It seems that The Doors are yet another of that particular pigeonholed band that I singularly failed to get into in my younger years. Perhaps they were too complex, or I wasn’t doing anywhere near the requisite amount of drugs to ‘get’ them. (Or perhaps I only pretended to like them at school because the dishy maths assistant liked them, and kept shoving his Walkman in my direction enthusiastically. To disapprove wouldn’t have been the done thing, really.) On one thing I could always agree, though: Jim Morrison was the ultimate staggeringly handsome, richly baritone, tragic Romantic poet of his time.
It helps that in the past few years I’ve developed my jazz and blues vocabulary somewhat, thanks to Paul Jones (of Manfred Mann fame) and his blues show, and cheeky chart scamp Jamie Cullum who has a new jazz show, both on Radio 2. Armed with this, it’s a lot easier to appreciate how The Doors slot into the 60s scene. The album is redolent with a mixture of jazz experimentation, classical interludes and the earthy blues that comprised many of the great groups of the time (John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, Muddy Waters to name just a few of my favourites).
The Doors is the most intense, inward look at psychedelic experiences that I’ve ever heard (and I’ve got a lot of prog and psychedelia in my collection). Part of the reason it’s so powerful is the odd combination of minimalist music and elaborate poetry that is Jim Morrison’s lyrics. Not until later albums would The Doors bring in other instruments than the guitar and organ, but really it’s all that’s needed on their debut. There’s something visceral about the whole package, something that touches on more points than Pink Floyd’s cerebral wanderings, or Love’s cynical despairing. And with the possible exception of The End it’s all highly accessible to the newcomer.
The album opens with the single Break On Through, laying down the band’s Aldous Huxley-inspired outlook, but rather than pottering quietly round one’s garden on a trip, Morrison invites the listener to smash through the doors of perception- ‘The gate is straight, Deep and wide’. The insistent bass of the organ and fast paced drums recall a multitude of blues records, particularly for me I Feel Free by Cream. As far as catchy songs about getting high go, this is one of the best.
Soul Kitchen entices with its laidback bluesy organ, like a more chilled out early Rolling Stones (Down Home Girl passim) and wonderfully evocative lyrics:
The cars crawl past all stuffed with eyes
Street lights share their hollow glow
Your brain seems bruised with numb surprise
Imagery worthy of any half-decent English 101 class.
Well, your fingers weave quick minarets
Speak in secret alphabets
These sorts of lyrics really delineate Morrison from other psychedelic writers; there’s a real intelligence behind the surreal.
The Crystal Ship floats in, soaring and ebbing, swathed in Coleridgeian debauchery and mysticism. The piano accompaniment is sweet and melancholy, Morrison’s voice rising to theatrical drama worthy of Scott Walker. In contrast, Twentieth Century Fox is playful and saucy, almost predicting the sort of glam flimflam T-Rex would produce a decade later:
‘Cause she’s a twentieth century fox
She’s a twentieth century fox
Got the world locked up
Inside a plastic box
Morrison pulls this sort of thing off, though, because never far behind you get the impression there’s a cynical raised eyebrow while he’s singing about foxy ladies strutting down the street.
And if there’s ever any doubt that The Doors are about to stray away from literary sensibilities, Alabama Song puts paid to that. A Bertold Brecht piece from his opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, it oom-pahs along with dissonant organs, before spontaneously breaking into vaudeville silliness with faux honky-tonk. That this piece would have originally been sung by a band of prostitutes setting out to a town of plenty, set up as a giant metaphor for Capitalism, seems apt enough for such intelligent proponents of turn on, tune in, drop out.
Light My Fire is perhaps the best known track on the album, and rightly so. Beginning with the famous elaborate quasi-Classical organ noodling, and moving to a slinky bossa nova beat, if it weren’t for those pesky drugs references this track would have really cornered the MOR market. (And, well, it did with altered lyrics by Astrud Gilberto and others.) Morrison sounds cool as a cucumber on this track, and the glorious middle section keeps up the grand tradition of jazzy blues improv before the classical organ solo kicks in again. Don’t be lured in with promises of the abridged single version- only the 6:59 version will do.
A Howlin’ Wolf cover, Back Door Man, is a welcome addition to the fold next. I get the feeling that Morrison revels in the double meaning of the term (prior to the 60s it only described a man sleeping with married women). It’s a splendid piece of arrogant, strutting blues in the manner of the British blues phenomenon. I Looked At You, in contrast, verges on the poppy, but it’s no criticism; it’s pure, concise, undiluted 60s pop at its finest.
End Of The Night lets loose Morrison’s love of poetry once more, borrowing a line from Auguries of Innocence by William Blake- who I’m reliably informed by my partner ‘was prog before it was cool’- and a fine dense, drifting, psychedelic classic it is. Lighter more upbeat material follows in Take It As It Comes, another more straightforwardly accessible song with a really rather lovely set of organ solos harking back to Light My Fire.
Much has been said about the last track, The End, and no wonder when it clocks in at over a whopping eleven minutes long. Starting as an ode to breaking up with a girlfriend, it morphs into a surreal epic laced with all kinds of imagery:
Ride the snake, ride the snake
To the lake, the ancient lake, baby
The snake is long, seven miles
Ride the snake…he’s old, and his skin is cold
Of course, he could still be talking about his old relationship; we may never know. Long as the track is, it’s a rich sonic landscape of Indian-tinged guitar, drums and organ, possibly verging on the self-indulgent. Before the listener is too bored to tears, though, Morrison launches into an astonishing spoken-word piece of Greek tragedy on the Oedipus myth, climaxing in the now-notorious four-letter barrage that led to some swift censoring. The version I listened to seemed to keep in most of the obscenities, for which I suppose I shall have to be grateful. The onslaught of ‘fucks’ culminates in an onslaught of ‘kill, kill, kill’, used to disturbing effect in Apocalypse Now, and much analysed by PhD-toting psychologists. It may well be about some kind of inner trip or destroying harmful elements of the psyche, but to me it reads as a fascinating biographical tale of love, drugs, loathing and self-destruction, ending with a wistful:
It hurts to set you free
But you’ll never follow me
The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die
Perhaps Morrison knew he was hurtling towards eventual disaster, but it makes The End all the more mystical, tragic and compelling, and is a fitting conclusion to The Doors.