January 4th 1967 was the day that music changed. For some it was a seismic moment for others a gentle shift and for me discovering it years later it was the album in my parents record collection that meant the most: more than The Beatles, more than The Rolling Stones, more even than Led Zeppelin. It’s impossible to capture exactly what the Doors added to popular music, because as one of the most ground-breaking and influential artists of the 60’s they stood alone, unlike the Beatles, the Stones and even Zeppelin who all had their followers and worshippers The Doors managed to repoint the ship without spawning a host of pale imitators. because let’s face it – no one sounded like The Doors and to this day no one has managed to capture that fearlessness, that poetry and that sense that in Rock and Roll all was still possible and anything could happen.
So how do you review an album like this? Well from my point of view you don’t, you can’t. 50 years on The Doors debut is so deeply embedded in the folklore of modern music its impossible to extract it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to look back to that release – read those initial reviews then take a snapshot every ten years to watch the album recede into the rear-view mirror of time, whilst its legend grows inversely. All I can do it daub a few words to give a feel of what to e is one of the most powerful musical statements of all time.
Essentially The Doors were a product of their age – free, expressive and expansive they came together as a perfect storm: a jazzy drummer, a fledgling guitarist, a mature and classically trained keyboardist and a poet. It could have led anywhere, to small footnote in Los Angeles musical history but instead it resonated around the world. Why? Because it was different, it was daring, it was relevant and even though it was largely a product of the times what made The Doors debut so special was the mix of pop, rock, jazz, progressive music and the infinite variety that engendered.
Of course for many watchers of popular music it’s all about Morrison and what he brought to the table, but this album is for me all about the band: from Krieger’s innovative guitar and Densmore’s deft drums to the sonic landscapes conjured up by Manzarek. Morrison is just the touch of genius, the wild card, the joker in the pack.
Recorded at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, engineered by Bruce Botnick and mixed and produced by Paul Rothchild all on 4″ tape the album itself uses just four tracks for all instruments and overdubs, it’s a remarkable sound for something so basic and it’s Rothchild’s art that really defines The Doors sound.
Opening with ‘failed’ first single, the driving ‘Break on Through’ (only reaching 126 on Billboard) the album starts off stunningly and continues to mesmerise through the subdued and left field ‘Soul Kitchen’ and sweet croon of ‘The Crystal Ship’ one of the band’s few real ballads and the pure pop of ‘Twentieth Century Fox’.
The template is broken with the albums first cover – the Brecht and Weill ‘Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)’ which is at first slightly unnerving, awash with alcohol and to me as a kid rather confusing yet strangely intriguing. ‘Light My Fire’ closes the first side of the old vinyl and hearing that songs for the first time is nothing short of revelatory.
The flip side of the record is just as essential. ‘Back Door Man’ the blues song written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf may seem ancient to latter day listeners but in 1967 it was only six years old. It’s the inspiration for Zeppelin right there in 3 minutes and 34 seconds of sweaty, sexual blues. The upbeat ‘I Looked at You’ follows – again it’s pure pop before one of The Doors earliest compositions ‘End of the Night’ kicks in to add mystery and poetry to the mix that switches back to light and breezy again for ‘Take It As It Comes’.
All roads of course lead to that remarkable piece of music that is ‘The End’, it’s hard, of course to adequately describe the impact of songs like that when the years have diminished its shock value – these were the days when swearing would get you censored, mild drug references would get you banned and any band that wanted to push those boundaries would almost certainly land in some depth of hot water. It’s a dark song that clocks in at eleven minutes and forty-one seconds and as a piece of art still has the power to grip a first time listener. ‘Live’ on stage of course it came into its own with that mid section taking on a life of its own, improvisation may well be a pretty much lost art these days but to The Doors it was the fuel to their creative fire.
The peak for the album as far as the charts really came as a result of that huge single ‘Light My Fire’ released in May 1967 two months after the band had started recording their follow up album ‘Strange Days’ which contained a number of songs that had been written alongside the ones on the debut. By September the album in the States was multi-platinum peaking at number 2 on the Billboard charts behind that other rather culturally significant release of 1967 – The Beatles ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
The 50th Anniversary release of The Doors debut album contains the original stereo and mono releases of the album (but sadly not the three bonus tracks from the 40th Anniversary release) as well as live versions of eight of the eleven album tracks taken from ‘Live at the Matrix’ the 2008 2-CD release of the famous San Francisco venue. It’s interesting to note, though, that these tracks come from only the March 7th 1967 date (not from the 10th) and are from a new first-generation source giving the songs a clarity the original release never had (tough still far from pristine). The tracks are also sequenced to match the album. It’s a great addition as the songs sound so powerful live and extended as they are show the burning creativity of a band destined to make their mark on not just the music of the 60’s but also popular culture to this day.
The Doors is one of the albums everyone simply must hear and at 50 years old it’s still remarkably fresh and relevant.