THE DOORS – The Doors (Elektra ’67): It’s hard to pin down what was exactly the appeal of the Doors, in the sense that there was enough different about them that it’s hard to rationalize there was one quality that drew such a large audience and, decades beyond, devoted fanbase. In part, it could be their reliance on Manzarek’s keyboards as an instrumental focal point rather than Krieger’s guitar (though that’s not to say Krieger was any sort of slouch) in an age when guitar was the go-to instrument, hands down. In part, it could be their unique blend of black blues and white pop swirling endlessly in minor keys with lyrics that suggested a permanent sense of inebriation. But undoubtedly the epicenter was Lizard King Jim Morrison, who, love him or hate him, was an enigmatic and charismatic figure, a kind of cult leader from another plane of existence come to speak to the young and impressionable in seductive, oedipal word salad. The way Morrison talks to his audience is as though he’s talking to an in-group that more or less already agrees with whatever he’s going to say, regardless that whatever thesis or treatise he might present falls apart once exposed to outside logic—i.e., Morrison isn’t a poet, and his ramblings are largely incoherent or so obvious as to treat simple truths like 2 + 2 = 4 as revelatory. Only someone who’s willing to dig beneath the shallow cavern Morrison has hollowed out for himself is going to get much out of what he says. I mean, if Jimmy Fallon can make something like the theme from “Reading Rainbow” sound like it fits in their canon, it’s not a good sign.
So for a band regarded as part of the vanguard of American classic rock—a druggy product of California counterculture that saw sex as more than just free but violent—and still receives lots of radio play for several songs, the Doors have a remarkably thin discography album-wise. They’re a band whose individual features were more interesting than their output as a collective: no permanent bass player, a keyboard wizard in Ray Manzarek, the understated bluesiness of Robby Krieger’s guitar, the fucked-up and booze-addled charm of Jim Morrison, and John Densmore the, uh, drummer. And their sound was different, its origin traceable to the Hammond organ interlude on Them’s “Gloria” (which the Doors covered constantly, and to which Morrison acted out onstage its very obvious sexual overtones). Song-for-song, though, there are more misses on their debut than hits. Yes, yes: “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” “Soul Kitchen,” “Light My Fire,” and, I would contend, their cover of Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man” are great songs, but the overblown “The End” is a song people take seriously only because Francis Ford Coppola heard something in it. And beyond that, what have you got? Is “Twentieth Century Fox” not the poorer cousin of “Soul Kitchen?” Is the drowsy “End of the Night” more remarkable than the equally sluggish but brighter “Hyacinth House”? As Strange Days would demonstrate, the band had little clue what made them successful, and so bewildered were they by that success that their hastily-crafted sophomore album copied the debut formula almost perfectly—a bunch of short songs punctuated by an eleven-minute clunker at the tail end. Unfortunately they figured out too late what made them good—when they were fully in sync and in total control, as they were on L.A. Woman, their masterpiece, where they also dumped what most held them back: producer Paul Rothchild. B PLUS (***)