Album Notes: Making Strange Days

The Doors' debut album stood out in a year that was brimming with stellar first efforts - Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Moby Grape, Country Joe and others. It was a magical time, and most everyone under thirty was floating on a psychedelic cloud. But underneath it all was a restlessness.

The youth of America was starting to get angry. The only response their efforts toward peace and love were generating from the Establishment was laughter at “the crazy hippies in the park”. Rising slowly among them now was the need for a stronger stance. And the Doors fit right in. The Doors' music was the music of outrage. It didn't soothe, it assailed. It didn't inspire; it forewarned. And so the Doors found themselves becoming a part of the revolutionary hope of America's youth during that renaissance of spirit and emotion in the late Sixties.

The Doors were wild, rebellious and blatantly sexual - primitives who measured life only by their desire to ”break on through”. They were what everybody's parents always feared this world was coming to, yet they were art. They seem to have been the band the music critics were waiting for, and their first album was hailed as a masterpiece. The Doors were
attractive, and bizarre enough to shoulder the weight of any lofty praise or imaginative description the press could come up with. They were called the “acid evangelists of rock”, the “warlocks of pop culture”, and more. Said one review of them: “The agonized grunts and screams that fly from Jim Morrison's angelic mouth are indeed as enigmatic as the idea of a butterfly screaming. The Doors are saying there are screams we don't hear and they're trying to give them shape. Morrison is an angel; an exterminating angel.”

Or imagine how Morrison must have felt reading this in Crawdaddy: “The Doors is an album of magnitude . . . there are no flaws; The Doors have been delivered to the public full-grown and still growing . . . the birth of the group is in this album and it's as good as anything in rock. The awesome fact about the Doors is that they will improve.” Paul Williams, the editor of the magazine also described the album as follows: “This is an album of overwhelming intensity; a veritable tidal wave of pungent electric sound that heralds a major breakthrough in contemporary music . . . The End is rock performing, audience reaching and communication as it must be and never has been before.” Another critic, Gene Youngblood, said at the time that “the Beatles and the Stones are for blowing your mind, but the Doors are for afterwards, when your mind is already gone.”

The Doors had it all - they had great commercial success, but were regarded as artists first and foremost. That was one of the things that had made the Beatles immortal, and indeed, The Doors had followed Sgt. Pepper in their run at the top of the charts. “What we are doing is art, not just popular music, and art is timeless.” Morrison said, “You might buy a book of our lyrics the same way you would buy a book of William Blake's poetry.”

With this kind of magic, and these images to live up to, the Doors returned to Sunset Sound in August to record their second album. While they must have felt considerable pressure to live up to such great work, they also had a sizable ace in the hole - a wealth of material left over from Morrison's high school and Venice rooftop notebooks to draw on. Many great songs had to be omitted from the first album and most of them had already been polished and perfected. Paul Rothchild was again at the helm and Bruce Botnick engineered. This time around all the tracks were Doors' originals, with Robby supplying the lyrics to Love Me Two Times and You're Lost Little Girl and Jim all the others. The music and arrangements were the usual collaboration of all four band members.

Strange Days took three months to record, and the Doors, now familiar with the artistry of the recording studio, experimented much more than on their previous album. Sunset Sound had recently expanded to eight-track capability, and the Doors took full advantage of it. For its time, Strange Days was an excellently produced album, containing innovations previously considered to be the exclusive preserve of The Beatles.

In the studio the Doors functioned as a tight team. Jim's voice was a bit huskier now, and Robby's guitar began to muscle Ray out of the limelight. Ray responded by playing more instruments, which added a previously unknown depth to the tracks. John once again showed off his stuff, at times playing without cymbals for a more “ominous” effect.

With eight tracks at his disposal, Paul Rothchild was able to bring out new textures from the band. Overdubbed tracks included additional guitar work, marimba, harpsichord, clavinet and Moog synthesizer, played by Paul Beaver. It is believed that Horse Latitudes represents the first appearance of Moog in rock 'n' roll.

Jim saw the second album as an expansion: “We expanded the song form by using plot, the spoken voice as an instrument, and sound effects. Our first album was a blueprint of where we were going musically. The second album shows that we're part way there.”

From having the vocals on the title track echoed by a synthesizer tone to the use of marimba on I Can't See Your Face in My Mind to the one-minute thirty-second poetic freak-out of Horse Latitudes, the production on the album is a masterful blend of music and sonic effect.

Other examples crop up throughout the album. John's cymbal track in I Can't See Your Face in My Mind was recorded backwards, as was one of the piano parts on Unhappy Girl. This technique was very unusual for the time, and not easily accomplished.

The title cut Strange Days, features electronic voice processing which was very rare at that time. This remains one of the Doors all-time finest tracks, as does the spooky Moonlight Drive. The song was rewritten as a tango during the recording session, and was a brilliant success.

The Sunset Sound echo chamber contributed to the liquid guitar sound on Moonlight Drive. While Robby's favorite solo occurs in When the Music's Over, the solo in People Are Strange is another favorite for the fact that it was done in one take.

Like The End on the first album, the recording of When the Music's Over was a real highlight of the sessions. Whether the Doors felt obligated, or were even trying to recapture the magic of The End is open to speculation, but there is no question their efforts produced another rock masterpiece of epic proportions.

The song deals with a number of subjects, including the wanton destruction of nature's greatest gift - the earth itself. Perhaps this was the shaman part of Jim attempting to spread the message of love for nature and reverence for the planet. As with many Doors songs, Jim wrote the lyrics, and both he and Robby contributed melodic ideas, and then the arrangement was worked out by the entire band. In a similar fashion to The End, the song was developed night after night in the Sunset Strip clubs, as a constantly changing free-form piece.

When the Music's Over embodies much of what the Doors were trying to do, and fittingly, it was the last song recorded for the album. On the afternoon they were to begin recording the track, Jim was nowhere to be found. After waiting around awhile, the band went ahead and laid the basic tracks, with Ray providing the vocal cues. The track was done in two takes, and when Jim came into the studio later that evening, he put his vocal down in two takes as well - without missing a single cue.

Paul Rothchild was particularly pleased with the album: “There were NO weak songs on it.” He told Blair Jackson in BAM, “but it goes beyond that. Jim was singing with the confidence of a man who had just put out The Doors' first album. We knew we wanted to explore additional sounds and rhythms, because we had decided from the experience of making the first album that it would be difficult to sustain a career with a band consisting only of organ, guitar, drums and a singer. So our challenge was to expand the Doors sound without overproducing it.”

[excerpted with editing from Break of Through by James Riordan & Jerry Prochnicky]

Copyright 2003 by Riordan/Prochnicky/

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