Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Arthur Lee and Love -- "7 And 7 Is" (1966)

You can throw me if you wanna 
'Cause I'm a bone and I go
Oop-ip-ip oop-ip-ip, yeah!

A few weeks ago, I described another song as "a stick of dynamite," a phrase I borrowed from a client of mine, who used it to describe one of his wildly successful infomercials.  (Actually, he used it to describe all his infomercials, whether they were profitable or not.)

This song goes that song one better.  It's not just a stick of dynamite, it's an effing  ATOMIC BOMB!

I say that because the song's climax is the mother of all simulated explosions.  The sound is said to have been created by a band member dropping or kicking a reverb unit.  Regardless of how they created that sound, it worked.

Arthur Lee
The late Arthur Lee, the frontman and primary songwriter for the band Love, is a card-carrying member of the Association of Underappreciated Musical Geniuses.  Like Alex Chilton of Big Star and others of that ilk, Lee was a cult figure who was appreciated by his fellow musicians and some of the critics, but never got his due from the public at large.

Lee was born in 1945 and formed his first group while he was still in high school.  He wrote a number of songs for other performers in the early 1960s – an unknown guitar player named Jimi Hendrix played on one of those records – and formed a folk-rock band called the Grass Roots (which had to change its name to Love) in 1965.   

Love played in a number of small clubs in Hollywood before getting a gig at the legendary Whiskey a Go Go club on the Sunset Strip in L.A.  That led to a recording contract with Elektra Records.

The Whiskey a Go Go (circa 1970)
The Doors, who were playing the same clubs as Love, signed with Elektra at about the same time and were far more successful than Love in terms of fame and fortune.  But as much as I like the Doors, I think Arthur Lee and Love's music is far more original and compelling.

Love's eponymous (!) debut album featured Burt Bacharach's "My Little Red Book," which was a minor hit single for the group in 1966.  Shortly after that, Love released "7 And 7 Is," which made it to #33 on the Billboard "Hot 100" – their highest-charting single ever.  

I think this song deserved to be a #1 hit, but I have to admit that I'm surprised it got as high as #33.  This was 1966, folks – the #1 single of that year was "Ballad of the Green Berets," by Sgt. Barry Sadler.  Other big hits from 1966 included "Born Free" by pianist Roger Williams, Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night," and the retro novelty tune "Winchester Cathedral."  

Like "Eight Miles High" by the Byrds – a band that Lee greatly admired – "7 And 7 Is" sounds like nothing else from that era.  It's folk rock, psychedelic, and protopunk all at once.  

The music is as intense and propulsive as anything recorded before or since.  Just as you settle into the two-chord guitar pattern and the repeated sixteenth-note drum figure, there's an abrupt shift to an exaggerated one-two-three, one-two-three rhythm in the last measure of each verse.  (It's when the lyrics go "Oop-ip-ip, oop-ip-ip" or whatever.)  

It's kind of like playing tag on a summer evening in a friend's backyard when you were a kid.  You're running along at full speed and suddenly the clothesline catches you right in the neck.  Your bottom half keeps running for a second after your top half comes to a sudden halt and you go ass over teakettle (or perhaps vice versa).  The next thing you know, you're lying on your back and asking yourself WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED???

"7 And 7 Is" was included on Love's 1967 album, Da Capo.  Later that year, the group released its masterpiece, Forever Changes, a genre-defying album that has a much softer sound than "7 And 7 Is."  (Lee's singing style on Forever Changes is often compared to that of Johnny Mathis.)

I wrote about "You Set the Scene," one of the songs on Forever Changes, in 2010.  It is a gorgeous song – it and "7 And 7 Is" couldn't be more different.  If you missed that post, please click here to listen to "You Set the Scene" -- you won't be sorry.

Forever Changes was recorded in only 64 hours.  Love was already falling apart when the album was released, and its commercial failure was probably the group's coup de grace.

It eventually became recognized as one of the greatest albums ever recorded.  In 2006, one critic wrote that it is "the ultimate example of a record that might not find its listenership right away, but eventually comes to be appreciated as a timeless masterwork."

Forever Changes is routinely included in top-100-albums-of-all-time compilations.  One critic argued it was the greatest single album ever recorded:

The Beatles are the best and most influential act of the rock era, but even their best work – the trilogy of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's – falls short of Forever Changes.  [It is a] dark, innovative and melancholy masterpiece . . . 

Here's what another writer had to say about it:

Inside these songs are ideas about guitar soloing that Lee's friend Jimi Hendrix rode into the stratosphere; hints of the mysticism and transcendence that became the calling card of the Doors; and the seeds of goth, orchestral pop, and other subgenres.  Few records of the era cast such a wide (and still lengthening) shadow.

That's all well and good, but these encomia came a little late for Love's members, who never recorded together again.  Two of them become drug addicts – neither of those two lived to see the year 2000 – while another moved to New York City and became a studio musician.  Lee put together a reconstituted version of Love in 1969, but none of the new band's albums got much attention (despite the appearance of Jimi Hendrix on one of them).

Arthur Lee in 2006
Lee didn't do much with music during the 1980s.  He re-emerged in 1992, releasing a new album and touring in Europe.  But he spent 1996 through 2001 in prison for illegal possession of a firearm.  

A couple of years after his release from prison, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.  There were a number of benefit concerts to raise money to pay his medical bills – one in New York in 2006 featured Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin), Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople), Nils Lofgren (E Street Band), and others.

But despite aggressive treatment (including three rounds of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant), Lee died in a Memphis hospital in August 2006.  He was 61. 

"7 And 7 Is" has been covered by Alice Cooper, Rush, and the Ramones, among others.  Cooper's version is very odd.  Rush really has no business doing this song.  (Rush may not have any business doing any song, now that I think about it.)  The Ramones' cover isn't bad – I like the way they end the song immediately after the simulated explosion (unlike the original) – but there's really no point to anyone covering "7 And 7 Is."  There's no chance it will come close the the Arthur Lee and Love original.

Here's "7 And 7 Is":

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from Amazon:

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