This What’s Playing actually kinda ties into my earlier feature on The Wicker Man and its crazy, creepy soundtrack. Love at first seem like the sweetest, prettiest, most 60-ish band to ever be, and then you realise there’s this whole other dark, ugly side bubbling away. And I don’t mean the fact that their frontman/creative hub Arthur Lee was arrested for possession of enough guns to arm a small army. Which, as a militant black rights activist, is probably exactly what they for.
Having a militant activist as your frontman generally doesn’t sell, nor, at the time, did a mixed race band (it doesn’t really now either to be honest, they’re still pretty rare). And, no matter how neatly you dress it up, and they did dress things neatly, talking about how crappy things are, or are going to be, in the middle of the summer of love doesn’t sell either. Love did all of those things and did not sell. Instead they just got called influential but overlooked and got talked about lovingly by other artists – The Stone Roses, for instance, agreed to hire their longtime producer once he agreed that their magnum opus Forever Changes was the greatest record of all time(it’s not, but it’s close).
The Red Telephone, off that album, pretty much sums up Love. It’s drowned in incredibly lush orchestration, works off a quintessentially 60s backbone and is sung beautifully and emotively by Arthur Lee. It’s also not quite right. From the off the lyrics are strange and not a little foreboding – ‘Sitting on a hillside, watching all the people…die’ – they’re laced with paranoia and incipient dread, like the quietest, sweetest rant in the world. Underneath all those pretty strings it’s ultimately a song about a man hopelessly disillusioned with his world. Which, again, just does not sell.
Even those strings I love to mention are, neat as they are, somewhat off. A hint of discord pervades the whole song, from that opening guitar to the staggered vocals to the imperceptibly off string section. It’s quietly unnerving, partly because you can never quite put your finger on what’s so strange about it. All their stuff is filled with that same sense of unease, even the ones that Madonna rips off for Austin Powers(She Comes In Colors, off their previous album and also nabbed by The Rolling Stones, and Beautiful Stranger. They’re basically the same song. Madonna said she never heard it, which isn’t surprising really, but everyone else picked up on the similarities).
She, or whoever composed the song, probably ripped them off because, on the surface at least, they sound like the kind of band that would totally capture the sound of the 60s. They did, but it’s just it probably wasn’t quite the peace, love and party vibe that they were going for on Austin Powers. Social commentary is not, and has never been, shagadelic. I think that’s a good note to end on.