When the Los Angeles-based rock quintet Love entered Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood in June 1967 to record their third album, circumstances did not point toward a successful outcome. The band had recorded two very good records (actually, one and a half, but more on that later), and scored a top 40 hit in July 1966 with “Seven & Seven Is.” But even with the success of that single, Love had been unable to build momentum because of singer-songwriter Arthur Lee’s reluctance to tour. In addition, Lee’s relationship with guitarist Bryan MacLean, who also wrote songs for the band, was starting to fray.
It didn’t help that Love was doing a lot of drugs, but so was almost every other band at the time. The story of Love is filled with missed opportunities, some of them the result of its own bad decisions, but some of its failure to reach a large audience is hard to explain. On the other hand, Forever Changes, the album Love recorded in the summer of 1967, is itself hard to explain. Accessible yet strange, sounding light and happy on the surface but with a dark undercurrent, Love’s masterpiece was generally well received by critics, but generated few US sales until years later.
When Arthur Lee, Johnny Echols, and Bryan MacLean established Love in 1965, all three had been playing in the L.A. area for a few years. Lee and Echols had been in a soul band before starting the American Four, which played rock’n’roll. While integrated soul bands weren’t unusual in L.A. even in the mid-1960s, a band of that era that played Top 40 rock and contained two African-Americans was unique. When he met Lee, MacLean had just finished working as a roadie for the Byrds. Lee had caught the Byrds live in local clubs, and thought folk-rock might be his way into the big time.
The band put together by Lee, Echols, and MacLean soon developed a following at a local club, and in 1966 signed with Elektra Records. Love’s first, eponymous album is a mix of L.A. folk-rock, garage rock, and early punk. Lee’s voice set them apart, and one song, “Signed D.C.,” a harrowing look at drug addiction, indicated his depth as a songwriter. In 1966, only the Velvet Underground was writing lyrics like “My soul belongs to the dealer.”
Eight months later, in November 1966, Love released its second album, Da Capo. The album’s single, “Seven & Seven Is,” peaked at 33, and Da Capo stalled at no.80 on the charts. The album showed increased songwriting sophistication by Lee and MacLean, with a jazz tinge in “Stephanie Knows Who” and an unusual arrangement in “She Comes in Colors,” another song that should have been a hit. Side 2 of the album was taken up by the 19-minute-long “Revelation,” the first track by a rock band to take up a full side of an LP. While “Revelation” has some good moments, Love’s talent was in writing and playing rock songs, not jamming in the studio.
The rest of Da Capo showed that Love was growing in talent and ambition, and when Love began recording its third album, Lee had a lot of ideas. He was absorbing the mood of 1967, from the anti-war movement to the rise of the drug culture, and was letting it shape his music. Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra, had suggested using acoustic rather than electric guitars as the basis for the album, and Lee wanted to use orchestrations to create a richer, more complex sound.
Lee wasn’t a trained musician, so producer Bruce Botnick suggested he meet with a young arranger, David Angel, to write the charts for Lee’s new songs. Lee would explain to Angel what he wanted to hear, humming ideas for string or horn parts or playing them on piano. Those parts would be dubbed in later, but were already worked out carefully before recording for the album began.
When the rest of the band came to the studio to play their parts, they were expected to stay within the strict guidelines of Angel’s arrangements. Lee had spent little time going over the songs with them before the sessions, and the results were predictably poor. Over the years, the story of the early sessions was that drug use had become so intense in Love that the band couldn’t play the songs. John Einarson’s Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love (2010, Jawbone Press) dispels that myth: Under such rigid guidelines, the band simply couldn’t pull off the songs. So Lee and Botnick brought in L.A.’s top session players, the Wrecking Crew.
The Wrecking Crew recorded basic tracks for “Andmoreagain,” “The Daily Planet,” and possibly “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This.” Botnick had thought that bringing in the session players would shake up the band, and it did. Lee got together with Echols, MacLean, bassist Ken Forssi, and drummer Michael Stuart-Ware, and explained what he wanted. Love worked out the songs over the next two months, then brought their skills to the recording session to create what Lee needed and cut their parts for the album in a few days.
The result, with Angel’s arrangements mixed in with the parts played by the band, wasn’t like anything else released in 1967 or any other year. The sounds in Lee’s head were a strange combination of folk-rock, easy listening, and MOR pop, sifted through an unusually gifted musical mind.
Echols was a key component in these sessions. He had the idea for the Spanish-style guitar in “Alone Again Or,” the MacLean song that begins the album. MacLean hadn’t been able to explain to Angel what he wanted in an arrangement for the song, so Angel based his chart on Echols’s guitar work. The strings and brass have the feel of Spanish baroque music, and the lushness of the arrangement helps set the tone for the album.
MacLean’s lyrics for “Alone Again Or” also help establish the album’s ambivalent tone about the Summer of Love. “You know that I could be in love with almost everyone / I think that people are the greatest fun,” Lee sings, but each verse closes with the refrain “And I will be alone again tonight, my dear.” MacLean was originally slated to sing the song, but Lee’s voice was stronger, and it’s his vocal and Angel’s arrangement that pull you into Forever Changes right from the start.
The bright ring of Echols’s 12-string guitar introduces “A House Is Not a Motel,” and Stuart-Ware’s fluid, precise drumming centers and drives the track. Lee’s imagery in the song came in part from a conversation he’d had with a soldier who’d just returned from Vietnam, who told Lee that blood mixed with mud turns gray.
By the time that I’m through singing
the bells from the schools of walls will be ringing
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
and if it’s mixed with mud
you see it turn to gray
Echols closes the song with a slashing, multitracked guitar solo. The song is all Love, with no additional instruments, and shows how the time Lee spent going over the songs with the group helped them bring his ideas to life.
Lee was a singer of unusual versatility, able to sing rock with conviction, but he could croon just as well. “Andmoreagain” is the kind of soft rock that caused critic and producer Sandy Perelman to write, “Forever Changes finished what Da Capo began -- Arthur Lee’s insane mutation of Mick Jagger into Johnny Mathis.” The song contains a line I could imagine Mathis singing: “Then you hear your heart beating / Thrum-pum-pum-pum.” Lee’s achingly beautiful vocal in MacLean’s “Old Man” is a good example of his ability to bring emotion and sweetness to a song.
The sometimes surreal lyrics of Forever Changes are given a strange musical drive by Angel’s arrangements, which the band locked in to. Lee does some wonderful scatting over a trumpet line in “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale,” but Echols introduces that section with an inspired acoustic-guitar solo. Lee paints a clear but complex picture of the hip scene of southern California in lines that reveal some reservations about what’s going on:
Crowds of people standing everywhere
’cross the street I’m at this laugh affair
and here they always play my songs
and me, I wonder if it’s wrong
or right they come here just the same.
“You Set the Scene” closes Forever Changes with seven minutes of songcraft that show the breadth of Lee’s musical vision. The song begins with acoustic guitar, a strong bass line from Forssi, and light, effective drumming from Stuart-Ware. The lyrics combine cynicism and humor in a way that comes as close as any other songwriter did to Bob Dylan’s work:
There’s a private in my boat
and he wears pins instead of medals on his coat. . . .
There are people wearing frowns
who’ll screw you up but
they would rather screw you down.
The song’s tempo slows, and it takes on a mid-’60s soft-rock feel à la Burt Bacharach, Angel mixing strings and horns to create a luxurious backdrop for Lee’s vocal. The lyrics also shift, into affirmation: “This is the time and life that I am living / And I’ll face each day with a smile.” The song is a stunning conclusion to an LP of melodic beauty and grandeur and lyrical depth.
As important as David Angel was to Forever Changes, I found that returning to Love’s first three albums for this piece made it clear that Johnny Echols was a driving force in the band. He understood Lee’s ideas and helped bring them to fruition. Angel’s arrangements give life to Lee’s conceptions, but the final sound of Forever Changes is consistent with Love’s personality as revealed in its first two albums, a personality Echols helped establish.
Echols sets the tone for “Live and Let Live” with a 12-string guitar, and its percussive sound is as important to this track’s rhythmic drive as are Stuart-Ware’s drums. Echols plays a stabbing electric lead halfway through that gives the song an edge, and the balance of acoustic 12-string and aggressive electric lead parallels the balance of ugliness and beauty that Lee announces in the opening lines, which are among his best known: “The snot has caked against my pants / It has turned into crystal.”
That balance defines Forever Changes: deceptively placid on the surface, with darker, conflicted lyrics that paint a complex picture of America as it entered the late 1960s. The album was well received by critics but didn’t sell well in the US, where it reached no.154 on Billboard’s album chart. It hit no.24 in the UK, where it remained popular. Nonetheless, Forever Changes has never been out of print in the US, and its popularity among critics has never waned. Rock magazines on both sides of the Atlantic consistently place it among the best albums ever made.
I’ve owned a number of copies of Forever Changes on CD and LP, and am very fond of an early Elektra vinyl pressing I lucked into about 20 years ago. Later Elektra pressings sound very good, but this one has sparkle and first-generation immediacy. Elektra and Rhino released another AAA edition in 2012, mastered by Chris Bellman. It went out of print for a while, but is now available again. Buy it -- the sound is detailed, transparent, and exciting. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab released a two-LP, 45rpm edition in 2016, but I haven’t heard it -- I’m so pleased with Bellman’s edition that I’m not yet moved to seek out the MoFi.
Elektra and Rhino have released Forever Changes on CD a number of times. The 2001 CD copy I have sounds a little brighter and cleaner overall than the 1987 CD. Voices are better focused, and instruments sound more realistic and sharp. There have been many other CD versions, including Elektra’s 50th Anniversary Edition on four CDs, one DVD, and one LP. My favorite digital version is a MoFi SACD/CD, which has the overall warmth and balance of the vinyl -- the other CD versions push the highs a bit.
MacLean left Love after Forever Changes. Lee fired the rest of the band, hired three new musicians, and recorded four more albums as Love. Four Sail (1969) was Love’s last for Elektra. Lee’s songwriting talent and musical personality were strong enough to make the album worthwhile, but it’s filled with guitar noodling, and Love was never a guitar-hero band. Of the remaining albums, which appeared on Blue Thumb, False Start (1970) is noteworthy for Jimi Hendrix’s presence on one track and for the album’s funk leanings.
Arthur Lee recorded through the 1970s and ’80s but stayed mostly out of sight. In 1996, under California’s three-strike law, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He’d already served two years for arson, and had been charged with other offenses over the years. In 2001, an appeals court reversed his sentence and he was released. In 2003 he appeared in London to perform Forever Changes; the concert was subsequently released on CD. Lee died of leukemia in 2006, at the age of 61. Bryan MacLean had died in 1998, but Johnny Echols continues to play in and around L.A.
Love’s first three releases are all key albums of 1960s rock, but Forever Changes is their masterpiece. The year of its creation, 1967, was a banner year for rock recordings, from The Doors to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to Are You Experienced, and Forever Changes stands with the best of them.
. . . Joseph Taylor