Original member of Love Johnny Echols speaks to Bido Lito!
“Now you’re part of the chain. Pass it along.”
So exhort the liner notes in the 2001 reissue of iconic LOVE album Forever Changes, something that successive generations of Liverpool music fans had already been doing for decades. The 1967 album by the late Arthur Lee’s cult LA rock band is a melange of acoustic arpeggios, Mariachi trumpets, beautifully scored strings and gently foreboding lyrics that shares a thread of poetic beauty with Merseyside greats, from The Teardrop Explodes to Echo & The Bunnymen, from The Stairs to The Coral. Arguably the most ardent Love disciples in a city of Lovers, however, are chamber-pop doyens Shack. Led by longstanding members John and Michael Head, the band brought Love’s brooding, mercurial force Lee to the city for a gig in 1992, a show that he later described as “the most memorable of my life”. As the time-worn aphorism goes, ‘In Liverpool you’re never more than 200 yards away from a copy of Love’s Forever Changes’ (provenance unknown).
The story of Love, and how their seminal proto-punk, proto-psychedelic, protest music came to chime with this city, is being celebrated in an event of our own making, to be performed especially for this summer’s Liverpool International Music Festival. FROM LIVERPOOL WITH LOVE is a re-presentation of the ideas, themes and music of Love, told with the help of the band’s original guitarist, JOHNNY ECHOLS, who will be joined by a band and special guests comprising some of Liverpool music’s most revered names. It is also the story of our own name. For a band who never toured their home country or had any notable commercial success, the weight of Love’s cult status is even more remarkable given that it spread largely by word of mouth. To understand how this came to pass, we need to venture back to LA in 1965, to a ragtag bunch of musicians with a vision, in a street off Sunset Boulevard.
“We didn’t consider ourselves to be part of an underground scene in 1965, when we were still known as The Grassroots,” Echols replies when asked what kind of music scene existed in LA in the mid-sixties. “Later, when we became Love, we were able to fill whatever venue we played and, for reasons I don’t quite understand, we were able to out-draw virtually every other group playing in Los Angeles at the time. So we had a much different experience than most other groups.”
“We moved over from the Brave New World Club [located nearby] in the summer of 1965, to a brand new venue called Bido Lito’s, which was an acronym for venue owners Bill, Dorothy, Linda and Tommy,” Echols continues. “Being that we were the first group to play there, we were given the opportunity to have input as to the layout as well as the type of soundsystem the club would have. We played six nights per week, from 8pm until 2am. Soon after we began playing there, we were drawing overflow crowds. So much so, that the club owners blocked off Cosmo’s Alley [where the club was located] and installed huge Voice Of The Theater speakers. So the literally hundreds of kids who were unable to get into the club could dance in the street.
“Bido Lito’s became the in spot, in a very short period of time,” recalls Echols of the time. “Groups like The Doors, the Iron Butterfly and many others followed Love, making it a very important venue for up-and-coming groups. The decision to open up Cosmo’s Alley was a huge factor: many others could be a part of the scene without having to pay to get into the club. Because of that, we were playing to huge audiences every single night.”
Uniquely in LA (and even in the US itself), Love were a mixed race group at a time of social and political upheaval. With the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement in full flow, we wonder, how much did these events effect them as young artists? “Arthur and I, like most young people at the time, were very socially conscious,” Echols replies. “From our perspectives, one almost had to be. We were at ground zero, because of our ages, and were constantly bombarded by images of that war. It was absolutely surreal, to be enjoying the privileged life we were living – and at the same time, being informed of the deaths of many of our former classmates and high-school friends. Both of us were certain that it was only a matter of time before our numbers would be called. And we would wind up dying in some God-forsaken jungle. Many people think this country is polarised now; this is a love-fest compared to back then. They were bombing churches, unleashing dogs on citizens who dared to try and vote. They were routinely killing political leaders. Students, peaceful protesters, anybody that made too much noise, was fair game. One could, and often would be arrested, and beaten for ‘fraternising’ outside their race. With that as a backdrop, it doesn’t seem so improbable that a bunch of race-mixing California musicians would be most unwelcome in certain areas of the country.”
With the riots in LA at the time, and Love being one of the biggest groups in the city, they were undoubtedly a product of their time and place. As two racially mixed young men, fronting a racially mixed group in the sixties, Echols and Lee faced widespread discrimination across a country that was racked with its own inner turmoil. Much of the country expressed a ‘You folks need not apply’ attitude towards them, or insisting on them playing to a segregated audience for fear of the outpouring of emotion they would bring forth from a gagged section of society. “We absolutely refused to be a part of that insanity,” Echols states. “When the group did manage to play a gig outside the West Coast, the police would often monitor our hotel, to find out who was visiting our rooms. The whole scene seems so bizarre now. Arthur and I were so embarrassed, and put off, to be caught up in something so un-cool. After a point we began turning down gigs outside the East, or West Coasts altogether, even college towns, where we would have been welcomed. To save face we began claiming that not touring in many parts of the country was a matter of choice, rather than circumstance… the myth was born of reality.”
An exceptional lyricist, Arthur Lee’s words transported the listener right to the location that inspired them, and Echols was fully aware at the time of how powerful Love’s output was. “In the reality in which we found ourselves, we were in effect town criers,” the guitarist says. “So much of Love’s music is actually a newsreel, memorialising the times in which we lived.”
The band were signed to Elektra Records by label boss Jac Holzman after seeing them play at Bido Lito’s; the label (and by extension its president) acquired a stellar reputation over the next half-decade, signing The Doors, The Stooges and The MC5. As Echols explains, however, Love’s tenure on the label was difficult. “While the counter-intuitive, illogical, and patently ridiculous mythology that has swirled around this group with an almost religious intensity may have helped to cultivate a ‘darkly romantic’ cult status, the fact remains that, no matter how talented, dedicated and well-schooled the ‘alchemist’ is, he cannot transmute bullshit into reality! Jac Holzman is portrayed as a genius record company president who discovered the group and was the brains behind our success. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jac, and by extension Elektra, were an impediment from day one. After the first recording session, it became clear that they could not recreate Love’s ‘live’ sound in studio. Holzman and [Forever Changes co-producer/band engineer] Bruce Botnick kept saying everything was fine, and we should trust their judgement. They got along well with Arthur and Bryan [McLean, guitarist and fellow songwriter], who were inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. I, on the other hand, was seen as an impediment to getting the album done. In effect they wanted me to ‘Shut the fuck up and play!’ That old aphorism ‘Truth is stranger, than fiction’ could have easily been written about this group. However, it should be noted that truth, in this case, is a hell of a lot more interesting as well!”
Following Forever Changes’ lacklustre sales, the original band line-up splintered in 1968, with Lee continuing work under the Love banner while Echols, whose childhood friendship with Lee formed the bedrock of the group, departed LA. “After leaving the group, I moved to New York and became a studio musician [Echols’ credits include working with jazz legend Miles Davis]. Arthur and I remained in touch,” Echols explains. “He would often visit me in New York, or I would come to LA to hang with him. Through all the travails that the group was forced to endure by Elektra and through the many personal changes we both had to deal with, Arthur and I remained friends until the day he died.”
Given this huge upheaval, did Echols find Love an enjoyable experience? “Besides this year being the 10th anniversary of Arthur’s passing, it is also the 50th anniversary of the group Love. I have enjoyed every moment of that experience… the tough times as well as the good times.”