What a phenomenal year 1967 was for popular music: that one 12-month period witnessed the release of debut albums from the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, Leonard Cohen, Procol Harum, the Velvet Underground, the Bee Gees, Pink Floyd, Laura Nyro, Traffic, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and Janis Joplin (with Big Brother and the Holding Company). As if that weren’t enough, the year brought such other standout LPs as the Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxter’s, the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, and Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. I could go on.
It’s no wonder that a few classics got lost amidst all that activity—such as Love’s Forever Changes, which undoubtedly also suffered from group leader Arthur Lee’s refusal to perform at the Monterey International Pop Festival in July of 1967 or to tour to promote the album, which came out on November 1. Half a century later, at any rate, Forever Changes remains one of the most memorable records of the entire rock era. Like, for example, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, it seems to occupy a world of its own and is not particularly reminiscent of anything else from its time. Moreover, it feels just as fresh today as it did upon its release.
The first rock group ever signed to the Elektra label—which had previously been known for first-rate folk acts like Tom Paxton, Tim Buckley, and Tom Rush—Love showed promise from the start. Their eponymous debut and its follow-up, Da Capo, both from 1966, include essential music; but it is with Forever Changes, their third album and the last with the original lineup, that they hit the ball out of the park.
The record represents one of the best blends of folk and rock up to that point and is also notable for its brilliant use of strings and sparing but extremely effective south-of-the-border horn arrangements. Moreover, the songs—nine by Lee plus two by guitarist Bryan MacLean, including the classic “Alone Again Or”—feature complex, absorbing melodies and intriguing lyrics that sound as engaging after a hundred listens as they do the first time around.
Lee’s verses could be cryptic, to put it mildly. He did throw in occasional lines that made sense and reflected the times, such as “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow” and “They’re locking them up today, they’re throwing away the key / I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?” More often, though, Lee’s impressionistic lyrics sound like the result of an LSD trip: “At my house I’ve got no shackles / You can come and look if you want to / In the halls you’ll see the mantles / Where the light shines dim all around you / And the streets are paved with gold / And if someone asks you, you can call my name.” No, I don’t know what he’s driving at here but the vocal and guitar-based music are delivered with such urgency that these lines have become imprinted in my brain; I didn’t have to look them up to write them down.
Bruce Botnick, who produced the album with Lee, apparently deserves much credit for its success. Botnick, who engineered Love’s first two albums and also worked with Buffalo Springfield, brought in session musicians from L.A.’s famous so-called Wrecking Crew. (He also tried to bring in Neil Young, who apparently wound up playing little or no role.) Forever Changes’ “And More Again” and “The Daily Planet” feature the Crew’s Carol Kaye on bass guitar, Don Randi on keyboards, Billy Strange on electric rhythm guitar, and Hal Blaine on drums. Randi also adds piano on “Old Man” and “Bummer in the Summer” and plays harpsichord on “The Red Telephone.” The participation of these pros reportedly inspired Arthur Lee’s cohorts to do their best work on the remaining tracks.
The handsomely packaged Forever Changes: 50th Anniversary Edition (a release limited to 15,000 numbered copies) does justice to this classic recording. The package devotes two of its four CDs to excellent remasters of the original stereo and mono albums. (I often find mono mixes superfluous but given the importance of the music and the extent of the differences between the two mixes here, I appreciate having both.) A third disc offers alternate stereo mixes of the original LP and “Wonder People (I Do Wonder),” an outtake from the session, while a fourth CD collects 14 related recordings, among them the single versions of “Alone Again Or” and “A House Is Not a Motel”; a cover of Sam the Sham’s “Wooly Bully” from the sessions; a demo called “Hummingbirds” that evolved into “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This”; and backing tracks for “A House Is Not a Motel,” “Live and Let Live,” and “Wonder People (I Do Wonder).”
The package also includes the original album on vinyl and a DVD that features a high-resolution version of Forever Changes plus a rare video of “Your Mind and We Belong Together,” a period single. An LP-sized 16-page booklet presents detailed notes about how the record came to be, track-by-track notes, and session credits.
For longtime fans, this should add up to a perfect package. For newbies, it will be a revelation.
P.S. After spending some time with the Forever Changes box, you’re going to want more. Start with the group’s self-titled, endlessly playable debut, plus Da Capo, which contains a self-indulgent 18-minute jam but also half a dozen instant classics; and the excellent Four Sail. Then move on to The Forever Changes Concert (both CD and DVD), w88 slotsComplete Forever Changes Live, and Coming Through to You: The Live Recordings (1970-2004). If you’re not a serious fan after all of this, you may need to see an audiologist.
Tom Russell, Old Songs Yet to Sing. I’ve been shouting from the rooftops for about four decades that Tom Russell’s records add up to one of the greatest buried treasures in American folk. His slightly gravelly vocal work, which exudes emotion, is consistently masterful, as are his rich lyrics and indelible melodies. I own about three dozen of the albums he has produced since the mid 1970s; and if I had to pick 20 key tracks, my list would be quite similar to the program on this disc, which contains new recordings of some of Russell’s favorite material from throughout his career. Recorded in Austin over just two days with vocal and guitar backup by longtime pal Andrew Hardin, the album includes such classic story songs as “Gallo Del Ciello,” “Angel of Lyon,” “St. Olav’s Gate,” “Navajo Rug,” and "Walking on the Moon.” Russell alone wrote a dozen of the tracks; the rest are collaborations with such old friends as Katy Moffatt, Ian Tyson, Dave Alvin, and Bob Neuwirth. If you buy one folk album this year, make it Old Songs Yet to Sing.
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, The Complete Capitol Singles: 1967-1970. The Omnivore label continues its Buck Owens reissue series with this collection, which includes both sides of every single he released from 1967 through 1970. Owens already had a dozen consecutive chart-toppers and numerous other hits to his credit at the beginning of this period, but he was far from finished: these four years produced seven more number ones and many additional hits. (In fact, only two of the 36 songs here failed to chart.) Like Merle Haggard, Owens was a key proponent of the back-to-basics Bakersfield sound, which influenced countless country artists. This solid collection helps explain why.
Jackson Emmer, Jukebox. Jackson Emmer wrote or cowrote all the material on this melodic and lyrically rich album, which finds him occupying an often-lighthearted space that variously recalls John Prine, Guy Clark, and Roger Miller. Emmer, who hails from Colorado, plays guitar, bass, and mandolin and is accompanied at various points by a trumpet player, a fiddler, a drummer, and a harmonica player. But the instrumentation is relatively sparse and studio embellishments are few, if any, which is part of the album’s charm: the songs are strong enough to stand on their own, without a lot of backup, and the record sounds like the product of a living room jam session. Country seems to be at the root of most of this, but you can also hear the influence of pop, rock, folk, jazz, and honkytonk.
Speedbuggy USA, Kick Out the Twang. A hard-driving cover of the Monkees' “Last Train to Clarksville opens this ninth album from the L.A.-based Speedbuggy USA, offering an early clue that this so-called cowpunk group mean business. What kind of business is hard to sum up, though, because there’s a lot of genre hopping here, from barroom honkytonk to rock and roll to country ballads. The album, which is due out July 6, includes a few missteps in my view, but at its best, such as on the catchy “Shaky Town” and the upbeat, mandolin-flavored “Long Gone,” this is lots of fun.