact that it made it nearly into Billboard's Top Ten is quite a statement about 1967's diversity.

Numerous segments, specifically written in modular fashion, are strewn together to create a pop-music pastiche that's significantly more adventurous than "Good Vibrations." Whereas ideas were tinkered with for roughly six months to piece together "Good Vibrations," "Heroes and Villains" took a year. "Good Vibrations" reached mass critical and commercial success primarily because it is brilliant in theory and execution, but it also benefits from the fact that it's lyrically relate-able. "Heroes and Villains," for all its stunning vocal harmonies, lacks such a linear lyrical plot. It makes no sense on any level.

When SMiLE was shelved in May 1967, so was "Heroes and Villains," but several tracks from the SMiLE sessions would reappear in later years in severely toned down form. In the case of "H&V," what is left is the odd mix of melody and the diversity of the lyrics (corny as Van Dyke Parks lyrics tended to be, they fit like a puzzle and were transformed with Brian Wilson's musical compositions. Think of "Surf's Up," one of AM’s choices for the most beautiful song ever, strip away the gorgeous textures and melody, the voicing and the phrasing, and the lyrics are just plain silly).

Parks would prove to be one of the most extreme surrealistic lyric writers, taking his cue from his love of James Joyce's word play. Low on personal expression, the lyrics tumble along the chromatic shifts in the song and fall into felicitous rhyme. "Heroes and Villains" starts abruptly with the lyric without any musical introduction, with most of the attention on developing the vocal tracks. The instrumental accompaniment is limited to the organ, a harpsichord, and an occasional whistle - with a standard rock band accompaniment mixed very lowly in the background. The verses take a simple falling major scale, and convert it into a harmonic masterpiece, and the chorus starts from an almost mindless,  repetitive two-chord keyboard exercise into high order counterpoint. Only then comes the best bit: "My children were raised" provides a new harmony for the falling scale, alters the tempo, and provides the final push to prog perfection. 

In another era, "Heroes and Villains" may have revolutionized the 45 in the same way SMiLE may have revolutionized the L.P. Instead, "Heroes and Villains" is a testament to a road not taken, the American road to progressive music.