On their fifth album, The Doors abandoned experimental dalliances for the raw, sonic crunch of electric blues that had defined them in the first place. Fifty years on from its release, Neil Crossley assesses the merits of the album that returned them to the attention of the hip counterculture…
Few albums have started life quite so inauspiciously as Morrison Hotel, the fifth long player by seminal LA four-piece, The Doors. As the band prepared to enter the studio in November 1969, they were still smarting from the critical pounding that had greeted their previous album The Soft Parade, an experimental work that encompassed orchestral arrangements, took nine months to record and racked up a whopping $86,000 (equal to $587,563 today) in costs. The album was derided by critics and the band’s core underground music scene fans, who viewed it as an opportunistic stab at the pop market.
But by far the greatest problem confronting The Doors in late 1969 was the increasingly volatile behaviour of charismatic lead singer Jim Morrison, which had created a chasm in the band’s ranks.
Morrison, the Florida-born son of a US Navy rear admiral, had descended into alcoholism. Gone were the mercurial live shows, replaced instead by incoherent onstage ramblings as he sleepwalked his way through performances. His striking good looks were fading, replaced instead by a bloated appearance, his ballooned face obscured by a huge beard. Morrison and his band’s problems were compounded on 1 March 1969 when he was arrested onstage in Miami for allegedly exposing himself to the audience.
Then in November, the day before the band entered Elektra Studios to start work on their new album, Morrison was arrested by the FBI for “drunk and disorderly conduct aboard a plane” as he disembarked from a flight in Phoenix. If found guilty on both charges, he would have faced a 13-year jail sentence. By the time The Doors assembled for the first day of recording, the rest of the band were barely talking to him.
Despite such obstacles, Morrison Hotel would signal a real return to form. Haunted by the response to The Soft Parade, The Doors followed their instincts and pursued a muscular, back-to-basics sound. Like other bands at the time, they returned to their roots, and for The Doors, that was electric blues. It was a decision that would reignite their career and produce an album that, 50 years on, is still powerfully impressive.
The Way Forward
For those within The Doors’ immediate orbit, a new album seemed like the most pragmatic way to proceed as the 60s drew to a close. Elektra Records president Jac Holzman, the man who signed the band back in spring 1966, certainly thought so. “It could have been over after Miami,” he told Mick Wall of Classic Rock in 2014. “They didn’t know what to do. I said: ‘Time to make another record. Go into the studio. Work out your demons in the studio’.”
The problem for the band was that Morrison arrived at the studio with no ideas. He was more interested in hanging out at the Whisky A Go Go, where he would more often than not be steaming drunk, as Pamela des Barres, one of the people who had known Morrison since his pre-fame days, recalled. Des Barres remembers leaving the club one night in late 1969 and finding Morrison curled up in the gutter. “People were stepping over him. That’s what had happened to his mystique.”
For The Doors’ keyboard player and co-founder Ray Manzarek, Morrison’s troubles were particularly upsetting. Chicago-raised Manzarek had met Morrison at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), where the two studied film. By the time they graduated in 1965, LA’s Venice Beach was emerging as the epicentre of a vibrant new counterculture. This was where Manzarek was living in 1965; he was sitting on the beach one day, pondering his future, when a familiar face came into view.
“Morrison comes walking down the beach and I said, ‘what have you been up to?’. He said, ‘I’m writing songs’. So I said, ‘let me hear some of your songs’. And he was very shy about it and said, ‘No I don’t have much of a voice’. I said, ‘Forget it man, Bob Dylan doesn’t have a voice and he’s like the biggest thing going’. And he says, ‘OK, OK, OK’. And he closes his eyes and he starts to bob to himself and then he sings: ‘Let’s swim to the moon, let’s climb through the tide…’.”
This song would eventually appear as Moonlight Drive on The Doors’ second album Strange Days. Manzarek was transfixed. “Jim said, ‘Do you like it? Do you like it?’. I said, ‘I love it man’. And at that point I said to him, ‘OK man, we’re getting a rock and roll band together. We’re going all the way with this one’.”
Manzarek brought in his two brothers Rick and Jim, on guitar and harmonica respectively, and on drums he enlisted John Densmore, who had studied ethnic music under jazz cellist Fred Katz. Densmore was impressed by Morrison. “I thought, ‘woah, this guy’s magic’,” he recalled.
The nascent band went under the name Rick and the Ravens, and recorded the End Of The Night demos, which failed to spark any interest from the numerous labels they took them to. Dispirited, Manzarek’s two brothers left the band, to be replaced by Robby Krieger, whose fingerstyle flamenco guitar tuition and keen interest in the blues gave him a unique playing style.
The new line-up began rehearsing at Manzarek’s house in Venice Beach. “We’d rehearse during the day in the sun room,” he recalled in the documentary Classic Albums: The Doors. “You’d open the door and you’d step out onto sand.”
For new recruit Krieger, the rich potential of the band was evident from the first rehearsal. “That first day we got together, we thought we were as good as the Stones,” he said. “As good as anybody.”
Over the next year, the band rehearsed relentlessly in their idyllic beachside location. They changed their name to The Doors, taking inspiration from the book Doors Of Perception by Aldous Huxley. “We were honing songs,” recalled John Densmore, “we wanted to write the best songs on the planet.”
The band signed a deal with Columbia Records, but left the label within months after none of the in-house A&R producers expressed an interest in working with them. In early 1966, they landed a residency at a club called The London Fog, on Sunset Strip.
The London Fog was sleazy, but had the benefit of being close to the Whisky A Go Go, where The Doors were then hired to play in 1966, supporting bands such as The Byrds and Them. In spring 1966, Arthur Lee of the band Love recommended them to Elektra’s Jac Holzman. He was not taken with The Doors, but held Arthur Lee in sufficiently high esteem to keep returning to watch them. “I wasn’t particularly impressed,” said Holzman. “I didn’t hear any of the iconic songs… but I kept going back and I went back four evenings. On the fourth evening I went back, everything just came together and you just knew.”
Holzman signed the band to Elektra and teamed them up with producer Paul A Rothchild and engineer Bruce Botnick. The prestige of the label and the cache of Rothchild and Botnick proved an irresistible combination for the band.
“When I heard that we might be on Elektra Records, that was like heaven for me,” said Robby Krieger in the documentary Classic Albums: The Doors. Then when I heard that we were going to get Paul Rothchild to produce us, that was like it was meant to be because he had produced all these albums that I listened to.”
The relationship with Elektra and Rothchild would be a fruitful one. On 24 August 1966, the band entered Sunset Sound Recording Studios and over the following seven days recorded their debut album The Doors. The album was released in the first week of January 1967 and from the opening call to arms Break On Through, it was one of the most groundbreaking and exhilarating recordings of the psychedelic era. Their sound was unique, blending blues, classical, pop and Eastern music. The band never added a bass player and their live sound in particular was the more distinctive for it. Ray Manzarek’s electric organ work and Jim Morrison’s deep vocal timbre dominated across ominous yet beguiling melodies.
For The Doors, the intensive honing of their songs and their sound over a one-year period had paid off. “By the time we got in the studio, we had written two albums worth of stuff, so that was a good 30 songs,” said John Densmore. “We were pretty confident about all of them.”
Their second album Strange Days (1967) drew from the same pool of songs created in Manzarek’s Venice Beach apartment. By now, they had embarked on a hectic touring schedule, with Morrison’s charismatic onstage persona becoming the focus of the their live act and his lyrics chiming with the burgeoning counterculture. “I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos,” he said, “especially activity that seems to have no other meaning.”
Third album Waiting For The Sun (1968) reached No. 1 in the US album charts, yielded the hit Hello, I Love You and was their breakthrough album in the UK. But it was arguably the weakest of their six studio albums. By the time they were immersed in the protracted sessions for The Soft Parade (1969) Rothchild’s patience was finally wearing thin. “I’d grown tired of dragging The Doors from one album to another, especially Jim [who] had virtually dried up. Jim would either not want to work or would go into the studio drunk. Most of my energies were spent trying to co-ordinate Jim with the group.”
In The Studio
In the band’s earlier years, Morrison had been a driving creative force, arriving at recording sessions with the bulk of the lyrics and melodies already written. When they started working on Morrison Hotel, Manzarek was forced into ransacking the singer’s journals and notebooks for ideas.
Rothchild encouraged them to be instinctive, rather than spend hours and days striving for the perfect take. The whole feel was of a band returning to its roots and the result a much rawer, spartan sound. Recording was fitful, primarily due to Morrison’s relentless drinking. “The situation was dire,” recalled Ray Manzarek. But the more basic sound meant that the creative demands on Morrison were kept to a minimum. Paul Rothchild, too, was delving into Morrison’s notebooks in a desperate bid to find lyrics to inspire new songs. On one occasion, he discovered a poem entitled Abortion Stories, which became the stand-out track Peace Frog.
Rothchild would continue work on the mixes throughout December 1969, but already he and the band sensed that this album was a real return to form. Morrison Hotel, or Morrison Hotel/Hard Rock Cafe as the original LP was labelled, was released on 9 February 1970 and was viewed by critics and fans alike as a comeback after the critical failure of The Soft Parade. The album reached No.4 on the Billboard album charts and became the band’s highest-charting album in the UK, where it reached the heady heights of No.12. Morrison Hotel failed to yield any hit singles, but its raw, crunching electric blues sound was more than enough to return them to favour amongst the hip underground. More importantly, it would set the tone for their final, stunning, studio album, L.A. Woman (1971).
In a review of the time, Circus magazine praised Morrison Hotel as “possibly the best album yet from The Doors”, adding that it was “good, hard, evil rock – and one of the best albums released this decade”.
Morrison Hotel is not without its faults. But as a body of work, the album is one of their strongest. As the magazine Classic Rock put it in an overview of The Doors’ back catalogue in 2016: “Morrison Hotel is one of the band’s most cohesive records, a tightly assembled and tightly played group of songs about life, and death, at the dawn of the 70s.”