The Doors: A Retro Perspective

The Doors A Retro Perspective

 

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On March 27th, the Warner Bros. specialty label Rhino Entertainment, bastion of archival reissues galore, released enhanced 40th-anniversary versions of the Doors’s six studio albums, previously only available as part of last fall’s Perception box set. All of the CDs have been remixed by original engineer Bruce Botnick, which will present somewhat of a quandary for hardcore fans: The albums haven’t just been remastered—they’ve been tinkered with, to varying degrees. Original lyrics have been restored; vocal, guitar, and keyboard parts have been added; gratuitous studio chatter has been included at the beginning and end of songs. The Doors have experienced many resurgences of popularity over the years, particularly in the ’80s and again in the early ’90s (thanks, in part, to Oliver Stone’s The Doors), and these aren’t the versions multiple generations have grown up listening to.

The bonus material is a mixed bag: the debut includes early recordings of “Moonlight Drive” and “Indian Summer,” but the latter sounds almost identical to the version officially released several years later; you have to wade through over 45 drunken minutes of “Roadhouse Blues” at the end of Morrison Hotel to get to the cool jazz version of “Queen of the Highway”; and previously released B-sides like “Who Scared You,” “Whiskey, Mystics and Men,” and “Orange County Suite” are a treat for fans who haven’t picked up every single compilation or box set the band’s label has released over the years. One bit of info gleaned from the expanded versions is that the late Paul Rothchild was a really obnoxious producer. Granted, he had to deal with Morrison, whose unending search for pleasure in a fucked-up world led to his death at 27. As long as drugs, sex, rock n’ roll, and war continue to drive the human race, though, there will always be a place for The Doors—regardless of how they’re repackaged.

The Doors (1967)

Apparently we’ve been listening to the wrong album for decades. At least that’s what engineer Bruce Botnick says in the liner notes of the expanded 40th-anniversary release of the Doors’s self-titled debut. Aside from the fact that the original LP and all subsequent CD reissues were reproduced at a slower rate (and therefore at a barely discernable flat pitch), two songs now include their original lyrics. The new “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” finds Jim Morrison singing “She gets high” several times in a row, as was originally intended; being that the song was the band’s first single, Elektra Records censored it to meet radio airplay standards. But there’s a fine line between preserving what was intended and maintaining what, simply, was. Arguably, the “real” version is the one people have been listening to for the past 40 years. Anyway you slice, restore, or remix it (as it has been by Botnick himself), The Doors is still one of the best debuts in rock history.

Strange Days (1967)

Traditionally, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones duke it out for the tenuous title of Greatest. Band. Ever. Occasionally, the Beach Boys or Led Zeppelin are mentioned in the same discussion, but rarely, if ever, are the Doors seriously considered. The band’s ringleader, Jim Morrison, was too much of a pinup—and, eventually, too much of a drunk—for their music to be taken seriously. Had the Doors began a few years earlier (that is, had they not emerged from inside the drug revolution of the late ’60s), they may have had the chance to mature and hone their skills as a band before transposing their music to the world of psychedelic rock the way The Beatles had done so successfully around the same time. But if the Beatles had Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club and the Beach Boys had Pet Sounds, then the Doors’ answer was Strange Days. The liner notes of the 40th-anniversary edition of the album details how, in a pre-online-leak world, engineer Bruce Botnick snagged an early copy of Sgt. Pepper’s and played it for The Doors, inspiring the band, along with producer Paul Rothchild, to invent new methods of studio recording. This experimentation can be heard in the very first notes of the title track, as Ray Manzarek’s spacey keyboards set the tone for Morrison’s eerie, distorted warning, “Strange days have found us.” It’s the perfect introduction to a perfectly strange album.

Waiting for the Sun (1968)

By the Doors’s third LP, the recording of which commenced less than a year after the release of their debut, the band had run out of songs and Jim Morrison was often drunk or absent from the studio. Three songs were composed solely by guitarist Robby Krieger (who had penned the Doors’s biggest hit, “Light My Fire”), and, like their sophomore effort, other tracks were leftovers from previous sessions. You can instantly recognize Krieger’s contributions due to their unabashed romanticism and the absence of Morrison’s cynicism (“Wintertime winds blow cold this season/Fallin’ in love I’m hopin’ to be!” goes the impossibly gushy first line of “Wintertime Love”), while “We Could Be So Good Together” is categorically pre-fame Morrison (“The time you wait subtracts from joy” is the kind of hippie idealism he’d long given up on). With the radio-friendly “Hello, I Love You” as its first single (another song mined from the band’s catalogue of unreleased songs), Waiting for the Sun appeared to many as the Doors’s attempt to regain the success they’d enjoyed prior to the remarkable but difficult Strange Days. Despite its trippy undertones and frenzied climax (heightened further by Morrison’s previously unheard screams on the newly expanded version of the CD), the song was innocuous enough to score the band its second—and last—#1 single, as well as their only chart-topping LP.

The Soft Parade (1969)

In a short period of 24 months, Jim Morrison went from shirtless sex symbol to pudgy, bearded public outlaw. Conscious or not, it was the kind of destructive, outward rejection of fame and success that wouldn’t be seen again from a rock star until Kurt Cobain a quarter of a century later. Morrison had also run out of material to draw from for the Doors’s fourth LP and the band was forced to start writing in the studio. The resulting album, 1969’s critically reviled The Soft Parade, was a rather disjointed collection of songs—half written by Morrison and the other half by guitarist Robby Krieger—that displayed a significant decline in quality from the band’s first three releases. If Strange Days was the spiritual cousin to the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s, Soft Parade tracks like “Tell All the People,” with its swells of strings and brass, were more literal sonic nods to the hugely influential Beatles record. The title track is a nine-minute “A Day in the Life”-style suite that begins with a spoken word intro (“You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!” Morrison preaches like an evangelist) and a lovely, forlorn refrain accompanied by a stately harpsichord melody before settling into a familiar and comfortable Doors groove with spry guitar and bluesy organ work.

Morrison Hotel (1970)

Jim Morrison fancied himself a blues singer. “I’ve been singing the blues ever since the world began,” he sings on “Maggie M’Gill,” the final song on the Doors’s 1970 LP Morrison Hotel. With a voice as ravaged as it is on songs like that one and “You Make Me Real,” he had no choice but to sing the blues, howling and crooning like never before. The album is divided into two separately titled sides, Hard Rock Cafe and Morrison Hotel (named after Morrison’s favorite bars, located on opposite sides of L.A.), but there’s another, less obvious schism: the record is split between old, previously unheard Doors songs and newly written ones, creating an inconsistency in tone. (“Indian Summer” and “Waiting for the Sun” were originally written—and presumably recorded—for the Doors’s first and third albums, respectively; Morrison’s vocals are cleaner and clearer and Robbie Krieger’s psychedelic guitar sounds like something he would have done a few years earlier.) Still, Morrison Hotel is an easier listen than 1969’s The Soft Parade, which, though nowhere near as bad as rock history would have us believe, truly divided critics and fans alike and didn’t particularly sound like the Doors. The politically charged “Peace Frog” is the album’s best track—and one of the Doors’s greatest. Lyrics referencing the violent 1968 Democratic Convention and partly inspired by Morrison’s poem “Abortion Stories” are set to a funky Stax-style sound, the band’s signature polyrhythms pausing briefly for the singer’s famous spoken verse: “Indians scattered on dawn’s highway, bleeding/Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.” The story would eventually be heard in full on Morrison’s posthumous spoken-word album, An American Prayer, and, of course, immortalized on celluloid in Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic. But nothing embodied the electric blues The Doors strived for here more than the album’s opening track “Roadhouse Blues,” which features harmonica by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian and finds Morrison reveling in the prospect of a drunken orgy in the back of the bar—because, well, “the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” Nearer than he knew.

L.A. Woman (1971)

My mixed feelings about the Doors’s final album are probably best summed up in my review of Marianne Faithfull’s Before the Poison: L.A. Woman might be one of the best swan songs ever, but Jim Morrison’s raspy, drug-, cigarette-, and alcohol-ravaged voice is a symbol of impending doom, promises unfulfilled, and death in a bathtub. While claims that Faithfull was among those who discovered Morrison’s body in that infamous Parisian tub might be the stuff of rock folklore, she had more than a few things in common with the self-proclaimed Lizard King. Had he survived, perhaps Morrison’s voice, like Faithfull’s, would have aged to achieve the kind of lived-in elegance and wisdom only time and atonement can provide. L.A. Woman, along with Morrison’s view of himself as a poet above all else (exemplified by 1978’s An American Prayer), was an indication that his work was indeed maturing; though not exactly refined, the album is a more thoughtful, sober (figuratively and literally—he reportedly wasn’t drunk this time around), and slightly less masturbatory work.