Pop Art Politicians
In discussions of Arthur Lee and Love their debut album is more often than not given short thrift in favor of the admittedly amazing first side of Da Capo and the sublime Forever Changes. The eponymous 1st record is passed over as a tentative first step, the sound of a band still finding their footing, experimenting with styles that they would later refine and cast in sharper detail. And while there is more than an element of truth in these opinions, if pressed to pick one Love album to listen to I would have to go with the first one.
The reasons are many. But first and foremost is how the band at this stage sounds for all the world like a divine synthesis of the punked-up energy of the early Rolling Stones tempered by the jangle, melody and lyrical delicateness of the Byrds. Within my circle this is a merging of styles and flavors forged in highest ether of the heavens. Like peanut butter and chocolate or a dark and tan. Verily and amen, and let them who have ears hear.
The whole record is infused with the excited rush of a band struggling against limitations, a desperate go for the throat energy reminiscent of Dave Davies' guitar solo in 'You Really Got Me'. It's evident right from the start in the way they manhandle Burt Bacharach's 'Little Red Book'. Love dispense with the minor key of the original and rough the song up considerably, Arthur Lee spitting out the lyrics in vengeful disgust. Reportedly Burt hated Love's take on his tune, but you can't please all the people. Throughout the record you can hear the band banging the hell out of their instruments in a joyful mixture of enthusiasm and youthful frustration. It's this tangible energy that elevates a song like 'Can't Explain', which appropriates lyrics wholesale from a relatively obscure Rolling Stones tune, to a whole other level of greatness.
The pace is slowed for 'A Message to Pretty', which despite the overly mannered vocal performance makes it on its sparse lyrical and melodic beauty. The tempo picks back up with the nicely titled 'My Flash on You', an obvious rewrite of 'Hey Joe', which betters it by adding extra amphetamine strut and swagger and a fuzzed out bass. Again the lyrics are spit out with the kind of disgust that anticipates the adolescent fury of punk that would rear its head 10 years on. The anti-drug (heroin?) message of the lyric is unintentionally ironic in light of the crippling effect various substances would eventually have on Arthur Lee's life.
Bryan Maclean's 'Softly to Me', despite its lyrical dippiness, provides a soft interlude to the raw energy which dominates much of this record, a brief and welcome relaxation of tension. It also foreshadows the lounge/Bacharach/Herb Albert elements of the band that contributed in time to Love's over all oddness, a strange touch that would reach it apotheosis on the songwriting and arrangements of Forever Changes.
'Emotions' closes the first side, it's a combination Morricone/surf instrumental that is forever linked in my mind to the film Medium Cool. The song is used repeatedly to mirror the tension in said film, which depicts a reporter investigating racial unrest in Chicago immediately prior to and during the riots of the Democratic Convention of 1968. Emotions' sinister atmospherics and blending of styles make one wish that Love had recorded more instrumentals. And like a question mark it brings the first side of the record to an appropriately open ended close compelling you to flip it over to see what comes next.
Side two jumps off with the mock travelogue 'You I'll Be Following', the kind of catchy throw away tune that transcends itself by standing up to repeated listenings because of rather than despite its incoherence. Gazing follows and its impressionistic lyrics and talk of "pop art politicians" epitomizes the mid-60's cool that is captured so well in the back cover's garden photo shot as well as contemporaneous photos of the Byrds, Bobby Dylan and the Velvet Underground.
That beautiful two-year period, 1965 and 1966, when the freshness of experimentation, the first flush of intoxication and subsequent realization of untapped possibilities was telegraphed so completely and concretely in the look and sounds of the best bands of the day. A wonderful collision of style and content, which led to the deceptively effortless sound of those three minute pop masterpieces (as if they always existed only waiting to be discovered). Forever cool blueprints of sound and style, elegant but casual, neat but with a hint of wildness. Kids just starting to grow their hair out, lots of corduroy and suede, clean lines and attention to detail before the stench of slothful decadence and over indulgence led to hippie burn out and gypsy sloppiness.
A favorite moment in 'Gazing' is Arthur's calling out of "one time now", which elicits only the more raucous strumming of rhythm guitars milling over one another in crazy squiggling lines, like ants in a pile, rather than say a blues guitar solo or some such nonsense. Then the call of "Johnny's turn now" gives us a beautifully simple 12 string guitar solo sounding almost like bag pipes. And after a brief return to the lyric it's all over. Two minutes and forty two seconds, perfect.
'Hey Joe' gives Bryan Maclean the opportunity to demonstrate he can get over, at least somewhat, on a rocking number, though its hard not to imagine Arthur giving the song a more powerful reading. In any case the song appeared to be a requirement for L.A. bands of the time and the version contained here is more than serviceable. But it pales in comparison to the stark picture painted by, 'Signed D.C.' which follows and is one of the most poignant of Love's songs. The song's lyrics based on Arthur and the band's first hand experience with the drug addiction of their former drummer, Don Conka, read as a somber , matter of fact suicide note. The music and the lyrics convey a mood, so bare, forthright and forlorn, that it places you right in the heart of the anguish of the song's main character forcing you to empathize with rather than look down on the his state of sorrowful self-absorption and pity.
The next song 'Colored Balls Falling' is over before its starts, clocking in at just under two minutes. It sounds lyrically like a sketch of apocalyptic disorientation and really ends too soon to leave much of an impression beyond the beautifully clear guitar passage near the conclusion of the song. 'Mushroom Clouds' continues in a similar eschatological vein, paranoia and fear juxtaposed with pretty vocal harmonies and lightly brushed and picked acoustic guitars. And More closes the record and brings everything full circle by revisiting once more the roughed up take on the Byrds that has formed the template for so many of the previous 13 songs.
So while not as eclectic and self assured as Da Capo (itself held back by a side long indulgent misstep) or the obvious finely chiseled masterpiece of Forever Changes, the first Love album still can stand firmly on its feet as a classic in its own right. A snapshot of an era that sounds all the more perfect for its imperfections and remains strangely both of and outside its time
© William Crain 2002