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From the Robins’ “Riot in Cell Block No. 9” to Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “It’s a Doggy Dogg World,” Los Angeles rock has always told its own story, as surely as New York or London sounds have told theirs. Its most consistently inventive period, however, was during the ’60s, when scores of kids inspired by the Beatles and Stones built styles that ran the gamut from glorious to gloriously trashy. Where else might something as sweet as the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” have been conceived alongside rackety junk like the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard”?
At the same time, L.A.’s recording studios provided a home for the magnificent creations of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, and its clubs a seemingly never-ending supply of new, young bands given to sonic and pharmacological experimentation. Such was the scene ruled by Arthur Lee and Love when their mean-spirited overhaul of the Bacharach/David tune “My Little Red Book” hit the airwaves in the spring of 1966. Jim Morrison was one habitué of the group’s shows: In the Doors’ early days, he claimed, the band dreamed of achieving Love’s level of fame. In all likelihood, the Creators—a South Central L.A. bar band that, in such an era of cross-pollination, might well have added the tune to their own set lists—were similarly inspired. Their time would come in a few years, several personnel changes, and a new name—War—later. Both groups have recently been celebrated in near-definitive double-CD sets.
Love was one of the two finest, most diverse L.A. bands of the period. The other was the Byrds, for whom Love’s second key member, singer/guitarist Bryan Maclean, once did time as a roadie. At its outset, Love resembled a musically and lyrically brasher version of the Byrds: Its folk rock roared louder than “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” and from the anti-smack “Signed D.C.” to the pro-acid-and-pot “You I’ll Be Following,” Lee’s songs were much more upfront about drugs than “Eight Miles High.”
1968’s Forever Changes, the third Love LP, stands as the greatest work to emerge from the ’60s flower-power movement. (Perhaps ironically, the record’s back cover photo of singer-guitarist Lee holding a broken vase full of wilted blooms aptly symbolized the group leader’s increasing disenchantment with the hippie scene.) By the time Changes was conceived, Love’s sound had evolved into a wholly original synthesis of hard rock, swinging-’60s arrangements with large dollops of Bacharachstyle strings, Alpert-style horns, flamenco guitar, and, of course, Lee’s idiosyncratic vision. The lyricist’s psychedelic propensitydidn’t rise full-blown from the Changes sessions. After all, the man had already put the line “I’d sit inside a bottle and pretend that I was in a can” (on the group’s 1966 punk flameout “7 and 7 Is”) into the top 40.
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On Forever Changes, Lee’s wildly imagistic lyrics were often the vehicle for elliptical social criticism. “The Daily Planet” limned an America rearing its children only to send them to Vietnam, “Live and Let Live” damned the abuse of Native Americans, and “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale” cracked dour jokes about blackness in America. At the same time, Lee and Maclean continued to proffer a romanticism that bled through on even the most cynical tracks. Lush, ambitiously arranged songs like “Maybe the People…” and “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This” are rooted in the period, yet ineffably timeless.
Changes is included in its entirety on Love Story, a judiciously selected two-CD set collecting most of Love’s best work. In typically ornery Lee form, he cut one more single (“Your Mind and We Belong Together”) with Love’s Changes lineup before firing everyone and starting over under the same moniker. The results were the great Four Sail (six of whose 10 tracks are on Love Story) and the spottier Four Sail leftovers collection, Out Here. Four Sail killers like “August,” “Robert Montgomery,” and “Always See Your Face” fused the baroque pop melodicism of Forever Changes and 1967’s Da Capo with anti-draft sentiments and Lee’s hardest rock since “7 and 7 Is.” (Lee always managed to find a great lead guitarist, in this case the unsung Jay Donnellan.)
In the two decades since the last album of new Love material appeared, Lee has attained elder-statesman status. Mazzy Star included a reverent take on Lee’s “Five String Serenade” on 1993’s So That Tonight I Might See, and last year saw the release of a tribute album featuring hipsters like Urge Overkill and Teenage Fanclub. Lee is touring again, but whether or not he’ll land another major-label deal is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, Love Story is the collection Lee’s musically expansive classics deserve.
Where even Lee’s most freaked-out lyrical flights stayed on the right side of the line separating the sagacious from the silly, Eric Burdon sometimes acid-tripped right over the divide. Fronting War from 1969 to 1971, the former Animal lent himself both to terrific drug-induced whimsy on songs like “Spill the Wine” (“a big field of tall grass,” indeed) and stupefying sermonizing on those like “They Can’t Take Away Our Music” (“We hope with this song/Our world we will unite”). It’s probably for the best that Burdon ultimately left the one-time bar band to its own creative devices—and not just because War was among the most dependable commercial crossover acts of the ’70s. Anthology 1970-1994 is a two-CD set that recalls almost everything that was fine about this pre-Benetton multicultural ensemble.
The best of Anthology—about a disc-and-a-half—is irresistible. The 32-cut collection includes plenty of the mellow good times for which the outfit was best known—“Why Can’t We Be Friends?” remains one of the goofiest and good-hearted radio staples of its day or any other. Yet the band also produced harder-edged chronicles of struggle. Accusatory lines like “They call it law and order” (from the 1973 single “Me and Baby Brother”) suggest that, decades later, War would understand the ethos of gangsta rap. “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” the band’s first major hit after the Burdon split, connects the strains of revelry and starkness in War’s work. The Latin-inflected song honors a dead friend who “Loved to drink good whiskey/While laughing at the moon.” The track is Anthology‘s defining moment.
The L.A. that War depicts these days is a lot rougher than either Arthur Lee’s or the gritty one that inspired “The World Is a Ghetto.” But the band still digs for hope: Anthology closes with the amiable if less earth-shakingly funky title track of last year’s Peace Sign, a celebration of the early ’90s gang truce in the city. War’s ’60s-rooted optimism may be an anomaly in the ’90s, but Anthology makes a firm case for its resilience.