The new-wave/leftover-prog year of 1981 saw the release of this self-titled Arthur Lee LP on Rhino Records, an album featuring a wide range of musical styles that would become infamous for its slapdash feel and almost immediate consignment to the obscure OOP bins of Love-loving music nerds everywhere.
Although his stature had steadily and rapidly been decreasing since the release of Forever Changes by his group Love in 1967, Arthur Lee never stopped writing and recording (both solo and with various collections of musicians he called ‘Love’, though it was all really solo after 1967).
Arthur Lee is comprised of tracks from an unreleased 1977 album called More Changes as well as a smattering of other latter-day Lee sessions. (In an interview he gave around the time of Arthur Lee’s release he mentioned “about three or four piles of music” he had, presumably his handful of legendarily unreleased albums.) The music is surprisingly solid and varied; its lack of re-release on compact disc until January 2009 (absolutely unconscionable given Lee’s status as a rock and pop legend) has only allowed the album’s uninformed reputation as a pointless, uninspired document of a drug- and personality-fuelled fall from grace to grow.
‘Grow’, that is, in those quarters where people had even heard of this LP. For years the only place to find this music was on original copies of the Rhino LP. It isn’t exactly rare or valuable, but its almost total lack of press and attention over the years have made it an oddity even among Arthur Lee’s rabid fanbase.
And the music? At times funky, at times poppy, often sprinkled with reggae and always featuring Lee’s warm, mesmerizing upper-register voice, Arthur Lee has always deserved a better reputation that it has received. Of course it doesn’t compare favorably to Forever Changes — some argue that only a half-dozen LPs in rock history by anyone can do that. Such comparisons are pointless, of course: this LP isn’t anything like that LP, or really any other in the Lee/Love canon: Lee had grown as a person and performer, times (and the music business) had changed, and really, who needs two Forever Changes?
Arthur Lee remains a faithful document of Lee’s state of mind at the time, using some excellent session players and groovy arrangements, and though it appeared at the time that it would be Arthur’s last gasp (it wasn’t — he would have two ‘comebacks’, in the early 90s and even moreso in the early 2000s until his 2006 death), it is roughly on a par with 1974’s excellent Real To Reel (Love) and 1972’s Vindicator (Arthur Lee solo). For Lee fans, that’s welcome company indeed.
And by the way: the cover photo? Pure awesome. Someone should sell a large-size poster of it, it would look great in a music nerd’s room.
Arthur Lee — Arthur Lee: Track-by-track review
John Sterling and Velvert Turner’s dual guitars settle into a reliable if repetitive groove on the album’s opening track, while Arthur Lee sings the song’s simple (ok, simplistic) lyrics in a laid-back fashion. The most notable part is when he takes a quick trip around the globe and labels (almost) all he sees as part of the “one”:
One world under God
I’m not talking about Vietnam…
I’m talking about one army under God…
Just like a Pittsburgh Steeler
We’re number one
The USA is number one
Russia’s number one
Good ol’ China is number one
And so on.
The choppy, ringing slices of guitar in this bit of quasi-faux reggae are threaded throughout by the insistent uni-note bass of Mike Curtis, who often disregards drummer Carlos Carraby in favor of setting off on his own thing. Not a bad thing necessarily, and if anything it provides a nice counter-point to the exacting soft-rock that many of Lee’s 1960s contemporaries had been pursuing. It’s ragged, but there has always been a certain majesty in ragged playing.
So maybe the rhythm section isn’t stellar, as far as togetherness goes, but it all still works, particularly in the sections where the band diverts from the main part for a few bars to throw some color onto the canvas. “One” is a pleasant soft-reggae opener for the album, and you’ll be hearing the little staccato guitar figures and the bumbumbum bass even after it fades out.
2. “I Do Wonder”
This is a 1977 re-recording of a song originally attempted during the sessions for Forever Changes. It’s one of the best-written songs on this album, with all of Lee’s trademark melodicism and inventive meters and passages thrown together like rapid-fire scenes from a movie.
Arthur is in very fine voice here too, hitting all the twisting notes effortlessly in this age before digital pitch-correction. The band rushes through the track too fast, though, and after about two and half minutes it’s over. There is nothing fancy about this take, no bold production choices or inspired arrangements; just a simple rock band playing an excellent song with a minimum of fuss.
It’s also nice to see that Lee hadn’t given up on the arch 60s-era lyrics:
Birds are in the sky and
I do wonder, yeah
3. “Just Us”
This recording from 1977’s unreleased More Changes is a pleasant and almost exceedingly sunny pop song, dominated by Hawaiian-sounding slide guitar from John Sterling and excellent drumming from longtime Love cohort George Suranovich. It would sound like a minor song from a later-era Strawberry Alarm Clock LP if not for the understated weirdness of the instrumentation.
That the song’s prevalent characteristics are these two apparent opposite forces make it one of the most interesting from the album: Suranovich was always Lee’s most aggressive and skilled percussionist, and the base provided by his playing offers a great counterpoint to Sterling’s almost-tuneless accidental psychedelia. Arthur’s lyrics are (as they so often were ca. 1969 onward) forgettably facile, but his voice proves yet again to be the ‘man behind the curtain’ of this mini-Oz: you don’t notice it at first but it really ties the whole thing together. Like a rug at the Dude’s place.
4. “Happy You”
“Happy You” is an excellent song, louder and aggressive than that which precedes it on this album. It jumps out from the first note and Lee is off to the races immediately, spitting out the lyrics as fast as he needs to while keeping everything funky.
In fact, this is a rock song that sounds like a funk song thanks entirely to Lee’s singing. The guitar, again by John Sterling (who plays a great distorted solo in addition to his complicated rhythm pattern), is almost Hendrix-esque though simpler, and the backing is standard rock band stuff. This is basically a dual-lead song: Arthur Lee’s voice and Sterling’s guitar grooving and feeding off of each other.
The song features a daring middle section that cuts off the faster parts just as they’re getting started: a hushed Arthur Lee crawls along at snake-level, hinting and moaning, before jumping up again and partying with the rest of the band. All seem relieved to be able to get back into it, and it ends up being pretty thrilling.
This would be a great song for a local band today to cover in a small club or bar. It would certainly get the crowd up and dancing and would be great fun for the musicians. Warning: you’d need lots of energy and decent chops to pull it off right.
5. “Do You Know The Secret?”
Co-written with Otis Walker, who also sings a verse, “Do You Know The Secret?” features as its main hook an oft-repeated, oddly-timed three-note funk connector piece between phrases. It’s a fun song and its peppy pace and irresistible hook aren’t even brought down by Lee’s little-boy-lost lyrical pouting:
If you know the secret
Whisper it softly to me
I’ve been waiting so long to be free
6. “One And One”
More explicitly reggae than the album’s similarly-titled opener “One”, “One And One” features some of Lee’s better lyrics on the album. Castigating someone (himself?) with “wandering eyes with a cocaine smile”, Lee muses about paranoia and the ability to “hypnotize other people’s minds / with your vibes”.
The cheerful-sounding chorus (matching the cheerful if squawking reggae backing) complements the verses very well, and there’s even a false ending, after which Neil Williams’ guitar and a piano (apparently played by Lee himself) duke it out for supremacy. Overall, this is another set of somewhat frightening lyrics juxtaposed with a nice pop/rock song — classic Arthur Lee. Throughout his entire career he never really went after slow ballads all that often (“Signed D.C.” being the obvious and notable example). “One And One” continues the tradition.
7. “7 & 7 Is” [remake]
The most infamous track on Arthur Lee is this cover of one of the 1960s most legendary songs: “7 & 7 Is”, originally on Love’s 1966 LP Da Capo.
On this remake, the backing track is much less raucous than the original, but way more distorted and aggressive than the music elsewhere on this album. A bit slower in pace, the guitars are less punk and more rock, and there is a great second guitar pattern just behind the main one, giving the song a small hint of a groove that the original was way too fast to ever accommodate.
Arthur Lee’s lyrics, voice and singing are extremely close to the original; in parts it sounds like that vocal track was lifted off the original and placed onto a new recording by a new band. The famous “ooh baby, ooh baby, yeah” parts are a little different in that they seem to slow down a little and be more deliberate.
As in the original, the track builds to a crescendo (though there is no explosion sound effect this time) and the band meanders lazily out afterwards. The guitar part here closely mirrors the original, but with a much different tone. All in all, this is a great song and this version, while its inclusion (indeed the very fact it was reworked) is somewhat mystifying, is a great, enjoyable track. Who knows why Lee felt the need to reconnect in such a blatant way with his past like this? He often reworked his own songs throughout his career, but usually not note-for-note remakes.
Ultimately, closer to Alice Cooper’s 1981 cover version than Love’s original.
8. “Mr. Lee”
Noting that he always sort of felt like this song was about him, Arthur Lee recorded this Bobbettes song sometime in the early 80s. It features the awesome George Suranovich on drums, though he is very restrained here, tapping out a very simple pattern using mostly hi-hat and bass drum.
The vocals are led by Lee and supported by a chorus. Overall, this version of the song is slow and groovy, and the niggling guitars that squelch in and out behind the reggae approach of the main rhythm provide a bit of color to what is an otherwise unremarkable recording.
Notable is Lee’s pleas for some vaguely-defined togetherness, a vibe he apparently took from the music of Jamaica; he always seemed to feel at home with such sentiments at this point in his career, although his voice sounds somewhat under-rehearsed here.
9. “Bend Down”
This is classic Arthur Lee. Fast, sly and menacing, it stands alongside Lee’s best post-Four Sail work. Guitarists Velvert Turner and John Sterling are really cooking here, and the only musical complaint might be the yet-again boring bass playing of Mike Curtis. When the guitars temporarily stop, he is unable to carry the excitement despite the attempts of drummer George Suranovich. In Curtis’s defense, his bass wouldn’t be nearly as problematic if it weren’t mixed so high; blame the producer for singling out the weakest link.
I don’t know who Arthur Lee is addressing here or how exactly he means the title phrase, but his voice is quieter and sexier than usual and it fits the song very well. However, “Bend Down” is a rare example of his voice being drowned out by the music behind him — not just in volume, but in conviction.
Never mind, it’s a great song and nearly everything works. Even the unfinished-sounding bass parts serve to throw the rest in bold relief and lend a genuine urgent excitement to the recording.
I want you to bend down
You set my soul on fire
10. “Down Street”
Beginning with Arthur Lee blowing forcefully into a harmonica, this upbeat song features a classic piece of effortless Lee songwriting backed up by a capable if somewhat pedestrian arrangement. In fact, the harmonica breaks are the best part of this song except for Arthur’s vocals. The man just never disappointed in the singing department.
The lyrics are absolute pop dross, and they’re perfect for the song and Lee squeezes them out fast and funky. Particularly cool is the song’s main lyrical hook, “Gimme little love / Gimme little love / My baby”, as catchy as anything else on the album. Listen to the ingenious funk timing of his singing on these lines after the guitar solo:
I’ve been up on Down Street
Funky Broadway too
Good to see you baby
But I think I seen you down there too
Elsewhere (mostly during the outro) Lee goes into an inspired rant about “a hell of a flower” and a “the bouquet of life”; say what you want about the hippie idealism of the 60s and/or the crumbling of the dream during the 70s and beyond, but Arthur Lee never strayed from or felt the need to apologize for his 60s roots. Anytime any artist does something consistently for so long, that artist’s point of view deserves a respectful re-examination. So most of the musical stalwarts of the 60s dropped the ball and completely betrayed everything they’d stood for. Not Arthur Lee; he may have experimented with psych-pop, rock, funk, reggae and more, but there is a consistency of message running through the music of his entire career. Like the similarly reliable Motörhead, Residents, or Jandek, you gotta respect such constancy.
11. “Stay Away From Evil”
But it’s hard to, Lee complains in the liner notes.
Sherwood Akuna’s awesomely funky bass, backed up by a very rapidly strummed high-neck guitar chord, drives this song, the best-produced on the album. Carlos Carraby holds it together valiantly with a tricky but expertly-played drum part, and Arthur Lee delivers a breathless, repetitive, heartfelt lyric directed at himself:
People tellin’ me
What I got to be
All the time I see
I belong to me
You got to stay away from evil
And all them crazy people
“Stay Away From Evil” sounds in some ways like a funk/disco song about 4 years after the fact, but a good performance is timeless, and whatever it may have sounded like then, it rocks now. The drums sound lithe, the aforementioned bassist and guitarist nail their parts, and Lee’s appealing voice is at its best — actually it’s a little more withered than usual, which suits the song’s theme just fine.
If considered for single release it would still have been too rough-edged and non-commercial for widespread consumption, but in a slightly different universe this could have been a hit single, even in post-disco 1981.
12. “Many Rivers To Cross”
The other cover song on this album, Jimmy Cliff’s extremely popular gospel-tinged anthem closes this unusual Arthur Lee release. “Many Rivers To Cross” should be a great vehicle for Lee’s singing, but the track feels at first blush disappointingly off-hand.
The best part about it is Lee’s piano playing, though that may be interesting for the revelation it provides about his unexpected prowess on the keys at least as much as being something that serves the song. The track feels too fast, and the spine-tingling anthemic qualities of the song are obscured by an unimaginative arrangement, the aggravatingly hurried pace, and ordinary performances from the band and Lee.
It’s not wholly without merit, however: Lee manages to summon a decent pathos in his singing, and the occasional chorus behind him is very nice. The end is particularly nice, as the band hits its final ringing chord, and Lee’s voice shrinks to a whisper among the “white cliffs of Dover” as the piano tinkles away.
In another way, though, this is the perfect ending for this album: if indeed Arthur Lee was aiming for a deeper pathhos but was blocked by the limitations of his own drug use and famously “difficult” personality, this version of “Many Rivers To Cross” stands as a harrowing and honest testament to the man: capable of so much, but happy at this point in his life with trying rather than achieving.
In writing this review, I’ve had this song on repeat and have listened to it now about six times in a row: I’ve gotta say, it grows on you. There’s something in its resigned despair, the quiet haplessness of the musicians, the fact that the band actually nails it even if you don’t notice it the first time around. It was meant to sound like this. This is Arthur Lee ca. 1981 for better or for worse, and the sadness of this song reflects the sadness felt by Lee’s fans. Sad that the album is over. Sad that Arthur’s genius was always evident but not always fully realized for all but the first three years of his career.
Go back and listen to it again; in the right mood, this is the best and truest track on the album:
Wandering I am lost
As I travel along the white cliffs of Dover…
Arthur Lee by Arthur Lee
“I Do Wonder”
“Do You Know The Secret?”
“One And One”
“7 & 7 Is” [remake]
“Stay Away From Evil”
“Many Rivers To Cross”