The right and wrong sides of the tracks

Forever Changes - The Velvet Underground and Nico - OK Computer - Let It Be - Abba Gold
December 3, 2004

In late 2001, Arthur Lee, veteran frontman of the Los Angeles rock band Love, was released from jail after serving six years for a firearms offence. Ever since, he has been touring worldwide with a new line-up of musicians, performing run-throughs of Love's 1967 album Forever Changes .

His incendiary performances have reasserted the legendary status of this album, which is the subject of Andrew Hultkrans's contribution to Continuum's 331/3 series of studies of popular music albums.

Lee was one of the figureheads of the early counterculture in southern California, but by 1967, when much of the world was embracing the "summer of love", he was disillusioned by both the Vietnam War and the growing chaos and violence of the hippie movement. Tortured by guilt at his own role in pioneering the scene, he retreated to nurture his paranoia in a house on Lookout Mountain, which appropriately had recently served as a location for Roger Corman's film The Trip . Convinced his life was drawing to a close, Lee poured his energy into the album he believed would serve as his final prophecy, casting his verdict on the beautiful and the damned of Hollywood Babylon down below. Lyrically, Forever Changes was apocalyptic: "Sitting on a hillside watching all the people die," he sang on The Red Telephone . As Hultkrans puts it, Lee "didn't buy flower power wholesale".

In similar opposition to the Zeitgeist were the spare, elegant arrangements of Love's songs. Amid the largely acoustic instrumentation, electric guitars intervened only rarely and with all the more intimidating effect.

Lee survived and the world tottered on, but as Los Angeles's hippie idyll was gradually destroyed by riots, Charles Manson, rampant commerce and substance abuse, there seemed to have been some prescience about his doomsaying. In this short study, Hultkrans succeeds in communicating the import of Love's magnum opus, and stresses the appropriateness of its recent revival against the backdrop of another deeply divisive American war (and another Texan in the White House).

Like Love's arrangements, the ethos of Continuum's admirable series is stripped down: each pocket-sized paperback contains about 30,000 words, with no illustrations. While there have been plenty of previous books devoted to individual albums (Chicago Review Press, for example, has established an occasional series titled Vinyl Frontier), 331/3 has broken new ground with its size and range. Sixteen titles have been published in the first year, and a further 15 announced, while the selection of albums and authors and unusual approaches taken testify to imaginative commissioning. Continuum is apparently seeking to provide a service for popular music comparable to that provided by the British Film Institute for cinema with its Film Classics series.

One of the strengths of the series - its authors' idiosyncratic takes on their chosen albums - is also an occasional source of fallibility. At times, the personal reading can tend towards the cringeworthy, as when Hultkrans pays tribute to his favourite professor at college, or describes Lee as "a psychological peer".

The same reaction is induced at times when reading Joe Harvard's survey of The Velvet Underground and Nico . Mostly, though, Harvard provides a compelling account of a record that was transgressive in its day and has been highly influential ever since. Released in the same year as Forever Changes, The Velvet Underground and Nico displayed a similarly ambivalent attitude towards the counterculture, with its songs about hard drugs, violence and sadomasochism. In pursuing these themes, the band was encouraged by their titular producer, Andy Warhol, who told them before their first recording sessions: "Everything's really great, just make sure you keep the dirty words in." Warhol's role was more that of an executive producer but, crucially, he persuaded them to accept Nico as vocalist.

Like Love, The Velvet Underground boasted a brooding leading figure with loner tendencies who has been cited as a forerunner of punk but, where Lee's recording career fell away, Lou Reed went on to create a major body of work both with the Velvets and solo. Nevertheless, neither of these two 1967 albums, despite being regular fixtures near the top of the music press's occasional all-time best album polls, overly troubled the sales registers at the time.

In contrast, Radiohead's OK Computer , a more recent addition to the "classic album" canon, was a number one album in the UK on release in 1997 and, with what Dai Griffiths describes as "suspect rapidity", it was soon voted "greatest album ever" in Q Magazine . Griffiths' volume probes why this album, rather than any other from the Nineties, should have earned such instant respect. Arguing that music evolves partly in response to the format on which it is issued, he proposes that the dominance of the compact disc since the Eighties has pushed musicians towards creating what he calls the "CD album", longer than its vinyl predecessors and consciously sequenced as a single-sided disc. For him, OK Computer is the archetype of the CD album, with its strong middle and the sound effects that bookend and extend many tracks.

Griffiths' academic approach (he is head of the music department at Oxford Brookes University) stands out because of its close analysis of the music, spurning a biographical or audience-based study. The varied approaches chosen are generally a strength of the series, but they necessarily make for inconsistency, so it is pot luck whether the reader who is a fan of a particular album gets a treatment he or she enjoys. Elsewhere, for example, the volume on The Smiths' Meat is Murder comes in the form of a novella.

Elisabeth Vincentelli's selection of album is inspired, for in Abba Gold she has opted for a "greatest hits" compilation, the very emblem of back-catalogue exploitation, anathema to the traditional concept of a classic album as an auteur's unified opus. Yet, as she rightly points out, Abba Gold is the album most fans now associate with a band that, by consensus, specialised in classic singles. During the ten years between the band's split in 1982 and the release of Abba Gold , the Swedish foursome were notoriously unfashionable. Outside the underground gay scene, where they were loyally cherished, they remained a byword for Seventies kitsch. Yet even many of their critics acknowledged the quality of their songwriting, performances and arrangements, and in 1992, artists including Kurt Cobain, U2 and Erasure revealed their admiration. The multi-platinum success of Abba Gold sealed what Vincentelli describes as "nothing less than an artistic resurrection".

It also played a key role in revising the canon of the group's works. Vincentelli shows how track selection on the compilation "represented Abba as it had been reinvented in the early Nineties: intense disco numbers, a dash of sentimental Spanish-ish balladry, a smidgen of schmaltz. Those songs are Abba at its most extreme: extreme dance, extreme ballad, extreme cheese." In particular, by choosing the 1976 hit Dancing Queen , an obvious favourite of the gay scene, as the opening track, the album cemented its reputation as the group's signature song and acknowledged "Abba's crucial place at the crossroads between mainstream and underground". She observes that the song selection for the popular Abba musical Mamma Mia , launched in 1999, was based on the track listing of Abba Gold .

Vincentelli's book falls down in two areas. First, she devotes excessive space to Abba's promotional videos. In addition, her counterintuitive selection of a compilation, with all the interesting possibilities it awakens, is undermined to some extent by her decision to structure her discussion of each track according to the album it originated from. But these are faults that do not overwhelm a thoughtful addition to the still small number of serious writings on the group.

Would that one could write the same of Steve Matteo's book on The Beatles' final release. Let It Be is to be commended as another unconventional choice, not least because it became an album only as an afterthought, having started out as a month of filmed rehearsals for a concert, ending up as the soundtrack album to an unloved break-up movie. Unfortunately, Matteo fails to meet the challenge of unravelling its complex history. He seems almost to have read too widely, for the events of January 1969 are recited in a dry, uninspired style, attended by copious distracting biographical detail, a pointless chapter on Let It Be bootlegs and numerous errors: Klaus Voormann and "Magic" Alex Mardas have their names misspelt, Paul McCartney's farm moves from the west coast of Scotland to the east, Sunningdale becomes Sunnydale, Savile Row becomes Savile Road, and Gibraltar becomes an island. There remain many popular myths about the project, and as a widely available short study this book may help to resolve some of them, but it is an unsatisfying new member of a fine series.

Oliver Craske is a writer and publishers' editor, who edited The Beatles Anthology and Playback , the autobiography of George Martin, and the author of Rock Faces .

Forever Changes

Author - Andrew Hultkrans
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 121
Price - £6.99
ISBN - 0 8264 1493 1

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