What.s your favorite album?
I’ve been asked that a few times in a career as a music critic that spans 43 years.
Makes sense. After all, I have a massive record collection and have heard many thousands of records. Plus, I’m still curious. I want to hear something that will change, or reinforce, my way of thinking.
As time goes on, that gets harder, so there is a tendency to fall back on records that shaped the values and thus were enormously influential. In short, they’ve stood the test of time.
That’s a reliable bench mark – those records you keep returning to for confirmation as well as comfort.
What’s shocking is how old these records are. The first record I ever owned was You Make Me Feel So Good by The McCoys, won from a Winnipeg radio station about 1966. The first album I bought was Mr. Tambourine Man by The Byrds with money saved from a paper route. Loved The McCoys. You Make Me Feel So Good is teen fodder of its time but the singing, playing, arrangements and production puts it a cut above.
I played Mr. Tambourine Man not long ago and was impressed all over again by its boldness and the talent involved.
In a way, that album opened the floodgates to a lifetime of collecting records and amassing a few favorites.
Check that. Not a few; actually a lot. Many Beatles, Stones and Bob Dylan albums. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds but also Wild Honey and Sunflower. More Byrds, the Beau Brummels, David Bowie, REM, The Clash, Small Faces, Fairport Convention. It’s a big list and would grow longer the more I think about it. My fave group is The Kinks and I haven’t even mentioned their many albums I like.
The favourite, though, is Forever Changes by Love.
I didn’t like it immediately. It seduced me.
It was Love’s third album, the product of turmoil in the band and leader Arthur Lee being convinced he would have a short life although leukemia didn’t get him until 2006.
It was released late in 1967 but I didn’t hear it until late in 1968. By that time I was into the harder, heavier rock of such as Cream, Jimi Hendrix and a new band called Led Zeppelin so the presence of Tijuana Brass-like horns seemed corny.
That’s precisely why Mike Lawton bought it. Mike was studying trumpet at school and was hoping to learn from Forever Changes’ sparse and few brass arrangements. We’d go to his apartment after school, pull out a portable stereo, and plunk on the album, the only “rock” album he had.
My first reaction to hearing it was, “huh?”
That’s not unusual. Over the years I’ve played it for many people hearing it for the first time. “Huh?” they’ll wonder.
It is a one of a kind album and seemingly, deliberately against the grain of many records that came out in the heady year of 1967. After Hendrix, Cream and Zeppilin, Johnny Echol’s guitar solos sounded hokey…and then there was that brass. Not hip; not cool.
Yet increasingly I would get Mike to play me Forever Changes. At first I was intrigued but then I got to love it; it’s individuailty, Arthur Lee’s attitude.. Lee was the first person to fit my understanding of an enigma. Fifty years later, Forever Changes, and Lee, are still a mystery to me, grabbing me in a way I can’t explain.
All Love albums are different, which is part of their sometimes exasperating appeal. Forever Changes was Lee’s masterpiece and he didn’t, refused, to make another like it. For many years, he downplayed the album, but finally not only came to terms with its greatness but celebrated it. Check out the Forever Changes Concert, an amazing live album released in 2003.
Eventually, I bought my own Forever Changes. Four, in fact, and four more CDs. The first CD was stolen along with a bunch of others. Other reissues have offered improved sound and the usual embellishments. The current one is from Rhino and comes with a second disc. It’s unnecessary for anyone just wanting Forever Changes but it can be instructive and the liner notes informative.
Curiously, the best known song, Alone Again Or, is not Arthur Lee’s but Bryan MacLean’s. MacLean was a valuable but minor member of Love. Although he sang on Alone Again Or, Lee provided a second vocal that he put forward in the mix, effectively becoming the song’s lead singer. There aren’t many Love cover versions, apart from a Love/Lee tribute album, but the two that spring to mind, by UFO and The Damned, are disparate but amply show Alone Again Or’s allure and strength.
For years, I thought the record was more complex than it is. Possibly, I was fooled by the orchestration that blankets much of the album, leavening it and making it more attractive at the same time while being a distraction. It’s actually more acoustic based and simple, not folk acoustic and not folk-rock but something driving and full. It speaks well of Love, which was in a shambles at the recording’s outset and the unifying strength of Lee. “Vision” tends to be an over-used word when applied to a songwriter, but Lee definitely had a vision and this gave the album direction.
It comes out in different ways, from the arrangements to Echol’s electric leads to Lee’s cryptic yet occasionally vivid lyrics. I’m still unravelling their meaning but a few images stand out: The snot has caked against my pants stands out, of course, but also mud mixing with blood, the clever lyric construction of Between Clark And Hilldale, Lee’s fatalism as well as its skepticism.
This has lead me to a moment of truth.
I have told you a bit about the band, some of the background of the recording of Forever Changes, how I came to hear the album, my reaction to it and a few of the details that have intrigued me. I can’t say exactly why I love the record. I don’t want to.
I just want to be an adoring fan; I don’t, and can’t, explain the music. Something tells me if I knew the record I would stop appreciating it. A 50 year mystery would be solved.
I like not knowing. I like the mystery. That’s the power and attraction of music. It’s what keeps me curious and searching.