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The Record That Changed My Life: Bob Harris on the 'Absolutely Unique' Joy of Love's 'Forever Changes'

'And when I got to his flat, Marc Bolan was there, sitting cross-legged on a Persian rug on the floor, strumming his guitar and singing "By the Light of a Magical Moon."'

bob harris forever changes
Source: Miles Myerscough-Harris @expired Film Club

Bob Harris's original vinyl copy of 'Forever Changes' was given to him by John Peel in 1967.

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Bob Harris has been a titan of British music for over half a century, beginning his radio career in the late 60s, before joining Radio 1 in 1970. He has remained at the BBC ever since, and also served as presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test between 1972 and 1979. He currently presents The Country Show on Radio 2, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this April. He has chosen Love’s 1967 psychedelic-folk masterpiece Forever Changes.

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Hi Bob. So of all the millions of albums in your collection, why Forever Changes?

Two reasons. Partly because I think it was such a groundbreaking album, but also, and crucially, it has very strong sentimental connections to me because the vinyl copy that I have was given to me by John Peel the very first time I met him at the end of 1967, early 1968. I had moved to London in ‘66 with the whole idea of getting involved in the music industry and there were these two incredible pirate radio stations: Radio Caroline and Radio London. And in particular there was a late-night show on Radio London called The Perfumed Garden, which started at midnight and was hosted by John Peel.

He was playing really extraordinary music that he had brought back from America with him, bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe and the Fish. I mean, I'd never heard any of these artists before and I was locked onto this show. If I could have pressed the button and swapped lives with anybody at that moment, it would have been John and I was really keen to meet him. So I began to write off to some of the music connected magazine because I thought they might be a bridge into the industry in some way, and through that I met a guy called Tony Elliott, who was the editor of a university magazine called Unit, and he was looking for a correspondent in London that could send up articles about what was happening in the summer of love and psychedelia and he set up for me an interview with John Peel.

John was living in a little flat in Fulham and it was exactly at the time that he was promoting Tyrannosaurus Rex. And when I got to his flat, Marc Bolan was there and it was absolutely the classic 60s moment, because Marc was sitting cross-legged on a Persian rug on the floor strumming his guitar and singing “By the Light of a Magical Moon”… and he was the accompaniment of our interview.

I suppose I was there a good couple of hours and as I was leaving, John says, “Wait, I'm gonna give you something which I know will be very important to you in years to come." And he gave me a copy of Forever Changes by Love.

john peel marc bolan
Source: MEGA

John Peel and Marc Bolan -- turned on and tuned in, baby.

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That is the most 1967 story ever.

It is, isn’t it! And every time I look at that record I can just picture the moment. And then John and Marc and I became very close friends. Marc and I both had huge record collections and I would take loads of singles over to his flat and we would play them to each other… it was such an innocent and genuinely beautiful time and it really came from Forever Changes. That record is that moment for me.

So when John Peel gave it to you, had you heard it before anyway, or was it a brand new experience?

No, no Love were a new band for me. And there was nothing that sounded remotely like it, even “Alone Again Or,” which seems to start fairly conventionally. But then all of a sudden you've got this sort of Mariachi sound and immediately you’re thinking: what the hell is that? And then the lyrics. Have you ever heard a song which begins with the lyric: “Oh the snot has caked against my pants, it has turned into crystal” [from “Live and Let Live”]?

I mean, what the hell is that all about? And then there’s some really quite angry guitar playing set against beautiful strings. I mean, the counterpoints in that record, it’s just stunning to me. There’s also an element of menace about it, just under the surface. You sensed that there was something about this band and of course, as it turns out the band Love were about anything but. They were outrageous. Some really terrible behavior, and Arthur Lee, of course, he was a crazy man.

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Did you ever meet Arthur Lee?

Yes, first of all I sort of did in 1993, I think it was, and by then he'd had several stints in jail. The interview was arranged by a Radio 1 producer, and we'd set it up so that we would do the interview at 10 o'clock at night, which was two o'clock in the afternoon in L.A. So we're ready in the studio and I've got his phone on a fader, and we dial the number and it was ringing for about two and a half minutes. We're just about to give up on it when Arthur Lee comes on the phone line and says, “What's happening?” I go, "Arthur, Arthur, it's Bob Harris from Radio 1, we've got this interview organized, it’s going out on Radio 1," and he's saying, “I can't do it now, man, I can't do it.” I said, "Arthur, why can't you do it?" He said: “I got a hot chick with me, man,” and that was it. End of interview. Brilliant.

The final time I saw him was at Guilfest, I think it would have been 2004, 2005, when he did the orchestral version of Forever Changes and I thought: this is it, I'm going to meet Arthur Lee! And we're in the studio and I was broadcasting live. Arthur arrived with a couple of guys and he was on a completely different planet. So he sat down and I said, "Arthur, I've been looking forward to this meeting for such a long time, because Forever Changes is my favorite album and can you just introduce me to the guys that you've got with you, who are now the band Love. Who are they?"

And there was a long pause where he vaguely looked around himself and sees these two guys sitting next to him and he goes, “Are you guys in my band?” And they say, "yes Arthur."

It was just hilarious, absolutely hilarious. For a second I thought, is he putting this on? And he actually wasn't. He was looking at them and asking, are you in my band? Could you remind me who you are again? Incredible.

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He was pretty out there, but he was also a genius, wasn't he? That album is pretty much all him…

It is, yeah. But it's probably true to say he was also his own worst enemy. He was so unpredictable and so dangerous sometimes and I think record companies found it almost impossible to control him.

The other thing I always think about this album is that it's so dominated by “Alone Again Or” that the song almost becomes an albatross around its neck.

I only think it is, in so much as that's what nowadays we would call a “focus track”, in that it was released as a single. There's so much else on Forever Changes that's so fascinating that I think if anything, “Alone Again Or” serves as a great signpost to the record as a whole. So in that sense I think it’s much more a positive than a negative, to be honest.

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Forever Changes wasn't a hit at the time, was it?

It crept into the UK charts, I think about No. 28 or something like that, and certainly in America Love were never a massive band.

So when did it become this “must have” record? At some point it just started hitting all the charts of greatest albums ever.

It did, didn't it? I think that was a gradual process. I'd actually like to think that I was partly responsible for that, because once I started to work on Radio 1 in 1970, we were encouraged to really push the boundaries out and I would go back and back and back to Forever Changes. I would really work through that album – every three or four weeks there'd be another track from it in one of my shows. And whenever anybody asked me what my top ten albums were, Forever Changes would always be number one. And it still is. I still find something new in it almost every time I put it on. It really is an extraordinary record. It's absolutely unique.

Bob Harris marks 25 years of hosting The Country Show on BBC Radio 2, every Thursday from 9-10pm and also available on BBC Sounds.


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