Although this impressive 40th anniversary box set is audio-led (its cornerstone being the six CDs, not the short DVDs that accompany them), it’s obvious we should begin with the 1967 Canadian television broadcast of “The End”, the first great Doors psychotropic epic.
Insert the DVD. Action. They crash into an almighty death-chord, Jim Morrison glaring at the camera and screaming: “Wake up!” For 11 minutes he commands his stage, writhing against the mic stand with lava in his eyes. The urgency mounts, the hippychick dancers lose their inhibitions and Morrison whips the hysteria upwards and upwards. Finally he sinks to his haunches to survey the mayhem he’s created. It’s amazing, riveting footage.
Today, 35 years after Morrison’s death, The Doors are a rock’n’roll institution whose legacy is surprisingly brittle. After being revered for decades, they’ve recently slumped in stature – derided for meretricious poetry, leather trousers and worse. The current generation doesn’t seem to rate them. Even in older milieux, it’s become fashionable to damn them with faint praise: coupla good albums, then lost it big-time… A decent existential trip for teenagers, but a band you grow out of when you mature.
Scarcely helping matters, a previous multi-disc anthology in 1997 (“The Doors Box Set”) was a notorious botch-job that lost its way in dire rarities and absence of narrative. More seriously, the six Doors studio albums – the really important stuff – sounded lifeless on CD for 13 years until 1999 brought new, scintillating remasters by former engineer/producer Bruce Botnick.
Packaged like a door with a peephole, “Perception” takes those 1999 remasters and adds out-takes to all six albums. Sharing each double-digipack is a 20-minute DVD of television clips and promo films. And that’s it. No live albums. No specious attempts to jiggle chronology. No “unreleased” poetry surreptitiously glued on to 1980s jazz-funk overdubs.
The 33-minute blushing-pink pop album “Waiting For The Sun” swells to an hour, feasting on the bonus cuts: “Celebration Of The Lizard”, a brutal phantasmagoria excised from the original 1968 tracklisting; “Albinoni’s Adagio In G Minor”, a Morricone-style art-piece. “Morrison Hotel”’s out-takes are more prosaic: eight interminable cock-ups of “Roadhouse Blues”.
Not every Doors album benefits from these CD/DVD combinations. Unlike its freeway-haunting music, “LA Woman”’s DVD is claustrophobic and turgid. Indisputably, though, synthesis occurs elsewhere – magical unions of sight and sound – just like the leering, hunchbacked Doors riffs where wire-rimmed intellectualism and bone-hard carnality conjoin in electraglide guitar and harpsichord scales. And you realise how revolutionary, how thrilling The Doors really were, before all those biographies, movies and TV-advertised compilations turned them into cliché.
Let’s acknowledge their versatility, for a start. Released at either end of 1967, “The Doors” and “Strange Days” are towering statements of crepuscular psychedelia that actually, when analysed, visit none of the usual psychedelic geography. “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” is a mambo. “Moonlight Drive” is a tango. They’re ecstatically embroidered (“Light My Fire”, “The Crystal Ship”), then gammy-legged (“Love Me Two Times”, “Back Door Man”), then suddenly we’re at the Kit Kat Club (“People Are Strange”) where life-is-a-cabaret-old-chum.
With no bassist to make them swing, the hypnotic repetitions of Ray Manzarek’s keyboard basslines were crucial. Black-and-white 1968 film of “When The Music’s Over” shows us what it looked like. Morrison is already puffy from the drinking, but Manzarek’s left hand is a bass machine, techno-repetitive, relentlessly risking RSI.
Stretched wide by ’60s stereo separation, Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger evidently felt embellishment was necessary. Following the successful pop departure of “Waiting For The Sun”, a cavalry of strings and brass reinforcements arrived for “The Soft Parade” (1969), prompting criticism that The Doors were selling out to muzak. The suave production textures (and inconsequential Krieger-written lyrics) must have disappointed many; others, myself included, swear by the poignant stoicism of these pop tunes.
“The Soft Parade”’s DVD has a TV performance of the title track. Morrison is pissed and downright fat, with bouffant hair and preacher’s beard. He looks like a deranged, sweaty Bee Gee.
Arrested that March in Miami for exposing his genitals onstage, it all went wrong for Morrison. Living the life of the anarchic drunk, he daily faced imprisonment but was hardly a free man in any case. The DVD for “Morrison Hotel” (1970) has jaw-dropping scenes of him being violently manhandled – by police, by girls, by freaks – while “Roadhouse Blues” blares out sardonically: “Let it roll, baby, roll… all night long.” The craziness is frightening.
“Morrison Hotel” and “LA Woman” (1971) were returns to a raunchy blues approach, but with provisos. The former revels in tonal contrasts (the exquisite “Peace Frog”/”Blue Sunday” segue), also suggesting a bizarre nautical bent (“Land Ho!”, “Ship Of Fools”). The latter album is dominated by its original side-closers “LA Woman” and “Riders On The Storm” – ineffable road songs both – but is arguably the closest The Doors came to sounding like other bands. Morrison died in Paris while it was climbing the charts.
He is not the messiah, not then, not now; and talk of snake-hipped shamen leaves many of us cold. But there’s infinitely more to Morrison than unfettered chemical experimentation and an oedipal encounter with the old lady. He deserves respect, not ridicule. And The Doors finally produce a box set that illuminates their shapeshifting music, where kaleidoscopes bumped into triskaidecahedrons. No wonder there’s so many ways of perceiving them.
By DAVID CAVANAGH