The year 2017 is a big one for 50th anniversaries: June alone marks a half-century since the release of Sgt. Pepper, and the first major rock festival, Monterey Pop. That year also gave us debut albums from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground and The Doors, whose self-titled shocker of an intro was released only days into the new year, January 4, 1967, on Elektra Records.
The Doors was like nothing that had come before. Most of the attention, from the start—aside from his raw, bad-boy sex appeal—was focused on the sophistication and visual power of Jim Morrison’s poetic lyrics. The showpiece was the harrowing and raw, nearly 12-minute “The End”: Was there ever a more chilling passage in a rock song than the one that begins with “The killer awoke before dawn, he put his boots on/He took a face from the ancient gallery and he walked on down the hall” and ends in a blurred, nightmarish vision of patricide and incest?
The ballad “The Crystal Ship,” meanwhile, was shimmering in its vivid imagery (“Oh tell me where your freedom lies/the streets are fields that never die/Deliver me from reasons why/you’d rather cry, I’d rather fly”); “Soul Kitchen” and “Twentieth Century Fox” were both sly and funky; the sing-songy cover of Brecht and Weill’s “Alabama Song” was irresistible and even the lesser known tracks like “Take It as It Comes” and “I Looked at You” heralded the arrival of a visionary new group.
The Doors’ debut also, of course, gave us “Light My Fire,” and while—like all of the Doors’ material—its composition was credited to the entire group, the band’s maiden hit—which rose, in an edited version, to the top of the Billboard singles chart in July ’67—was penned by Robby Krieger, the band’s guitarist (except for the second verse, which is Morrison’s). Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek (who supplied most of the Doors’ bass lines on his organ, when they didn’t call in freelancers to play an actual bass guitar) and drummer John Densmore were not so much support musicians for their flamboyant and charismatic frontman as equal contributors—without any of them, the Doors simply would not have been the Doors.
The success of “Light My Fire,” both on AM Top 40 radio and in the emerging world of underground FM rock radio, meant that the Doors would have to quickly release a followup to keep the momentum going. As they became more successful, moving from the homegrown clubs of L.A.’s Sunset Strip to the San Francisco hippie ballrooms and, soon enough, colleges and theaters, they needed more material. Even as The Doors was riding high, the quartet was at work preparing its sophomore release.
The album, which they called Strange Days, was released only eight months after the first, on Sept. 25, 1967. Where the debut was cut in less than a week, the Hollywood sessions for the followup were stretched over a period of months, allowing the band to fine-tune its new material and to make use of Sunset Sound Recorders’ brand new eight-track recording equipment, and the unconventional instruments they discovered. Producer Paul Rothchild and engineer Bruce Botnick took a greater role in the creative process this time around, introducing the group members to exciting ways of enhancing the raw tracks with the technology at their disposal.
Related: “Light My Fire” goes to #1
That sat perfectly well with the Doors, who were all about diving headlong into the unknown. On the album’s title track, “Strange Days,” On the title track, Morrison plays the Moog synthesizer—one of the first rock recordings to use one. (A fan reports: “His microphone was plugged into the synthesizer, and he pressed a key with each syllable he sang, giving his voice that eerie sound.”) Manzarek plays the organ on the track. “Horse Latitudes,” meanwhile, was a Morrison poem married to a minute and a half of found sounds manipulated in the studio to eerie and foreboding effect.
Most of the song material on Strange Days was already in existence in one state or another by the time the Doors hit the studio—“Moonlight Drive” was, in fact, the first set of lyrics Morrison presented to Manzarek, enough to convince the keyboardist they had the makings of a great band. On the album, Morrison’s words are accompanied by Krieger’s bottleneck guitar and a compelling rhythm that’s at turns swinging and snappy on the verses and considerably more forceful on the choruses, courtesy of Densmore and Manzarek.
Strange Days, which itself landed at #3, one point behind the debut, yielded two hit singles, “People Are Strange” and “Love Me Two Times.” Neither came close to repeating the #1 success of “Light My Fire,” reaching #12 and 25, respectively, but they still became permanent members of the classic rock airplay club, getting countless spins on what’s left of rock radio (and on rock internet stations) even today. Even its surreal album cover, New York street performers photographed by Joel Brodsky, has become emblematic of its heady era, a recognizable relic of a certain time when anything, the odder the better, was not only possible but encouraged.
As was often the case on the Doors’ albums, some of the tunes that got the least attention by radio programmers were among the most innovative and absorbing. Here, so-called filler songs like “You’re Lost Little Girl,” “Unhappy Girl,” “I Can’t See Your Face in My Mind” and “My Eyes Have Seen You” featured some of Morrison’s and the instrumentalists’ most inspired performances of that busy year, and they still hold up today.
But, as was the case on album number one, it was the grand finale of Strange Days, “When the Music’s Over,” that rightfully received the most concerted attention. At 11 minutes it was just slightly shorter than “The End,” and while it lacked the lyrical shock value of its predecessor, its tale, and the delivery of it, was epic in its own right. Over a brooding, meandering, often exotic melody that alternately sprawled and intensified, Morrison asked us repeatedly to “turn out the lights” when the music was over. As he unfurled his hypnotic dream-state of a lyric, Krieger, Manzarek and Densmore improvised and explored, creating a drama that accelerates incrementally.
Morrison works himself into a trance state. Early on he instructs us:
“Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection
Send my credentials to the House of Detention
I got some friends inside.”
His story line is opaque, never linear; there are warnings and wishes and there is joy. There is much mystery.
“What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn
And tied her with fences and dragged her down”
Densmore’s sticks fly in random direction. The bass whispers.
“I hear a very gentle sound
With your ear down to the ground
We want the world and we want it…
We want the world and we want it…
That’s it. An explosion ensues. We experience Morrison as we’ve never heard him before: uncoiled, possessed, demonic, frightening. “Save us!” he cries. “Jesus! Save us.”
“When the Music’s Over” leaves the listener breathless. We’re reminded that the music is our “special friend,” our “only friend.” But will it save us? “Until the end. Until the end. Until the…ennnnd.” It’s rock theater at its most histrionic. We’re drained. Like so much that year, the Doors have taught us that our music knows no bounds.
Jim Morrison and the Doors would only last four more years, but from these first two offerings, both made within the same glorious year, they had us…until the end.
Watch the Doors’ video for “People Are Strange”
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Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. As a consultant to the Music Club CD label, he assisted in releasing over 180 reissues and compilations, in styles ranging from jazz to country to pop. His first book was Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (published in June 2003) – the first biography of this legendary San Francisco band written with the cooperation of all of the band members. He is also the co-author of Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc, with Howard Kaylan. From 2002 to 2006 Jeff was the editor of Global Rhythm, the leading magazine for world music and global culture. He was the Associate Editor of JazzTimes from 2008-16. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his wife, the novelist and Boston Globe book columnist Caroline Leavitt. Their son, Max, is a theater major at Pace University in New York.