Often regarded by rock critics as one of the greatest albums ever, Forever Changes is certainly one of the most unique, if not enigmatic. Informed by paradox as much as paranoia, the LP is nothing more than one juxtaposition after another, yet a beautifully arranged and choreographed one at that. Led by the highly charismatic Arthur Lee, Love was one of the first racially integrated rock groups of their day (along with The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Electric Flag), a big thing at the time, but fortunately not such an important fact nowadays.
Recorded and released in 1967, Forever Changes was Love’s third album, and remains, without a shadow of a doubt, their best. Yes the Summer of Love was seemingly in full swing, though Lee’s own version of reality was a little too cynical for all those hippies wearing flowers in their hair. Being black for a start probably didn’t help. Flowah Powah is all very well, but the African American experience was often in complete contrast to many white middle class kids who thought that getting high and listening to the Beatles was going to solve most of the world’s problems.
Because many black people had seen the bitter end of town, despite all the hard work that had gone into eradicating segregation, and understood that there was more to life than LSD alone could fix. Therefore it should come as no surprise that Lee’s own view of humanity and social values should turn out to be as compelling as it was complex.
Incorporating elements of pop, psychedelic rock and flamenco, opener “Alone Again Or”, written by guitarist Bryan MacLean, is as sophisticated as anything by the Beatles or the Beach Boys, and a song which simply oozes personality. Likewise “A House Is Not a Motel”, on which Lee’s vocals are restrained though no less fraught with conviction. The heavily orchestrated “Andmoreagain” is a pure case of ‘60s Baroque Pop, pretty to listen to and inoffensive to the ear. The kaleidoscopic tunes continue with “The Daily Planet”, where they sound like an LA version of The Who; the reflective, tender “Old Man”, and “The Red Telephone”, one of the trippiest numbers of the record, including the lyrics “I’ve been here once/I’ve been here twice/I don’t know if the third’s the fourth or if the/The fifth’s to fix/Sometimes I deal with numbers/And if you wanna count me/Count me out.”
Lee’s autobiographical “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale” is one of the more upbeat cuts of the album, replete with quasi-Spanish guitars and a semi-Mariachi brass section obviously designed to uplift the listener’s soul. I’ve never been able to work out the meaning of “Live and Let Live” (apart from what the title itself alludes to), but no matter, because it’s a more than enjoyable piece of psychedelic pottery and another intriguing glimpse into Lee’s distinct interpretation of existence.
“The Good Humour Man He Sees Everything Like This” might be over orchestrated, but doesn’t take away the quality of the tune itself. It’s as if the producers had been listening to too many Beatles albums, believing that orchestration was the key to making hit records (perhaps they ought to have hired George Martin). “Bummer in the Summer” is the flipside to the concept of Hippie Utopia, as if to say that not everything is as it seems. We end with the social/polemical “You Set the Scene”, a song about all and nothing, though a memorable one at that.
Produced by Bruce Botnick (who also produced The Doors), Forever Changes is one of the most singular of LPs ever to have emerged from LA in 1967 (The Doors’ debut being the other). It is a document of its day, and as such, can never be repeated, much less reproduced. Like some cryptic crossword, Lee’s lyrics successfully encapsulate the era in which they were written. A time when nothing made sense and all things seemed. Assassinations, along with America’s increasing involvement in the Vietnam War, meant that many youth were beginning to question the authority of their own government. Bummer in the summer indeed.