Love – Forever Changes
Released November, 1967
Regarded as being one of the very first rock cult albums, “Forever Changes” has cemented itself into the annals of popular music history. As with many albums we’ve reviewed, this record didn’t exactly tear up the charts on its initial release (reaching a peak of 154 in the US), but its impact and influence has continued to grow. Rolling Stone’s recent special issue, 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, ranked it at number 40. In May this year, the album was also inducted into the US National Record Registry. Headed by singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Arthur Lee, Love was formed in Los Angeles, after being encouraged by the popularity of groups like The Byrds and The Lovin’ Spoonful. Guitarist and songwriter Bryan MacLean had in fact been a roadie for The Byrds before joining Love, which had previously been called The Grass Roots. Together with Johnny Echols on lead guitar, bassist Ken Forassi and Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer on drums, the band cut their self-titled debut album in 1966. This included their now famous reworking of the David/Bacharach composed ‘My Little Red Book’.
By the time Love started working on their follow-up, “Da Capo”, they had expanded to a seven-piece band. Pfisterer was now on organ, with Michael Stuart taking over drum duties and saxophonist/flutist Tijay Cantrelli completing the line-up. Their second album is also highly revered and seen to be one of the cornerstones of the Baroque pop movement, along with The Beach Boy’s “Pet Sounds”. While the first half of “Da Capo” featured moments of jazz and Spanish guitar amongst the psychedelic rock, the entire second side was made up of a messy 19 minute jam called ‘Revelation’, which could be taken as a metaphor for the group’s drug and chaos fueled disintegration. Instead of imploding though, the band dropped Pfisterer and Cantrelli to continue on as a quintet, making “Forever Changes” Love’s last album before breaking up (for the first time) in early 1968. Due to tension within the group, session musicians were used on ‘Andmoreagain’ and ‘The Daily Planet’, with the exception of Lee and MacLean. This jolted the other three members back into action, and the studio, so the remaining nine tracks were recorded with the full five-piece band.
My first listen of this album left me puzzled; it just wasn’t what I was expecting. The record is dominated by acoustic guitars and orchestrations; in fact, an electric guitar only comes into the equation on a handful of songs. I was less than impressed by what I heard and wondered what all the fuss was about. After a few more spins I began to appreciate the production, and understood just how influential this album would have been for artists like The Left Banke, Jimmy Webb and The Moody Blues. The opening track, ‘Alone Again Or’, features a wonderful use of aural texture. Starting with a lovely arpeggio acoustic guitar line it builds to a crescendo in the chorus, with strings and horns complementing the vocals, before returning to the guitar. This song is probably my favourite; I love the trumpets! Used throughout the album, these unobtrusive orchestrations were groundbreaking at the time, and their brilliance is easy to dismiss. I think that it’s something we take for granted in music nowadays.
The dark overtones in some of the album’s songs almost foreshadow events like Altamont, as if the band knew that the Summer of Love wouldn’t last forever. Forever changes, indeed: “We’re all normal and we all want our freedom”, from ‘The Red Telephone’. The protests against civil rights and the Vietnam war are seemingly encouraged by Lee in ‘Live and Let Live’ when he sings “Write the rules in the sky/But ask your leaders why, why?”.
With song titles like ‘Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale’, I can’t help but feel this album is a little pretentious, which might be my biggest barrier against enjoying it. The songs’ arrangements, while excellent, seem to add an air of pomposity and I fail to hear the genius in the songwriting that some do. The record is not very catchy and requires many spins to achieve any familiarity with the tracks. I would probably quite like it by my twentieth listen, but I feel that the style outweighs the substance.
“Forever Changes” has gone on over time to be lauded as one of the best albums of the 60s. I had heard a bit about this Arthur Lee character and how amazing “Forever Changes” is meant to be over the years. In fact it is albums such as this that are the reason afyccim exists at all, so I put it on expecting big things. Based on pervious experiences I should’ve known better. The first two tracks, ‘Alone Again Or’ and ‘A House Is Not A Motel’ promise a half decent album, but unfortunately that is where it peaks for me. There was something about this album that feels really pretentious and as hard as I tried I could not get past it in order to enjoy it. Critics often say that “Forever Changes” is a slow burner, revealing itself as a masterpiece only after many listens. This was not the case for me, even after forcing myself through nine listens, just to be sure, I found myself getting more and more irritated by it. The lyrics are incredibly pompous with lashings of high school poetry. The whole thing reeks of drug fuelled nonsense. The use of strings and production tend to be quite superfluous, with the old adage ‘Just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ definitely coming to mind. And is it just me or do both vocalists have a Sesame Street vibe going on with their vocals? I couldn’t listen to ‘The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This’ without picturing a muppet perched on the side of a log looking off whimsically in the distance as a chicken plays a banjo behind him singing the “ba da da das”. I personally don’t see the appeal of this album at all, but power to those that do. Kick arse cover art though.
It’s so easy to hate “Forever Changes”. So easy. The trick to enjoying it, though, is one I have developed over a few listens. All you have to do is not listen to the words! The music is actually quite enjoyable, with the orchestral arrangements, and sometimes, the vocals aren’t even bad. But once you let the HSP in, that’s it. The album is over for you. This is no more evident than ‘The Red Telephone’. The lyrics in this song are SO terrible, you’d be well within your rights to turn it off, and frankly, give up on this whole project. “I believe in magic. Why? Because it’s so quick!” Err, what? Luckily for Love, their lyrics can be put down to a love of drugs, with many members battling addictions. Unluckily for us, that makes it a dangerous combination of HSP and DFN. Though on more than one occasion, the DFN seeps in to the music. The end of ‘A House Is Not A Motel’ gets a touch mental, kind of reminding me of Barrett-era Pink Floyd. That’s a good kind of DFN though. There’s also a weird, trippy little bit at the end of ‘The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This. It’s literally the last five seconds. You think the cd is having a little spaz out, then you think, wait, it’s not the olden days, we’re not listening to a cd! Which means it must’ve been deliberate. There is some great guitar work on this album. Kind of sounds a bit Clapton-ish, if you took about 30 years of practice away from Old’ Slow Hand. Even then it’s still very good, and very enjoyable. I hated “Forever Changes” to start, but after adapting, I came to enjoy it. It’s not a keeper for mine.
How is it possible that a band hardly anyone has heard of could have been so good? It’s true that Love enjoyed somewhat of an underground success; although “Forever Changes” was listed at number 40 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Albums of all Time’ list in 2003. Like many of our 60’s bands, Love are more of the ‘muso’s muso’s’, and continued to grow a strong following from musicians and producers for many years after the release of “Forever Changes”. “Forever Changes’ is quite a beautiful album, and most certainly is one of the greater musical masterpieces of the 60’s. Musically, it represents a balanced and tasteful blending of folk rock, psychedelic rock, and baroque. There’s everything from harpsichords, to Spanish modes and mariachi-esque trumpet fanfares, teamed with haunting and understated vocals and lyrics that reek of melancholy and longing. One of the songs that has really stayed with me is the soliloquy ‘The Red Telephone’, a strange and haunting song that Arthur Lee has implied explores his fear of a premature death. The song is the perfect combination of folk, psychedelia and baroque. Actually I found something that I liked in almost all of the tracks on “Forever Changes”, except for some of the nonsense lyrics that are so common to 60’s songs. No one should be singing about snot caking against their pants, that’s just weird, and gross to boot. DFN aside, it’s a timeless and artful album, it was easy to listen to and every time I listened to it I found something new I hadn’t noticed before. That to me is the precursor for a classic.