This is the first of a five-part series where I look back at seven of my favorite albums from one of rock’s most storied years, 1967, and how they hold up 50 years later.
Love were the original kings of the Sunset Strip scene before they were eclipsed in popularity by their biggest fans, The Doors. Following two essential garage-rocking classics released in 1966 (Love in March, Da Capo in November), Elektra Records gave the band a large amount of studio time to craft their third album, Forever Changes, which dropped in November 1967. Elektra anticipated that Forever Changes would be a masterpiece, buying up presumably expensive billboard space in front of the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood months in advance of the album’s release.
Like Love’s first two albums, Forever Changes was a hit with critics and in their hometown of Los Angeles, but didn’t do so well in the rest of the United States. Love’s self-titled debut and Da Capo had both birthed Top 40 hits (the proto-punk classics “My Little Red Book” and “7 and 7 Is,” respectively), but no singles from Forever Changes made an impact. The album fared a bit better in the U.K. than it did in the U.S.A. But the record’s downer atmosphere was seriously out of touch with 1967’s hippy-dippy flower power trends. And with some of the most impenetrable lyrics you’ll hear on a pop record this side of a Steely Dan album, Love’s third LP never had great prospects to connect with a mass audience. This was an album doomed from the start to be a critical favorite, only to be appreciated by audiences years later.
In 1989 and 1990, I was a 16-year-old discovering a lot of new music, and one of the many genres I was into could be roughly called “the psychedelic ’60s.” I was reading as much rock criticism as I could get my hands on, and Forever Changes was always noted by critics as a masterpiece. This was clearly a record I had to have. Even though I worked all throughout high school, the retail price of a new CD was about one-third of my weekly income, so I ended up opting to buy the album on cassette when I came across it; it was about 40% less than the CD. (I’ve since come to find out that the 1987 Elektra CD sounds like crap, like a lot of catalog titles released early in the CD era, so I’m glad I saved some money and got a better sounding copy of the album.)
Suffice it to say that I was not immediately enraptured by Forever Changes. The quieter tunes sounded somewhat in the same ballpark as 1967 psychedelia to me, thanks to a generous dose of Sgt. Pepper-ish horns. But overall, sonically this was something quite different from its contemporaries. And then there are those lyrics. “It’s getting better all the time,” this was not. In fact, what my teenaged self could comprehend was that these were tunes about how it’s getting worse all the time. I couldn’t pinpoint it in exact lyrics at the time, but the feeling I got from this album was of someone locked in their bedroom because they feared an impending apocalypse. I knew this much: this was a bum trip.
I eventually came around to Forever Changes, finally understanding what all the critical hype was about. To say this album is a grower is an understatement, but it also helps that even if it doesn’t click on first listen, you do feel the need to give it another chance.
Perhaps the thing that helped me appreciate Forever Changes the most was to go back and listen to the first two Love albums. I recommend this to anyone thinking about getting into Love––don’t start with Forever Changes, despite it truly being their masterpiece. The first two albums are much easier to digest, and work as a primer for frontman Arthur Lee’s persona before one dives into the emotional complications of Forever Changes. The self-titled debut in particular goes down smoother than freshly brewed iced tea on a hot and humid day. It’s just so much fun. Da Capo is sonically very similar but with the addition of some harpsichord. Apocalyptic tracks like “7 and 7 Is” and the lengthy “Revelation” helps one to segue between the debut’s garage-punk rock attitude and Forever Changes‘ meditations on the fall of Babylon (a/k/a the Hollywood Hills, where the members of Love lived together in a house they called “The Castle”).
On Forever Changes, Lee and Love’s other singer/songwriter, Bryan MacLean, predict the end of the Flower Power era, because peace-and-love hippies were staying stoned out of their minds while war raged in Vietnam. The violence of war would soon sneak its way into the counterculture, via Altamont and the other ugly events that led to the end of the 1960s and into the “Me Decade” 1970s. Lee in particular comes across as a sage, sitting in The Castle and looking out on the streets of Los Angeles below, assured that the end of the world is coming soon. In the album’s most gripping moments, Lee looks inward and holds himself accountable for the part he plays in it. On the stunning centerpiece “Maybe the People Would be Times or Between Clark and Hilldale,” the last part of title refers to two cross-streets of Sunset Blvd. where Love would often play. “Here, they always play my song,” Lee desperately sings, “and I wonder if it’s…” Lee leaves out the word “wrong,” but our brains fill in the word for him anyway.
Repeated listens reveal the album’s lyrical durability, complex musicianship, and studio trickery (check out the ending of “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This,” which sounds like a skipping CD, a decade-and-a-half before CDs came out), all of which make for one of the most rewarding albums in rock––1960s or not. Out of all the albums I’ll cover in this series, it also sounds the most contemporary, even more than The Velvet Underground & Nico, which has been an influential touchpoint in every decade since its release.
Forever Changes has been reissued ad nauseam, which doesn’t help things when you have the record collector’s disease like I do. In the picture below is every copy of the album I own: an original mono LP, an original stereo LP, the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL) 45 RPM 2xLP reissue, that cassette that introduced me to the album, the compilations Love Story and Love Songs, both of which contain the album in full, the 2008 2xCD reissue with an excellent alternate mix of the album along with the requisite bonus tracks, and finally the MFSL SACD. With so many versions to choose from, I’ve studied this record a lot and, to my ears, the best digital version is on the Love Story comp, while the best vinyl version (and the best-sounding version, period) is the MFSL 45 RPM 2xLP. (Remember I said record collecting is a disease. It’s true!)