Look out flower power, there’s a darker force in town
While the Beatles were banging on about “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Lovely Rita”, there was a band across the Atlantic who were nothing less than the antithesis of everything the newly emerging hippie movement were wanting to represent. The Doors were the dark undercurrent which ran beneath The Summer of Love, and while there was nothing wrong with getting around with flowers in your hair, and living in peace with your fellow man while getting stoned on the streets of Haight Ashbury, Jim Morrison and his band of less than merry minstrels were far more interested in exploring the sinister aspects of life, as if seeking to hold up a mirror in front of all and sundry, to ask one simple question: What is reality?
The liner notes to the 40th Anniversary edition of The Doors’ debut has an introduction by Bruce Botnick, who engineered the original sessions back in 1966, where he states: “When the album was mixed at Elektra studios in New York, either the 4-track playback recorder was running slow, or the stereo 2-track was running fast. So now with the new mixes, you will hear the entire album at the correct speed and the correct pitch – this could possibly change your life!”
That’s a pretty big call, but I guess if you were the one recording and mixing the LP at the time of its inception, then I guess it would seem a fairly important development in how one perceives this unique work of art. Yet if one takes Botnick’s word, it’s almost as if he’s describing the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, which this remixed edition isn’t by the way, although in all my years of listening to this LP, it is unquestionably the best sounding version I have ever heard.
“Break On Through (To the Other Side)” is the intense first track, and after nearly fifty years the song has incredibly lost none of its edge. And in only two and a half minutes it packs a serious punch the likes of which many rock bands today can only dream of. Fresh and edgy, there is an almost controlled element of violence and danger contained within its grooves, as well as a certain degree of urgency in the band’s delivery. Forget about “Good Vibrations”, now there was a new, more malevolent force in town.
Next is “Soul Kitchen”, which was obviously an attempt by The Doors at writing a pop song. The 60’s were strange times, and when you had tunes such as Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” doing well in the charts a song like this doesn’t seem so weird after all. Manzarek’s keyboard introduction foreshadows “When the Music’s Over”, from their second album, while guitarist Robby Krieger weaves his spidery webs, as Morrison croons in his usual hazardous and foreboding manner.
“The Crystal Ship” would serve as a mature template for the sort of ballads Morrison was to compose in future. Although extremely short in length (by today’s standards), in those days less was more, and if you couldn’t say everything you wanted in under three minutes, then it probably wasn’t worth recording. “Twentieth Century Fox” is another fine tune and a worthy if somewhat cynical commentary by Morrison on the fashion scene back then, a time when people put a little more effort into how they looked. And just to spice things up, we have some German Cabaret, in the form of a cover of Brecht and Weill’s “Alabama Song”, here titled “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)”. It’s an unusual choice for a rock group, but then The Doors were not your ordinary rock band.
Ending side one is the song everybody knows. “Light My Fire” was actually written by Krieger, although Morrison did contribute some lyrics, and Ray Manzarek certainly added a little magic of his own. When they released “Break On Through” as their first single it failed to find an audience. However all that would change with their next single, which proved to be a monumental hit, and would help to propel the album into the American charts.
“Light My Fire” was a grandiose statement and a sublime précis of The Doors at their very peak as a creative unit. Manzarek’s Baroque inspired keyboard solo is absolutely glorious, as is Krieger’s guitar playing. And form 1967, there was nothing else like it, even if it did unfortunately become something of an Albatross for Morrison.
Side two kicks off with the Willie Dixon classic “Backdoor Man”, just to prove that the blues was just as integral to their sound as Bach. Morrison snarls his way through the lyrics, while the other members whack away on their instruments, as if to punish them for some alleged sin they may or may not have committed.
“I Looked at You” is your typical mid 60’s jangly pop song. The moody “End of the Night” is at least atmospheric, while “Take It as It Comes” reminds me of Jefferson Airplane for some reason, which means that it’s a decent album track, but not much more than that.
Finally we come to “The End”, what is undoubtedly the band’s magnum opus, and a grandiloquent musical statement if there ever was, at least from a rock band. Producer Paul A. Rothchild described the song’s recording as “the most awe-inspiring thing I’d ever witnessed in a studio”. And when one sees footage of them performing it live, much of the audience looked fairly ‘awe-inspired’ as well. The track itself is more part Greek tragedy, part existential journey than anything else, something which can either hypnotize you, terrify you, or both simultaneously. With Manzarek’s spooky organ, Krieger’s woozy spaced out guitar and John Densmore’s sharp as knives drumming, all provide a thrilling, near cinematic backdrop for Morrison’s dystopian lyrics. Certainly nothing like this had ever before been attempted in popular music, and nothing quite like it has been attempted since. Perhaps the closest might be Patti Smith’s “Land”, from her album Horses.
When released in January 1967, The Doors was a landmark LP in more ways than one. It was as if rock and roll needed its own Apollo, and at the time, Jim Morrison was only happy to oblige. Hang shit on him if you will, but he was the template for just about every self-absorbed and egotistic male rock singer from the early 70’s onwards. But all that aside, with the exception of a couple of songs, this is a near perfect debut from a band who would go on to successfully disturb the establishment like few other rock acts of the day, who were as innovative as they were dangerous. And with the likes of the Foo Fighters and Coldplay filling the world’s stadiums, rock and roll desperately needs another Morrison and co to once again “set the night on fire”.