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Music

Arthur Lee, the man who wrote one of the most essential albums of all time: 'Forever Changes'

1967 saw the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but it was also the year that saw the release of an album that was better still. And in many ways, Forever Changes is the more contemporary sounding album, despite the fact that it was steeped in an America recovering from the aftermath of the Vietnam war.

The set’s 11 songs reveal a songwriter who was looking to stretch out of the shackles of an image his country had left him, for a new territory that was ungoverned by fear, ferocity or friendships. Yes, Bryan MacLean contributed to the record (‘Alone Again Or’ is a very fine track), but the heart, soul and intellectual splendour belong to Arthur Lee, a precocious songwriter who hailed from Tenessee. Born an only child to a white father and a mother of African-American and Native-American, Lee gravitated heavily to his mother’s side, and told an interviewer: “I’ve been black my whole life.”

Race was never the point of the work, and so it showed in his fanbase, accruing such genres as pop, folk, baroque and rock. Jimi Hendrix was a fan, as was Robert Plant, and John Squire based The Stone Roses sonics off Forever Changes. With its rough edges, confessional atmosphere, dense and uncompromising production design, Forever Changes was the beginning of a new form of exercise in music, the shimmering guitars servicing the beautiful nihilism Lee and his lyrics espoused.

From the off, the album throws listeners into the middle of the pool of psychedelia, as a pulsating flamenco guitar makes way for a more furious electric solo during ‘A House is not A Motel’s electrifying coda. The drum-heavy ‘The Daily Planet’ bolstered under a fury that is only shades away from garage-rock, while the altogether more hypnotic ‘Andmoreagain’ reminded listeners that there was a beauty to Los Angeles, beneath the hubris and fire that the city was built on.

If ‘Andmoreagain’ discarded most of the rules pop music had left out for Lee, ‘The Red Telephone’ ignored each and everyone completely. Commencing with a shimmering arpeggio, the song soon takes a venture into more idiosyncratic avenues, accruing a collection of bouncy backing vocals, strident strings and a spoken word section that can only be described as “early rap”.

Forever Changes works as a history book, showcasing the possibilities music was capable of, but never at the expense of the audience in question. Lee certainly recognised the power of the music when he spent much of the 2000’s touring with Forever Changes, following a stint in prison. MacLean died while Lee was in prison, ending any possibility of a full band reunion, but Echols joined him onstage, bringing flair and fire to the songs that had long formed the lexicon of modern-day rock.

‘Live and Let Live’, a whirlwind of failed ambition masked in psychosis on gun ownership, offered rock a more mature outlook while his British contemporaries were still extolling the values of a shared embrace on the London bay. “Why can’t you understand,” Lee asks, masking his frustration with a dense, semi-Dylanesque form of gesture. He seems chirpy until the drums kick in, and he reminds listeners of the prisons they build for each other.

It was growing harder to celebrate the 1960s with the frisson that The Beatles demanded. Violence was growing on the American streets, and a war that threw innocent black soldiers onto Vietnamese soil was souring the taste decade for many who experienced it. Indeed, the acidity served them well on their journey, as everyone from The Jesus and Mary Chain to Led Zeppelin borrowed from Love. “Jimmy Page noticed the fact that I had a double-necked guitar,” Echols remembered. “I was probably one of the first rock musicians to play double-necked guitar, there were other country guitar players who played that guitar, but I can’t think of another rock musician before that. He came up to me at a bar one time, I didn’t know who they were, and he was questioning me things like “is it heavy” and things like that. Later, he played a double-necked guitar, so there might be something there. “

While the band as a collective helped cement the record, it’s Lee who emerges as the visionary, not least on the sprawling effort ‘You Set The Scene’, a folk number fuelled by Lee’s agitated, angular vocal performance. Every syllable is sung with commitment, every note is delivered with coherence and the song embodies a fire that works both as a piece of psychedelia and a pastoral rocker par excellence. Better still, the song features one of the album’s more inspired string accompaniment, concocting a powerful track that only grows more powerful with age.

Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is a fine, nay superior, album that holds up with the best of 1960s rock. But it’s no Forever Changes — but what is?