Monday, December 29, 2014

The Doors - catharsis in tight leather trousers

Over this holiday period, I've been listening to The Doors, as I realised I've never given them serious consideration before (possibly because I skipped the intense black-clad teenage phase). Having made it as far as album #3 (Waiting For The Sun) here are my thoughts.

The main difficulty with The Doors is listening past the legend. Even if you haven't seen the 1991 biopic, the status of Jim Morrison threatens to overshadow their actual music. After all, this is the man who helped to create the rock hero archetype others have sought to fill since then.

But you can't review stars while they're standing on their pedestal. You can worship them, as any One Direction fan will demonstrate, but to properly appreciate them you need to bring them back to earth. This is doubly difficult when, as Jim Morrison did as a lyricist and performer, musicians help create their own mythology.

So let's start by naming those demons to tame them: 

Rock 'n' Roll Shaman. 

American Poet. 

(Ahem) Lizard King

If you think this is all rather ridiculous, you'd be spot on. Ridiculousness is a big part of listening to The Doors in the twenty-first century. Their best-known (and generally best) songs - Light My Fire, Break On Through, Riders On The Storm, particularly The Endare pyrrhic victories for musical deftness over lyrical daftness. 

"We chased our pleasures here 
Dug our treasures there 
But can you still recall 
The time we cried 
Break on through to the other side"

Break On Through

"Can you picture what will be, so limitless and free 
Desperately in need, of some, stranger's hand 

In a, desperate land" 

The End

But you can't have the earnest hedonism and striving towards transcendence that powers those tunes without the willingness to also appear ridiculous. The two are sides of the same coin, and a hipster dismissal of Morrison and Co is as limiting a position as an unquestioning acceptance of their beatnik shtick.  

Remember also that the self-titled debut by The Doors came out in January 1967, five months after Revolver and five months before Sergeant Pepper. If ever there was a time to unironically preach love, drugs and emotional catharsis in tight leather trousers and sell a lot of records in the process, it was probably around that sea-change in music and society

Shorn of its contemporary context and resonance, The Doors is for me still half a good album. Side A in old money is where all the gems are, including Light My Fire (Ray Manzarek = organ hero), Break On Through and their Brecht/Weill cover, Alabama Song. The references points are as much jazz and blues as rock and roll, like the lyrics and the attitude anticipating the progressive years to follow.

Side B is filler, plus The End, a sprawling eleven-minute eastern blues full of Morrison's terrible end/friend, old/cold, snake/lake ad libs. It might have inspired other bands to surpass the three and a half minute mark, but hopefully only because they felt they could do better. It's no Patti Smith killing it on Birdland, believe me.

But the key musical weakness of early Doors is that it's really easy to imagine Austin Powers frugging away to them at the Electric Psychedelic Pussycat Swingers Club. And no track epitomises that better than the fun, harmless but unintentionally hilarious Twentieth Century Fox, a song which is about what you think it's about. 

But for all that the first album is of its time, it grabs your attention and offers at least one track up for the ages in Light My Fire. The next two can make no such claims.

Strange Days and Waiting For The Sun are each merely alright psychedelic albums with one good pop single each (People Are Strange and Hello, I Love You). After Waiting For The Sun, I had to go listen to Riders On The Storm a few times to remind myself of the critical wisdom that The Doors get their act together again a few albums later.

But .. even on Waiting For The Sun, comfortably the more ordinary of the two, there are still flashes of the vitality, focus and risk-taking ridiculousness of the debut. As evidence, let's leave you this chanted spoken-word blues, My Wild Love - it's as great as any song with the lyric 'My wild love is crazy / She screams like a bird / She moans like a cat / When she wants to be heard' can possibly be. 


  1. Quick observation based on my unreliable memory:
    Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison both referenced The Kinks regarding "Hello, I Love You". Ray Davies was told about this and advised to sue. He said that as long as they were acknowledging a link between that and The Kink's "All Day and All of the Night" then it was all cool. The two bands came to some agreement whereby a percentage of UK profits from "Hello, I Love You" went to The Kinks.

    Something like that.

    Slow observation:
    I'd listened to The Doors a fair bit before the 1991 movie came out (the vector was Apocalypse Now - none of the black-clad teenagers I was running with rated The Doors highly in the darkling pantheon) and thought it interesting that the single version of "Light My Fire" that was released to accompany it edited out the epic organ solo. I assumed it was a commercial decision to make the song radio and MTV* friendly. Musically, it elevates the song from straightforward pop song to something grander and the reprise of the main theme is all the stronger after seven hours of Manzarek's meanderings. Something like that.

    *historical note: MTV mainly played music videos back then

  2. Thanks Chris for the reminder about the Kinks konnection. :-)

    And I agree Light My Fire loses a lot without the middle section.