I have been a fan of The Doors music since I was about 12 or 13 and have constantly gone back and forth over which is their absolute best album. This has been an impossible task because, as one who discovered their music a full decade after the death of vocalist Jim Morrison, all six of their original studio albums have been equally timeless in my opinion. As a music critic, however, I must take a fresh listen to a lot of the music I’ve “known” all my life and give an honest, sober, critical opinion using my more mature listening skills. From this perspective, I have concluded that the Doors first two albums are even BETTER than I remember. So it is today that I have the daunting yet rewarding labor of love that is reviewing The Doors and Strange Days together.
Of course, in this process I’ve tried to discern which is the greater work and these two albums have, at different times nudged ahead of each other. The albums are very similar with each having a handful of radio-friendly “pop” songs, perhaps one romantic ballad, and an extended tour-de-force to cap off the album. The establishment rock press has long given The Doors the edge due to its innovative breakthrough, and there is some merit to that, However, I could not see choosing one over the other for my own “desert island” list. One one hand, Strange Days has a slight edge in that it is solid throughout and there are no weak filler songs (of which there are a few on The Doors). Also, “Days” has a slightly better climactic ending with “When the Music’s Over” as compared to its “parent” song “The End” (that’s right, I actually said that!) But on the other hand, Strange Days has nothing comparable to “Light My Fire”, a unique song in the history of rock, nor does it contain any brilliant cover interpretations like “Alabama Song” or “Back Door Man”.
The heart of any discussion about The Doors revolves around Morrison, the genius poet who lived in his life on the edge until his death at age 27. And Morrison made a remarkable evolution during that year of 1967. He came into the year as a shy, unseasoned performer who was unsure of his voice and would turn away from the crowd when onstage. By year’s end, as the Doors fame was at its absolute peak, Morrison had morphed into the rash, master of improvisation who taunted police officers while onstage in New Haven, CT to the point where the show was halted and Morrison was arrested and dragged off stage. But what really struck me when revisiting the music this week, is how musically advanced each of these album are sonically.
Much of the credit for the overall sound has to go to producer Paul Rothchild, who spent about four times as long mixing and mastering as the band did with the actual recording. However, the musicians themselves – guitarist <strong, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, and drummer John Densmore – brought an excellent and eclectic mix of diverse styles and influences. They stepped forward and shined to make excellent music, but also showed remarkable restraint when necessary and faded into the background to offer the perfect canvas for Morrison to forge his poetic nuggets.
The Doors album was released during the very first week of 1967. It was on the cutting edge of modern music during a historic year for rock n roll on many fronts. However, the actual recording procedures were quite antiquated. Recorded at Sunset Sound in Hollywood over six days, Rothchild and engineer Bruce Botnick used a 4-track tape machine for all recording and overdubbing (to put this in perspective, by the early 1970s top albums were recorded on 24 tracks). What Rothchild and Botnick lacked in modern technology, they made up for in proficiency and genius.
Ironically for such a breakthrough album, both the opening and closing songs had parts which were censored. In a section of the closer “The End”, Morrison repeats “fuck” repeatedly, but this was buried so far in the mix to be unintelligible. The opening song, “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” originally contained the lyrics; “She gets high, she gets high”, which was truncated to simply “She gets…, she gets…” Aside from this unfortunate omission, the song is the absolute perfect opener for the album and the band itself. The band’s unofficial motto was “Where you see a wall, we see a door” and “Break on Through” is the perfect musical articulation of this. The piece also showcases the talents of each member, beginning with an infectious groove led by Densmore’s jazz-flavored drums and Manarek’s Fender Rhodes keyboard bass groove. Kreiger plays an adaptation of a Paul Butterfield blues riff, while Morrison provides some shredding vocals to make the mission and message completely unambiguous.
A more moderate groove follows with “Soul Kitchen”. Kreiger plays a funk/soul riff that he says was trying to emulate the horn section of a typical James Brown song. Manzarek’s key bass is “doubled up” in unison with session bassist Larry Knechtel to further highlight the “soul” aspect of the song. The song is a tribute to a restaurant in Venice Beach which often let Morrison sleep overnight while he was homeless in 1965. “The Crystal Ship” may be one of the few traditional “love songs” in the band’s catalog. Morrison croons like early Frank Sinatra while Manzarek shows that he is also an impressive pianist.
“Twentieth Century Fox” is the first boilerplate “pop song” on the album, using the cleaver double-entendre hook in a piece meant for nothing more than dancing. However the next track, “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)” couldn’t be further from a traditional pop/rock track. Written in 1927 by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, the song was used in various operas as “Whisky Bar” or “Moon over Alabama”. The song was presented to the band by Manzarek and adapted with updated lyrics, becoming an entertaining part of their live sets.
Although composition credit for all songs on The Doors went to the band as a whole, the album’s primary writers were actually Morrison and Krieger. One day, the guitarist presented a mellow folk song to the band called “Light My Fire”. Impressed by the interesting chord changes, the rest of the band kicked in and built upon the simple song with Densmore providing a Latin beat, Morrison adding some lyrics and Manzarek coming up with the famous, signature keyboard run. Further, the band added a long “jam” section in the middle of the song as a showcase for their musical talents, inflating the song’s duration to over seven minutes. The song would go on to become the band’s first number one hit and probably their most famous ever. José Feliciano’s cover version won a Grammy a few years later and the song was used in television commercials (something Morrison was vehemently opposed to). It was also the subject of controversy on the Ed Sullivan Show, when the band was told they couldn’t use the “girl, we couldn’t get much higher”, but Morrison sang the original lyric anyway.
The second side of the debut album starts with “Back Door Man”, a blues song written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1961. The Doors version includes some wild howling and screaming by Morrison above an intense, pulsating beat by the band members, making the whole recording very sexual in nature. This is something Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin would replicate in their earliest recordings a few years later.
The middle part of the second side contains three short song. haunting “End of the Night” was one of the earliest Doors songs, written in 1965. Musically, Kreiger shines brightest here, with Morrison borrowing the title and key lyric from William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence”. This song is sandwiched between two more upbeat numbers. “I Looked at You” is a pure California sixties pop song, with an almost surfer-like vibe, while “Take It As It Comes” plays on the “time for everything” theme, no doubt inspired by The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn Turn”.
This all leads to “The End”, the aptly named climax of The Doors debut album. Originally written by Morrison as a “breakup song”, the track morphed into a dark 12-minute opus which employed the outer boundaries of musical forms by the band members. During a spoken-word section midway through the song, Morrison added a nod to the Oedipus complex;
Father…Yes son? I want to kill you / Mother, I want to …”
Reportedly, the first time this song was performed with that part, it simultaneously got the band fired from their gig at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go and signed with Elektra Records. The track that ended up on the album was recorded live in the studio with no overdubs whatsoever and captures a masterful moment in time where a quiet and soft ballad erupts into a crazy and dynamic seance. The song is esteemed both musically and and culturally and it made The Doors an instant classic in 1967.
Although the debut had far from reached its peak, the band returned to the studio in March to record the follow-up which would become Strange Days. Many of the songs for this new album had been written alongside the ones that appeared on The Doors, and some may contend that the best of them had already been used on the debut album. But, if this is true (and I’m not really sure that it is), then what the doors lacked in originality they more than made up for in musical prowess. The result is the hardest rocking album the band would ever produce and a real unsung influence on artists for decades to come.
“Strange Days” is the lead off title song, a frenzied barrage of music which uses some wild telephonic sound effects on the guitars and vocals. Although the first album had its moments of intensity, there was nothing like the throbbing rhythms of pure majesty which fill this song from beginning to end. Much of the credit here has to go to session bassist Douglass Lubahn, who really added quality low-end to the studio tracks which were hard to replicate during the quartet’s live performances (as impressive as they were). Lyrically, the song is totally about debauchery and sin, and the ultimate comeuppance;
Bodies confused, memories misused / As we run from the day to a strange night of stone…”
Lubahn also shines on the much more restrained following track, “You’re Lost, Little Girl”. This song is so well-crafted musically, blending subtly textured instrumentation that it is hardly noticeable how minimalist and repetitive the lyrics are.
“Love Me Two Times” shows yet another dimension of the band, combining a cool rockabilly riff with a more modern melody and intense rock changes. It’s radio-friendly overtones tend to mask the strong underlying sexual message, making it at once a light and bouncy pop tune and an adult-oriented blues piece.
Although the Doors are often labeled as a “psychedelic” band, the truth is the only really dabbled in this form and it was never really a centerpiece of their central sound. That being said, Strange Days does enter a bit of a psychedelic phase near the end of the first side. “Unhappy Girl” explores some odd patterns and piano effects by Manzarek and backwards tape masking, resulting in a haunting undertone to the all-too-cheery vocals by Morrison. “Horse Latitudes” is a short poem that Morrison wrote as a teen, based on a painting he had seen. On the album, the band does some odd noise making to try and enhance this poem, but it is Morrison’s deliverance that really carries the track.
Proving that the band can leap from poetry to pop without violating some mysterious sense of form, “Moonlight Drive” follows to close the first side of Strange Days. This was the Doors’ earliest original composition, the first song Morrison sang to Manzarek when first discussing the idea of forming a band. A long staple of their early set list, the studio version adapted Krieger’s new slide guitar technique, giving an added dimension to the funky jounce of Manzarek’s piano. Morrison provides romantic yet philosophical lyrics throughout as the song continues to gain momentum and intensity. The Doors were always more about personal power than “flower power” and Morrison in particular advocated personal freedom through testing every limit. “Moonlight Drive” illustrates this view perfectly in a very entertaining fashion.
The second side of Strange Days starts with “People Are Strange”, the first single released from the album (while “Light My Fire” was still high on the charts) in the autumn of 1967. The song has a European cabaret quality and is a very short and catchy number. Written primarily by Krieger, the song morphs from a simple guitar ballad to a light and bouncy piano/keyboard dominated number with a simple, two-note bass line and lyrics which seem to be influenced by LSD. “My Eyes Have Seen You” is a pure rock song, which fits well with some of the poppier stuff from the first album, complete with Morrison returning to the shredding, screaming vocals. “I Can’t See Your Face in My Mind” seems to have been influenced by Brian Jones and his mid-sixties work with the Rolling Stones, especially with its use of the marimba.
Just as the album begins in a rock frenzy, it completes with the 11-minute rock epic “When the Music’s Over”. Structurally, it is built similar to the end, with opening and closing verse hooks wrapped around a long poetic interlude by Morrison. But this journey is much less dark and much more like a religious journey examining the soul. Morrison assumes the role shaman, while the musicians reach for the unexplored using their remarkable capacity for musical theatrics. Kreiger plays an acid-hot guitar intermixed with a theremin, while Manzarek bounces along with melodic keys and heartbeat bass line and Densmore performs some impressive, double-jointed drumming. Lyrically, Morrison coins some of his most famous phrases;
The face in the mirror won’t stop, the girl in the window won’t drop / A feast of friends, ‘Alive!’ she cried, waiting for me outside…”
Without a doubt, part of the band’s success was their “When The Music’s Over” became a vehicle for the quartet to quite literally propel themselves into the heady and rarefied space that true improvisation will construct for both performer and audience alike.
Strange Days is more surreal than psychedelic and it showed the world that the debut album was no fluke. Rothchild had high hopes for this second album, even later admitting that he thought it might “be bigger than anything The Beatles had done”. It was not, faring not quite as well as the debut critically or commercially (even though it did reach #3 and spawned two Top 40 hits). It’s lack of larger success may have been due to it curiously being released in September ’67, the same month when its predecessor The Doors was peaking at #2 on the album charts.
The Doors put out four more solid studio albums plus a double-live album over the next four years and had much further success and added to their brief but potent legacy. However, the band never did quite regain the tremendous momentum that they had in 1967.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1967 albums.