Do The Doors still light your fire?
Few bands divide opinion like Jim Morrison's seminal Sixties outfit. As a commemorative DVD and album are released, two of our music critics offer opposing views
YES - Andy Gill
The abrupt curtailment of their career by Jim Morrison's death at the age of 27 both bestowed a certain dark cachet upon The Doors, and also prevented them from embarking upon the long, slow decline into which most of their peers subsequently sank. Ignoring the live albums and the posthumous efforts cobbled together from Morrison's poetry recitations, they left just six albums of surprisingly high quality, whatever one's views on the depth of the singer's poems, a knee-jerk target for detractors ever since.
Ironically, it's in his poetry's pretensions that much of the band's greatness resides. The Doors had an underlying attraction to the dark side that gave their best songs a multi-faceted appeal and ambivalence denied to the more starry-eyed hippies up the coast in San Francisco. Not that Morrison's pretensions weren't matched by his fellow band members, who leapt at any chance to bring jazz and classical elements into the pop realm – fairly commonplace now, but extremely rare back then. The result was a flexible musical weave that could take sudden left-turns when least expected, and was particularly well suited to the sort of extended narratives that interested Morrison. It's worth remembering, in this regard, that the band was born out of the attraction of two film students (Morrison and keyboardist Ray Manzarek) to the new blues and rock music: their songs never lost that narrative edge, not just lyrically, but also musically – the backdrops created by a band of just three musicians for pieces like "The End" and "Five to One" are startlingly visual representations of their themes, yet still imbued with muscular rock power.
Morrison's artistic pretensions were balanced by an instinctual feeling for the blues. He was always striving to reconcile his attraction to the atavism of the blues with his need for intellectual fulfilment, an alliance of id and superego that only Captain Beefheart ever equalled. Not for nothing did The Doors' debut album contain covers of both Howlin' Wolf and Brecht/Weill. But unlike most contemporary British adherents of the blues, the band's music was never stifled by any overweening claims on "authenticity"; instead, there was a blend of looseness and tightness that seemed to come more naturally to American musicians: albums such as Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman present a straight-up great blues-boogie unit.
Yet for all Morrison's desire to be "an old blues man" – as per his anagrammatical alter-ego, Mr Mojo Risin' – there was always an awareness, in his delivery, of the absurdity of his position. At their best, in songs from "Roadhouse Blues" to "Riders on the Storm", "Not To Touch The Earth" to "L.A. Woman", The Doors created a mixture of the ridiculous and the sexy, the pretentious and the bullishly direct that was as compelling as any music of their era, a quixotic blend perfectly summarised in the grandiose promise to "tell you about the heartache and the loss of God".
NO - Fiona Sturges
You'll have to take my word for it when I tell you that I've tried to like The Doors. In my teens I convinced myself, along with many of my schoolgirl peers, that I had fallen for Jim Morrison's preening rock star cool. I borrowed (though thankfully never purchased) their first two albums, I read the Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive (in which he is presented as a right pain in the backside) and sat dutifully through Oliver Stone's interminable biopic – though in fairness we can't blame Jim for that particular monstrosity. During a month-long stay in Paris, I even went to Père Lachaise and visited Morrison's grave. This was not a pilgrimage, you understand, but because it was a well-known hippy hangout and I hoped that someone might pass me a joint.
A couple of years later, old enough not to worry about the critical consensus, I revisited The Doors' work and came to the conclusion that Lester Bangs was right when he described Morrison, the son of a US rear admiral, as "a drunken buffoon masquerading as a poet". Around the same time, a friend introduced me to The Velvet Underground. The Doors may have had the hits, I realised, but the Velvets had the songs.
The Doors were the most overrated band of their era, if not of all time. They were self-regarding, overblown pseudo-hippies that appeared interesting largely because their singer was either drunk or on acid, or both. Their lyrics were as clunking and humourless as their music was overwrought and longwinded, hamstrung by endless keyboard noodling that probably added to the buzz if you were stalking the corridors of your mind on LSD but if you weren't was like the longest guitar solo on the dreariest album by the worst prog-rock band in the world. It is also a mystery to me how anyone could prostrate themselves at the feet of a middle-class boy who styled himself as some sort of shaman, possessed with the Native American spirit, or worse still a Lizard King. Then again, perhaps they were just humouring the silly plank.
The Doors were successful partly due to their timing – their music had a darkness to it that chimed with the beginning of the end of the hippy dream – and also because of their very distinct, and to a teenager very compelling, image. In the same way that James Dean embodied danger and romance by donning a leather jacket and acting all stroppy in Rebel without a Cause, Morrison pulled off the same trick with a pair of leather trousers, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a rock band. It was, inevitably, Morrison's premature death in his Parisian bathtub at the age of 27 more than his back catalogue that sealed his place in rock mythology. I don't dispute the band's influence on some terrific performers, from Iggy Pop to Patti Smith. But where others hear magic and mystery in The Doors, I only hear mediocrity.
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