Our never-ending love for Arthur Lee

Enduring: many of Arthur Lee's songs on the 1967 album Forever Changes are still pertinent

Eamon Sweeney

There are only three albums in existence that I've bought more than once, namely, Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, The Velvet Underground & Nico and Forever Changes by Love.

Normally, the music industry's obsession with re-issues is little short of a scam to fleece fans, forcing them to buy the same album time and again, but the re-release of Forever Changes is a different matter.

On its original release in 1967, the album failed to make an impact, peaking at 154 in the Billboard charts. However, it has aged remarkably well and is regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made.

Bob Dylan once said that people are still living off the table scraps of the Sixties. Put on Forever Changes and you realise how right he is. Modern alternative musicians such as Belle & Sebastian and Calexico owe a massive creative debt to the world's first multi-racial psychedelic band.

It's impossible to reduce Forever Changes to a single soundbite such as "psycheldelia" or "rock". Mariachi horns, strings, intertwining guitars and folk and baroque elements fuse to produce one of the most singular set of songs recorded.

The album's subject matter and tone were completely out of synch with flower power and the summer of love. Love's frontman and main songwriter Arthur Lee said: "When I did that album, I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so they were my last words."

Lee wasn't just an eccentric musician -- he was a certified crackpot. Love's drummer Bryan McClean said that when he first met Lee, he was, "so strange and unusual that at first sight I couldn't determine his gender". Elektra Records boss Jac Holzman said: "Arthur is not of this world. He lives in a world of his own creation."

During the Watts race riots of 1965, Lee drove through the chaos every day to check that his mother was safe. She was light-skinned enough to be mistaken as white, while Arthur was involved in a scene and industry where he was a black man in a mainly white world.

In the same year that Forever Changes was released, Joan Didion published Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays named after a line from Yeats' The Second Coming. Issues Didion explored include hippies, murder and the disintegration of self-respect and morality in modern America. Forever Changes could well be its soundtrack.

According to the author and journalist Jon Savage: "The songs on Forever Changes consistently hit the places where the political chaos of the time became indistinguishable from the psychic chaos."

One of the most striking and unsettling songs is The Red Telephone, a track that lifts its title from the nickname for the phone that the US President might use to call Moscow to declare nuclear war. "They're locking them up today," sings Lee. "They're throwing away the key. I don't know who it will be tomorrow -- you or me?"

Thankfully, Forever Changes isn't some kind of terrifying post-hippie burn-out album about paranoia. Listening to Forever Changes is an uplifting and beautiful experience. The final track, You Set the Scene, is one of the most heartening and positive songs ever recorded.

After writing his masterpiece, Lee rapidly sunk into a spiral. He was sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment in 1996 for repeated drug and firearm possession charges. However, he served six years and even managed to tour in 2002 and play his first Irish show, in the Ambassador.

On his release, Lee said God frequently appeared to him in prison, always repeating the same statement: "Love on earth must be."

Bizarrely, Lee was honoured at Westminster in 2002 by a motion led by Labour MP Peter Bradley. Lee was greeted by the strange sight of MP Stephen Pound dropping to his knees, giving Lee a Wayne's World "We're not worthy" welcome.

In 2006, Arthur was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukaemia. Despite chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, he died on August 23, 2006. Since his death, young bands such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the Dears have repeatedly cited Lee and Love as a major influence.

Forty years after its original release, Forever Changes sounds as fresh and startling as ever. The famous line on A House is Not a Motel, "The news today will be the movies of tomorrow", is as pertinent now as it was in the late Sixties.

Not all of the best records are instant classics. Indeed, in his book on Forever Changes, Andrew Hultkrans cautions: "Be forewarned: Forever Changes initially resists interpretation, even ordinary enjoyment, and requires many spins before it casts its odd spell; once it does, though, it will beguile, baffle and thrill you for your remaining days."