Strange Days was not only Jim Morrison's finest hour as a rock god,
it saw the darkness lurking in the Summer of Love
September 28, 2008
The Doors timed the arrival of their second album, Strange Days, with
almost spooky prescience. Its pervasive air of unease the more
powerful because so many of the songs are so quiet coupled with its
doom-laden sense that, as the album's long finale put it, "the
music's over", proved unusually prophetic.
The month when Strange Days appeared, September 1967, marked the end
of the so-called Summer of Love. This had been the high point of the
madly optimistic hippie conviction that rock's emerging
counter-culture could make dreams come true; that all it took to
reverse everything from American foreign policy in Southeast Asia to
the dominance of western consumerism was for a large congregation of
young "heads" with flowers in their hair to, in the words of the LSD
evangelist Timothy Leary, "turn on, tune in and drop out".
This message had blasted out of San Francisco's hippie enclave,
Haight-Ashbury, often carried in musically ragged, acid-flecked code
by the city's most celebrated hippie bands, notably Jefferson
Airplane and the Grateful Dead. It played well in most places where
longhairs and dope hung out together, but didn't cut much ice in the
other music capital of California, Los Angeles. The LA rock scene
didn't have a community nerve centre like Haight. It functioned in a
more fragmented, atomised way, around hip music venues such as the
Whisky A Go Go, and big private houses up in Hollywood, like the one
where, in 1967, the leader of LA's biggest band, Brian Wilson of the
Beach Boys, was repurposing pop music, or losing his mind, or both.
As Wilson beavered away indoors, down in the clubs on Sunset
Boulevard a new band, led by a charismatic and priapic young poet in
leather trousers, was making huge waves. The Doors, the latest
signing to America's hottest "underground" label, Elektra, were
capturing the imagination of the city's alternative types with music
that, for all its psychedelic veneer, had nothing to say about love
or peace. Rather, it seemed to nail LA's unique proclivity for
experimental arty endeavour and deviant sexuality in an atmosphere of
drug-borne paranoia. Taking their name from a title that Aldous
Huxley borrowed from William Blake for his book exploring the effects
of mescaline, The Doors of Perception, the band wore their sophomoric
intellectual interests with pride.
Unlike their peers in San Francisco, the Doors didn't try for the
"West Coast" sound. They didn't do folky harmonies or sloganeering
choruses. They had clearly been listening to John Coltrane and jazz
fusion, and their lack of respect for rock protocol meant they didn't
even carry a bass guitarist, preferring to use a bass keyboard
instead. Formed in 1965 by two UCLA film graduates, Jim Morrison and
Ray Manzarek, they released their self-titled debut album in January
1967, and deliberately chose not to blow with the prevailing wind.
Though its bluesy stylings were broadly of the moment, its dark
lyrical preoccupations conveyed with dramatic elan by Morrison's
fierce baritone vocal and Manzarek's spectral organ sound rained a
thunderstorm down on the hippie parade of 1967. Even their
breakthrough hit, the erotically charged Light My Fire, which topped
the American charts in April,possessed a brooding quality. Its
mysterious references to "our love [becoming] a funeral pyre"
foreshadowed one of Morrison's most outrageous, self-mythologising
statements: "Death and my cock are the world."
The End, the 11-minute epic that closed out The Doors, had a similar
thrust, culturally, to a song by an East Coast band who likewise
declined to sign up for the smiley hippie utopia. Heroin, by the
Velvet Undergound, flagged one unheeded toxic destination awaiting
the blithe counter-cultural crowd. The homicidal fury of The End
eerily evoked another.
One great musical event separated The Doors from its successor,
Strange Days. The Beatles' magnum opus, Sgt Pepper, lit up the Summer
of Love. Among other things, its bold refusal to stick with the
guitar, bass and drums format that had pretty much defined pop music
since the dawn of Elvis served as a clarion call to any band who
fancied they could do things differently.
For Strange Days, the Doors and their trusted producer, Paul
Rothchild, set about creating a very different sound to the one they
achieved with The Doors. For their debut, the band had done what most
bands usually did in the studio: unpacked their gear, played the
songs the same way they did them live, then moved swiftly on. This
time, they spent much longer over the recordings, using the
electronic resources of the studio the way the Beatles and George
Martin had to create sound fields and atmospheres that wouldn't
have survived the hurly-burly of a Doors concert.
The shimmering, woozy organ motif that kicked off the first track on
the album, Strange Days, had little in common with the shrill, brassy
keyboard intro to Light My Fire. With Robby Krieger's guitar mixed
well down and Morrison's vocal closer most of the time to a sonorous
murmur than the declamatory roar he regularly unleashed on The Doors,
the new record crept up on the listener. Strange Days seemed more at
home with the noirish, cool cabaret feel of songs such as You're Lost
Little Girl, I Can't See Your Face in My Mind and People Are Strange
than it did with more raucous items such as Love Me Two Times and the
freaked-out, shouty poem Horse Latitudes. Only on the album's long
valedictory coup de grâce, When the Music's Over, did the Doors
really let rip in a song that was, to all intents and purposes, The
End without the body count.
To highlight the distance between their first and second LPs,
Morrison decreed that he and the band would not, on this occasion,
feature in person on the album cover. Instead, the New York
photographer Joel Brodsky was commissioned to create an image that
somehow reflected the music. His decision to go with a circus theme
was an inspired choice, resulting in one of the iconic album sleeves
of the 1960s. The problems that Brodsky encountered hiring actual
circus performers at a time in the summer when most of them were
working out of town meant that most of the characters seen on the
cover of Strange Days were friends, locals or, in the case of the two
dwarves, actors. That scarcely mattered: the surreal, blue-stained
oddness of Brodsky's cover photo made them marvellously apt
companions for the disturbed meditations they enclosed.
That the record's cover failed to reveal anything at all about the
group who had made it and didn't even feature the album's title
contributed to the relative lack of success Strange Days enjoyed on
its release. "We thought it was the best album, and we were confident
that it was going to be bigger than anything the Beatles had done,"
Rothchild said. "But the record died on us."
To be fair, Strange Days did make No 3 on the Billboard album chart,
and spawned a couple of minor hit singles in People Are Strange and
Love Me Two Times. It is true, however, that it failed to match the
sales and chart placing of the Doors' debut. This was, however, a
small price to pay for an album that was well ahead of its time in
its moody evocation of where the hippie trip was headed. It remains,
for many Doors fans, the most complete and original collection of
their career. Its afterlife, which has included a video of the song
Strange Days, made in the 1980s with the same cast of circus freaks
that featured on the cover, has outshone that of an album such as
Waiting for the Sun, which rode the anti-Vietnam wave of 1968 with
more success, but less musical subtlety and distinctiveness, than its
In truth, Strange Days was Morrison's finest hour. After it, as the
heavy drinking took hold, his voice lost the dreamy quality it had
once possessed and turned by degrees into a gruff, stentorian bark.
This in no way diminished his stature as one of the Dionysian gods of
rock, a reputation that has preserved him in aspic for generations of
leather-clad, wannabe wild-man vocalists since his death in 1971, but
it progressively robbed the Doors' music of its strangeness and its
charm. When it comes to both of those, Strange Days is, 41 years
later, still king.