The Doors, named after an Aldous Huxley novel, were synonymous with the rock n’ roll excesses of the sixties, primarily because of their outrageous yet charismatic lead singer Jim Morrison, who was as committed to his self-destruction as he was to his pretentious poetry. Though the legendary Lizard King's drunken antics made The Doors a hit-or-miss proposition live, in the studio Jim Morrison and his bandmates managed to make enduring music. The Doors created intense, darkly atmospheric songs that sounded unlike anyone else, and though the band would influence countless later acts such as Alice Cooper, The Stooges, Echo and The Bunnyman, Joy Division, and The Cult (as well as too many "goth" bands to mention), nobody could quite recreate the strange hybrid of haunting sounds that this experimental yet accessible unit achieved. Never were the band’s strengths more apparent than on this startling debut album, an all-time classic that they never bettered. Morrison’s bluesy, expressive voice (which could also go down quite smoothly) is perfect for conveying his often poetic lyrics, and although he embarrassingly overreaches at times, such as on the Oedipal epic “The End” (a song that is still fascinating and which was featured to haunting, unforgettable effect years later in the movie Apocalypse Now), Morrison nevertheless gives an engrossing vocal performance throughout that commands your undivided attention. The band’s bluesy gothic sound is very unique, with Ray Manzarek’s entrancing carnival-esque keyboards occupying center stage, while the steady jazz-influenced John Densmore on drums and the tasteful, versatile Robby Kreiger on lead guitar filled out the rest of their sound (an uncredited Larry Knechtel supplied bass guitar on several songs as well). But it is Morrison’s riveting intensity that dominates The Doors, who though not virtuoso musicians boasted an undeniable chemistry. The majority of this album should be familiar to fans of classic rock radio, and the classic "Break On Through" gets the album off and running with a driving, aggressive rock number. No song better showcased Morrison's ability to go from a Sinatra influenced crooner to an animalistic
anarchist, and his bandmates also make notable contributions, including Densmore's bossa nova beat, Kreiger's guitar riff inspired by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's version of "Shake Your Moneymaker," and Manzarek's short but inspired keyboard solo (on a side note, it's interesting to note that the intense "she gets" vocal section was supposed to say "she gets high" but the band cut out the "high" in order to get airplay). The atmospheric (perhaps the word that best describes The Doors) and rocking "Soul Kitchen" continues the high quality with somewhat funky verses (inspired by James Brown) and an explosive chorus, while "The Crystal Ship" is a poetic, evocative piano piece that again sees Morrison assume the guise of a crooner. The later "End Of The Night" has similarly subtle virtues (and is similarly really good), while "Twentieth Century Fox" is a melodic, poppy entry, and their cover of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's opera piece "Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)" is beyond weird but works very well just the same, providing another example of the band's uniquely undeniable chemistry. For example, even when trying a straight up blues number like Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man,” the band’s strange delivery (particularly Morrison's vocals) and Manzarek’s organ makes it sound like a weird mutation that's certainly bluesy but in an unconventional psychedelic way (and again the end result is really good). Elsewhere, "I Looked At You" is a minor lighter track that's the album's most overtly pop and psychedelic song; though mildly enjoyable, it's also easily the weakest song on the album, but I've always liked "Take It As It Comes," an underrated album track that again features crooned verses alongside a rocking, catchy chorus. As for the two epic tracks, well the word “classic” is often overused in rock, but songs such as “Light My Fire” (7:08) and "The End" (11:42) are the very definitions of the term (as is "Break On Through"). The band's most famous song, "Light My Fire" was written by Kreiger because Morrison didn't have enough songs to fill out the debut; not bad for a first effort! Morrison wrote the second verse (the death obsessed one of course) but by and large this one was Robbie's baby, though Densmore supplied the standout Latin beat and Manzarek the great organ intro and outro. Of course, the song is also known for its great mid-section jam, which was edited down for the single release that became the band's first #1 hit. Famously, the band refused to be censored when performing the song on the Ed Sullivan Show; they told him they wouldn't sing "girl you couldn't get much higher" but then proceeded to do so anyway! As for the apocalyptic "The End," though flawed, in many ways it's the quintessential Doors song, being incredibly atmospheric and edgy but maybe also a bit boring at times. Still, despite some lulls and a cringe inducing moment or two, all the instrumentalists have their moments and Morrison is utterly mesmerizing. Seductive, dramatic, and not a little shocking, this droning epic is almost like a West Coast version of The Velvet Underground, and like those crass New Yorkers The Doors were something of a dark stain on the hippy lovefest that was the "Summer Of Love." Largely recorded live by producer Paul Rothchild and engineer Bruce Botnick, on this album The Doors mixed and matched many different styles into their own singular stew, and this darkly poetic masterpiece still sounds fresh and exciting all these years later.
Strange Days (Elektra ’67) Rating: A
Featuring a memorably freaky album cover and some memorably freaky music to match, Strange Days was a comparative commercial failure (it still hit #3 in the U.S. and spawned two minor hit singles however) but another resounding artistic success. Basically, when The Doors formed and were serving their apprenticeship in the clubs of L.A. they wrote enough material for two albums, and though by and large the strongest songs predictably landed on the debut, these are no mere leftovers but are more high quality compositions. If anything The Doors got even more weird and experimental here, as they describe strange people during strange times with music that is increasingly psychedelic and mysterious. On the whole the material is perhaps less tough and more mellow, and alienation seems to be the overriding theme. Unlike on The Doors, the album tracks here get almost no airplay, though many people will likely be familiar with "Strange Days," "Love Me Two Times," "Moonlight Drive," "People Are Strange," and "When The Music's Over." The eerie, hauntingly atmospheric title track starts the proceedings and is dominated by Manzarek's Moog synthesizer. "You're Lost Little Girl" follows and is the best "album track" here; in fact, this moody ballad is something of a "lost gem," and like several tracks here its short but sweet guitar solo demonstrates Kreiger's terrific sense of economy and taste. Kreiger also shines on the catchy, bluesy, sexually charged rocker "Love Me Two Times," one of the aforementioned singles which is more guitar driven than usual, with a great rip roaring Morrison vocal too. The moody psychedelic pop of "Unhappy Girl" is outwardly lighter but is actually quite sad (though I guess the title gives that away!), and "Horse Latitudes" sees Morrison reciting a decidedly disturbing poem alongside equally unpleasant effects; I usually fast forward this short segue, in all honesty. "Moonlight Drive" is notable because it's the song that led to the formation of the band when Morrison sang it to Manzarek on the beach when they were UCLA film students, and the song is also notable for its tragically romantic poetry and more crooning-to-shouting vocalizing from Morrison. "People Are Strange," the album's other mildly successful single, is a catchy and, well, strange pop song that is again more guitar driven than usual, and Kreiger's tough guitar also elevates the strong "My Eyes Have Seen You," on which I also really like Morrison's more intense vocals towards the end. The sparse ballad "I Can't See Your Face In My Mind" is agreeably moody and mysterious (perhaps the two words that best describe this album) even if it's not especially memorable, quite unlike "When The Music's Over," another epic finale that despite periods of minimal activity mostly remains riveting for 11 minutes. It's not quite as uniquely unforgettable as "The End" and it all too obviously echoes other Doors songs ("Soul Kitchen," "Light My Fire," and "The End" itself), but "When The Music's Over" is another first class Doors track that ends the album on a high. On the whole, Manzarek again colors The Doors’ overall sound, Densmore is predictably solid, and Kreiger really asserts himself here, as the band were much more than mere foils for their indomitable lead singer. All that the album really lacks are some all-time classic songs such as "Break On Through (To The Other Side)," "Light My Fire," and "The End," but track-for-track it stacks up well with the debut, as Strange Days continued to present this eccentric foursome at their sinister best.
Waiting For The Sun (Elektra ’68) Rating: B+
By now Morrison's excessive drinking and erratic behavior had become a major problem, and though accounts vary as to what really happened, it likely played some role in the "New Haven incident" (later immortalized in "Peace Frog") where Morrison was maced and arrested by police during a concert, which ended up causing a riot (Axl Rose eat your heart out!). Rothchild's perfectionist tendencies were also grating on the band, who still managed to pull things together on this fine third installment, which was very successful then (their lone #1 album) but which is largely overlooked now. On the whole this ballad-heavy collection is less stellar than the first two albums but is still well worth getting to know and is all the more valuable due to most listeners' unfamiliarity with the majority of these tracks. Originally Morrison intended on creating an ambitious, multi-sectioned "Celebration Of The Lizard King" suite based (as usual) on one of his poems, but when it wasn't working they scrapped it, salvaging only the otherworldly psychedelia of “Not To Touch The Earth,” which provided a perfect example of how The Doors could be unutterably strange yet strangely accessible. The album's other obvious standouts are "Hello, I Love You," an admittedly derivative (it rips off The Kinks "All Day and All of the Night") but catchy and creative #1 hit, "Love Street," a lovely, poetic ballad that again sees Morrison channeling Sinatra and like several tracks here is notable for Manzarek's playing (wonderfully) on piano rather than organ, and "Five To One," a tough blues based rocker with a rough Morrison vocal and some excellent Kreiger guitar that presents a political call to arms for the younger generation (among its quotable lyrics, the eerily prescient "no one gets out here alive" also inspired the title of the first biography about Jim Morrison). The rest of the album is less memorable but there are several other "grower" tracks, as the band had a way with melodic hooks (instrumentally and vocally) and could really conjure a moody atmosphere. The dreary ballad "Summer's Almost Gone" is a good example of the latter, the waltz-like "Wintertime Love" (obviously a seasonal theme shared between these two tracks!) the former, as is the pretentious but powerful “The Unknown Soldier” (another minor hit), a fittingly militant and dramatic depiction of the war torn times during which the album was recorded (and alas, still sadly relevant today). Running down the rest of the track list, "Spanish Caravan" is an interesting flamenco guitar showcase for Kreiger, and the almost a capella "My Wild Love" delivers strange druggy chants, as the album on the whole is again psychedelic and likely often drug induced. Anyway, this song is utterly unique if not necessarily good, and the verses on "We Could Be So Good Together" are also rather weak, though I like its hooky pop rock chorus, and "Yes, The River Knows" is another quietly pretty attempt at a poetic ballad. So, Waiting For The Sun is a good album, it's just not as good as most of the other Doors albums and many of its songs sort of blend together until you really get to know it well. It's worth the effort, though, dated though the album sometimes sounds, because The Doors were a great band despite Morrison’s at times clumsy poetry and the band’s tendency to sometimes lose focus. P.S. The song "Waiting For The Sun" would eventually appear on Morrison Hotel, making both the song and the album ripe for a trivia question, a la Led Zeppelin's "Houses Of The Holy," AC/DC's "If You Want Blood You've Got It," Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack,” The Hollies’ “Would You Believe?,” and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer's "Brain Salad Surgery," among others.
The Soft Parade (Elektra ’69) Rating: B
Trashed by stuffy professional critics for its over-elaborate arrangements and dated psychedelic elements, The Doors weakest studio album with Morrison is still by and large an enjoyably playful experience. Similar to The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, this album was an atypical one-off that is extremely flawed but is endearing due to its experimentation, though oddly enough in this case the album was considered a pop sellout at the time, odd because precious few of these songs are even remotely commercial. Sure, Rothchild overdoes it with the horns and string arrangements, and again his fussy manner grated on the band (it took a then-long 9 months to record the album), but the band's biggest problem at the time was of course Morrison, who was losing interest as, like is so often the case, he felt that stardom wasn't all it was cracked up to be. He no longer looked the part of the handsome ultimate rock god, either, gaining weight and growing a full beard, and he insisted that individual song credits be given out for the first time, never a good sign where band harmony is concerned. The reason for this was Morrison hated the leadoff track, "Tell All The People" (he had a problem with the "get your guns" line), written by Kreiger who stepped up to fill the void left by Morrison's ambivalence and ongoing drinking binges. I don't know, it is hokey and overly horn heavy, but it's also melodic and catchy so I like it, and I absolutely love "Touch Me" (also written by Kreiger, as is about half the album), the album's lone major hit and another horn heavy track that might have been Blood, Sweat and Tears had the band not been so naturally weird. This time the horns and strings are exceptionally well integrated, Densmore and Manzarek drive it along, a magnetic Morrison is at his crooning best singing corny but undeniably romantic and effective lyrics, and sessioner Curtis Amy lends a wonderfully wild sax solo towards the end as the song is propelled to its dramatic finish. Certainly that's the albums best song, but I also really like "Shaman's Blues" and "Wild Child," a pair of Morrison songs on which ironically Kreiger's lean guitar playing shines brightest; the former track is led by its hypnotic groove while the latter tune is more in line with the band's tougher earlier sound. Despite some reservations I also like the pretty if overly strings-saturated “Wishful Sinful,” but other songs are more problematic: "Do It" is overly repetitive and not very creative, and "Easy Ride" is an odd hybrid (a fast paced country and western song with a Bo Diddley beat?) that doesn't quite work. I probably shouldn't care much for the goofy Otis Redding homage "Runnin' Blue" either, especially since one let alone two country and western Doors tracks is more than enough, but I can't help but get a major kick out of the catchy Kreiger sung chorus where he does a dead-on Dylan impersonation. But that's much of this album in a nutshell, enjoyably offbeat if not necessarily truly good. As for the epic, multi-sectioned title track finale, whose lyrics were pieced together from various poems, it's no "The End" or "When The Music's Over," in fact it's a bit of an ambitious mess, but again it's an entertaining one as its many mood changes make it interesting. Starting with it’s famous “you cannot petition the Lord with prayer!” spoken word intro (which always makes me laugh), going onto a soft yet exotic ballad-y section, a toe tapping disco before there was disco section (!), a slow waltz, a percussive heavy passage with many multi-tracked Morrisons, and so on, the track is nothing if not brimming with ideas, even if the band stuffs too many ideas within this song and the overall album itself. So, in the final analysis, does this album often sound dated? Yes. Is it their weakest album to date? Yes. Is it over-produced and at times unfocused? No question. Is The Soft Parade by and large a lot of fun? Absolutely.
Morrison Hotel (Elektra ’70) Rating: A-
Around the time of The Soft Parade came the infamous "Miami incident" where Morrison was arrested for allegedly exposing himself in concert, which made it all but impossible for the band to book gigs. Back in the studio, a fully engaged, perhaps slightly humbled Morrison is again the dominant songwriter, often with Kreiger, and the end result, Morrison Hotel, is rightfully often regarded as a "back to their roots" album after their more experimental, highly produced prior effort. Ditching the horns and strings, the band play a tough set of ballsy, often blues-based rock songs that again won them favor with the critics as well as the public; the album became a top 10 U.S. hit despite not containing any major hit singles. Still, the chugging blues stomper and classic alcohol anthem "Roadhouse Blues" became a concert favorite and popular radio track, and it features guest contributions from guitar hero Lonnie Mack (on bass though Robby (not Mack as is often stated) performs the great guitar solo) and the Lovin Spoonful's John Sebastian (on harmonica). The band themselves are in great form as well, and the album on the whole seems to feature more of a live sound that spotlights their tight ensemble playing. On the downside, I'd argue that Manzarek’s carnival-esque keyboards sound less dark and mysterious than on The Doors’ earlier material; this, coupled with the songs being less keyboard dominated, makes this latter rendition of The Doors seem less unique to me than their earlier incarnation. Fortunately, they're still really good at what they do, and aside from maybe a couple of songs that don't really do much for me, Morrison Hotel is a consistently strong (if rarely spectacular) album that has several other notable highlights. For example, "Waiting For The Sun," composed during the earlier album bearing the same name, showed that the band could still be wonderfully weird, with its mellow, mysterious psychedelic verses leading into its catchy livelier chorus. The song is intense and dramatic, as is “Peace Frog,” which features funky staccato riffs and some of the best band interplay and soloing (especially by Kreiger) on the record. "Peace Frog" seamlessly segues into the dreamy ballad "Blue Sunday" (as such, these songs are often played in tandem on the radio), and the also short but lovely "Indian Summer" shares similar virtues. I could talk in detail about other tracks as well, but really I feel that the strength of this album is in its impressive consistency: "Ship Of Fools," "Land Ho!," and "Queen Of The Highway" are fine songs as well, for example, all in different ways. Simply put, Morrison Hotel is the band's finest album since Strange Days, as Morrison remains as charismatic as ever (whether smoothly crooning or slipping into his whiskey-soaked blues growler guise) and the band pursues a more focused, harder driving sound, even if the shadowy mood of claustrophobia that enveloped The Doors most enduring and influential earlier work is largely absent.
Absolutely Live (Elektra '70) Rating: B+
This album is a compilation of various concerts recorded in 1969 and 1970 and meticulously edited together by Rothchild. Released while the band couldn't tour due to the fallout from the "Miami incident," I like that this is anything but a "greatest hits" live album, as it contains very few of their signature songs (and nothing from The Soft Parade or Morrison Hotel) and quite a few rarities and new tracks. That said, I'm not sure that it really adds much to their overall legacy beyond documenting how inconsistent a live band they were and how unstable Morrison was onstage. On the plus side, there are some strong performances, for example I really like their tough take on Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" as well as the tight medley ("Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)," "Back Door Man," "Five To One") aside from the brief but nondescript new entry ("Love Hides"). "Soul Kitchen" and "Break On Through" are intense highlights (the latter prefaced by its strange "Dead Cats, Dead Rats" vamp), "Universal Mind" is a very good bluesy new song, and the 14-minute "Celebration Of The Lizard" that had been mostly cut from Waiting For The Sun appears here in its entirety for the first time. Unfortunately, the only part of the "song" (really poetry set to improvised music) I really like is still "Not To Touch The Earth," and the generic blues shuffle "Build Me A Woman" (most notable for its "poontang blues" lyric), the lame Muddy Waters cover "Close To You" (why in the world would anyone want to hear Ray sing rather than Jim?), and some sloppy indulgences elsewhere. Don't get me wrong, it's rather amusing hearing Jim berating or making fun of the audience (like on a mostly enjoyable 16-minute version of "When The Music's Over"), but sometimes he seems distracted and not totally with it (i.e. "pretty neat, pretty neat, pretty good, pretty good, all right"), though hearing him act this way is useful for historical purposes in that it documents on record Morrison acting like a wasted rock star caricature. But we're talking about a band whose myth (helped in no small part by the Stone movie) has always overshadowed their music, and though this live album showcases their musical strengths - tight playing, a unique bluesy sound, impeccable chemistry, and Jim's vocals which are rawer than ever - it also demonstrates their weaknesses. Hearing the band improvise on the extended tracks accentuates their lack of range (several sections start sounding like the instrumental jam section on "Light My Fire," which isn't included!) and the lack of technical virtuosity in their playing as soloists (Cream they were not). When they keep things short and sweet the results are usually extremely rewarding, however, and this album is also notable because it presents a side of the band that isn't available on any of their studio albums.
LA Woman (Elektra ’71) Rating: A
Morrison (according to Ben Fong-Torres): "The Doors are basically a blues-oriented group with heavy dosages of rock 'n' roll, a moderate sprinkling of jazz, a minute quantity of classical elements, and some popular elements. But basically, a white blues band." L.A. Woman, produced by the band with Bruce Botnick because Rothchild departed due to disagreements about the band's direction, is the band's bluesiest effort, and one of their best, as it continues the lean, tougher sound of Morrison Hotel and contains several major highlights, the lack of which was that prior album's primary shortcoming. The obvious highlights are the most well-known songs, the best being the brilliantly propulsive title track (one of the best driving songs ever), which is notable for its famous auto intro, Morrison's unintelligible slurred vocals, flat out great groove, and especially its exciting “Mr. Mojo Rising” climax. I'd say that this song rivals "Break On Through" and "Light My Fire" as The Doors' best song, and certainly the album's finale, the evocative, mysterious "Riders On The Storm," is another spectacularly successful epic scale track, one that's all the better for its restraint (Morrison's voice rarely rises above a whisper). Some might find the storm effects a bit hokey and its jazzy groove a bit boring, but I think it all works exceptionally well, with Manzarek in particular shining, his tinkling electric piano playing approximating rain and showing how good he could be when not going overboard with the carnival sounds. The other popular radio tracks are "Love Her Madly," featuring one of Manzarek’s most memorable keyboard melodies and which is simply one of their catchiest pop songs, and the funky yet tuneful "The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)," containing Jim's catchy rap and some good soloing by all three instrumentalists. Speaking of instrumentalists, rhythm guitarist Marc Benno and Elvis Presley's bass player Jerry Scheff help flesh out the band's sound, which is agreeably raw, moody, and mostly laid-back, though the band prove that they can also rock the blues on underrated tracks such as "The Changeling" (actually more funk than blues), "Been Down So Long," and "L'America." Their slow, sinuous, superb cover of John Lee Hooker's "Crawling King Snake" showed that they could do a really good straight up blues, too, and I also love the sparse, laid-back, bluesy vibe of "Cars Hiss By My Window," while "Hyacinth House" is terrifically atypical, with Jim again in melodic crooner mode and Manzarek in dazzling form. You see, when you strip away all the myths and legendary stories of excess, what mattered most was that The Doors were one of the best American rock bands ever, and all their musical strengths are readily apparent on L.A. Woman, which is an album where you can just press play and enjoy it from start to finish. Maybe some of the songs are lyrically repetitive, but at least Jim's doggerel has decreased, and all of the songs are musically impressive, plus the majority of them aren't overplayed like so much of The Doors' best stuff. Alas, after L.A. Woman the band went on what was supposed to be a temporary hiatus, but the original band never recorded together again as Morrison’s self-destructive behavior finally cost him his life in Paris (though the cause of his death remains mysterious, you don't die of natural causes at 27 years of age!). The remaining band members unfortunately recorded a couple of albums (Other Voices and Full Circle) without him but supposedly (and unsurprisingly) the magic was gone; I've never heard them nor do I intend to, and that goes double for American Prayer, on which the rest of the band added music to recordings of Morrison reciting his poetry. P.S. . There have since been numerous "best of" compilations of The Doors material, including Greatest Hits, Weird Scenes Inside The Goldmine, The Best of The Doors, and (probably the best of the bunch) the comprehensive 2-cd, 34-track Legacy: The Absolute Best.
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