If the idea of listening to a 60s band named Love doesn't appeal to you, it's understandable. The combination of the "L" word with that particular decade conjures up a variety of unpleasant musical images: earnest yet bland folk protest ditties, dippy pop paeans to peace on earth, naive free-love homilies. Though the late 60s produced some truly great rock 'n' roll, there was no shortage of simpleminded drivel wallowing in Age of Aquarius shtick.
Ironically, Love was a different story. Where most bands intoned overt political slogans and messages of brotherly love, Love's lyrics were often cryptic, dark, and intensely personal. Likewise, their music never fit snugly into the prominent styles of the day. It was too terse to be psychedelic, too restrained to be hard rock, and too odd to work as pure pop. It was idiosyncratic--like its chief architect, Arthur Lee.
In the mid-60s Lee was an anomalous figure in the burgeoning California rock scene. Along with Sly Stone, he was one of its few black participants. He was an eccentric character who managed to wow acquaintances with his allegedly extravagant use of LSD, even in a milieu where drugs were commonplace.
In 1965, after seeing the Byrds in an LA club, Lee formed Love with a bunch of local musicians. They became a major attraction around town and were one of the first rock bands signed to the Elektra label. A year later their eponymous debut hit the stores.
Love was an impressive first outing. Suffused with folky melodies and the peal of electric 12-string Rickenbackers, the record merged the Byrds' trademark jangle with a more aggressive attack. The band gave Burt Bacharach's "My Little Red Book" a blunt, garage-rock treatment, while their acoustic dirge "Signed D.C." conveyed the thoughts of a dying junkie with unsparing bleakness.
Though the record sold well, Love didn't soar to stardom like the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, or Jimi Hendrix. Whereas Jim Morrison, Grace Slick, and Hendrix possessed flamboyant, commanding personalities, Lee was more reclusive and withdrawn. While he impressed those around him with his talent and intelligence, he seemed to enjoy keeping those qualities close to the vest. He showed little interest in becoming a rock shaman or a spokesperson for his generation, and his band was similarly retiring. Though they frequently played live early on, Love rarely toured after their initial success.
When Love's second record, Da Capo, appeared in 1967, it bore little similarity to either its predecessor or anything released that year. It boasted a set of strikingly unique songs. The opener, "Stephanie Knows Who," was a manic, waltz-time blitzkrieg of guitar, harpsichord, and horns that featured a freely improvised bridge section. The furious "7 and 7 Is" offered a punkish rave-up, while "The Castle" mutated a simple folk tune into an odd, extended instrumental coda. The 19-minute "Revelation" may have been rock music's first side-long epic.
Even more surprising were the lyrics. The romantic odes and mild protest verses on Love had been supplanted by stanzas of strangely evocative imagery, as in the following lines from "7 and 7 Is":
If I don't start crying it's because I have got no eyes
My Bible's in the fireplace and my dog lies hypnotized
Through a crack of light I wasn't able to find my way
I'm trapped inside of night but I want day!
On the band's next record, Forever Changes, Lee revealed himself to be a masterful songwriter. Forever Changes was a large-scale, highly conceptual record in the manner of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Who's Tommy. However, where these records (and most other late-60s rock) indulged in sometimes questionable pomp and circumstance, Lee's epic was a study in understatement.
Forever Changes was a mostly acoustic song cycle tastefully embellished with brief string or brass passages. There were no sitars, no psychedelic jams, no futuristic studio effects, no "big statements." Instead the songs were replete with propulsive energy and unexpected twists and turns. "Live and Let Live" moved from simmering menace to seething outrage with perfectly plotted modulations. And on "The Red Telephone," Lee pulled together seemingly disparate song fragments to produce an unforgettably tuneful yet sinister piece. Many of the songs on this album featured gorgeous melodies, like "Andmoreagain," one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs I've ever heard.
The lyrics were equally arresting and unusual. Unlike the wistful introspection of Pet Sounds or the acid-addled whimsy of Sgt. Pepper's, Forever Changes enveloped the listener in an atmosphere of surrealistic paranoia. The ironically titled "Live and Let Live" begins with the lines:
The snot has caked against my pants
It has turned into crystal
There's a bluebird sitting on a branch
I guess I'll take my pistol
I've got it in my hand
Because he's on my land.
And the ominous "The Red Telephone" opens and closes with:
Sitting on a hillside
Watching all the people die
I feel much better on the other side...
...They're locking them up today
They're throwing away the key
I wonder who it'll be tomorrow
You or me.
Unfortunately Forever Changes was the beginning of the end. As his original band disintegrated, Lee's music slowly lost its punch. Still, the next two records, Four Sail and Out Here, weren't without great songs. "August," "I Still Wonder," and "Willow Willow" featured some of his most sparkling melodies and thoughtful lyrics. After recording the aptly named False Start in 1970, Love faded away.
Love Story distills the band's career into a double-CD package that vividly underscores Lee's formidable yet quirky talent. Though compilations are often open to second-guessing, Love Story nails the band's high points with almost unerring accuracy. It includes the very best songs from Love, side one of Da Capo, the entire Forever Changes, and assorted highlights from the final three LPs. The exclusion of later gems like "Gather 'Round" and "Nothing" is a shame, but those are rare misses. Love Story confirms that Lee was one of rock's most gifted and original artists, and his status as a cult figure has kept his distinct music a secret far too long.