When you start taking about studio masterpieces of the Sixties, Pet Sounds from the Beach Boys (released May 1966, produced by Brian Wilson) and Sgt. Pepper (released June 1967, produced by George Martin) come immediately to mind, and for all the right reasons. Fans and rock historians often rank them as numbers one and two on those "Best Albums Ever" lists... and depending upon your definition of "fun," it can be interesting to put a couple of proponents of either album in a room and let them argue it out as to which album is the better of the two. For me and many others, the contributions of those two classics did not stop with their release, instead proving that the creative potential of rock 'n roll had hardly even been touched. As sights got set higher and recording (and budget) boundaries were stripped away, plenty of other masterpieces were recorded. Two of my personal favorites from the era were Forever Changes from Love and Music In A Doll's House from Family.
Released November 1967
Produced by Bruce Botnick and Arthur Lee
Shew! Researching the history of Love, with the apparent unpredictability of founder/leader Arthur Lee and the constant personnel changes throughout the history of the band makes it almost impossible to even think of them as an outfit that could have created one of the best albums ever recorded... but that's exactly what happened. Forever Changes was the third album recorded from the Los Angeles-based band who were starting to make a name for themselves with memorable songs like "My Little Red Book" and "7 And 7 Is." Those who prefer their bands to have neat and easy identification labels had to stray far, far away from Love; their music was categorized with such diverse labels as rock and roll, garage, psychedelic or psycho-folk... and honestly, every one of those labels actually fit various aspects of the band's music. This diversity/schitzophrenia is, in my opinion, a large part of the reason why Forever Changes remains a classic recording to this day.
Artistically and aesthetically, the album goes right for the throat immediately, opening with "Alone Again Or," still the album's best-known track. The opening guitar riff is as catchy as it gets with it's sort-of-flamenco flavoring, and pretty soon all those categories and influences seem to converge at once. The song title and lyrics speak to their psychedelic influences; the folk influence is obvious with the melody and the absolute killer vocal harmonies and the subtle-yet-essential string and horn flourishes pull us in and let us know that we're at the start of a very well crafted ride here. Reading that description sounds like the track could be cacophony, but it's as perfect an integration of elements as you'll ever hear. That's essentially the greatest strength of this release - the near-seamless integration of what could be clashing elements in most situations.
Forever Changes also benefits from a superb variety of hooks in the individual tracks. "A House Is Not A Motel" works a catchy staccato drum part into the song's intro and it remains a cohesive element through the duration of the track, including some excellent interplay between the drum and guitar during a late break. "Andmoreagain" always seems like it should be a dismissable track with the schmaltzy rhythm and strings; instead, it lures the listener into exploring the excellent lyrics and, in the long run, completely works. "The Daily Planet" is a very full sounding track within the most traditional rock instrumentation on the album. Depending upon who you believe, Neil Young may or may not have arranged this track (Young says no, Arthur Lee always said yes). Young was originally set to produce the entire album but had to back out of the project due to his commitment at the time with Buffalo Springfield; frankly, that fact alone makes me believe Young did arrange the track, since it's not very far removed from sounding like a Springfield effort. "Old Man" (not the Neil Young song) would potentially be the weakest track on the album to me, but brilliant use of horns and strings more than saves the song. "The Red Telephone" is the track that got the most airplay after "Alone Again Or," and it completely deserved it. This piece again draws heavily on their folksy side with typically understated and brilliant vocals, complemented by one of the sweetest string arrangements I've ever heard in a rock song. There's a little touch of psychedelia at the end, and as the track fades away, it remains a permanent etch in your head.
Side two (on the original release) began with "Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale;" the song is far too good to need such a clumsy title. More superb guitar and vocal work, more outstanding accents from strings and horns, and... yawn... just another brilliant piece of work. The only moment that annoys me at all on the album is the opening line from "Live And Let Live" - I've never been terribly interested in hearing about snot caked against somebody's pants, but truly, if it's the only weak moment on an album, I can forgive it. I love the interaction between the guitar, harpsichord and vocals on this track - with the exception of the one annoying line, it's another beaut. "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This" harkens back to "Andmoreagain," taking what could in weaker hands be a forgettable track and making it interesting and vital (though a very strange horn ending that sounds like a mistake always made it a tough song to mix out of on the air). "Bummer In The Summer" contains my favorite vocal performance on the album (and that's going some) - the rhythm and style of the vocal actually reminds me of Bob Dylan, which matches the very folksy stylings of the tune. "You Set The Scene" finishes the original release in flawless fashion. The opening riff is a fantastic bookend to "Alone Again Or," the tune is uptempo catchy, there's a cello accent that melts me every time I hear it and I've never really had any idea why this wasn't the third classic track on the release; at times, it is often my favorite track on the album, but then again, at times any of them are.
As a general rule in my life, I've grown very wary of extra tracks on the "expanded version" releases of classics. Usually, it's pretty obvious why the extra tracks didn't make it to the original, and in fact I can only think of two examples off the top of my head where the extra tracks were welcome to me in the long run - the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street and this album. Two alternate mixes, a "tracking session highlight," an outtake, a demo of an unreleased tune and the A and B sides of a followup single that never made it to an album before are mostly welcome additions to the album's legacy.... and legacy is a well-chosen word here. Oddly enough, upon it's release it was a commercial flop; even for the attention "Alone Again Or" got, even for good reviews, even on the heels of two previous albums that sold better than this one, it showed terribly on the American charts (though it did much better overseas, where is was embraced as a work of genius almost immediately). I can only speculate as to why; Lee's growing reputation of being difficult to work with may have scared off promoters... maybe he was uncooperative when it came time to doing legwork for the album... drug problems had begun to infiltrate the band, and personnel changes were coming on a seemingly daily basis... Regardless, the album initially tanked, but history has been very kind to it. Rolling Stone ranked it at number 40 on their "500 Greatest Albums Of All Time" list; the album has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and has been honored by being added to the National Recording Registry; overseas, NME ranks it as the sixth best album ever made and has even been praised in Parliament as one of the greatest albums ever. Still, neither Arthur Lee nor any of the various incarnations and remnants of Love really reaped the success that should have been their due.
Sadly, Arthur Lee died of leukemia in August of 2006 in his home town of Memphis (though his family moved to Los Angeles when he was five years old, I'm happy to call him "one of ours"). While I certainly wish he had gotten more respect for his masterpiece during what should have been its golden era, I'm glad the world finally came around and offered the album it's due before Lee's passing.
Music In A Doll's House
Released July 1968
Produced by Dave Mason (2 songs produced by Jimmy Miller)
There are a lot of similarities between the two albums I'm revisiting today. While I honestly wouldn't say the albums sound much alike, they both use very adventurous production techniques to good effect. Both albums feature very good songwriting and, of course, great performances throughout. A few differences - Forever Changes has a more consistent sound all the way through, sounding more like an album project. Music In A Doll's House is a little more uneven; the album's fifteen songs (totaling under 37 minutes) feature a few genius pieces, a lot of very strong efforts and a few clunkers. Just as it's difficult to slap a genre on Love's album, this debut release (that's pretty impressive!) combines elements of psychedelic, progressive, pop-ish blues, some hints of R&B, even the occasional trace of pub rock. Though a touch less cohesive than Forever Changes, Music In A Doll's House is still varied and fascinating enough to stand the test of time.
I have to admit, I was very much a latecomer to this album's party. Family formed in 1966 and disbanded in 1973; during their relatively brief run, I wasn't terribly aware of their music. The little bit I was familiar with was from their later period, characterized by a more bluesy, more street-gutsy sound than this album. I own the entire catalog from Family and have for decades, and just never got around to listening to it. When I did, I began by revisiting the few tracks I knew and enjoyed, then went to give them a chronological listen... and was absolutely shocked at this release. I kept checking the credits to see if this was the same Family that I was familiar with (essentially yes), and if this album, which sounds WAY ahead of its time really was released in 1968 (definitely yes). As delighted as I am to have become familiar with the record, I'm pretty angry at myself for having missed out on it for all these years! A quick bit of interesting rock trivia; the Beatles were recording an album in 1968, and the working title at the time was A Doll's House. Due to this album being released first, the Beatles changed the name of the album they were working on to simply The Beatles... more commonly known as The White Album.
Like Love's album, Music In A Doll's House jumps at you within seconds. "The Chase" kicks off with an eerie haunted-mansion style vocal chorus, merging smoothly into what would have been commonly called progressive music back when the term was reserved for bands like Genesis and Jethro Tull (and in fact both Peter Gabriel and Ian Anderson cite Family as a strong early influence). Complimenting standard rock instrumentation, you'll hear some very unique instrumentations (both here and on most of the album's tracks) - violin, cello, harmonica, mellotron and saxophone are all used at various times through the album and generally used effectively, not in a gimicky fashion. Saying there's fifteen tracks on the album is a little misleading, as three clock in at under 60 seconds each (and all three are variations on the theme of another album track); still, of the remaining twelve tracks, only five go over three minutes (and only one over four minutes), so these songs are short, sharp, catchy and sweet.
When I hear songs like "Mellowing Grey," "Me My Friend" or "The Breeze," I get particularly annoyed that I wasn't familiar with this record when I was on the radio. Production values are both excellent and quirky; at times, I hear the heavy mellotron stylings of early King Crimson, at other moments, I'm reminded of some of the oddball attitudes that The Move often used to such good results on their pop masterworks. I would truly have enjoyed playing these pieces in "compare and contrast" mode on the air. On the other hand, tracks like "Old Songs New Songs" or "Peace Of Mind" exhibit a solid knowledge of more traditional rock forms... albeit still with a unique outlook on the production and engineering qualities. In regards to this often being called a psychedelic album, "See Through Windows" is probably the most half-psychedelic-half-pop number here, "Winter" wanders into psych territory, though with more of a Syd's Pink Floyd feel and "3 X Time" closes the album with a more subtle exploration of the psych mindset, taking what might be the most ordinary tune on the album and turning it into a memorable closer through the use of interesting sounds and tempo changes. Track by track, I love this album nearly as much as Forever Changes; there are times, however, when I listen to it and it just sounds a little TOO varied from song to song, almost like it was less of an album project and more a matter of a bunch of interesting sounding pieces that all wound up on the same record.
Still... a debut album? Dayam!
Like Love, Family underwent frequent personnel changes. There were substance abuse problems and there were differences in opinions about the direction the band should take. During their first tour of the United States, multi-instrumentalist Ric Grech left the band to join the new supergroup Blind Faith. Replacing him (in mid tour, even!) meant a very different sound for the band. Throughout their turbulent history, Roger Chapman's distinctive vocals (often criticized but always referred to at least as "unique") and John "Charlie" Whitney's solid chops on guitar kept the band interesting, even as they morphed their sound to a less psychedelic, more hard rock style of playing. Still, for only having officially been a band for some seven years, they recorded seven full length albums (most released to at least decent acclaim), and the musicians who played in the band for varying amounts of time accomplished a lot in the world of music; Jim King, Ric Grech, Rob Townsend, John Wetton and Tony Ashton were among the musicians who were officially band members, and Family received recorded contributions from the likes of Dave Mason and Nicky Hopkins. Mason also produced the debut album, though Jimmy Miller was originally slated to handle the job due to a long relationship with the early incarnation of Family. However, at the time of the recording he was involved with the Rolling Stones Beggar's Banquet album. Mason was a longtime friend of the band and so was a good choice to guide their debut.
History, at least on this side of the Atlantic, hasn't been as kind to Music In A Doll's House as it has been to Forever Changes. When researching the album and talking with friends, I found a lot of people who were as completely as unfamiliar with the record as I was three or four years ago. Prog fans are a little kinder to the band (and this album in particular); on specialized lists of "Best Ever" or "Most Influential/Important" prog album's, Music In A Doll's House generally finds its way to the list.
In retrospect, it's not the album Forever Changes is, but few are. Both albums show incredible vision and brilliance, both helped further the cause of rock as a legitimate art form, and both are albums I'm convinced will remain in my collection for all time.
Some bits and pieces of trivia I picked up in my researching these albums... Bruce Botnick was a sort of "production consultant" to Forever Changes; you might recognize his name from working with The Doors... The title of the album reportedly came from a story Arthur Lee heard from a friend who had broken up with his girlfriend. When she cried that he had promised to love her forever, his reply was, "Well... forever changes..." There was, as always, lots of turmoil within the band at the beginning of the recording sessions, and Lee was ready and willing to record the album completely with studio musicians instead of the band. Two of the tracks were recorded almost completely with studio musicians (the band later added minimal overdubs), at which time Love refocused, rehearsed and got back in the studio to finish the album... String and horn parts were the last thing to be recorded, and I read that Lee spent weeks in the studio with arranger David Angel, "playing, singing and humming" the string and horn parts to him...
Originally, Reprise Records had no plans to press or release Music In A Doll's House in the United States, but when it began to get positive attention overseas, they had a bunch of the British pressings shipped here for sale. American pressings of the album weren't actually available until the band's second album was released... While they generally received good reviews, Family was also described as "an odd band loved by a small but rabid group of fans," and Roger Chapman's vocals were once described as "a bleating vibrato" and "an electric goat..." Besides producing most of the album, Dave Mason also wrote the track "Never Like This," the only song Family ever recorded that they didn't write... The band's live debut was at Royal Albert hall in 1968, opening for Tim Hardin...