I have not always been kind to hippies. Their constant bleating about peace, love and understanding did not sit well with my general and proven belief that most human beings suck. That said there is a certain innocence and beauty to the psychedelic hippy movement that flows into their creative exploits. The art, music and fashion of the heyday of the hippy era, and that perfect yet fragile moment of the Summer of Love draws others into that overwhelming feeling that everything is going to be ok, just as long as we all ‘love one and other right now’.
Love is the Hippy Law . . . love, good music, freedom and psychedelic adventures into what happens to a mind when the doors of perception are pushed open by a little chemical change in the peace, love and understanding balancing act. The act of empathy and compassion, love for all things and a desire for the end of suffering, war and violence underline that organic impetus of the psychedelic movement. It is, therefore fitting that Love, Arthur Lee’s groundbreaking group of merry men, produced the finest psychedelic album of all time, Forever Changes. 1967, the summer of love had been and gone and winter had set in. It was a unique moment in time, yet the essence of that summer was captured and distilled by Love, and can be replayed at will. Forever Changes is a very special album, it was not the soundtrack to that summer of love, rather the recording of it, in both its glory and its sadness. The Hippy Dream had a dangerous undercurrent, the war in Vietnam was killing young American men and Vietnamese people, and if only everyone realized that we don’t hate each other at all, that we all deserve a life of no suffering and no pain and no murders or government sponsored death machines, if only everyone dropped that bitter pill of love, then we could all get ‘back to (Joni Mitchell’s) Garden’ that CSYN sung about in her song, Woodstock, at that famous festival.
Part of the charm of Forever Changes is the fact that the lyrics are not sugary bites of fairytale charms and elven bowers. The lyrics recognize the darkness and move everything a bit further into the light, into that golden glow of sunshine superman tabs and friendly fungal volunteers to the cause of enlightenment. Society can’t be changed without recognizing ‘the sirens and the accidents’ of The Daily Planet. Not only are the lyrics the right blend of surreal and hopeful, dark and light, fear and joy, innocence and wisdom, wide-eyed childlike wonder and world weary sadness, questioning and affirming, but they are married to some of the most beautiful music in rock and roll history. Love reached their apex in this album, the band torn apart by the pitfalls of living, rock and roll andmoreagain to use Lee’s perfectly descriptive phrase, never kissed the sky quite as stunningly again. Like the summer of love, Love the band had it’s moment in time, and when it was gone, that bubble popped, nothing could ever be the same. The garden had overgrown, and the excesses of the 70s kicked in.
The organic growth of Forever Changes mirrors the tangled psychedelic vines of the front cover. The songs coalesce and grow from each other, forming the whole of the collection. The opening track Alone Again Or introduces a level of uncertainty, Arthur sings with certainty that he ‘will be alone again tonight my dear’, whilst the title reminds us that this is not necessarily the case. The fickle lover of the song, stands him up, to the accompaniment of spanish style guitars and the jingle jangle freewheeling of the melody which twists and turns, introducing the classic brass horn sounds that make this album so instantly recognizable. The summer of love, with all those infinite possibilities for human interaction “you know that I could be in love with almost everyone, I think that people are the greatest fun!” pushes its way into view, before fading away into the next track.
Love was a mixed race group, and back in 1967 some racist venues would not even let the band play. The white band, The Doors, was promoted in front of Love by their record label, and the band given the undeserved reputation for not wanting to tour. It was not that they didn’t want to, it was that the hostility made it dangerous, and the record label made it financially impossible. Johnny Echols, speaking to The Guardian newspaper, said:
“We didn’t refuse to tour,” he says. “It was difficult because we were multiracial in the mid-60s, so there was no way we could play the south and midwest, there was so much racial hostility out there. Also, Elektra, then a small, independent folk label, put all their money behind promoting the Doors, a band Arthur and I encouraged them to sign.Johnny Echols, The Guardian, 4th July 2022
Love was a brave band, but more than that, they were a beautiful band, forging their psychedelic path of love, in their own 1967 Los Angeles milieu. Track two takes on the Vietnam War and the draft, taking a dark turn for such a pretty folk-soaked album. Arthur sings ‘you can call his name’, but in ‘his house’ there ‘are no shackles’, referencing how those who refused the draft were sent to prison. Arthur’s band’s world is one of street ‘paved with gold’ where the light sits softly. The quiet pacifist dignity, alongside the steadfast acknowledgement of the blood and the useless fighting makes this anti-war song a personal, not a preachy exercise in ’60s pacifism.
When compared to The Beatles’ psychedelic offerings Forever Changes is a much more complete and satisfying album.
Hold up With A Little Help From My Friends, the most well known track from the album, covered by the late great Joe Cocker, against “Maybe the People would be the times or between Clark and Hillsdale”. I dare you, play one against the other. Both odes to friendship and hanging with the boys. Honestly ask yourself which has aged better, which is more interesting. I just can’t give it to Lennon and McCartney. Great psychedelia has that childlike edge, the Beatles tip over into just plain childish. There is no dark side, there is no trip to the journey, they have precisely no edge at all. “What would you do if I sang out of tune” ask the Beatles. I would raise my hands joyously into the air and feel like I wasn’t watching an old episode of some 60s kids show! They don’t make music that challenges, they don’t make music for grown ups. I might give them the White Album, but really, there is better stuff out there.
Maybe the People, takes you along with Arthur for a trip out, to places they play his tunes, to talk to friends who tell them they have girls, but they will catch up with him later, crowds, saved seats and wonderings about race in the United States. Arthur writes lush psych-folk for the lost children, the hippies and the street urchins. Arthur is real, the Beatles are just a snarky guy who got shot, the nicest guy in music, and the other two, they have not aged well, the music hasn’t aged well. It is the preserve of instrumentals, of uncool dances for old folks, and cheesy variety shows, it is aunties dancing at weddings with their plump sisters, sweating in the heat and getting tipsy on the sherry. Just one more dear! The Beatles are not cool.
Forever Changes is infused with an Indian raga sound, lush mariachi trumpets, layered guitars, and is a perfect snapshot of free love California at the height of the ’60s. Let’s face it, The Beatles never really said anything particularly deep. Within You Without You? Give me a break! Free me from the tyranny of The Lonely Heart’s Club Band! What did the Beatles do? Smoke a joint with Dylan, make some girl’s scream, drop some acid, and foreshadow the Kinks British whimsy before the Kinks got beyond those three driving chord speed-driven anthems.
Meanwhile, in the real world of psychedelia, Arthur and the boys were getting freaky. No When I am 64 twee nonsense. Instead, “wrapped in their armor” the Love boys were making music that was more serious, more grown up, darker, deeper. They were going andmoreagain. Sweet and innocent without the cutesy. I wonder if it is a British thing, this uniquely childlike devotion to village greens, and well behaved innocence. Let’s face it, the Beatles never really get sexy. They built lives on being safe objects of desire for teenage girls to scream at, and did very well from it too, but best album of all time? Best psychedelia offering of the golden year of 1967? “It is all so repetitious” sings Arthur, and I have to agree with him.
Andmoreagain is a pretty little acid-soaked love song, so perfectly wrought that I almost feel I could look out of my San Franciscan window and see 1967 and all the hippies and the fragile hope that things might stay in that little bubble of hopefulness. “And you don’t know how much I love you”, Arthurs voice rings out with a breakable quality, a vulnerability that was missing from The Doors. Elektra not promoting the band was an act of violence in itself.
The Red Telephone gets surreal. The song opens conventionally enough, ‘sitting on a hillside’, but in classic Love style takes a dark turn, as he is ‘watching all the people die’. The music catches in on itself twisting around the little runs and riffs, as if it is trying to be the aural manifestation of some Circus Circus Hunter S Thompson-esque trip into fear and loathing. Skin gets painted ‘yellow’ or ‘white’, names are lost or repurposed, with Arthur intoning solemnly: “I feel real phony when my name is Bill…or was that Phil?” The desperate cadence of “I don’t know if I am living of if I am supposed to be”, is heartbreaking. Possibly not what you want to listen to while tripping, unless the listener wants to take a trip into the dark side. The cute little bon mots, pepper the song, fixing it in time and place and giving us a sense of the personalities we are dealing with. “If you want to count me, count me OUT!” sings Arthur, but it is the outro that makes this song.
They’re locking them up today
They’re throwing away the key
I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?
We’re all normal and we want our freedom
Freedom… freedom… freedom… freedom
All God’s Children Gotta Have their Freedom!The Red Telephone, Arrthur Lee, Love. Forever Changes.
Freedom. That is what this album is all about really. It was an era where freedom was possible. People in 1967 were not hung up on the merry-go-round of social media, which has brought about so much connection, but also so much suffering to this modern post-internet world. As much as I hate to sound like I belong to an even older generation than I do, that which binds us together has become weakened and gone hostile. Freedom is almost impossible when we are willingly documenting the minutiae of our lives in tiny fragments, not writing or singing it out like we used to. We have both gained and lost so much. We ARE all ‘normal’ and I believe the average human soul longs for freedom, even if we are sold control in the guise of ‘safety’.
Forever Changes is a call not to arms, but to freedom. It is a call to love, and to live and to look round at all the ‘plastic Nancy’s’ of your neighborhood and say hello to each other. It is a request to sit on hills and not be phony with each other. It is stating its pacifist case beautifully, with lush strings, guitars and the most beautiful horn work in rock and roll. Arthur Lee and his band, all beautiful people who existed and continue to exist in some form or other in an imperfect world. Fame, fortune, drugs, even a band member of the proto-Love group, Grass Roots, Bobby Beausoleil getting involved in the Manson Family murders and falling absolutely into the dark side of the summer of love hippy scene, are all just symptoms of a group of men, living their imperfect lives in a world that moved in strange ways around them. Bobby chose hatred, not freedom, but the rest of the band chose to live and live well. Arthur Lee, passed away in 2006, remains a counter-culture hero, his work in music and in how he chose to live his life an exercise in the inspiration of Freedom.
Johnny Echol’s guitar is a thing of great beauty on this album, he knew when to lay it on and when to make it sparse and poignant. Stuart-Ware’s drums drove the engine, combined with Forssi’s gorgeous driving bass sound. Bryan McClean’s added vocals and guitar weaving in and out of Echol’s lead work completed the magic. The sound was organic, earthy, alive, not mechanical. The lyrics never fall into fairytale whimsy, and stay rooted in reality. After all, that is the magickal world we have to move within, and not the one of our dreams. This is an album of hopes and fears, not dreams and nightmares and is much the better for it. It withstands repeat listening, summer days, and jagged-brain moments. The undercurrent of anger, steadfastness and bravery, combined with that whirling psychedelic sound produces a special kind of alchemy. This album is no snack, it is a solid meal of good vibes in bad times, and that is needed more today than it was even in the dark days of the Vietnam War era.
For a moment, back in 1967, Love were the hottest band out there. They should have been promoted every bit as much as The Doors, but their relative lack of commercial success does not detract from the fact that Forever Changes is the most beautiful, perfect and lush piece of psychedelia ever to grace the soundwaves. Arthur Lee and the band dared to question whether love could change everything, whether the hippy movement could overcome the ‘bells of war’, and in looking at this special era with open eyes, they produced something not just beautiful, but also important. This album made me realize that Love is a personal choice that you can’t force on others. All we can do is our individual best to love one and other right now, in a world that often fails those ideals, and try and see if that love catches up that positive energy and spreads.
We could all do with andmoreagain of compassion and empathy towards each other, instead of the point scoring and the phony virtue signaling of 2023. Perhaps it is time to bring out Forever Changes and see if anyone else wants some freedom. . .