Music Features

Forever Changes... Forever

When I was young, rock ‘n’ roll history was preserved in bargain bins. Cult albums like Forever Changes were discovered as cut-price finds that were passed around between friends, their reputation growing by word of mouth. It helps to explain how this album, which flew under the radar at the time of its release, is now in every best-of-all-time list.

Love seemed to have everything going for them. The core of the interracial group was Arthur Lee and Johnny Echols, two friends from Memphis, Tennessee who saw the light of equal opportunity on the West Coast. From the beginning, they resisted being categorized as R&B artists, setting their sights on the mainstream success achieved by The Byrds and the British Invasion groups. Love’s electrifying gigs at the Whiskey A-Go-Go cemented their reputation as the top L.A. band, securing them a contract with Elektra Records. Their first two albums for the label documented their flowering from folk rockers to psychedelic pioneers, reaping modest hits with My Little Red Book and 7 and 7 Is. A breakthrough seemed to be just around the corner, but it never happened. 

The first sessions for Forever Changes were a disaster. Band members were showing signs of hard-partying burnout. Leader Arthur Lee, who was producing the album with Bruce Botnick, found himself in an awkward situation. It was decided to bring in session musicians, who played on Andmoreagain and The Daily Planet. Self-pride and shame prompted the group to rally around and record the rest of the tracks without ghost players.

The grand vision for the album didn’t end with the basic tracks. Lee and Bryan MacLean were the band’s main songwriters, and this time around their arrangements called for the use of a string section and a brass ensemble. David Angel’s orchestrations add a timeless feel to the songs that is far removed from the acid-test sounds coming from San Francisco. The distance was more than geographical; the songwriting and arrangements are closer in structure to Celtic music, folk, and film soundtracks. A song like Andmoreagain, for instance, has the feel of a brooding Renaissance piece, and the musical landscape keeps shifting with every track. 

Alone Again Or opens the album with a Spanish guitar that take us back to colonial times. Legato strings add tension to the verses, culminating in a majestic trumpet solo. This MacLean composition is one of the few touches of fantasy found on Forever Changes. In contrast, Lee is a realist, and his songs capture the mood of the times, which was less about free love and more to do with the fear of military conscription and the ultimate consequences of the nuclear age.

A House Is Not A Motel is almost bipolar, inviting us to a house where there are no shackles, but this hippie haven won’t save anyone from war’s devastation: “And the water’s turned to blood, and if you don’t think so, go turn on your tub.” Rapid drums and a wailing guitar break bring the apocalyptic message across. 

Shell-shocked vets brought news from the front, and Live And Let Live captures their state-of-mind: “Served my time, served it well / You made my soul a cell.” The Red Telephone is even bleaker, with the president’s hotline as the symbol of Cold War anxiety. There are, however, light moments among the fire and brimstone. Maybe The People Would Be The Times… champions the LA scene with a nimble bossa nova beat. MacLean’s Old Man is a delicate song that celebrates the wisdom of old age, not a prevalent view in youth revolt times. Lee’s Bummer In The Summer comes from the other side of the spectrum, where love affairs are brief and free souls won’t be pinned down by social conventions. Still, a yearning for the innocence of children is found on the wistful chamber pop of The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This

Lee reserves his most complex track for the end. You Set The Scene starts with a fat bass, fast drum strokes, and swift guitar chords, shifts to a slower, more meditative movement, then ends with a brass-band march. These tempo shifts aren’t haphazard in a song that deals with time. Lee’s message is to seize the day and master your own destiny. Maybe he should have followed his own advice.

Forever Changes failed to find a buying public and disappeared from sight. Lee parted company with the rest of the band after its failure, claiming frustration with their dependence on drugs. In truth, the blame could be spread around equally. Love lacked the inclination for controversy that made media darlings of The Doors, their label-mates and rivals. Lee refused to play outside LA, which hampered the album’s promotion in the States and Britain, where it had made the charts. He trudged on with a new version of Love and made some fine albums, but the day was never truly seized. Meanwhile, his beloved LA scene was being transformed by a new power elite of lawyers and managers, and maverick labels like Elektra and Blue Thumb were swallowed by the majors.

Lee struggled to make a living; the eighties were a total washout. Run-ins with the police got him a long stint in prison in 1996. When he got out in 2001, he had every reason to believe the world had forgotten him. But life had a better third act in store. There was a growing interest for Love’s music, with Forever Changes at its center. This time Lee grabbed the opportunity, embarking on tour dates and TV appearances. It gave him pleasure and purpose, even as he fought a life-threatening disease. 

Lee died of acute myeloid leukemia on August 3, 2006. Destiny, that old gambler, still held the trump card. Forever Changes was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008 and added to The National Recording Registry in 2012.