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Love's Da Capo: Two Sides Making a Whole
Building an alternate impression of one of the most forward looking albums of the sixties
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
Lately, I’ve been listening to lot of Love, one of the most transcendent of the groups of the mid sixties. While the group’s reputation largely rests on its 1967 magnum opus, Forever Changes, justifiably celebrated as one of the most enduring and profound album-length statements of the time and really of all time too, I’ve been focusing on the album they released prior to it, Da Capo.
The album is often noted as one-half of a great record that is tarnished by one of the misbegotten ventures of the time: the 19-minute jam ‘Revelation.’ While there is some truth to this framing of Da Capo, I try, in the below essay, to make the case for why Da Capo should be considered as two halves of a classic album. I also write a little bit about why Love’s music continues to remain fresh and endlessly interesting. I hope you enjoy it.
The next dispatch from here will arrive in two weeks (‘Listening Sessions’ will be next in your inbox on July 19) instead of the customary ten days. It’s because my next essay will be a little longer than usual. It will be part of what it becoming a yearly tradition here of writing about Elvis Presley. In 2021, I wrote about his Nashville recordings made from 1960 to 1964 and last year, I wrote about his sessions in Music City from 1966 to 1968. This time around, I will be looking at Elvis’ recordings from 1958, the culmination of his meteoric rise and the fullest expression of Elvis the rock star.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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One minute and 54 seconds in to one of the most manic, if not the most manic, garage-rock singles to come out of the mid sixties, an explosion is heard. It’s the culmination of a build up of guitar and drums so corrosive that its energy could only, in retrospect, have been dissipated through combustion. In its wreckage, a laconic groove is heard, a fandango for the apocalypse.
The most striking thing about ‘Seven and Seven Is,’ save for the sudden annihilation about three-fourths of the way in it, is that, as of this writing, it’s a 57-year old record. By comparison, when it was released in 1966, a 57-year old recording meant something by Caruso. It was among the songs that heralded an age of modernity in pop and rock music in which the Beatles’ arrival on American soil in February 1964 provided the ignition to a movement that travelled well beyond the confines of what sounded revolutionary when the Fab Four made their era-defining first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that month.
‘Seven and Seven Is’ was released on Elektra Records in July 1966. Prior to it, the label had been primarily documenting the sixties folk boom and through its recently created subsidiary, Nonesuch, the panorama of classical music well beyond the confines of the established repertoire. It got into the rock game at the end of 1964.
The label’s first foray was somewhat tangential with the signing of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band on the recommendation of producer Paul Rothchild. Butterfield’s band was a blues, not a rock, outfit, but it was an electric one and by the time of its second album, East-West, it was going far beyond the twelve-bar blues form. Soon after, came Love.
The band was formed in Los Angeles by Arthur Lee, a Memphis-born singer-songwriter who had been trying to make in the LA scene since the early sixties. His primary inspiration in creating Love was the Byrds and just as their cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ was taking off, he met Bryan MacLean, a blues and folk musician whose early life included more than a few brushes with Hollywood royalty, including appearing as an extra in An Affair to Remember and hobnobbing with Liza Minelli and who, in early 1965, was the Byrds’ equipment manager. After they ditched him prior to touring the United Kingdom, MacLean was among the hundreds who auditioned to become part of the Monkees. He then met Lee who, noticing MacLean’s very blonde, very Californian look, asked him to become part of his new band. Lee and MacLean were joined by guitarist Johnny Echols, someone whom Lee had known growing up in Memphis and who brought a showmanship to the axe long before it was Jimi Hendrix’s stock and trade. Lee, MacLean and Echols would form the heart of the band. Joining them in its initial lineup were bassist Johnny Fleckenstein and drummer Don Conka. Lee initially chose the Grass Roots as the group's name. Upon discovering there was another band called the Grass Roots, Lee then chose Love.
They soon became the house band at the Hollywood club Bido Lito’s, playing four sets a night. Love and Bido Lito's were quickly an epicentre of the emerging sixties counterculture. Elektra head Jac Holzman, on the hunt for rock groups to sign, went to the club to see Love for himself. He once described Bido Lito's for a documentary on Love as “the black hole of Calcutta with a door charge.” He further elaborated:
“I walked in and there was this weird guy standing on a stage with the tongues of his shoes handing over the laces wearing these, you couldn’t call them glasses, you could barely call then spectacles, one lens was red, one lens was blue, they were faceted so obviously he couldn’t see through them. It was Arthur. Well, first of all, I was impressed by the scene, that really got to me. But as I listened to the music, I realized it had a raw energy and it was verging on the psychedelic. … There was a kind of a sense of relief I felt because I finally found my group if I could only get them.”
Soon after Love signed with Elektra, Fleckenstein was replaced by Ken Frossi and Conka by Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer. Most of Love’s first album was recorded in January 1966 and was released in March.
For bands that cast an aura of destiny—a feeling that their music or, at the very least, their concept, will enable them to leave a mark on the culture almost always hinges on their debut LP. For some, their opening album statement bursts with the sheer quality of its quantity, an abundance of riches the result of the luxury of being able to cherry pick the best of their repertoire to create thirty or forty minutes of earth-shaking music. A quintessential example is the first effort by the rock group Holzman next signed to Elektra, the Doors. For others, their debut LP displays a fresh approach, perhaps an exuberance or the clear sign that they are doing something new despite material that may rely heavily on covers or songs hastily written to pad out two sides of a twelve-inch disc. One example that comes to mind is the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ Safari.
Love’s first is a little of both. Starting with a hopped-up version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘My Little Red Book’—selected as the band’s first single, it barely missed the Billboard top 50—it highlights the energy of the band: Echols’ guitar is both clean and edgy and Lee’s vocal is tough and insolent, especially in the staccato chorus. Few bands at the time sounded as forbidding, as ultramodern as Love did here.
‘Signed D.C.,’ written by Lee and documenting original drummer Conka’s battles with heroin addiction, is a folk dirge that illustrates the multiple dimensions of Lee’s voice. He could be caustic but he could also be intimate and incredibly warm; in many ways, he was an improbable mélange of Mick Jagger and Johnny Mathis. MacLean wrote and sang ‘Softly to Me,’ a love song with a curious, arresting melody foreshadowing that Love was fated to be more than just a garage-rock band. An instrumental, ‘Emotions,’ sounds like something the master of twang Duane Eddy would have cooked up.
The album, though, is most centred on exploring—sometimes merely mimicking—the twelve-string jangle of the Byrds. The innumerable permutations of that sound: the chiming guitars and a tambourine accentuating the beat, create an unescapable, sometimes pummeling, sense of sameness to Love’s debut. It’s instead the tracks that are less Byrds-centric that more strongly suggest that the hype surrounding Love: the crowds at Bido Lito’s, the sense that the group was the progenitor of a new sound and that a new era of music was dawning, was very real.
The promise of Love would be fully realized on Forever Changes; almost certainly, save for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the most lyrical and clear-eyed ode to 1967. Its profound and even sentimental sound often contrasts with the unease of lyrics like “by the time that I am through singing / the bells from the schools of walls will be ringing / more confusions, blood transfusions / the news today will be the movies for tomorrow / and the water’s turned to blood” on ‘A House Is Not a Motel.’
The foreboding that often surfaced amidst Forever Changes’s bucolic framework mirrored Love’s often tumultuous history which included multiple attempts to get out of their contract with Elektra, discord among the group, an unwillingness, primarily by Lee, to perform outside of Los Angeles and passing up the chance to perform at the Monterey International Pop Festival. Yet, it is the collision between beauty and brutality that makes Forever Changes endlessly compelling and listenable. It is also light years away from the sound of their debut and it's this fact that makes Da Capo, the bridge from Love to Forever Changes, a fascinating and visionary recording.
By the time Love got to work recording the body of the album at the end of September 1966, the band had expanded to a septet. Pfisterer, not a natural drummer through he worked wonders on ‘Seven and Seven Is,’ became the band’s keyboardist, a more natural fit for a musician who had received classical instruction. Brought in on drums was Michael Stuart-Ware, who had played with the garage-rock band the Sons of Adam—they had covered one of Lee’s earliest songs, ‘Feathered Fish.’ Rounding out the newly expanded Love was jazzman Tjay Cantrelli, a saxophonist and flutist.
“We were real musicians who had honed our chops and could play, so we wanted to do something that would take us away from the pack and stretch us out.”
Out was the jangle, in was a fusion of baroque pop and jazz with the occasional remnant of the garage sound. ‘Stephanie Knows Who,’ which opened Da Capo, has all these styles converging, creating a sound that is both sophisticated and primal. MacLean and Pfisterer double a Bachian riff at the start before Cantrelli’s tenor saxophone and Stuart-Ware’s drums introduce a martial beat to usher in Lee’s vocal—more shouted than sung. Whereas vocalists like Sky Saxon of the Seeds or Jim Sohns of the Shadows of Knight used aggression coarsely, when Lee got tough, it was leavened by the intrinsic sweetness to his voice that imbued him with a finely shaped power that made him one of the era’s most individual and consummate vocalists. He was also a songwriter of sharp and poetic imagery. Consider these lines: “What can I say, dear Stephanie / who shall I next inform / of love and poetry that you bring / your eyes, your hair, your everything.” Read what they say, hear how Lee snarls them.
Then listen to how Lee lovingly sings MacLean’s ‘Orange Skies.’ While some may find it all a sugary shamble: Lee’s voice is almost mockingly saccharine and MacLean’s lyrics, an ode to “carnivals, cotton candy and you” warn unintentionally of the naivety of the upcoming Summer of Love, a feeling underlined by Cantrelli’s flute and Echols’ jazz-like lines. Others may find it idyllic (I certainly do), the hard edges of life blurred by the focus on its inherent beauty—the things that should command our attention; in other words, the sheer joy of life and the gift of another day. It points to a rare beauty that Love could invoke that has gone a long way to making the band deeply influential.
It also points to the broad currents from which the band drew. Bruce Botnick, a producer and engineer who worked with Love through the mid and late sixties, once illustrated this importance thusly:
“Radio then played everything. There wasn’t narrowcasting like there is today when you turn on a station and all hear is top 40 or you hear nothing but soul or you hear nothing but seventies rock or, you know, whatever. In those days, we had a station in Los Angeles called KFWB and they’d go from Frank Sinatra to Love, they’d go from Nat King Cole to Johnny Holliday, they’d do everything so you’d hear all kinds of popular music and it was quote unquote popular music.”
Indeed, Love's command of the particulars of pop music—an erudite musical literacy—on ‘Orange Skies’ is so complete that one may wonder how it would have sounded if Mathis or Tony Bennett had covered it.
The first side of Da Capo is a dizzying succession of songs and styles. ‘¡Que Vida!’ is a fusion of polyrhythmic jazz—Stuart-Ware lays down an Elvin Jones-like pattern that was a signature sound of John Coltrane’s classic quartet—with bossa nova—Lee’s phrasing on lines like “the growing voice then fading” and “I see no need to swallow,” in particular, his pauses between words, is a mix of Jagger’s stutter and Astrud Gilberto’s unadorned innocence. There is also the hint of a Spanish bolero, a colouring that dominates ‘The Castle,’ Lee’s ode to the sprawling home where most of the band resided.
A song full of vamps, instrumental interludes, and tempo and time-signature shifts, it’s acoustic ambience is a template for Forever Changes. Lee’s lyrics consist of only a few cryptic lines (here’s the first verse: “here’s my baggage, hand me my staff / I’m leaving on a plane, a boat or raft”). ‘The Castle’ may be the most mesmerizing track on Da Capo, a moment of rest between the phrenetic ‘Seven and Seven Is’ and the side’s closer, the monumental ‘She Comes in Colours.’
Its pull is hypnotic. The song’s rubato opening resolves into a kaleidoscopic jazz dance. The verses are cool with Cantrelli’s flute obbligatos and the choruses add a bit of heat with Stuart-Ware’s accents as Lee sings the song’s title. The invocation of colours and a woman whom Lee sings “you can tell her from the clothes she wears” proved so indelible that the Rolling Stones lifted (or more pointedly, stole) the song’s refrain to create ‘She’s a Rainbow’ (interestingly, searching for “She Comes in Colours’ lyrics” brings up ‘She’s a Rainbow’ first!).
If the six tracks that comprised Da Capo’s first side denoted the omnivorous craftsmanship that was Love’s stock and trade that was also quickly becoming one of the dominant trends in popular music at the end of 1966, the second side denoted an equally emergent direction: the desire to break free of the constrictions of the three-minute song, and with minds afire by the boundaries being ripped asunder by modern jazz, to stretch out, to improvise, to take full advantage of the latitude offered by the long-playing album.
‘Revelation,’ based on an extended blues jam Love would play live entitled ‘John Lee Hooker,’ was one of the first rock-based long-form improvisations put on record. It took up all of Da Capo’s second side. Unlike the tight musicianship and architecture of, say, ‘East West,’ the centrepiece of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s second Elektra album and released in the summer of 1966, ‘Revelation’ is loose and meandering—more in the spirit of perhaps ‘Goin’ Home,’ the 11-minute piece from the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath.
Apparently edited from a longer performance by album co-producer Rothchild (to my ears, beyond the opening and closing frame of Pfisterer playing a section from a Bach partita, I couldn’t hear any edits. If they are there, they are seamless), ‘Revelation’ is almost reflexively dismissed. Lee and other band members are quoted as saying it was the worst thing they ever recorded and there’s a general consensus that its inclusion on Da Capo makes it one-half of a great album and that if Elektra has given the band more time to write and record, they could have created something almost the equal of their magnum opus, Forever Changes.
There’s truth to this lament. But, to me, the mere act of putting a 19-minute performance, complete with classical quotations, solos by Echols that eschew cliché or even the need for a fully formed statement and a long soprano saxophone by Cantrelli, on an album for mainstream consumption is the other half of the fearless spirit of exploration that elevates—and keeps doing so—the mid to late sixties as one of music’s golden periods. It wasn’t only built on creations of concision but also on creations borne of imagination that dreamed far beyond traditional song forms or simply trying to get on the radio. It points to the necessity of failure being an option or, at the very least, the realization that not every experiment will succeed. In that light, perhaps the best way to consider ‘Revelation’ is as a noble idea that didn’t pay off but is more true to the spirit of the times in which it was created rather than if Da Capo had been padded out with covers or other succinct filler.
Perhaps it’s all a rationalization—Love’s recorded output in its classic configuration (Lee would continue the band after its initial version broke up in 1968) amounted to three albums, a b-side (‘No. Fourteen’) and a final single in 1968 (the exploratory suite ‘Your Mind and We Belong Together’ and the eerie ‘Laughing Stock’), so the urge to frame Da Capo as a great album as opposed to just half of one, can maybe then be excused. Its release at the end of 1966 certainly foreshadowed the bounty of riches to come in the following year, both good and not so good. It also served notice that Love was to be thoroughly of its time and certain to transcend it too.