This is what I wrote eight years ago in the original track by track for SMiLE. In 2017, it may be good reminding ourselves that the heroes do win in the end…
This was the song that confused and amazed; as the Beach Boys first single after the worldwide super-smash, Good Vibrations, it didn’t light up the charts and led a general chart decline in the late 60s. And although 1967 was a pretty much “anything goes” year, the seeming barbershop psychedelia of Heroes And Villains didn’t catch on in the summer of love.
Of course, a book could be written about this song, which is the centerpiece of the first suite of SMiLE, often referred to as the Americana section. There were many different sections, some of which became parts of other songs, some left out altogether. The “In The Cantina” section, which is restored to the released SMiLE version gives this song a distinct wild west feel and also adds to the “humor” which was one of the intentions of SMiLE.
But the key theme of the song is duality -there is complexity as well as simplicity in the song, light as well as darkness. SMiLe expands the seeming narrow theme of young adult love of Pet Sounds to a wide portrait of life from birth to death, America from Hawaii to Plymouth Rock. And in this life, there are heroes and villains and many of us may have this duality within ourselves. In the end, we are thankful that the ultimate musical hero, Brian Wilson conquered the villain of his demons and came out with the completed SMiLE. Yes, the heroes win in the end.