The greatest Love of all

Forever Changes is a classic testament to the Summer of Love. Unusually, says Andy Gill, it's actually very good
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Of all the artefacts produced in the original Summer of Love, few if any have stood the test of time with quite the impervious grace of Love's Forever Changes, reissued for the umpteenth time next week.

Of all the artefacts produced in the original Summer of Love, few if any have stood the test of time with quite the impervious grace of Love's Forever Changes, reissued for the umpteenth time next week.

It's a record that tends to appeal to those with a fiercely individual vision - it is, for example, Ken Livingstone's all-time favourite album - and which, decades later, still excites fierce devotion among its adherents. I recall casually mentioning to Julian Cope back around the start of the Nineties that the album had failed to work its magic with quite the aplomb of old when I had recently reviewed its debut CD appearance. With no explanation, my planned interview with Cope was suddenly postponed, then cancelled altogether. I later discovered why when, in an entirely unrelated book, Cope fulminated against an unnamed journalist (yours truly) for the crime of failing to award Forever Changes the full five-star accolade. "Were it an ancient text on a document," he wrote, "it would be hidden from view and spoken of in obscure circles. But because it operates through the medium of Pop Music, it gets tarts like said journalist giving it 8/10."

Clearly, my remark had hit a nerve close to the singer's heart. And, for that matter, my own: Cope's disgust was, though he didn't realise it, roughly proportional to my own disappointment at having to re-evaluate a cherished cornerstone of my youth, an album I had hitherto unswervingly considered a masterpiece fit to set alongside the likes of Blonde on Blonde, The Band and Astral Weeks. But despite my misgivings, Forever Changes still stands as a remarkable achievement, one of the few pop creations that is truly sui generis, existing free of the usual restrictive parameters of style and period. Most records from that era - particularly those from San Francisco, without doubt the headline-hogging epicentre of the hippie explosion - now bear the embarrassed tarnish of second-guessed naivety, along with an often laughably ill-founded belief in their creators' musical abilities. Much less idealistic than their northern California counterparts, the freaks down in Los Angeles tended to be more cynical about the notional new dawn of love and peace, having witnessed at uncomfortably close quarters the Watts Riots a couple of years before.

The key to Forever Changes' greatness is the way it reflects those contemporary social upheavals, vacillating almost from track to track between utopian bliss and apocalyptic dread: for every sun-kissed paean to the West Coast good life such as "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This" and "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale", there would be an ominous harbinger such as the edgy "A House Is Not a Motel" or "The Red Telephone". But the distances between them didn't seem that great, lacquered as they were with string and horn arrangements without equal in pop: most blends of rock and strings still end up as struggles for supremacy between the two conflicting modes, but David Angel's orchestrations here are uniquely integral to the album's mood, rarely overstepping their mark or retreating meekly into the background.

Forever Changes was Love's third album, mostly written by the band's reclusive leader, Arthur Lee, as he gazed down upon the city from his house up in the Hollywood Hills, convinced he was about to die. Lee's jaundiced view of life in La-La Land is realised through songs which relished lyrical trickery, from shock-tactic opening couplets ("Sitting on a hillside/ Watching all the people die" and the cryptic "Oh the snot has caked against my pants/ It has turned into crystal") to Dylanesque coinages which captured the tenor of the times, notably the slogan "We're all normal and we want our freedom" (which was drolly satirised by the Bonzo Dog Band's "We're all normal and we dig Bert Weedon"). Particularly impressive is the way in which Lee's language ingeniously reflected the uncertainty of the times by having different words sung simultaneously ("I can't see you - you're my [heart/face]"), or the way it poignantly evoked the era's heady rush by having the last word of one verse serve as the first word of another ("And here, they always play my songs/ And me, I wonder if they're.../ Wrong or right, they come here just the same").

The music, too, was way beyond Love's previous work, which had attempted to marry the Stones' garage-punk raunch with the fluid melodicism of Bacharach. Eschewing the tortured guitar-heavy histrionics of the age, Forever Changes relied on folksy acoustic guitars, elegant bass lines, subtly forceful drumming and piquant harmonies to animate the songs, with horns and strings providing beautiful, deceptively pointed embellishment. The result is a softly textured surface concealing altogether harsher, tougher sentiments - a true velvet-gloved iron fist of an album whose subtle delights for the most part eluded its intended audience.

Uniquely among the small clutch of albums routinely rated as the "best ever made", Forever Changes has never been a commercial success. Because of Love's reluctance to play outside Los Angeles, the album fared particularly poorly in America, selling fewer copies even than its less-accomplished predecessors. It's thanks only to British perspicacity that the album has endured, its glories being acknowledged widely enough to hoist the album into the Top 30 in 1968, an accomplishment that thereafter ensured its status as a timeless classic. If you've yet to make its acquaintance, the newly expanded edition, featuring extra out-takes and hard-to-get singles, won't disappoint. I'm on my fifth copy. So far.

'Forever Changes' is re-released on Elektra on 19 February