Influenced: The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Buffalo Springfield, Traffic, Syd Barrett, The Grateful Dead, Big Star, Television Personalities, Yo La Tengo, Teenage Fanclub, The Boo Radleys, Belle & Sebastian, Calexico, Queens Of The Stone Age, Alex Turner
Influenced by: Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Kinks, The Byrds
The short-lived Love made up for the brevity of their career in terms of sheer impact. One of the best, but sadly most overlooked of the bevy of West Coast psychedelic bands that characterised the Summer of Love in 1967, their cult status seems to have been sealed by a stroke of misfortune, when Elektra boss Jac Holzman turned up early enough to their gig in Los Angeles see The Doors support them. He’d already signed Love, but was so blown away by Jim Morrison’s troupe that he plunged most of his efforts into making them stars instead.
With two solid but unspectacular albums in the tank by 1967, including the frantic, alienated proto-post-punk single ‘7 And 7 Is’, Love were fleetingly very popular in the burgeoning West Coast scene, but never took the final step to serious stardom. With two black frontmen – Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean – writing and performing acid-fried rock that had little traditional appeal to a black audience, they never really fit in anywhere and, by the second half of the year, their fortunes were dwindling fast.
With 1966’s second album Da Capo featuring a song that took up the entire second side, an audacious move even for the experimental Sixties, Love had some previous form in this department. But that was nothing as to what they would come up with for their third album. Taking off the punky edge of their frenetic early work and moving towards a more reflective and organic sound, Forever Changes was nothing less than a complete reinvention of psychedelic rock music, a huge expansion of the paradigm that meant it was no longer associated simply with screeching, wailing guitar-work and far-out lyrics. Now, it could include folk, sweeping orchestral arrangements and lush chamber-pop – exploring inner space, not just outer space.
It seemed to anticipate and presage the ugliness that would mar the end of the Sixties, as the peace and love that characterised the counter-culture during the Summer of Love gave way to the unrest and paranoia of the following two years – the escalating Vietnam war and the Paris riots of 1968, the fatalities at Altamont, the Manson family murders and the Days of Rage in Chicago in 1969.
Considering that Forever Changes is widely held to be one of the finest albums of the Sixties, one of the most coherent visions for the future of music and society that pop had ever produced, it is surprising to learn that it was also the final creative gasp of a splintered, fractured and disinterested band. Drummer Alban Pfisterer and sax player Tjay Cantrelli had both quit, and producer Bruce Botnick was forced to hire session musicians to complete initial recording sessions, because the rest of Love were in such a bad way.
Following that, the writing and recording sessions were completed in a painstakingly piecemeal fashion over four months to September, with the group forced to practice and record a song at a time and then taking periods of time off to learn the next ones. Bryan MacLean penned only two of the album’s 11 tracks (although one of them, ‘Alone Again Or’, is arguable the most memorable) as Arthur Lee found himself with more or less total creative freedom in the songwriting department.
Writing his material secluded in his compound home high in Hollywood hills, Lee was preternaturally preoccupied with mortality – mostly his own. Calling Forever Changes “a lament to his memory”, he remembered years later: “When I did that album, I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words. I was 26. I’d always had this thing about when I was going to die, man, or physically deteriorate, and I thought it would be about 26… something like that. I just had a funny feeling.”
For all the fractured circumstances of its birth, Forever Changes is remarkably cohesive. Jac Holzman persuaded Love to “advance backwards” by embracing folk music and chamber-pop as a musical bedding for Lee’s jet-black lyrics. Orchestras and acoustics weren’t new developments – The Beatles’ groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s… had been framed with strings earlier that summer – but here, Lee makes them sound utterly central to his apocalyptic themes. The result was quite unlike anything that had come before, the beauty of those arrangements giving the darkness of the subject matter a kind of multiplier effect that a normal ‘guitar band’ formation simply wouldn’t have been able to deliver.
Lee was not some wide-eyed hippie star-child like many of his contemporaries. His songwriting had always been more detached and cynical, whom writer Andrew Hultkrans described as somebody who “didn’t buy flower-power wholesale, who intuitively understood that letting the sunshine in wouldn’t instantly vaporize the world’s (or his own) dark stuff.”
Forever Changes is by far and away the most complete statement of Lee’s bitter realism, of his almost fatalistic worldview in which respite and hope are fleeting and not easily found. It is strikingly disillusioned with the promises of a better society that so many of the Woodstock generation believed was inevitably coming. The deepening war abroad in Vietnam and the culture war taking place on the Sunset Strip on his doorstep weighed heavily on his mind, and the spectres of unrest hang over Forever Changes like a miasma, not visible all the time but all-pervasive in spirit.
That said, the album’s signature song was written by his colleague Bryan MacLean. Few songs define the dark side of Sixties psychedelia as thoroughly as ‘Alone Again Or’, an inviting, forceful but bright tune to beckon in the unsuspecting to Forever Changes. A paean to MacLean’s faraway girlfriend and originally titled ‘Alone Again’, it had been intended for Love’s self-titled debut album more than a year before. The mysterious ‘Or’ was added to the title by a mischievous Lee, who also took charge of the lead vocals, with MacLean’s voice deemed too weak for the track. While it underperformed commercially as a single, ‘Alone Again Or’ slowly earned a cult status, owing much to the wistful mariachi horns that interact beautifully with the string arrangement and the unsettling minor-major key alterations in the guitar line. “I think people are the greatest fun” is a deeply curious lyric, to be read optimistically at face value, or perhaps with something more sinister underlying it.
Following that superficially bright start, Forever Changes soon plunges the listener into the dark recesses of Lee’s psyche. On ‘A House Is Not A Motel’, the culture clashes are expressed in plain and ominous fashion: “By the time that I’m through singing / the bells from the school of war will be ringing” Lee sings matter-of-factly, followed by “more confusions, blood transfusions / the news today will be the movies for tomorrow / and the water’s turned to blood and if you don’t think so, go turn on your tub.” It is as blunt as Lee gets on the album, something underscored by the piercing electric guitar that intrudes halfway through – one of only two tracks to feature traditional rock instrumentation.
Following this stark and harrowing ordeal, the bucolic chamber-pop beauty of ‘Andmoreagain’, one of the loveliest melodies on the album sits somewhere between light and dark, offering respite from ‘A House Is Not A Motel’ but with its title warning that there’s more to come. ‘The Daily Planet’ addresses the boredom and absurdity of routine, with undertones of power-pop in its construction. Bryan MacLean’s second piece, ‘Old Man’, melodically based on Prokofiev’s ‘Troika’ movement from the Lieutenant Kijé Suite, revisits the faintly elegiac tones of ‘Andmoreagain’.
Side one closes with the most oppressive track on the album. ‘The Red Telephone’, whose title refers to the Cold War crisis hotline between the American president and Soviet premier, is full of dark and powerful imagery that’s difficult to shake off even after it has finished. The sense of social dislocation reaches boiling point in this macabre and suffocatingly dense masterpiece, as Lee opens with an observation, “sitting on the hillside / watching all the people die” – the “die” double-tracked for ghoulish emphasis. This sense of alienation, of feeling outcast from society even as one walks down the high street, is exactly the same as on the Stones’ incredible 1966 single ‘Paint It Black’. “They’re locking them up today, they’re throwing away the key,” goes Lee’s deadpan chant in the run-out, “I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?”
The second half of Forever Changes lurches even more uneasily in mood, shifting between deeply unsettling pieces that portray a world going slowly wrong, and more upbeat, almost prosaically cheerful chamber-pop ditties that sound even more jarring than those darker moments because of their alarming juxtaposition. This is part of the strange internal logic of Forever Changes – while all the tracks are of a piece, each individual moment serves to obscure or confuse what immediately came before it, and to make the next less predictable in what it will throw up.
Tasked with following ‘The Red Telephone’ is a tall order, but Lee continues the theme of constant tonal shift with the breezy evocation of life on the L.A. Strip, ‘Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale’, which is like waking suddenly from a nightmare. The unmistakable air of cultural malaise creeps back in the airless ‘Live And Let Live’, though, a raucous multi-segmented beast dealing with the disparity of the free-spirited drug dabbling of hippie flower-power and the hard drug abuse to which it often leads in reality.
Two short tracks then follow, ‘The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This’ and ‘Bummer In The Summer’, which cleave closely to the lilting baroque chamber-pop that had cropped up every other song on Forever Changes up until this point. The album closes with its most ornate moment, ‘You Set The Scene’, apparently constructed from discarded song fragments and previous ideas. However, that works in its favour in the context of the album as a whole, as the mood changes from the agitated first segment, which never settles down into an easy rhythm, and the cautiously hopeful conclusion bound up in its second half. Lee himself sounds a note of resolution with the final lines: “This is the time and life that I am living / and I’ll face each day with a smile / for the time that I’ve been given’s such a little while / and the things that I must do consist of more than style.”
Although it was released in November 1967 and is therefore often bracketed with the hippie era, Forever Changes sounds like it belongs to another time. Although the good vibes of that year were still radiating, darkness was just around the corner. The following 12 months saw the Beatles and Stones release ‘The White Album’ and Beggars Banquet, both dark and foreboding collections that turned their back on the flourishes of psychedelia and addressed the roots of rock music. Forever Changes, in this context, was the last of a certain kind of ornate and psychedelic album, with which the Sixties is often associated.
It’s possible to read Forever Changes as a very early precursor of the goth movement. With many of Lee’s lyrics sung with a deadpan, emotionally disconnected and vampish manner, as if he really is the narrator “sitting on the hillside / watching all the people die”, observing the world going wrong and not really feeling anything. The band’s frequent retreats to Bela Lugosi’s ‘The Castle’ mansion in Hollywood, where they dabbled in LSD and heroin, only feeds back into this impression.
But while it represents the end of an era, Forever Changes was also one of a handful of albums in late 1967 that signified the start of a new one, of deeper, darker and more complex music written specifically for the long-playing format. It is the sound of an acid trip starting to turn bad; the sudden temperature drop before a thunderstorm; the strange electricity and confusion in the air before the riot. Every kind of dystopian, concept album masterpiece, from There’s A Riot Goin’ On to OK Computer, owes it some kind of fealty. Over the decades, just enough like-minded souls were attracted to its strange beauty, in turn sharing it with others and expanding its reputation underground.
Domestically, Forever Changes seriously underperformed on the Billboard charts, peaking at a lowly no.154, far below the high water-marks of their two previous records, although it has stayed consistently in print and sold steadily afterwards. It did much better in Britain, where the more open-minded rock-buying public sent it to no.24, but Love were never to profit from that momentum on the other side of the Atlantic.
Bryan MacLean drifted away from the band, triggering an exodus, leaving Arthur Lee to front a number of short-lived iterations of groups called Love for four more albums until 1974’s Reel To Real. He then commenced a patchy but occasionally brilliant solo career as his personal life was marred with chaos, even sentenced to prison for 1996 under the vagaries of the three-strike rule in California, before his sentence was overturned in 2001. Lee then organised 35th anniversary tours of Forever Changes, receiving great acclaim until his death from leukaemia in 2006, at the age of 61.
Lee remains a criminally underrated figure in the history of popular music, but for as long as Forever Changes remains the cornerstone of his legacy and is regarded as one of rock music’s truly great LPs, he will never be forgotten entirely. A jaded, unsettling masterpiece that, gradually and by word of mouth, facilitated the dawning of a new age in pop, it is an essential artefact to own.
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Tags: 50 years old, 50th anniversary, Arthur Lee, Bryan MacLean, classic album, cult 60s, Ed Biggs, Forever Changes, Johnny Echols, Ken Forssi, Love, Michael Stuart
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