[16 March 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records 1963-1973 is really a tribute to the vision of Elektra’s founder, Jac Holzman. In an age when the music industry is dominated by Universal, Sony BMG, Warner, and EMI, it’s easy to forget that a different “big four” once dominated—Columbia, Decca, RCA, and Capitol. From that climate 50 years ago, Elektra Records emerged as an independent label with a distinct personality. A cursory glance at the track listing on Forever Changing solidifies Elektra’s significance in finding and breaking musical acts across the spectrum of folk, blues, rock, and psychedelia. That Holzman nurtured legendary talents like Judy Collins, the Doors, Love, Carly Simon, Tim Buckley, Queen, and the Stooges is a testament to his motto: “follow the music”.
Established in 1950, Elektra spent its first decade signing folk artists, fast becoming the chief competition of the most successful folk label at the time, Vanguard. Forever Changing begins in the early-‘60s when a new flock of folk music troubadours and vagabonds nested in coffeehouses and festivals. Having lost Joan Baez, the movement’s most commanding performer, to Vanguard, Holzman was determined to find an artist to match. Judy Collins was it. Appropriately, Forever Changing opens with a tune by Collins, who stayed with Elektra for 17 albums through 1984. Her version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, which pre-dates the Byrds’ hit, may well be a metaphor for Elektra Records. The label changed with the times, stretching in different directions and experimenting with artists and music that were wholly un-commercial. The good, bad, strange, and sublime are all present and accounted for across these five discs. Compilation producers Stuart Batsford, Mick Houghton, and Phil Smee left no stone unturned in their quest to present the fullest possible range of Elektra’s “golden age”. It’s probably the only place one will find Carly Simon’s “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” followed by the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”, but such is this collection’s thrust—it’s exhaustive, informative, joyfully unpredictable and, to quote Jac Holzman, “respectful of the odd”.
In its breadth, the obscure emerges right along with the well known. Disc Five, for example, begins with an artifact from Elektra’s short-lived, but successful, line of sound effects albums (“Wind Chimes”) and ends with a track by out-and-proud gay performer Jobriath (“World Without End”); this from the label that made both Judy Collins and Jim Morrison stars! Mick Houghton should be commended for his remarkable insight about each track, drawing relationships between otherwise unrelated songs. A long-forgotten band called Crabby Appleton, for example, follows the Stooges on Disc Three. Both bands released albums within months of each other ... and that’s where their similarities end. Houghton explains that though the latter was the antithesis of the former, each represented untold potential in the ears of Jac Holzman. Iggy Pop’s sneer sounds like a punked-out version of Bob Dylan on “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, and the echoey voice of Michael Fennelly, Crabby Appleton’s lead singer, led the haunting pop-rock of “Go Back” into the Top 30. And what follows these two strange bedfellows? The lightweight melodies of Bread.
On the surface, it appears that Forever Changing suffers from an identity crisis with so many disparate styles vying for attention (the exception is Disc One which is 7/8 folk music). The essence of this eclecticism is captured on Disc Five which, as Houghton states, provides a “more skewed and tangential perspective” of the label. Here we have the Beefeaters (an early incarnation of the Byrds), a Baroque version of the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back”, Bahamas-based guitarist Joseph Spence strumming along wistfully in his leathery voice, cannabis-inspired musical humor by Jack S. Margolis, the Holy Modal Rounders and David Peel; and an early version of Cream’s “Crossroads” cut by Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse. The “what if’s” and “could have been’s” are endless. We learn that the Lovin’ Spoonful was originally signed to Elektra but its publisher had already placed a deal with another record label (“Good Time Music” was one of the sides slated to be released on Elektra). Lesser-known is the UK-based Eclection. The short-lived group, with members hailing from Canada, Australia, Norway, and England, was led by singer Kerrilee Male who infuses “Please (Mark II)” (and “Nevertheless” on Disc Two) with a fire worthy of Grace Slick. Regrettably, the group disbanded before it gained any traction from its very fine debut album. Such was the fate of many bands on Elektra Records.
Box sets, especially those celebrating a record label, are often frustrating enterprises. As impressive as Forever Changing is in appearance and scope, not everything here has aged particularly well (though the remastering is superb). Tracks like “Virgo” by the Zodiac Cosmic Sounds and “Swift as the Wind” by the Incredible String Band are hopelessly stuck in the 1960s, but discovering “Apricot Brandy” by Rhinoceros, or hearing Judy Henske’s early-‘60s version of “High Flying Bird” makes the seven-hour listening experience worthwhile. It’s like an art exhibit where you might have to tour the room a few times before finding a painting or sculpture that resonates, aside from the obvious masterpieces. At best, Forever Changing will introduce listeners to acts they might not otherwise explore (the MC5 fan who discovers Tom Paxton for the first time) or didn’t know existed (Arts Nova? The Even Dozen Jug Band?). This kind of scavenger hunt will appeal most to listeners who get thrills from the minutiae of popular music history, especially the 1960s, and don’t mind patiently sifting through 117 tracks to find the gems.
“Creating a compelling alternative music catalog for curious and open ears”, to quote Elektra’s founder, marks the legacy of Elektra Records and the main selling point for this collection. Before it became a product of Warner Communications Inc. in the early-‘70s, Elektra grew on its own from a boutique label, with hardly any albums in record stores, to a home for trailblazing acts, eventually rivaling the Clive Davis-led Columbia to sign the next-big-thing. Forever Changing serves to remind listeners that in the current state of corporate conglomeration, independent record labels have long co-existed with major labels, and will continue to thrive and flourish.