From the epochal genius of LA Woman to the sad drudge of Other Voices, both in 1971. “How the heck?” asks GARY STEEL.
Why were these two 1971 albums so very different: one an all-time rock era legend, the other a near-forgotten footnote, and a rather embarrassing one at that?
The simple answer is that LA Woman features Jim Morrison – who died three months after its release – and Other Voices doesn’t.
But given the fact that a sizable chunk of the group’s best songs had been composed by guitarist Robbie Krieger, it’s still alarming that Other Voices carries so little of the group’s recognisable DNA.
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And the instrumental sound of the group had always comprised Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek and drummer John Densmore, with Morrison merely contributing his characteristic words and vocals to their potent slabs of acid rock.
Even without their singer, surely the three remaining members of The Doors could have pulled together a decent post-Morrison effort. But in fact, Other Voices and its similarly poorly received successor, Full Circle (1972) were considered such embarrassments that they remained deleted for decades before finally receiving a very belated CD release in 2006. And even then, there were few brave enough to stick up for them.
Right from the Los Angeles group’s international explosion in 1967 with their near-perfect self-titled debut, The Doors had become the ultimate symbol of the rock revolution. But while many of the group’s contemporaries seem dated by their flower power connotations, The Doors’ music retains its hard-edged power.
In the ‘70s it became popular to slag off the group and in particular their (now very dead) messianic singer, who couldn’t answer his critics. His theatricality was painted as indulgent and made him a convenient target for those who looked to more “authentic” rock heroes.
But despite the group’s low stock for many years, The Doors provided a template that was impossible not to want to replicate. Rock history is now dotted with dynamic hard rock groups with charismatic leather-clad singers, but none of them do what Jim Morrison and The Doors did with anything like the same level of panache or sense of purpose. None of them were simultaneously underground and smash hits; none of them were dangerous rebels but also sexy celebrities.
When YouTube-era critics trash The Doors they lack the context to understand just how groundbreaking they were; how they bashed out an entirely new flavour of rock minted in the revolutionary mood of the late ‘60s, and how ultimately, the establishment broke them. Where rock careers today go on far too long, The Doors (like Hendrix and Joplin) were all over in four or five years, leaving a relatively small but fertile clutch of songs and albums in their wake.
By 1970 the group had been prevented from touring because of trumped-up “lewdness” charges against Morrison, and that had taken its toll. Their 1970 album Morrison Hotel had been a welcome return to a grittier sound after the horn and strings-laced experiment of 1969’s The Soft Parade, and its raunchy, blues-based songs were a development on the delightfully inauthentic blues moves that had been with them from the start on songs like their cover of Willie Dixon’s ribald ‘Back Door Man’. It’s just that now, on tracks like ‘Roadhouse Blues’ and ‘Maggie M’Gill’, they were fashioning something uniquely their own out of the blues: not a boogie but a whiplash-hard beat with a newly-gruff Morrison whose voice now sounded the way his soon-to-be bushy beard looked.
By the time it came to recording LA Woman Paul A. Rothchild, who had produced all The Doors albums to that point, decided he’d had enough. He’d just finished recording another classic-to-be (and another final recording), Janis Joplin’s Pearl, and was upset at her tragic death before the sessions had even ended. Later, he described the recording of each successive Doors album (all in top studios) as increasingly excruciating, with Morrison’s frequent drunkenness and absences a big issue. For what turned out to be Jim Morrison’s last recordings with the band, the group’s longtime engineer, Bruce Botnick, would take over production duties, and a very unconventional and comparatively lo-fi studio setup would be chosen: a recording desk and gear was installed at The Doors’ rehearsal space.
The informal nature of the sessions resulted in the best album of their too-short career, and the last real Doors album. When it came out prior to Morrison’s death in Paris on 3 July, 1971, it seemed like he’d already died. The atmosphere was as final as that of Joy Division’s posthumous Closer, albeit less explicit. It felt like Morrison’s spirit had left already, from the cover photograph where he seemed small, diminished, to the desperate, ragged vocals on all five songs on the first side of the album.
‘The Changeling’ desperately strives towards metamorphosis, the “breaking on through” that characterised the spirit of The Doors, but Morrison’s vocals are desperate, and despite Krieger’s snake-charmer guitar the whole thing angrily grinds and bangs along but remains grounded. ‘Love Her Madly’ (the single) is hopelessly jolly but the jollity is fake and Morrison is bereft. ‘Down So Long’ is an angry blues dirge and there’s no escaping his nightmare. ‘Cars Hiss By My Window’ is the shuffling sound of giving up to entropy, and by the time Morrison lets out his falsetto “woo-wee, ba-ba-woo-woo-ee” we know he’s lost his mind. And ‘LA Woman’ itself? Well, this dark epic deserves its own chapter, but you can practically feel Morrison being eaten alive by his demons and the city that made him. Suffice to say that even today, the song makes a great soundtrack to any expedition into the heart of that fantastic and terrible city.
The second side, however, is mostly like a different take on what LA Woman should be. ‘L’America’, ‘Crawling King Snake’ and ‘The WASP (Texas Radio And The Big Beat)’ could be outtakes from Morrison Hotel, or more accurately, comprise one side of a second disc had that album been a double. They’re all fine songs and the group is in top form. ‘The WASP (Texas Radio And The Big Beat)’ is one of the funkiest things four white rockers have ever made – and it’s poetic, too – and I’d be surprised if there weren’t several hip-hop songs featuring samples from it. And ever so briefly, the song brings back implications of transcendence that have been noticeable by their absence here.
The two songs that feel more like they belong on that devastating first side of LA Woman are ‘Hyacinth House’ – a gorgeous but deeply sad rumination – and ‘Riders On The Storm’, which comes over as much like an epitaph for the group and for Morrison as ‘Decades’ was for Joy Division and Ian Curtis. (I hesitate to say it but I’ve always felt that Curtis summoned something of the spirit of Morrison, not to mention that both of them used their unschooled baritone instruments very effectively). With ‘Riders On The Storm’, you can almost see the ghost of Morrison riding off into the sunset (Sunset Boulevard, that is) and it’s inconceivable that there will be another chapter to the group.
But of course, there was (sort of). But no one really bought it (of course), metaphorically or figuratively. How could it have been that the three extant members of The Doors could assemble so soon after Morrison’s death, think that they could still call themselves ‘The Doors’, and start laying tracks for another album? Who were they fooling?
Apparently Krieger, Manzarek and Densmore had started rehearsing some new songs in preparation for Morrison’s return from France, and when he died they just kept developing the material until they had an album. It doesn’t really matter after all this time why they pressed ahead to record a new album after their friend had died mysteriously in France. It seemed bizarre then and it seems completely wrong now. In recent years it has become almost fashionable for groups to have arbitrary connections to the original lineup – think Yes with their karaoke singer or Tangerine Dream made up of understudies accessing their former leader’s synth banks. There was even a version of The Buzzcocks without singer/writer Pete Shelley. Unthinkable! Back in 1971, no one seemed to blink when The Doors attempted to carry on, but they also barely noticed them from the moment Jim Morrison died.
The Doors had fulfilled their contract with Elektra with LA Woman, but the three surviving members were given a new three-album contract. As an infatuated fan at the time, I tried really hard to convince myself that the new Doors were still great without Jim, but those slabs of vinyl never got thrashed like the real Doors albums. Listening to Other Voices in 2022 it hasn’t improved with time. But was it simply Morrison’s absence that made it so ordinary?
It’s understandable that the trio weren’t in a hurry to find a replacement singer. I mean, who could replace Jim Morrison? But the alternative was utterly untenable. The alternative was giving Ray Manzarek most of the vocal duties and allowing Krieger to sing a few ditties. Absolutely Live is one of my all-time favourite concert recordings and it captures something of the raw excitement of The Doors in performance, but there’s one track I always skip: Willie Dixon’s ‘Close To You’, on which Manzarek is the lead vocalist. It’s awful, hectoring, toneless, more like a football coach shouting instructions.
That’s the biggest problem with the reconstituted Doors: not so much the absence of Jim as a poet or a presence but the absence of the unmistakable and pleasing sound of his voice. I once saw a video where Morrison’s father was professing amazement at how someone of Jim’s limited vocal ability could ever have been a successful singer. It made me feel very sad. Who would ever want a Dad with a perspective like that? But more to the point, Morrison was one of the very best vocalists of his generation, negotiating between a kind of LSD-flecked post-Crosby crooning style and his powerful, bluesy shout-singing. Distinctive, appealing, and mostly in tune. And it suited the words, which he intoned beautifully.
But while Manzarek’s keyboard work is often sublime (not to mention his use of the bass pedals in a live context to make up for the lack of a bassist), his vocals somehow manage to be both shouty and goofy. Krieger’s voice, on the other hand, is simply weak.
But the lack of a decent set of pipes isn’t the only issue that plagued Other Voices. The musicianship is great and you can sense ideas that – had Morrison been on board – might have developed into something worthwhile. ‘Ships w/Sails’ is like that, with its twinkling electric piano and mysterious vibe, but the vocals make it sound dweebish, like the class nerd attempting to play the cool cat. Without the effortlessly cool Morrison to keep his cosmic/hippy pretensions in check, Manzarek was free to make a fool of himself.
And that’s the other thing. Morrison’s presence somehow kept certain aspects in check. He allowed some humour, but would have steered the group away from the rather painful, lumpy attempts at fun represented by ‘Variety Is The Spice Of Life’ and (groan) ‘I’m Horny, I’m Stoned’. I still remember the disappointment when I rushed out to buy the single, ‘Tightrope Ride’, and how it failed to even faintly resemble The Doors as I knew them. It’s such a brash, unvarying piece of music and I had to really concentrate to appreciate that Krieger’s voice-like guitar was still doing its thing and that there was the usual pleasing undertow of Manzarek’s organ.
David Fricke’s liner notes in the 2015 CD reissue of Other Voices (in a “twofer” pack with Full Circle) are unusually apologetic, I guess because Rhino was paying him a writer fee. He can see qualities in the album that I might have attributed to it as an adolescent, but really, the album’s a disaster. Like its successor, there’s plenty to like about it, and plenty to dislike about it, but as a rock record, or a pop record, or a piece of art, or a cultural artefact, it’s a shambles.
The world finally did start to appreciate The Doors again, especially after Oliver Stone’s 1991 film starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. Subsequently, not only has the Doors catalogue been issued (and reissued) a number of times, but numerous documentaries and concert recordings have been released to some acclaim. It’s still fashionable amongst some in the alt-rock community to berate the contribution the group made to rock culture. I had to laugh recently when I saw an interview with garage rock guru Iggy Pop where he acknowledged what a profound influence Jim Morrison was on his whole schtick. Good on him for that.