|Jim's left eye is...John Densmore's face?|
It's been a while since I've undertaken the carefree task of writing about something really popular and well-known, so why not talk about The Doors' 1967 self-titled debut? Now that this album is pushing 50, it's a little easier to take its legendary status with a grain of salt, and I find it easiest to evaluate when taken as what it really is--pop music, pure and simple! When you think about these songs as something "the kids" were supposed to go crazy for and buy in wheelbarrowfuls, the facts that Jim Morrison's "poetry" is mostly inane cliché rhymes and that the music here isn't really challenging or as dark as the image the band cultivated don't really matter--it's pop, and pretty great pop, for that matter.
Not that The Doors wasn't a revolutionary or nearly completely fresh album at the time it emerged--it pretty much made Elektra Records into a successful rock label, proved the marketability of a dark, distinctive version of US psychedelic rock that had little to do with the typical West Coast sound, and demonstrated that there was plenty of room in the pantheon of teen idols for a raw, sexual, and darkly pseudo-artistic figure like Jim Morrison, paving the way for a lot more experimentation in US pop music.
What made The Doors so different and successful? To my eyes and ears, it's the fact that they backed up their unique, marketable image with such a distinctive style. While Morrison's poetic pretensions are often hard to swallow, the rest of the band really did fulfill the dark, artsy image that's represented so well by the cover art--Ray Manzarek's roots were classical, Robby Krieger purportedly never played an electric guitar (he was a flamenco player) before joining the group, and John Densmore's jazz chops are probably the best thing the group's got going for itself instrumentally. That murky, dark sound typified by heavily-reverbed Morrison vocals (the power of his voice as an instrument is tough to deny, especially when he swings between baritone crooning and animalistic shrieks) and piercing organ high-end was pretty much unheard-of, and even if a lot of the material is ultimately lightweight, it certainly fits the group's image in mood and bluster. Whoever had the idea to include the Brecht/Weill "Alabama Song" and blues standard "Back Door Man" was on the right track, fleshing out the group's druggier originals with the drunken carnival leer of a sex-crazed pervert that Morrison would continue to embrace, probably to his great personal detriment. Of course, the original that cements these covers' filthy promise is the immortal "The End," in most parts not so much a song as it is a musical texture backdrop for Morrison's closest attempt at poetry on the album, with some controversial sex noises and mother-f'er talk.
What really made the album sell, though, is the wealth of melody and hooks that reside in most of the songs--"Break On Through" and "Light My Fire" combine late night drug imagery (though most people probably haven't heard the unedited "Break On Through," where Morrison clearly shouts "she get high") with pop-perfect breaks and simple melodies delivered with apt doom by Morrison's god voice. It's impressive how many other potential hits are on here, though, like the funky organ/guitar combo on "Soul Kitchen" and "Twentieth Century Fox," not to mention the schmaltzy mystery of "The Crystal Ship." And surprisingly, a couple deep cuts are just as catchy--the garagey start/stop of "I Looked At You" makes for a great false ending, and the thinly-veiled sexual imagery of "Take It As It Comes" is probably the only thing that held it back from single-dom.
Though their edginess makes them appear unique, The Doors' career started like so many other great, wide-eyed rock bands, with a group whose instincts were pure but whose vision into the future was short-sighted due to the fact that they barely knew what they were doing when they were doing it--there's about three repetitive keyboard basslines that Manzarek recycles across all of these songs, while Krieger's nascent relationship with his electric guitar evidences itself in a limited range of ideas and a virtually identical guitar solo on "Soul Kitchen" and "Twentieth Century Fox." The familiar commercial pressure to repeat the debut's success made for diminishing returns after the group's sophomore album, but when they eventually gained confidence as a working unit their diverse and unusual identities shone through for some weirder and more experimental compositions, but I think the perfect storm and untainted energy of this one will probably stand in most people's minds as their definitive statement. Just don't take it too seriously.
Get it here.