"Fire" is an unfinished instrumental written and produced by Brian Wilson for the Beach Boys' Smile project. It was intended to serve one part of "The Elements", a musical suite envisioned for Smile. Believing that the recording contained pyrokinetic abilities, Wilson shelved the track indefinitely, then claiming for many years to have destroyed its master tapes. The composition was 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.
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. In Brian Wilson's ghostwritten 1991 autobiography Wouldn't It Be Nice: My Own Story, 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. 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." 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."
At an earlier time, Wilson noted, "It was sick. Weird chords, it wasn't the straight eight and all that. I started thinking, 'Oh God, I'm flipping here.' But I liked it." The music was considered an attempt at "witchcraft" by Wilson, who dismissed it simply a product of the group's excessive drug use. British rock journalist Nick Kent described the track as a "dark, booming, reverb-drenched blur of sound." During the 1970s, writer Byron Preiss was lent an acetate disc of the track, calling it "a mad, impressionistic piece that crept up on you with the emotional chill of a real fire." Author Bob Stanley named it a "terrifying atonal cacophony". 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 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."
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. Other attendants included wife-of-Brian Marilyn Wilson, sister-in-law Diane Rovell, and Beach Boys roadie Arnie Geller.Van Dyke Parks avoided this session "like the plague" due to what he perceived as Brian's regressive behavior during the period. It was recorded under unusual conditions. Wilson instructed Geller to purchase several dozen fire helmets at a local toy store so that everybody in the studio could don them during its recording. Wilson also had the studio's janitor bring in a bucket with burning wood so that the studio would be filled with the smell of smoke. After twenty-four takes, attempts by Wilson were made to record the crackling noises made by the burning wood and mix them into the track. 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.”
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.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."
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. "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. 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."
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." 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. Sahanaja speculates that if Wilson had been present for this anomaly, Smile would have been cancelled for the second time. "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 disc 1, track 17 on The Smile Sessions box-set.