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"It is one of the most auspicious and interesting debut albums I have ever heard from any band."—Henry Rollins on The Doors
Classic Albums: The Doors continues the winning streak for the Classic Albums series and will generally please music fans, no matter what their opinions of the Doors' music may be.
Facts of the Case
The Doors' self-titled debut album caused an immediate sensation when it was released in 1967. It spawned a Number One hit with "Light My Fire" and sold millions of copies worldwide. It would also influence many subsequent musicians for many years to come. Here the three surviving band members—keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore—discuss how they wrote and recorded the songs on the album, and how it was to work with their legendary singer Jim Morrison. Sound engineer Bruce Botnick, who recorded the album, goes over the recorded tracks in detail and talks about the recording process. Interviews, archival footage, and new musical performances help explain why The Doors should be considered a classic album.
For every person who loves the Doors, there's one who simply can't stomach them, and it's usually for the exact same reasons. What some listeners find hauntingly transcendent, others find insufferably pretentious, and both sides are inextricably welded together so that it's impossible to simply edit out the parts you don't like. Possibly more than most of the major rock acts to emerge from the '60s, the Doors are a real love-them-or-hate-them deal.
Much of the reaction surrounding the Doors centers on the band's charismatic and controversial frontman, Jim Morrison. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek is a skilled accompanist. Guitarist Robby Krieger is a gifted songwriter and talented musician (and possibly the most underrated guitarist of the era). Drummer John Densmore kept a light, swinging beat without plodding or showing off. Still the Doors was really Morrison's show, and he was, for better and for worse, incapable of any self-restraint. It's hard to imagine now, because so many have imitated and watered down his act, but, back then, rock 'n roll had never seen the likes of Morrison before. No other singer incorporated elements of drama, theatrics, and showmanship to the degree that he had, and, afterwards, it became inconceivable that any singer could perform without at least a little bit of his influence. Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten, Axl Rose, Ian Astbury, Michael Hutchence, Henry Rollins, Perry Farrell (the last two of whom appear on this DVD to sing Morrison's praises): generations of singers have cited him as a crucial influence, the singer they in one form or another emulated the most.
As innovative as Morrison's style was, though, and as skillfully as the band backed him, there was a point at which the Doors' artiness could cross the line into mere self-indulgence. It's not an accident that the Classic Albums series chose, as the representative Doors entry, their first album. It contains several of their most famous songs ("Break on Through," "Light My Fire," and, of course, "The End") and laid the groundwork for many artists to follow. But it was also in many ways the only album that perfected the band's style. After their debut, the Doors released many subsequent albums, most of which merely rehashed the ideas and styles from the first one with increasingly unlistenable and unpopular results. What had seemed so fascinating and enthralling initially quickly soured into formula, shtick, and even self-parody. It wasn't until 1971's L.A. Woman that the band recovered its bearings, and then by releasing an album that was a self-conscious 180-degree turn from the mysticism and drama of its earlier work into rootsy blues-rock. Whether that turn would have saved the Doors' career will always be a mystery, as Morrison died suddenly in Paris only months after that album's release. His death, ironically, would resurrect the Doors' fortunes (they were viewed as fading stars at the time); for the rest of the decade, their music would be granted a new respect that continues to this day.
As always, this series does a superb and comprehensive job in relating the process of writing and recording an album. Even music fans with only a passing familiarity with the Doors' music will find much of this enthralling. What this DVD shows especially well is how the band members incorporated various different styles of music into their songs. There's the flamenco licks at the heart of Krieger's playing, the Latin and bossa nova beats that Densmore inserted into "Break on Through" and "Soul Kitchen," the John Coltrane and Ray Charles riffs that Manzarek played as foundations for various songs. Botnick plays the original demos and alternate takes for various songs, and it's fascinating to hear the process of songs evolving and changing as band members hone in on their parts. Botnick also reveals the secret hidden lyrics to "Break on Through" ("She gets…high!") that were blanked out at Elektra's request, since at that time, no radio station would have ever played a song that even hinted of drug use. There are stories about the arrangements of songs and how the album's two covers, "Back Door Man" (originally by blues great Willie Dixon) and "Alabama Song" (from Bertolt Brecht's and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera), were chosen. Rather than merely trot out more tired stories about rock 'n' roll excess, this DVD focuses squarely on the music and is all the more enjoyable and informative for it.
In fact, one of the most refreshing aspects of this DVD is the stubborn refusal to indulge in yet more "Morrison as drunken sybarite" stories. It's all about the music here. As much as Morrison was the crucial focal point of the band's popularity and mystique, his hell-raising life and sudden death have frequently overshadowed the other band members and their music. Nowhere is this more evident than in the extra interviews, which, apart from a couple of brief wild-man Morrison stories that were wisely cut out, consist of more background about the other three band members. Densmore gives a detailed drum lesson. Krieger relates how his style of guitar playing evolved and shows off some licks. Manzarek explains how he played his solos on the album and what his biggest inspirations were. This is all material that's immensely fascinating and is usually neglected in most stories about the band. There's also an intriguing segment where Botnick plays the demos for "Moonlight Drive," the first song Morrison and Manzarek wrote together, and explains why it wasn't recorded and released until 1968. Though the absence of Morrison and Paul Rothchild, the album's producer (who died in 1994), is sometimes felt, there's no shortage of great material here, both for Doors fans and anyone who is curious with the recording process. This disc once again proves why the Classic Albums series is a must for music fans of all stripes.
The technical aspects of the disc are top-notch. The 1.78:1 transfer is clean, and while some of the older archive footage naturally looks its age, the modern interviews and performances are flawless. The Dolby Digital Stereo mix is first-rate.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Will The Doors convince non-fans that this is indeed a classic album? The band's massive influence is undeniable and even Morrison's most fervent detractors grant his enormous charisma and the band's formidable chops. Nonetheless, this may be one of the more controversial entries in this series. Unfortunately, Doors retrospectives sometimes take an excessively reverent approach to Morrison and that tends to do a disservice to the band's music. This DVD is no exception. Though it succeeds as a musical documentary, it's at its weakest when it attempts to view Morrison's work in a non-musical context. The segments when Beat poet Michael McClure reads Morrison's lyrics aloud as poetry and analyzes them are the least successful. Morrison's lyrics fit the music beautifully, and he sang them with flair and passion. However, read aloud as poetry, they simply aren't even a fraction as compelling. Words that sound so gripping when sung come off as pedestrian when merely read aloud flatly. These segments, though they are brief and take up only a small portion of the disc's running time, will unfortunately confirm the sentiments of many non-Doors fans that the band was just too pretentious for its own good. Ultimately, they could have been excised from the DVD to make room for more musical discussion.
Of all the DVDs the Doors have released over the years (at least six since 1999), this is the one that would be most recommended to anyone who isn't familiar with their music. It mostly keeps the hagiography to a minimum and puts the band's music into a larger context better than any of the others. Doors fans, of course, will find plenty of value here.
The Classic Albums series has become a trademark of quality for music fans. This disc is no exception. Not guilty.
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