In 1967, Arthur Lee and his then stable band, Love, came up with Forever Changes – widely considered to be their, and one of rock’s greatest masterpieces. While making some impact in Europe, in particular England, at the time, the album was practically ignored in the US. Now, 50 years later, the album is being recognized for what it is (even by Rolling Stone, who missed its greatness the first time around), and is getting its third very lavish re-release. While two of the key masterminds behind the album have passed (Lee to leukemina in 2006 and Bryan McLean in 1998), the question still remains – what lies behind this reassessment, and is this album really such a musical and lyrical pinnacle that everybody now claims it is?
She: You Said You Will Love Me Forever; He: Forever Changes!
So goes the story behind the title of this album, as told by Arthur himself – contributing it to a friend of his. An interesting first as far as honesty goes in rock, but then Arthur Lee can be tagged with many firsts when modern music is concerned. He led the first mixed race rock band to make any considerable splash during the time of the ’60s racial upheavals. Love was the first rock band to be signed to Elektra, the company that until Love signed, signed only folk acts. He was first to recommend The Doors to label honcho Jack Holtzman, only to regret it later on. Lee claimed he came up with the first true punk song, “7 and 7 Is”, and yes, he was right about that. He was among the first to hail the greatness of his good friend, a certain Mr. Jimi Hendrix, with whom he recorded with as far back as 1963. Then, later on, he became practically the first known rock musician to serve a heavy jail sentence for gun possession and firing a weapon in public.
But with all these claims, firsts, problems with the law and health, his true achievement is Forever Changes – with or without the borrowed quote from a friend. Sure, quite a bit of that achievement lies with his bandmates, particularly the late Bryan McLean, who contributed two songs to the album, and his childhood friend, guitarist Jody Echols, as well as the album’s producer, Bruce Botnick (who also remastered the latest version of the album), and Los Angeles arranger David Angel. But when all is said and done, it was Lee’s overall vision, some of the best rock compositions ever made, and a set of stark lyrics that made Forever Changes the masterpiece it is.
By the time that I’m through singing
The bells from the schools and 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’ll see it turn to gray
And you can call my name
I hear you calling my name
– “A House Is Not A Motel”
Not only that, Forever Changes is a complete artistic package – from its title (at one point it was contemplated that ‘love’ be added to it, but it works even better this way), to the cover, with a very psychedelic, flower power painting of the band’s faces, to the back cover photo of the band with Lee holding a broken flower pot. In many ways it matches the overall music and storyline(s) that are of the album itself. You would have to really think hard to come up with similar statements and you probably wouldn’t even be able to pass five fingers on one of your hands.
Can Dark Visions and Paranoia Make Brilliant Pop Music?
It didn’t start out so well though. During that time the band was living and preparing their music, fittingly enough, in an LA mansion that was previously owned by Bela Lugosi, the actor that will always be associated with the big screen version of Dracula. The preparations for Forever Changes were riddled with problems – the band was addled by drug abuse, there was a continuous relationship between Lee and McLean, who wanted more of his songs to be recorded and played, and Lee himself seemed to be sensitively tuned in to what was going on around him, not in LA, but in the world in general.
Preparing the songs for the album, Lee’s vision grew darker and darker, and he became convinced that there’s an impending disaster to happen. That the album he was working on will be the last one he will ever make, and that his world, and the entire world as a whole, would soon meet its impending demise. His bitterness was compounded by the fact that he wasn’t getting the recognition he deserved and that The Doors, a band he personally recommended to Elektra, was receiving greater recognition and critical acclaim.
In the morning we arise and
Start the day the same old way
As yesterday the day before and
All in all, it’s just a day like
All the rest so do your best with
Chewing gum and it is oh so
Waiting on the sun
– “The Daily Planet”
In preparing the recordings, it was first slated that Neil Young, Lee’s choice, would produce it. However, at the last minute, Young copped out, and LA veteran producer Bruce Botnick, who worked with almost everybody from The Beach Boys and Rolling Stones, to, ahem, The Doors, stepped in to fill those duties. When the recording sessions started, the band themselves were in no shape to record; overwrought with drugs, and with almost no knowledge of the songs themselves, they were practically useless.
Botnick brought in the Wrecking Crew, a set of mostly seasoned LA session musicians with whom he worked alongside with Brian Wilson. They did two songs on the album, forcing Lee to pull the band out of the sessions and taking them back to the mansion to really learn the songs. This was also the beginning of a love/hate relationship between Botnick and Lee throughout the entirety of the recording process. While they were able to work in unison most of the time, including the decision to bring in arranger David Angel who contributed to some of the masterful string and horn arrangements on the album, the tension rose, and Botnick left furious before its completion. One of the key issues that Lee had was the fact that it was Bryan McLean’s song, “Alone Again Or”, that was chosen as the first single (it turned out to be the best-known Love song). Lee’s ‘revenge’ was to level the sound of his and McLean’s vocals on the final recording, making the song what it really is.
Sitting on the hillside
Watching all the people die
I’ll feel much better on the other side
I’ll thumb a ride
– “The Red Telephone”
In the end, the band was able to pull themselves together enough to do the songs the justice they deserved. While the music itself is built on the solid folk music base Love and Lee came from, it combined practically every element that was prominent and needed to make it shine – from intricate tempo changes and shifts to crunching guitar solos by Echols to Lee’s and McLean’s vocals.
But, it is the combination of that music with Lee’s stark dystopian images that not only made it work then, but it’s what makes it as relevant as it is today, some 50 years later. Whether it is “The House Is Not A Motel”, “Red Telephone”, “The Daily Planet”, or the closer “You Set The Scene”, Lee’s lyrics are precise and to the point, dark, biting, and above all, visionary.
Fate Forever Changes
When the album came out by the end of 1967, more or less nothing happened with it, except a bit of a splash in Europe, particularly Great Britain. Maybe it was no wonder why though… America was still overwhelmed by the hippie dream, while Europe was slowly waking up to what was going to happen there in 1968 with student riots, particularly in France.
Lee’s death wasn’t as imminent as he predicted, but he was overwhelmingly disappointed. The critical appeal and its almost immediate influence on other rock musicians (it is said that Forever Changes was actually one of the biggest inspirations for The Doors’ Waiting For The Sun) didn’t help. He disbanded Love as a result, although he did make four more albums under the moniker. The quality was patchy, and not even musical contributions from Hendrix could help much.
Basically, it was all downhill from then, until, under the pressure from ongoing paranoia, Lee fired his gun during a quarrel with a neighbor. He got sentenced and jailed and since he had prior convictions (drug possession), he was sentenced to 11 years, of which he served six. It should be noted that it was later found that the prosecutor in his case was guilty of misconduct.
Through the decades, and particularly during his incarceration during the ’90s, his reputation and that of Forever Changes continually grew and upon his release, and despite his illness, Lee took to the road with longtime fans and supporters, LA band Baby Lemonade, with whom he performed a series of concerts, playing the entirety of the album.
Arthur Lee and Bryan McLean might be gone, and Love (the band) is no more, but 50 years later and the legacy of Forever Changes remains – and in these times it might have more relevance than ever before.
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
There are places that I am going
This is the only thing that I am sure of
And that’s all that lives is gonna die
And there’ll always be some people here to wonder why
And for every happy hello, there will be good-bye
There’ll be time for you to put yourself on
– “You Set The Scene”
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