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Monday, April 18, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: Love
The 1960's produced no shortage of idiosyncratic, quirky bands. Bands that never quite transcended cult status, bands who produced work that stands among the best of the decade but remains little known, bands who never rose above the underground, bands who still elicit positive responses from those hearing them for the first time.
Love, from Los Angeles, would have to be considered one of the absolute best of such bands.
In 1966, Love was one of the first wavers in the L.A. psychedelic scene that also produced the Doors; the L.A. band The Byrds was at its peak creative and influential period and played on the same bills. On the surface, Love can almost be described as an unlikely cross between the two; it featured a Byrdsy folk-rock at the core of much of its music, and dabbled in darker psychedelic sonics, like the Doors. But that was merely one of their dimensions; into this stew they also tossed some jazz, blues, flamenco, garage band hard rock, and orchestral pop. The result were three magnificent albums well known to collectors and aging Angelenos, but not to the public at large. They are deserving of rediscovery.
Fronted by charismatic yet enigmatic leader Arthur Lee, who was black, they were one of the very few interracial rock groups. Lee, at the age of 20, had already been hustling in the local music scene for a couple of years when he formed Love in 1965. He had released a couple of singles on his own that went nowhere, including one on Selma, "Luci Baines"/"Soul Food" as The American Four, and had also produced a single for Rosa Lee Brooks that featured little-known sessionman Jimi Hendrix. The band was originally named the Grass Roots, but ceded that name to another L.A. band of the same name, opting for Love instead. On L.A.'s Sunset Strip they played alongside some of the biggest names of the 60's, and quickly developed a devoted following.
Lee was a gifted songwriter, with an understanding of many musical styles. He became the band's chief songwriter, with guitarist Bryon Maclean contributing a couple of songs per album.
They were signed by Elektra records, which specialized in folk and was keen to break into the rock business (they would later sign the Doors). Their first release for the label, Love, appeared in 1966 and earned praise for its melding of Byrds-like folk rock and Stones-ish hard rock. The best example of this is the single, the Burt Bacharach/Hal David penned "My Little Red Book", which remains a top-tier psychedelic punk record; it was a local smash, and charted at #52 nationally. "Signed D.C." was an explicitly anti-heroin song, most likely about original drummer Don Conka, who left the band prior to the Love sessions. The album, which mainly consisted of Lee originals, was a moderate success nationally, reaching #57.
As good as the debut is, it's really with the next two albums that Love really left its mark. The first of these, Da Capo, was released in 1967, and includes their only top-40 hit, "7 & 7 Is", a rollicking rollercoaster ride of punk rock. The single peaked at #33, but the album stalled at #80; hurt most likely by a stubborn refusal to tour.
Da Capo, released in 1967, has an almost perfect A-side. A full-blown psychedelic album, Lee's songwriting had matured and flowered; "She Comes In Colors" is a lush, flute-driven electric fantasy, "Stephanie Knows Who" veers into jazz territory, the multi-part "The Castle" includes a Spanish guitar, McLean's "Orange Skies" is built around the melody line of the guitar solo from the Bryds' "The Bells Of Rhymney". The only thing that mars this otherwise excellent album is "Revelation", the 19-minute suite that takes up side B.
The band. however, was already beginning to dissipate. It was the height of the Summer Of Love, and drug problems rendered the band so useless that Elektra decided to record the next album with sessionmen backing Lee and Maclean; the tearful band was told to take a hike. Two tracks for the next album were completed with session players before the band was able to get a grip and perform properly in the studio. When they did, they came up with one of the greatest albums of the late 60's, Forever Changes.
Constantly chosen by the music press as one of the greatest albums of all time, Forever Changes barely made a ripple in the U.S., peaking at #154 on the charts in 1968; it put in a somewhat better showing in England. This album stands as Lee's crowning achievement, a visionary mix of styles featuring Lee's trembling voice, bizarre psychedelic poetry in the lyrics, shimmering, delicate guitar work, hints of flamenco and jazz, showtune influence, and dark orchestral passages. Maclean contributes to classics of his own, including the signature quasi-flamenco "Alone Again Or". Lee comes up with classics like the folk-rockish "A House Is Not A Motel", the Stones-ey "Bummer In The Summer", the paranoid "The Red Telephone", an anti-war suite "Live And Let Live", and the complex "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This". It's psychedelic, but not in the same way as the hippie bands or the British bands; it has a delicate, understated, flowing quality to it that renders all of their disparate experiments into an apparantly seamless whole. It still makes for fresh listening today.
Following Forever Changes, however, Lee decided to fire the band. In all likelihood, this was done with an eye towards both finding musicians with enough chops to back Lee's vision, and also to get rid of the recurring drug problems that were holding the band back. Whatever the reason, this decision marked the sudden end of Lee's ascendency as a critical musician; as early as the next album, Lee's talents seemed to have deserted him.
Four Sail, released in 1969, was the first album released with the new Love, little more than an amalgamation of sessionmen. Lee's songwriting and singing, which take on an urgent, manic bent, are still in good form here, but the new band leans heavy on their instruments; Four Sail, despite some good songs, sounds like pedestrian hard rock in too many places, losing the eclectic vituosity that graced their first three releases. The album did little to help Love's waning commercial fortunes, peaking at #102. Out Here, from 1970, followed in a similar hard-rock style, with Lee's songwriting skills deteriorating farther, the band given over to long psychedelic jams and Steppenwolf-sounding rockers. While Lee remained quirky and unpredictable, neither of these albums offered any of the transendent pleasures of Da Capo or Forever Changes. Out Here peaked at #176.
Lee must have known things weren't working out; for Love's next album, he moved to London for the recording sessions, and met up with Jimi Hendrix, who he talked into guesting on the opening track of False Start, called "The Everlasting First". A loose, bluesy jam, edited together from a longer session, the song works well; it remains one of Hendrix' last works. "Keep On Shining" is another good song from the album, a peace and love sentiment that found a place in Lee's solo live shows. But by this point, Love no longer had the critics on their side, and the album managed a weak #184 on the charts.
And that, for all intents and purposes, was that. Lee cut a solo record in 1972, Vindicator, that failed to chart, and then revived the Love name for what essentially was another solo disc, Reel To Real in 1974. neither charted nor received any positive critical notice. A final solo disc, Arthur Lee, appeared in 1977, and since then Lee has been limited to sporadic performing, both solo and with new versions of Love. Some of these latter-day shows have been released on CD and sound pretty good, but they're little more than exercises in nostalgia. Lee spent 6 years in prison in the 1990's for firing a gun at a neighbor during an argument; he had other brushes with the law just prior to this incident.
Lee remains an enigma; a hard-to-pigeonhole artist in the 60's, a tragically underachieving solo act in the 70's, a solid oldies performer between trips to jail in the 90's. Lee is currently free, and performing again.
For those curious in exploring Love, Forever Changes is the indispensible record, and Da Capo comes close. Love is also a good pick. For those looking for an overview, Rhino Records' double-disc Love Story, 1966-1972 is an excellent collection.
Listen To Love: She Comes In Colors (1967)