By Dave Thompson
1970 was more than the dawn of a new decade. It was also the end of an era.
The year began with the breakup of the Beatles, wrapped up with the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and was also hallmarked by any number of other musical convolutions. The Rolling Stones did not release a new studio LP, The Who were still struggling to follow up “Tommy,” and rock ’n’ roll itself was on such shaky ground that, when the critics looked around and tried to prophesy what the “Next Big Thing” was going to be, most of them settled upon the crop of singer-songwriters who — let’s be honest here — would barely have gotten a look in a year or two before.
Dave Marsh at Creem called The Doors’ fifth album “the most horrifying rock and roll I have ever heard,” and that was a compliment. “When they’re good, they’re simply unbeatable.” It was the best record he’d heard all year.
Rock Magazine and Circus unanimously agreed that it was The Doors’ best record yet, and while it was maybe a little early to be making such pronouncements (‘Morrison Hotel’ was released in February 1970), Circus described it as “one of the best albums released this decade.”
Which, coming hot on the heels of what had been the most tumultuous year in the band’s career so far, must have been music to their ears. Jim Morrison was still reeling from the ugliness unleashed by the Miami bust for obscenity; the band as a whole was still shaken by the almost unanimously hostile reception that greeted their last album, “Soft Parade.” Indeed, organist Ray Manzarek is still capable of summoning up a considerable quantity of bile when recalling the reaction which that record provoked.
“‘How dare The Doors use horns and strings; who do they think we are? We want them to keep playing songs the way they are. How dare they add something to it because when they do that; they’re not The Doors,” Manzarek says.
“All right, all right, it’s my fault; I take full responsibility. It was my idea to put on some horns and strings, get some jazz players,” Manzarek says.
His voice oozing sarcasm, Manzarek remembers that album’s planning stages. “We’ve done three albums and they’re all exactly the same… there must be something we can do that’s different.”
There was, and they did it. And what happened? “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I don’t like it, …’” he says
There was just one solution. “OK, we’ll go back to the blues and do something down and dirty and funky. Here’s ‘Morrison Hotel.’ The Doors back to the roots. And that’s what we did. The Doors went back to the roots, the tight roots sound.
“The next leap would have been into synthesizers. We never quite got around to that, to the ARP, the Moog. We didn’t quite get those in, but we definitely would have. And you can bet that had the synth been a little further along, or The Doors been a little further along, all those horns and strings on the ‘Soft Parade would have been done by me. I would have found the horn sound or the string sound. …”
In the meantime, however, “Morrison Hotel” “was just back to basics.” But not, Manzarek insists, as a reaction to the panning that “Soft Parade” received. “Not at all. It was our choice. Quite frankly, we didn’t pay a lot of attention to the critics because, when it comes time for creation, you go into a different space where there’s nothing but you and your music, and how can you make your music as good as it can possibly be at this moment in time?
“We live in our own room, all bands do. Imagine Jimi Hendrix doing anything that Jimi Hendrix didn’t want to do. Whether its horns and strings or synths or back to basics, that’s your decision, and that’s what we did,” Manzarek says. “We looked at one another and said ‘OK, let’s get funky. Let’s get funky, let’s do it’.”
Just two external players were recruited — bassist Lonnie Mack and the mysterious G Puglese, a harmonica wizard who only later turned out to be John Sebastian. Compare that to the small army of auxiliaries who turned out for “Soft Parade;” and compare the relaxed, almost effortless feel of the music, again, with that which preceded it. If you want your Doors dangerous, there’s no comparison.
“Morrison Hotel” is not the sole glimpse into this new-found funkiness around these days. Earlier this year, a staggering six CDs of live material culled from The Doors’ four-show residency at the Felt Forum in New York provided us with the most complete examination yet of The Doors as a working band.