You can read the review online here!
08/26/11 » Vanity Fair
Photo: Herbert Worthington
Love is one of those great 1960s bands that rock critics rhapsodize about and not nearly enough normal people have heard. And yet, unlike the Incredible String Band or the Shaggs, say, or even the late-period Monkees, Love is actually a pleasure to listen to. A fixture on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, the group released several terrific albums and, in 1967, one absolute masterpiece, Forever Changes, which if you’ve never heard you must listen to right away: no album better distills the weird mix of paranoia and exaltation that marked the 60s, and Love did it simply, with gorgeous melodies and compelling musicianship—and nary a phased guitar, backwards tape loop, trippy sound effect, cod raga, or reference to gnomes.
Love went through numerous roster changes, rivaling Fleetwood Mac in that regard, but the constant was Arthur Lee, the group’s lead songwriter and singer, and one of the few African-Americans then or since fronting a band in what had become a “white” idiom—rock. Lee was one of the era’s most singular songwriters and performers, as original as Dylan or Lennon-McCartney. Maybe more so: few lyricists can be as simultaneously obtuse and evocative. (Though, of more recent vintage, Stephen Malkmus comes to mind.)
Oh the snot has caked against my pants
It has turned into crystal
There’s a bluebird sitting on a branch
Guess I’ll take my pistol
I’ve got it in my hand
Because he’s on my land
That reverie—one of my all-time favorite openings to a song—is from “Live and Let Live,” off Forever Changes. As you might have just surmised, Lee would have trouble with drugs and the law in later life and, as was the case with a lot of 60s artists, his muse would become more elusive in the 70s. He hopped around between labels, making records with diminishing artistic and financial returns, tried a solo album, and then, in 1972, put together a new incarnation of Love and set about recording what might have been a memorable comeback album but for the fact that the new label Lee had signed with, Buffalo Records (funded by one of the producers of Hair), folded. Aside from a handful of recordings, Lee wasn’t much heard from across the next three decades, until he was released from prison in 2001 after serving five and a half years on charges of illegally possessing a firearm. He spent the last five years of his life touring with a reformed Love to enthusiastic audiences and critical acclaim before dying of leukemia in 2006.
This brief episode of Behind the Music has been preface to the news that the aforementioned Love comeback album, Black Beauty, is finally getting an official release on High Moon Records (and with much better sound quality than the many bootleg versions). This is not the first coming of Smile or even Chinese Democracy, but it’s an excellent album and a welcome addition to the Love discography, occupying a kind of compromise between the fluid psychedelia of Forever Changes and the heavier, Hendrix-influenced sound of latter-day Love.
Here is an exclusive preview from the album, the aptly named “Product of the Times.” It’s a live cut from 1970 that Lee intended as the album’s coda. In this critic’s carefully considered opinion, it rocks.
Luke Torn Photo: Herbert Worthington
Supremely talented yet prone to devastating self-sabotage, Arthur Lee was on the ropes in the early 1970s. Glory days on the Sunset Strip, and authorship of one of the greatest records ever – Love’s Forever Changes – had soured, giving way to an incoherent odyssey, and a meandering, undistinguished string of new “Loves”. Occasional bursts of new inspiration were more likely than not to fizzle amid record label flameouts, reluctance to tour, and concomitant drug and personal problems.
Yet for those willing to a) overlook Lee’s steadfast refusal to relive the inimitable themes and textures of Forever Changes, and b) forgive him his excesses and volatilities, by the early ’70s Lee had begun to forge a forceful, distinctive new style: sizzling hard rock true to the spirit of his friend Jimi Hendrix; gritty, inner-city funk underpinnings à la Curtis Mayfield; a few nods to his folk-rock, pop-star past; plus bits of blues and reggae around the edges. Some of this material appeared in real time, in the shape of his ’72 solo outing Vindicator and Love’s ’74 swansong Reel To Real. More has surfaced on archival releases, like Sundazed’s 2009 set, Love Lost.
Bankrolled by entrepreneur Michael Butler (producer of the hit musical Hair) and reuniting Lee with his old Elektra friend, producer Paul Rothchild, Black Beauty was intended to be a culmination, the crowning achievement of Lee’s new direction. It ended up as just another scrapped project. Butler’s label, Buffalo Records, went belly-up before the disc ever reached the market. It would be Lee’s penultimate shot at the big time, 1974’s calamitous UK tour with Eric Clapton sealing his future on the margins.
Black Beauty began organically enough, though. Ditching the ad hoc bands he’d been gigging with around LA, Lee started from scratch, organising a brand-new, all-black Love. The group – guitarist Melvan Whittington, bassist Robert Rozelle, drummer Joe Blocker – bristles with authority and immediacy, imbuing Black Beauty with a raw, pugnacious, in-your-face sound.
Whereas, say, an early take of “Midnight Sun” sounds forced and claustrophobic on Love Lost, its Black Beauty counterpart burns with apocalyptic fervour, resonant of a camaraderie and telepathic interplay oft-lacking in Love’s post-Forever Changes work.
Opening with the gut-punch of “Good & Evil (Young & Able)”, a lascivious, un-PC piece of Hendrixian punk-funk, Black Beauty sprouts tentacles, beaming in testosterone-fuelled garage blasts (“Stay Away”, think Nuggets on steroids), the sumptuously anti-authoritarian riff “Lonely Pigs” and “Can’t Find It”, a haunting lament gliding on a gorgeously elliptical melody, with jagged guitar bits bubbling up through the mix.
For all its hard-rock glory – and Hendrix’ spectre casts a long shadow everywhere on Love’s 1970s work – Black Beauty is eclectic, shifting gears gracefully, suggesting myriad musical directions a healthy Arthur Lee could have pursued. “Beep Beep”, for instance, reflects his infatuation with reggae, and while it might be fluffy kid’s-song fare, it’s catchy as anything. An off-the-wall cover of The Rooftop Singers’ 1963 smash “Walk Right In” is also an inspired call, an album highlight, its jangly guitars and soulful vocal hook signalling a nod to Love’s 1966 folk-rock heyday.
“Skid”, though, with its Dylanesque sneer and gritty depiction of ghetto misery, is Black Beauty’s most startling cut. Lee is at his dramatic best here, falling into the song’s dark atmosphere with an eerie, ghostly desperation – one of his best vocals ever. Skittering from funky acoustic rhythms to a driving, haunting chorus to Whittington’s superb psychedelic guitar fills, one would think this song, if properly promoted, could have put Love back on the map. As it is, it’s an inestimable gem in the group’s vaunted catalogue, its majesty posing a giant “what if?” in the Love saga.
In fact, the better-late-than-never appearance of Black Beauty itself poses some big questions. Could Lee and company have refined, expanded and built on its strengths? Did Arthur have yet more material of this calibre up his sleeve? Nonetheless, supplemented by bonus tracks and Ben Edmonds’ fine liner notes, Black Beauty slots in as a fascinating, decidedly consistent effort from an artist in the throes of disintegration.
– Luke Torn