“Alone Again Or” must be one of pop music’s more enigmatic song titles. But it’s always struck me as a title in search of an ellipsis. Perhaps “Alone Again Or…”, “Alone Again…Or”, or maybe even “Alone Again…Or?” might have made more sense.
But whether or not you feel the title deserves those little dots in there somewhere, I hope you can agree that “Alone Again Or” is a tremendous song.
Recorded in the summer of 1967, by a group called Love…itself something of an appropriate name for the Summer of Love…couldn’t have chosen a better time for their part-folk, part-rock, part-psychedelia, part-Latin song to chime with the popular mood. Rolling Stone magazine included “Alone Again Or” in their listing of the top 500 songs of all time…and that’s probably about right for a song that captures the spirit of the late 1960s so well.
“Alone Again Or” does something very clever, though. It captures the spirit of the time without being too much of the time. It’s a song of love and loss that frankly could have been written at just about any time in musical history. Yet it captures the musical influences swirling around the LA music scene in the late 1960s perfectly.
Not just for the wide range of influences apparent in the song itself…folk, rock, psychedelia and Latin to name just a few…but even in the way the song was mixed.
Songwriter Bryan MacLean’s Spanish-style guitar comes firmly out of your right speaker and the drums that set the pace throughout the song come firmly out your left speaker. In the early days of stereo recordings this was something people liked to do…partly just because they could, and partly because artists and producers wanted to show off that they’d used this new-fangled stereo technology to make a record.
People quickly tired of that and nowadays it would be almost unthinkable to mix a song this way, but “Alone Again Or” is one of the small number of hit records which was, another way in which the song is so very reminiscent of the late 1960s.
But what I like most about this song is the air of mystery it conveys. Not just in the enigmatic title, although I really like the way just one little change transforms a humdrum but serviceable title into a title that poses as many questions as it answers.
Reportedly, when songwriter Bryan MacLean brought the song to the studio it was called “Alone Again”. Band-mate Arthur Lee added the “or” to deliberately make the song more mysterious.
Genius…and it certainly did the job. One little word…almost the shortest word in the English language…was all it took to make the journey from a perfectly serviceable title to an iconic and enigmatic one.
Sometimes creativity is about painting bold, expansive canvasses…sometimes it’s the tiniest details which bring a touch of genius to the world.
Arthur Lee’s insertion of the word “or” in the title of “Alone Again Or” is a great example of how an apparently tiny piece of creative input can have a huge impact all by itself.
Within the lyrics, there’s a similar shift to the mysterious going on.
The first verse appears to be sung by a guy who’s waiting patiently for someone he cares about to come back, but she never does…
Yeah, I said it’s all right
I won’t forget
All the times I waited patiently for you
I think you’ll do just what you choose to do
And I will be alone again tonight my dear
So far this is a well-worn tale of a lover spurned. We don’t know where she is or what she’s doing, but by the time we get to the end of the first verse, it seems pretty clear she isn’t coming back any time soon.
Then the sense of mystery gets amped up a little…
Yeah, I heard a funny thing
Somebody said to me
You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are the greatest fun
And I will be alone again tonight my dear
I’ve heard “Alone Again Or” plenty of times, and I have very little idea what this verse is all about. It could be an attempt to contrast some outgoing character who “could be in love with almost everyone” …and given that this was the mid-1960s, probably was doing exactly that…with our gloomy stay-at-home singer.
If that was the intention, it seems the advice of his friend didn’t go very far. Our singer decided to stay at home by himself again anyway…
The Spanish-style guitar adds to the mystery too. Bryan MacLean plays the intro, outro and a spell between each verse very beautifully. But he does so largely without any supporting orchestration or vocals. The alone-ness of the guitar contrasts sharply with the rich vocals and lush orchestral arrangement during the verses.
The verses symbolise togetherness, the gaps between them alone-ness.
It’s almost like one of those movies with flashbacks where they’re telling two stories at the same time, but one is slightly sepia-tinted so you know when we’ve gone back in time.
David Angel’s orchestration for “Alone Again Or” also adds to the air of mystery. It’s very reminiscent of a Sergio Leone western…all very “Man With No Name”…until we switch from the anticipation-heightening strings to a horn section which draws very firmly on the style of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass.
There’s an old Bob Hope joke about England, where he says, “if you don’t like the weather, hang around for 10 minutes, because it’s going to change by then anyway”.
“Alone Again Or” is a bit like that. There’s so much going on in this song that every few seconds there’s something new that wasn’t there before. We switch from musically-upbeat verses, albeit with pretty down-beat lyrics, and full orchestration to a single guitar which sounds like it’s being played by someone in deep contemplation about their lot in life and what the future might bring.
And, of course, in the mid-1960’s, deep contemplation was very much in fashion in a way we can’t imagine in today’s world of instantaneous self-gratification via Instagram posts and Facebook updates.
In so many ways, “Alone Again Or” was the perfect way to encapsulate what it was like to live in 1967, the musical and societal influences, the hopes and dreams tempered with the realisation that, at a time of great change, nobody could really know what the future might bring.
It does a great job of symbolising the near-simultaneous feelings of togetherness and alone-ness that permeates the modern world. We spend our time “together” on Facebook without a single other human being around us. We’re together, but we’re alone.
For all those reasons and more, “Alone Again Or” thoroughly deserves its place as one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest songs of all time.
Let this song take you back to a different time, when the world was a more thoughtful, more considered, more optimistic place, and fill your senses with the distilled essence of 1967 as you listen to Love with “Alone Again Or”…
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading about another of my favourite songs. I’m grateful that you’ve taken the time to spend a few moments in the company of a song that I love.
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to your music on Spotify, you can find this track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/1XuccRABkfUVB4FjSVhjL1