“Strange Days”: The 50th Anniversary

The Doors, around the time of "Strange Days"

The Doors are continuing their 50th anniversary celebration with a deluxe edition of “Strange Days,” their second studio album. Following the “London Fog ’66” set, “Strange Days” will be available as a 2-CD set containing both the stereo and (original) mono versions of the album, or as a single LP containing the mono versions. The stereo mix is being remastered by longtime Doors engineer Bruce Botnick. The release date is set for November 17, 2017.

Let’s take a closer look at the original record.

The Doors released “Strange Days” in the United States on September 25th, 1967. Just over a year had passed since the band had entered the studio to record their first album, and many things had changed.

The Summer of 1967, in particular, had been a pivotal time for The Doors. Earlier that year, their debut album and first single (“Break On Through”) had struggled to gain recognition. But in April they released a shortened version of “Light My Fire,” the song became a hit in June, and on July 31 it reached #1. As “Light My Fire” climbed the charts, everyone began clamoring for The Doors: more interviews, more shows, more music.

This was happening just as the band was recording “Strange Days.” The new album was going to land at the perfect time to bolster The Doors’ reputation as leading rock artists. (Not to mention rack up big sales.) But the fact that the album materialized during their rise to stardom also made its development more difficult.

The Doors - "Strange Days" album cover
Jim Morrison disliked the first album’s cover since it promoted him over the rest of the band. This time around, the only Doors reference was the old promo poster on the wall. (Click for full size)

To promote the first album, The Doors’ management had arranged a heavy touring schedule through the spring and summer. This meant that the “Strange Days” sessions — May to August ’67 — were often put on hold while The Doors flew in circles, from southern California to the Midwest to New York and back again. They played their first big outdoor show in Van Nuys, California on May 20, but some of the gigs, having been booked into small clubs before The Doors could demand bigger venues, didn’t seem worth the trouble. As their profile grew, these arrangements further distracted and annoyed the band. At one point, in June, they were busy playing the club circuit in New York while the legendary Monterey Pop Festival was happening out in California. The Doors were angry at being left out of a landmark rock event.

Another problem was that Jim Morrison was gaining the notoriety — and the cash flow — to find real trouble. During the frequent trips to New York, Morrison’s drinking and drug use ballooned, and he’d had a fiery affair with Nico, the infamous vocalist of The Velvet Underground. (Pamela Courson reportedly knew the whole story, and she vowed to get even.) At one rock club, The Action House, a brutally hungover Morrison staggered onstage, stuck the microphone in his mouth, fell over, and made “awful groaning sounds” until the other band members stopped the show and dragged him offstage. It was also during this period that Janis Joplin allegedly cracked a Southern Comfort bottle over his head at a party in LA.

Jim began missing recording sessions too. The work on the debut album had seen some… irregularities, like when Morrison broke into the studio and hosed everything down with a fire extinguisher. But sometimes now he just didn’t show up. Increasingly, The Doors had to work around Morrison’s moods and problems.

Still, “Strange Days” was coming together. The band had a backlog of polished material from their days at the London Fog and the Whisky, so it wasn’t too hard to work “Moonlight Drive” and “My Eyes Have Seen You” into finished songs. And even with the distractions, plus the fact that “Strange Days” drew heavily from a familiar source — Jim Morrison’s Venice Beach rooftop notebooks — the band was able to push the envelope in their songwriting and studio mastery.

The Doors’ main studio, Sunset Sound Recorders, had upgraded to a bleeding-edge 3M eight-track tape machine, giving the band more freedom to experiment with new sounds and effects. The “Strange Days” title track features one of the first uses of a Moog synthesizer, and Jim’s voice is filtered through an early noise reduction system to produce the delayed echo.

For “Horse Latitudes,” producer Paul Rothchild had the band, assorted hangers-on, and a rock and roll visitor (Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane) scream, smash bottles, and throw things into a garbage can. They pounded coconuts on the floor to simulate horses’ hooves on a wooden deck. They recorded Robby’s guitar part and played it backwards, and Ray Manzarek used a mallet to pound the strings of a grand piano. Rothchild and Doors engineer Bruce Botnick created a haunting mélange of the noise, and Botnick added the howling-wind effect by amplifying the normal hiss of a tape recorder and varying its speed.

The experimentation ran all the way to Morrison’s girlfriend Pam Courson — or a hooker, depending on the version of the story — giving Morrison a blowjob in the vocal booth to try to elicit a more enthusiastic performance.

Despite the chaos, “Strange Days” is musically consistent from beginning to end. The songs are thematically consistent, too, with lyrics that repeatedly describe feeling alone and lost in bustling Los Angeles. “Strange Days” may not have been intended as a concept album, but it feels like one, with a narrative that runs an emotional gauntlet from the ominous introduction (“Strange days have found us / Strange days have tracked us down / They’re going to destroy / Our casual joys”) to a cautious optimism (“I think that you know what to do”), into a seemingly doomed relationship (“Baby, gonna DROWN tonight!”), to isolation and loneliness (“Faces look ugly when you’re alone” and “I can’t seem to find the right lie”), and finally to an expression of hopelessness or a yearning for death (“Music is your only friend, until the end”). This is close to the structure of classic tragedy.

Robby Krieger’s songwriting continued to flourish as well. Robby contributed another single with “Love Me Two Times,” and in “Your Lost Little Girl” he copied Morrison’s style so well that many assume Morrison wrote the song. But Krieger’s best contribution might be the moody “People Are Strange.”

“People” has a famous origin story; Robby and Jim wrote the song spontaneously when Jim came to visit during the tail end of a bad trip. As Krieger tells it:

“Jim came up to my house in Laurel Canyon one night, and he was in one of his suicidal, downer moods. So John [Densmore] said, “Come on, Jim, we’ll go see the sunset. That’ll get you out of this.” We went up to the top of Laurel Canyon and it was incredibly beautiful—we were looking down on the sun reflecting off the top of the clouds. Jim had a total mood flip-flop, and said, “Wow! Now I know why I felt like that. It’s because if you’re strange, people are strange.” And he wrote the lyrics right there. Then I came up with the music and we went back down the hill.”

In “Riders On the Storm,” Densmore tells much the same story:

“When Robby and I were still roommates on Lookout Mountain Drive in Laurel Canyon, Jim came by one afternoon when I was out. Apparently he was deeply depressed, pacing the floor and saying that everything was fucked up. Robby was taken by surprise, since Jim rarely confided in us about his problems, only his music. After rapping for a little while, Robby suggested that they take a walk up the hill to Appian Way for the spectacular panoramic view of L.A. Half an hour later Robby returned, and Jim followed shortly thereafter. He was euphoric. ‘What happened?’ Robby asked him. ‘Look at these lyrics,’ Jim said excitedly.”

More recently, Densmore has used the story to introduce screenings of “When You’re Strange.”

The album concluded with the 11-minute poetic/theatrical tour de force “When The Music’s Over.” Like “The End,” The Doors tried several times to record the song in sections before capturing it whole. “Music” confirmed The Doors’ reputation as a dangerous and heavily experimental psychedelic band, as it starts with Morrison’s scream, graduates to the distorted roar of Robby Krieger’s guitar that accompanies Morrison, and follows with quiet, spoken passages punctuated by Densmore’s drum outbursts. This, combined with the LSD-influenced lyrics, made other “acid rock” seem tame by comparison. Their lone competitor might be Hendrix.

Upon its release, “Strange Days” landed in the top 20, and “People Are Strange” (also released in September) reached the top 10 in the singles chart. “Strange Days” was also arguably The Doors’ most artistically successful album. Accolades poured in from the underground press, the band graduated to bigger arenas, and they began appearing in major news magazines like Time and Newsweek. It was a peak that The Doors would struggle to reach again.

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