Cult Classics Album Breakdown 16

The Doors (1967)

For somebody with a Jim Morrison tattoo, it took me a surprisingly long time to get The Doors. But boy, when I got them, I really got them. They literally ended up under my skin.

The Doors, released in January 1967, was the debut album by the now-legendary American psychedelic-rock band, led by the zaney Lizard King and moonlight vocalist, Jim Morrison. Recorded in 1966 at Sunset Sound Recorders, Hollywood, California, it was produced by Paul A. Rothchild, and has not only ended up in the Grammy Hall Of Fame, but also included in the National Recording Registry by the Library Of Congress based on its cultural, artistic and historical significance.

So, yes, it’s a big deal.

In fact, this is one of the great albums of the 1960’s. Although it was primarily only a hit in America, it is now a globally recognised classic. Jim Morrison has become a cult legend since his death in Paris in 1971, immortalising the music of The Doors further – particularly heavyweights off this album, such as the doom-laden The End, which seemed to foreshadow his untimely demise. Complete with Oedipal speaking section from a deranged sounding Morrison, and built upon a hypnotic guitar riff, it is both bewitching and disturbing. Of course, throw a bit of death and martyrdom into the mix and music often becomes sacred. Maybe that’s because we know, as fans, that the chapter is forever closed? Or maybe it’s because martyrdom is duly justified? It’s contentious, but it doesn’t alter the facts. The Doors, despite its success and wide-reaching appeal, is a cult masterpiece.

This magical debut record is special for many reasons. None more so, of course, than the spiralling fable that is Light My Fire. The extraordinary performance by Ray Manzarek on the Vox organ is the feature of this pioneering, somewhat unhinged temptation…I mean, you wouldn’t want your little sister sneaking off to light Morrison’s fire, would you? It swirls and leaps like a blue flame through a vortex of psychedelic sounds for over seven minutes.

Break On Through (To The Other Side) – the album’s thumping opening track – was the first single release by The Doors, and became one of their staple songs. It was controversial because of its drug references (“She gets high!“), but demonstrated Morrison’s instinctive ability to devise poetic lyrics. After all, Jim Morrison was a poet, and true rock’n’roll isn’t complete without that dangerous edge.

Back Door Man, a stomping cover of Willie Dixon’s original, is delivered with all the sexual deviancy and angst that Morrison can muster. He delivers these tracks like sermons from the shadows, face in the dark, crotch in the spotlight. Soul Kitchen – my personal favourite on the album – is a surging, kaleidoscopic anthem that carries the fire from Break On Through. There’s something about going “Stumblin’ in the neon groves” that fills the mind with possibilities. John Densmore, the hippy on the drums, keeps a spectacularly metronomic beat.

Twentieth Century Fox is a stoner’s ode to a gorgeous girl, Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar) the other riveting cover (interestingly enough co-written by Bertold Brecht) – yet another song loaded with danger and controversy, and End Of The Night a dreamy, hazy interlude. There’s a no-bullshit philosophy that permeates this record, and Morrison seems to thrive on revolt, disorder, chaos, and stirring his band into a sanitarium worthy frenzy. Had Manzarek not looked so much like a school teacher, and Kreiger a smacked-up high-school drop out, The Doors might have looked really menacing.

The Crystal Ship is a fantastic, progressive ballad with one of Morrison’s finest lyrics – so mature for a man so young. I Looked At You is a nihilistic boogie, and Take It As It Comes a decadent, mysterious but melodious belter – as intoxicating as anything Hendrix had to offer with the savageness and threat of Iggy Pop thrown in. Does that sound intriguing enough?

The Doors is an almost faultless collection of tunes. I became so heavily consumed by them in my late teens that I bought all their albums in short succession, and even made several homages to Jim Morrison’s grave site in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. Their influence on my life has been phenomenal; Jim Morrison’s lyrics and posthumous collections of poetry have been huge inspirations for my own writing, and the amazing music created by Ray Manzarek, Robby Kreiger and John Densmore a soundtrack to my younger years.

If there’s one word I could use to sum this album up, it would be this: revolution.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Soul Kitchen

Light My Fire

The End


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 13

The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

Lou Reed has never quite settled well with me. I’ve got to be blatantly honest. When he was alive I just didn’t get him. Yes, ok, Walk On The Wild Side is a great track, as is Perfect Day. I was certainly roused by Coney Island Baby. However, I found the man incredibly pretentious and unnecessarily volatile. At times it was like he was out to rile his own fans, even. His gross unpredictability during his life, in my eyes, was all too often mistaken as interesting.

I mean, I guess I’m just going the long way round – the guy was a bit of a twat.

The one record, however, that Lou Reed was instrumental on that really gripped me was The Velvet Underground & Nico. It was the first record Reed was involved making, along with John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and Nico. And it has become a staple cult classic album – especially since this art-house, experimental trip through drug abuse, prostitution, sadomasochism and sexual deviancy was so heavily associated with artist, Andy Warhol. Hence the album cover.

It’s very strange, of course, how the music industry pulls its punches. It’s not strange that the major critics are usually failed musicians themselves. Upon release, this album was a flop. A commercial and financial failure that was largely ignored. Controversies surrounding the thematic content of the record led to the record being banned from record stores and radio airplay alike. But there’s no such publicity like bad publicity, is there?

Over forty years later The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of the most revered and critically acclaimed records on the planet, reaching #13 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’. It was also added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2006 to commemorate its cultural impact. In other words, the fortune of this unique masterpiece turned on its head tenfold. In fact, it’s considered so profoundly influential that, without it, Punk Rock, Glam Rock, and Kraut Rock may never have happened.

The Velvet’s blurring of Pop music sensibilities with avant-garde, edgy, often disturbing subject matter and eerie instrumentation inspired the likes of David Bowie, Roxy Music, Nirvana, REM and The Stooges, to name but a few. Would there have been Ziggy without the Velvets, for example? Bowie would have been a brave man.

Heroin, one of the most remarkably manic cuts of avant-garde experimental bluster you’re ever likely to hear, is a definite highlight on an unpredictable record. The 60’s inspired There She Goes steals from Dylan’s jagged sincerity, but also nods to the classic R&B sound of The Yardbirds and The Troggs. I’ll Be Your Mirror, sang by the strikingly idiosyncratic Nico, echoes something distinctly Mama’s and Papa’s – just a little darker. The Black Angel’s Death Song is a rather deranged, frenetic experiment akin to something on Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and European Son a funky groove that takes the album spiralling off somewhere else entirely. There’s just enough maudlin, just enough experiment in equal measure.

Sunday Morning is an airy, spacious pop ballad, yet still with those semi-sinister undertones that epitomise the record. I’m Waiting For The Man, a garage-rock satire on prostitution, is delivered with typical (somewhat tuneless) Lou Reed detachment. And yet, it works! I try hard not to like him, but on this record it’s just impossible.

Femme Fatale is a sparse opiate; a recording depicting a tragic story. Nico’s mysterious accent underpins the song with subtle power, before the seriously hot-blooded Venus In Furs scuffles through its mournful, lachrymose lament. Run Run Run is bluesy – a nod to The Doors in their Roadhouse-era glory, and All Tomorrow’s Parties a feverish rumbling anchored by a repetitive piano hook. A very unique listening experience.

It’s all rather bewitching to say the least, and evidence that these guys either had fabulous imaginations or a penchant for severe over-indulgence. Either way, it’s a highly original album. Producer and musician extraordinaire, Brian Eno, famously said that despite very few people buying The Velvet Underground & Nico upon its release in 1967, those that did went on to form famous bands of their own. It really was that influential.

Andy Warhol, who was credited with producing the album, and paid for the studio time to record the album, was clearly influential. That whole ‘Factory’ scene, and Warhols futuristic approach to life and art, permeated The Velvet Underground & Nico. It was a scene so unique – so one-off – that this fascinating musical project will be forever shrouded in mystique and legend. 

The Velvet Underground & Nico is a piece of art in itself, not just a record. A remarkable, revolutionary piece of work.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© Cornell University – Division of Rare Manuscript Collections

Top track trio:

I’m Waiting For The Man

Heroin

The Black Angel’s Death Song


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 11

Arthur Brown has that slightly unfortunate (or fortunate?!) problem of being remembered as a one hit wonder. The Whitby-born British singer songwriter, heralded for his outlandish flamboyance and theatrical, banshee bewailing, had that single….

Yes, you may remember.

He was the loony-looking stick-thin shaman dancing about in a flaming helmet screaming ‘I am the God of Hellfire!’ on those grainy, pixelated snippets of late 60’s footage. Fire, his only enduring single release in a career that is worthy of so much more, reached No. 1 in the UK in August 1968 and No.2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 a few months later. It not only snatched him from the underground shadows of psychedelic obscurity and into the global spotlight, but saw him emerge as the Godfather of the kind of shock rock that would inspire Alice Cooper, Kiss and Marilyn Manson, amongst others.

As a result of the emphatic success of Fire, its parent album The Crazy World of Arthur Brown reached number 2 in on the UK Album Charts and number 7 in the US. That, in itself, is achievement aplenty. However, critics have suggested that the aforementioned massive single, Fire – a terrific, if not eerie brain-worm – was solely responsible for the album’s success. I beg to differ. I think this is a stunning record, which offers so much more than a disappointing one-hit-wonder slog through baggage. In fact, Fire isn’t even the best track on it.

Arthur Brown has a voice that can only be described as a gift. Who or what gifted it to him is up for debate. I mean, the guy is eccentric to say the least. Weird, even. A completely free-spirited man with zero inhibitions, and a knack of hypnotising you with his unexpected ascents from deeply resonant monologues to compelling falsetto screams.

If you ever get chance to see Arthur live (he’s touching 79), you’ll never be the same again. I’ve had the pleasure twice. The first time he was supporting former Led Zeppelin frontman, Robert Plant, and performed the vast majority of his set either lying inside a wicker sack or cavorting in the audience. The second time, after I’d recovered from the trauma, he was performing his own headline show in The Robin, Wolverhampton, and was equally as colourful. I was older then – I’d seen much more shit going down on the streets and in the sewers, so Arthur wasn’t quite as intimidatingly martian. In fact, I met him after the show (see pic below) and managed to get a signed record – the real shock was that he was so indistinguishably normal. The God of Hellfire was, in fact, just Arthur. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

Arthur Brown (centre), me (right) and my mate, Greg (left)

The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown is the cornerstone of Brown’s wild, dramatic live-rock-theatre. Prelude/Nightmare, and Fanfare/Fire Poem, the poetic and somewhat narcotic openers, precede Fire, and build the sort of tension and anticipation that you rarely hear on a record. The angelic declaration: “There’s only one way out – go bathe yourself in fire” at the beginning of Fanfare is both eerie and profound in equal measure. Time/Confusion is such a beautiful comedown, and the menacing Come And Buy that follows enough to make you hide in bed pull the sheets over your head.

Yes, it’s a dark record – but that’s the heart of the appeal for me. Brown’s voice is spectacular on his cover of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic, I Put A Spell On You. I mean, this guy can really sing. Don’t be fooled by all the pomp and ceremony. At the root of it all is a very special singer. There’s some amazing musicianship on this album too, not least on closing track I’ve Got Money – a raucous, soulful swagger.

Much bigger names have failed to have an album as successful on the world stage as The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. You don’t top the charts on both side of the Atlantic on the strength of just one song. The proof is in the pudding. This is a great and timeless album, and just about as cult as it gets.

Fire…I’ll take you to burn…Fire…I’ll take you to learn…

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Todd V. Wolfson

Top track trio:

Prelude/Nightmare

Fire

Come And Buy