California Dreaming: You Set The Scene

Love were doing badly.

The Doors, a band that Arthur Lee had introduced to Elektra, both bands’ record label, were getting massive promotion everywhere, with a giant billboard over the Sunset Strip, and hit singles as a result. Lee argued with Elektra that if they promoted Love the way they promoted the Doors, Love would be even bigger. Elektra in turn, not completely unreasonably, said that if Love were to ever perform outside LA, or be willing to take part in any promotion at all for their records, then it would be worth the company’s while promoting them. It didn’t help Lee’s mood that Bryan Maclean was very friendly with the Doors and seemed to him to be siding with them.

And the unwillingness to play outside LA was taking its toll on the band’s finances, too. Without regular touring work, the band had to downsize to a quintet, getting rid of Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer (who the band members, other than Lee, had never liked, and who has been bitter about the sacking ever since) and Tjay Cantrelli (who as a jazz musician was used to going between bands at fairly short notice), but this in turn got rid of a lot of the band’s unique sound — without the keyboards and woodwinds, and the jazz and baroque elements of their sound, they were once again just another garage rock band.

Tensions within the band were getting worse, and there was also the constant threat of the draft hanging over their heads, with Lee and Johnny Echols only getting out of going to Vietnam by feigning insanity (in Echols’ case) and homosexuality (in Lee’s). The next album might be the last one they would ever release, and in Lee’s mind might be his last statement to the world.

The album that became Forever Changes was originally to be co-produced by Neil Young of the Buffalo Springfield (Love’s bass player, Ken Forssi, had been sitting in with Buffalo Springfield as their bass player, Bruce Palmer, had been deported) and Bruce Botnick (who had worked on Love’s previous album), but Young departed the project shortly after it began, contributing only the arrangement for The Daily Planet, and leaving Botnick to co-produce the album with Lee.

The band nearly weren’t involved at all. The album had originally been planned as a double album, and when the label decided only to fund a single record, all of Johnny Echols’ songs, and most of Maclean’s, got dropped, leading to a lot of resentment within the band. After an early session didn’t work out as planned, due to the bands chaotic, unrehearsed, nature, Wrecking Crew members were brought in to play the instrumental parts on the first two songs cut, The Daily Planet and Andmoreagain. This was, however, the wake-up call the band needed, and Echols in particular would become hugely important to Lee in working out the details of his arrangements. Lee was an untutored musician, who could play basic chords and could hum out instrumental lines, but had no understanding of how to turn the voicings he heard in his head into something playable by instrumentalists. For the guitar/bass/drums of the band itself, Echols more than anyone else provided this ability.

However, the album was also going to have orchestration, and for this they turned to David Angel, an arranger who had worked as an orchestrator for Nelson Riddle, among others. Angel provided the arrangements for Maclean’s songs on his own, but worked together with Lee much as George Martin worked with the Beatles, transcribing and refining Lee’s arrangement ideas rather than coming up with his own.

The resulting album was as different from Da Capo as that had been from Love. Built around acoustic guitars and mariachi horns and strings, it had a deceptive lightness that has been the template for a million twee indie bands ever since. But that light music was combined with an almost psychotically aggressive, apocalyptic feel in Lee’s lyrics — with songs like The Red Telephone (named after the phoneline between the Kremlin and White House, and starting with the line “Sitting on the hillside, watching all the people die”) or Live and Let Live (“Oh the snot has caked against my pants/it has turned into crystal/there’s a bluebird sitting on the branch/I think I’ll take my pistol/I’ve got it in my hand/Because he’s on my land”).

With the exception of Maclean’s two sweeter songs, the album is downbeat, cynical, and outright nasty, but with heartbreakingly beautiful, delicate melodies.

That is, until the last song.

You Set The Scene starts out far more intensely than much of the rest of the album — a throbbing bass, discordant cello, and Lee singing “Where are you walking, I’ve seen you walking, have you been here before?”, but after two verse/bridge/chorus sections that induce nothing but paranoia and fear, just after the two minute mark where many earlier Love songs would have ended, we get eleven bars of a new melody from the string section, and then everything drops out. A couple of thuds from the drums and we’re into a different tempo. A horn line comes in, transcendentally beautiful, reaching up to heaven, and then Arthur Lee echoes that melody with lyrics that seem like a total break from the rest of the album:

This is the time in life that I am living
And I’ll face each day with a smile
For the time that I’ve been given’s such a little while…

For the next four and a half minutes, You Set The Scene is a refutation of the themes of the rest of the album. Bad things may be coming, but destruction allows renewal, and we should enjoy life while it lasts. The band may be breaking up, but right here and right now they are capable of making music as good as any in the world.

Love would release one more single before splitting up, the name becoming just a label for Arthur Lee and whatever backing band he chose to work with. But on the last song of their last album, they achieved something monumentally beautiful. Could Lee follow it?

You Set The Scene

Composer: Arthur Lee

Line-up: Arthur Lee (vocals, guitar), Bryan Maclean (guitar), Johnny Echols (guitar), Ken Forssi (bass), Michael Stuart (drums), Robert Barene, Arnold Belnick, James Getzoff, Marshall Sosson, and Darrel Terwilliger (violins), Norman Botnick (viola), Jesse Ehrlich (cello), Chuck Berghofer (string bass), Bud Brisbois, Roy Caton, and Ollie Mitchell (trumpets), Richard Leith (trombone)

Original release: Forever Changes, Love, Elektra EKL 4013

Currently available on: Forever Changes, Elektra CD

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4 Responses to California Dreaming: You Set The Scene

  1. gavinburrows says:

    “Lee was an untutored musician, who could play basic chords and could hum out instrumental lines, but had no understanding of how to turn the voicings he heard in his head into something playable by instrumentalists. For the guitar/bass/drums of the band itself, Echols more than anyone else provided this ability.”

    You make them sound like the Captain and Drumbo. Could there be any truth in that?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I don’t think so, at least at that time — David Angel, for example, refused to be credited as arranger on Lee’s tracks precisely because Lee gave him such concrete guidance, unlike Maclean. I *think* it was closer, at that stage, to the Paul McCartney/George Martin relationship.
      (Some of Lee’s later collaborators, though, have said that as his mental health became poorer over the years they ended up doing more and more of the work themselves).

      • gavinburrows says:

        Thanks for the reply, Andrew. Despite this being one of my favourite albums I don’t know so much about the inner workings of the band or the process of its recording, so all this is pretty interesting to me.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Sadly, there’s not a huge amount of information out there, when compared to some of the other stuff I’ve been writing about in these posts. Probably the two best sources on Love, and the ones I’ve certainly relied on most, are the documentary Love Story, which has interviews with most of the principals (they managed to get both Lee and Maclean before they died) and the book Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love by John Einarson, which is built around the unfinished autobiography Lee was writing when he died.

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