Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Perception of the Doors

It’s easy to make a case that the Doors were one of the greatest bands in the history of rock. They were, after all, one of the first bands to top the charts by exploring the darker side of the flower power generation. It’s an equally simple matter to claim the Doors as the godfathers of pretension in rock. It takes a bit more than leather pants and concho belts to signal a death knoll to love power.

The one thing that can’t be argued is that the Doors’ eponymously titled debut remains, over forty years after its release, one of the most auspicious debuts in the annals of rock. As part of its continuing series, Classic Albums: The Doors explores the making of the album, as seen mostly through the memories of the survivors of those sessions. It’s equal parts retrospective and a fond remembrance, as seen primarily through the reminiscences of Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore, as well as recording engineer/ Bruce Botnick.

Love them or hate them, when their debut was released in January 1967, there was no band quite like the Doors. The members were educated—film school refugees (Morrison and Manzarek) and accomplished music theorists (Krieger and Densmore) who, consciously or not, would rewrite the rules of rock. They weren’t really interested in teen angst or Utopian visions of love—the Doors looked at what lay beyond those paths, and explored the more shadowy aspects of a world in the midst of a cultural revolution.

Classic Albums: The Doors touches on that mystique, but doesn’t waste a lot of time dwelling on it. Instead, it focuses mostly on the process of making the album. Much of it is anecdotal, of course, largely paced by the perpetually animated Manzarek, who often comes across with a Vegas veneer with his reminisces about the band’s origins. Botnick balances that vaguely schmaltzy exuberance with an engineer’s love of how the songs broke down technically.

Densmore and Krieger provide the greatest insights into how the band achieved its unique sound. Between the two of them, they managed to meld blues, bossa nova, flamenco guitar and funk in a single riff. With Manzarek, whose keyboard bass and soul and jazz inclinations cemented the Doors’ sound, they emerged as a band that sounded lie no other.

Despite all that, it’s impossible to discuss the Doors without placing Jim Morrison in the center of the context—not just of the album, but of the shift in American culture as a whole. The spectre of the Vietnam war would fragment the hippie movement, and Morrison’s lyrics, while not overtly political, reflected the gnawing restlessness of American society at the time. The Doors weren’t about love and peace so much as they were about inner turmoil.

The people involved in the album recognize that, as do such current personalities as Perry Ferrell and Henry Rollins, who provide a contemporary take on the legacy of the Doors. Sadly, aging Beat poet Michael McClure’s recitations of “Break On Through” only serve to diminish the impact of the song. His attempt to elevate the lyrics to the level of high poetry come off more as a Steve Allen routine than serious dissemination of the work.

All in all, Classic Albums: The Doors is an erstwhile addition to a series that is in itself proving to be an important chronicler of important pop music. As with the rest of the series, the Doors entry sidesteps hype in favor of focusing on how the album came to be, and what makes it an enduring classic. In the Doors’ case, this DVD focuses not on the decline and fall of a seminal band, but on the efforts that made them a seminal band. It’s objective reportage, laced with live footage and outtakes (notably the evolution of “Moonlight Ride”). Itdoesn’t shed any new light on the Doors mythos, but it does open a new perspective on the band. It’s been over forty years since The Doors was released, yet it remains a major influence on music today. By anybody’s standards, that constitutes a “classic” album.

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