The Elements: Fire

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"The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O'Leary's Cow)"
Instrumental by The Beach Boys from the album The Smile Sessions
Released November 1, 2011 (2011-11-01)
Recorded November 28, 1966 (1966-11-28), Gold Star Studios
June 29, 1967 (1967-06-29), Brian Wilson's home studio
Genre Acid rock,[1] psychedelic rock, hard rock, instrumental rock
Length 2:27
Label Capitol
Composer Brian Wilson
Producer Brian Wilson
The Smile Sessions track listing
"Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony)"
Instrumental by The Beach Boys from the album Smiley Smile
Released September 18, 1967 (1967-09-18)
Recorded June 29, 1967 (1967-06-29), Brian Wilson's home studio
Genre Psychedelic rock, experimental rock
Length 2:15
Label Brother/Capitol
Producer The Beach Boys
Smiley Smile track listing
"Mrs. O'Leary's Cow"
Instrumental by Brian Wilson from the album Brian Wilson Presents Smile
Released September 28, 2004 (2004-09-28)
Recorded 2004, Sunset Sound Recorders
Length 2:28
Label Capitol
Producer Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson Presents Smile track listing
"Wind Chimes"
"Mrs. O'Leary's Cow"
"In Blue Hawaii"

"The Elements: Fire" is an unfinished instrumental written and produced by Brian Wilson for the Beach Boys' Smile project. Believing that the recording contained pyrokinetic abilities, Wilson shelved the track indefinitely, claiming to have destroyed its master tapes. The composition was then revisited several months later when "Fire" was rerecorded with a minimized arrangement, renamed "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony)", and then published for the Beach Boys' 1967 album Smiley Smile. Under the title "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow", Wilson completed "Fire" as a solo artist in 2004 for Brian Wilson Presents Smile.[2]

Wilson was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow", which also happened to be his first.


Named for Catherine O'Leary of the Great Chicago Fire, "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" was initially composed for the Beach Boys' unreleased album Smile as the first part of "The Elements" suite: Fire.[2] In Brian Wilson's ghostwritten 1991 autobiography Wouldn't it be Nice: My Own Story edited by Todd Gold, the circumstances of his second LSD trip were detailed. They were purported to have involved ego death as well as death by burning, which has led some to speculate that the track is a musical adaptation of this LSD trip.[1] According to Wilson with Gold, "It created a disturbing picture that mirrored the screams that had filled my head and plagued my sleep for years."[3] In regard to the existence of its master tapes, "Roughly two minutes of 'Fire' music still exists, locked in the Capitol vaults, where I hope it remains. Not because I still believe it possesses a negative power; that was merely a reflection of how disturbed I was at the time. I hope that segment remains unreleased simply because it's not good music."[3]


Present at the instrumental's tracking on November 28, 1966 was Danny Hutton, Frank J. Holmes, and Dennis Wilson, who filmed Brian as he produced the recording.[2] According to Wouldn't it Be Nice, "the instrumental track was one long, eerie whine. It built slowly, like the beginning of a giant conflagration, and grew so intense it was possible to picture the kindling catching, spreading, and being whipped by the wind into a raging, out-of-control inferno. . .The chords were weird, sick, not the straight eight. I ran the miniorchestra through twenty-four takes before I was satisfied. Still, during each version, I thought, 'Oh God, I'm flipping out to have written such stuff.' The weirdest was the crash and crackle of instruments smoldering for the final time. Listening to the playback, I began to feel unnerved by the music, strange and eerie. I liked the music. But it scared me."[3]

The instrumental sessions for the album were recorded under unusual conditions. Wilson instructed everybody in the studio to wear a fire helmet, and had another person bring in a bucket with burning wood so that the studio would be filled with the smell of smoke.[4] Attempts by Wilson were then made to record the crackling noises made by the burning wood and mix them into the track.[2] An account of the famous "Fire" story was first reported and published in October 1967:

“Yeah,” said Brian on the way home, an acetate trial copy or “dub” of the tape in his hands, the red plastic fire helmet still on his head. “Yeah, I’m going to call this ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Fire’ and I think it might just scare a whole lot of people.”

As it turns out, however, Brian Wilson’s magic fire music is not going to scare anybody—because nobody other than the few people who heard it in the studio will ever get to listen to it. A few days after the record was finished, a building across the street from the studio burned down and, according to Brian, there was also an unusually large number of fires in Los Angeles. Afraid that his music might in fact turn out to be magic fire music, Wilson destroyed the master.

“I don’t have to do a big scary fire like that,” he later said. “I can do a candle and it’s still fire. That would have been a really bad vibration to let out on the world, that Chicago fire. The next one is going to be a candle.”

— Jules Siegel, Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!, [5]

Another story which circulates involves Wilson attempting to set fire to the tapes only to find that they refuse to ignite, which further frightens him.[2] Al Jardine explained from his point of view: "I wasn't at that session but I think Carl was there. Yeah, there was the rumor that he burned all the tapes. You can’t burn tape, that’s just a myth. We tried it once, because of the rumor that Brian has burned the tapes, and I wanted to see if that would work. We were finishing a song for Surf’s Up and we had some outtakes from the album and I put a match to it, and it wouldn't burn. The tapes weren't burned, and needless to say they do exist for the Smile sessions."[6]


Staying true to the "candle" sentiment, a restrained reworking of the track appears on Smiley Smile under the title "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony)". The instrumentation has been described to have involved "bizarre woodpecking" percussion, the use of a squeeze box that emulates the iconic Woody Woodpecker laugh, and wordless vocals by the Beach Boys.[7] "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter" has also been described as (along with other Smiley Smile tracks) "a kind of protomiminal rock music", and that "the lack of formal or harmonic development makes the listener focus upon other quaities such as instrumentation, timbre, and reverberation. A concentrated listening effort thus goes quickly to subtle details.[8] Brian said of this version, "That was sort of a song about a cold winter scene. We tried to paint a picture of winter and then spring, late summer, and then broke into winter. We used the 'Woody Woodpecker' theme because it was descriptive to us of spring and summer."[9]

As a solo artist, Wilson revisited "Fire" under the title "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow". Still in fear of the track, Wilson left its string arrangement to collaborator Darian Sahanaja, who explained: "I think that's the part that spooked him the most. I told him I'd deal with it."[10] Wilson also instructed that the vocals be modeled from "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter". Although he ended up performing vocals, Wilson avoided attending his band's rehearsals of the track. Ultimately, this was to their relief, as a power outage occurred by happenstance in mid-rehearsal as though to signal a bad omen.[10] Sahanaja speculates that if Wilson had been present for this anomaly, Smile would have been cancelled for the second time.[10] "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" was released in 2004 for Brian Wilson Presents Smile.

In addition to "Fire" session highlights, a digital mashup of the Beach Boys' wordless "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter" vocals and the "Fire" backing track was eventually released in 2011 as track 17 on The Smile Sessions.



In 1996, "Falls Breaks and Back to Winter" was included in David Toop's Ocean of Sound, a 2-CD compilation album meant to accommodate his book of the same name.



  1. ^ a b "Out-Of-Sight! SMiLE Timeline". Archived from the original on 2008-03-11. Retrieved 2011-10-30. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Badman 2004, p. 163.
  3. ^ a b c Wilson & Gold 1991, p. 156.
  4. ^ Brian Wilson Interview Rare 1976 part 1 on YouTube; Brian Wilson Interview Rare 1976 part 1 on YouTube
  5. ^ Siegel, Jules (October 1967). Cheetah magazine. 
  6. ^ Sharp, Ken (April 2, 2013). "Al Jardine of the Beach Boys: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About “SMiLE” (Interview)". Rock Cellar Magazine. Retrieved 2 July 2014. 
  7. ^ Leaf, David. "Smiley Smile liner notes". Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  8. ^ Boone 1997.
  9. ^ Benci, Jacopo (January 1995). "Brian Wilson interview". Record Collector (UK) (185). 
  10. ^ a b c Dillon 2012.