Pick of the Week #14
The Doors
People Are Strange/Strange Days

(Strange Days, 1967)
By Beppe Colli
Mar. 14, 2021

Sometimes, for no particular reason, I think about today's ways of consumption, and how they differ from the ways of the past. Which often brings me to paradoxical conclusions, quite different from what I assume I should regard as being the more plausible ones. Let's say I still manage to surprise myself.

A computer with broadband (and not even a residue of guiltiness) is all that's needed today in order to listen to whatever one wants, with no limits. But in a world that's supposed to be immersed in a continuous present of a pointillistic nature, with no past nor future, the whole past is open for us to explore, for free. And even though "the disappearance of all physical items" is by now for the most part a reality when it comes to music, the "sound object" is still there, at our disposal, in the shape of a "long-distance file".

It's obvious that consumers' attitudes when it comes to the past vary a whole lot, according to many different variables. While the "compresence" of everything puts the goal of "finding a meaning" that can "give a sense of order" to the "chosen slice of multitude" straight on consumers' shoulders.

(It goes without saying that here I'm not considering the issue of the "identity" of the object, as we assume that files that could in fact be very "different" from the original as being "identical".)

But if I go back in time to when I started buying "records" - at first, 45 singles; then, 33 LPs (I'd like to stress that I only mention those personal memories since I assume they represent "typical" patterns of behavior) - it becomes obvious that it was at that time that people lived in an "eternal present" when it came to music (the incessant, incredibly fast, process of change in music-making made one's interest for the past futile; one's curiosity for what tomorrow had in store, enormous), in a world where "physical items" suddenly disappeared, sometimes forever.

At the time when I wore short pants I lived in a town of about 60.000. A few shops that sold appliances also sold 45 singles (shops that sold music instruments sold sheet music). Then, quite bizarrely, a few shops started selling only "music records"; but LPs were still scarce, and extremely expensive. There was a department store (Standa) that freely showed a long line of LPs - I remember the Beatles (Rubber Soul and Revolver), the Rolling Stones (Between The Buttons), and a few Italian singers (Mina, Morandi, Vanoni) - while 45 singles could only be observed "from a distance" (once, I noticed a single by a group called Traffic, a name that I found to be weird).

At that time, the Doors were mostly known for Light My Fire (as a single, and on the radio). But in Europe the song Light My Fire was not the enormous smash that could launch a career, as it was the case in the States; while the group's later singles did not really register in Italy, at least up to Hello, I Love You, which was followed by Touch Me, Wishful Sinful, Tell All The People, and not very much else. Given this framework, the "Italian" Doors were regarded as being on a par with Donovan and Creedence Clearwater Revival: artists whose popularity went up and down according to the sales of their most recent single.

Magazines "for the young" were still at an embryonic stage, with a heavy "commercial" bent (one of the best groups featured at the time: the Bee Gees in their "Beatles" mode, ten years before the Bros. getting their "Fever"). Funny fact, the only review of Waiting For The Sun (the Doors' third album, featuring their smash hit Hello, I Love You) I happened to read ran in the Italian equivalent to TV Guide, the same happening with the group's next album, The Soft Parade.

(It was on that weekly magazine that I read the first review of Uncle Meat by Frank Zappa - "a true genius" - and the only review ever of The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter by the Incredible String Band.)

Still wearing short pants, I went to live in a town of 400.000, where I suffered my first cultural shock (of many): while the quantity of the music on sale in record shops was really enormous, my "disposable income" was just the same as before. One day I took the plunge, and I bought my first LP ever, the already-mentioned Waiting For The Sun by the Doors.

Though I later bought a few of their singles - Touch Me and Wishful Sinful were released as singles way before the LP on which they also appear - I started buying the Doors on LP. So I bought The Soft Parade, Morrison Hotel, the double live album Absolutely Live, and L.A. Woman. But though I was the proud owner of said five albums, by the time L.A. Woman was released I had never seen, nor listened to, the group's first two albums, about which I knew next to nothing. It's quite possible that they had been on sale in the 400.000 town the year before my arrival, but after only one year I found no trace of either.

Those who were not there at the time will find this quite difficult to believe, but finding a copy of Ziggy Stardust, Morrison Hotel, Aqualung, Beggars Banquet, Abbey Road, and Atom Heart Mother sitting in a record shop for a potential buyer just three years after their original release was not something one could take for granted. Re-orders were - don't ask me why - impossible; unsold items sat in shops forever, their price going up every year.

A friend alerted me to the fact that the Doors' first two albums were on sale, cheap, at the local market; which was quite weird in itself, since at the time the local market was not a place to buy out-of-stock records; maybe a local wholesaler had gone belly-up?

My first listening sessions revealed to me a very "dissonant" truth: the Doors first album sounded "newer" than the second; or, if one prefers, had I been asked to spot the older album, I'd have immediately chosen Strange Days. Quite paradoxically, this, since I knew quite well that Light My Fire appeared on the first album, while People Are Strange was featured on the second.

Quite unconsciously, with the passing of time, I had "learned" a history of sound that made me choose the first album as the one sounding more "current". I could not understand why a group that had recorded a first album that sounded so fresh and "modern" decided to record an album that sounded way "older".

It goes without saying that my (lack of) maturity as a listener - please, let's not talk about the "quality" of my record player - made me unaware of such things as overdubs, backward tapes, number of tracks, and so on; all factors that could have been of help to me when choosing the proper order correctly.

(I was in good company: I remember Mark Knopfler saying how, being unaware of the existence of overdubbing, he tried playing the guitar parts off Jimi Hendrix's first album all at the same time, thinking he had been listening to just one guitar.)

The first Doors album sounds "captivating" to the listener, and even those more "ruminative" moments such as The Crystal Ship and End Of The Night share the "exuberant" quality that appears on Break On Through, Soul Kitchen, and Twentieth Century Fox.

Strange Days presents a recorded sound that's very clear but which is emotionally quite "distant": something which makes even those tracks that should sound "explosive" appear as quite "thoughtful" and "meditative".

It should be universally known today, but isn't, that those who had the chance to listen to the original multi-tracks of the first Doors album have talked about it sounding as if recorded by a "garage band": quite "meh", sounding nothing at all like the Doors first album we all know and love.

It appears that "something" happened. Quite likely, a "valve" treatment, and the addition of more echo, compression, and the like. Which is quite apparent, provided one listens the "right" way, forgetting about such things as "an album recorded live in the studio"; which the group obviously did, but things did not stop there.

It's interesting to notice that Bruce Botnick - the sound engineer who worked on all the Doors' albums, and that after the death of producer Paul Rothchild acts as the de facto narrator of the group's discography - never talks about this in the episode in the Classic Tracks series dedicated to the Doors first album.

Quite strange, this, the mood of Strange Days - recorded in the same studio as the first album, but on a brand-new eight-track tape recorder (the standard of the time still being four-track) - is not as joyous and exuberant as one would expect from a group that just had a smash hit and was touring the States playing in front of large crowds, their image as the "champions of the counterculture" still intact.

The sense of alienation one hears in People Are Strange - a stripped-down ballad, meticulously organized as per the group's style, with a perfect sense of understatement - sounds almost horror-style in the line "Faces come out of the rain"; the sudden apparition of multiple voices at the song's end makes its sinister quality even more apparent.

(Those who like to hear those instances where one's performance clearly shows what separates the men from the boys are invited to listen to the brief "lag" on the part of the drums after the pause following the guitar solo, in order not to crowd the singer's entrance.)

Strange Days (the song) adopts the same strategy as Light My Fire: a Latin rhythm (a rhumba?), featuring the toms, gives way to a high-sounding, marching-style, snare (with a rhythm that old sheet music, in the language of the time, defined as "hard rock"), during those instrumental moments that connect the song verses. But here, after the organ intro, the mood is of a state of tension that comes before one decides to run. Just listen to "As we run from the day/To a strange night of stone": a passage whose tension is anticipated and underlined by the "movement" of the bass drum, which is scarcely audible in the rest of the song.

My story about the album Strange Days doesn't end here, though. As many Italian readers already know, the majority of the Italian releases of that time did not consider the fact of resembling the original version of those albums too seriously, with results that were at times quite repellent - who remembers the girl with the mini-skirt and boots that for Italian people was the cover of Green River by Creedence Clearwater Revival?

My happiness for having found the Doors first two albums made me blind about their appearance. Anyway, at the time I had nothing to compare them to at my disposal. So I was unaware that in their infinite wisdom Vedette Records had decided to use the b&w photo that in the album's original version appears on the album's dust jacket alongside the songs' lyrics as the Italian album's back cover. Of course, the lyrics were nowhere to be found. (The same treatment was reserved to the dust jacket of The Soft Parade, which in its original version featured the songs' lyrics, and four photos.)

I have no idea about what happened to Vedette, and to the Doors back catalogue. The group's final album, L.A. Woman, had a different Italian distributor. It was only after the merger of Warner, Elektra, and Atlantic that the new firm, WEA, started re-releasing part of their catalogue, including those albums by the by-now-forgotten Doors.

Readers can imagine my surprise when, many years after my original purchase, I saw the real back cover of Strange Days for the first time.

The album's front cover presented a very famous image, already copied at least once (just have a look at Family's second album, Entertainment), also featured in the first volume of a series - Album Cover Album - that celebrated the aesthetic of the vinyl LP.

Quite peculiarly, though many words had been printed celebrating the cover of Strange Days, by Joel Brodsky, obviously starting with its "Fellini" mood, I had never seen a single mention of the album's back cover.

Today, one has only to have a look at Wikipedia to know that the narrow alley where the action occurs - which looks wider in the album photo thanks to its being "split" in two parts - is located in New York, and it's called Sniffen Court: a place that was already of historical interest at the time the photo was shot, and still is. From what I can see online, it appears that both white horse sculptures - by Malvina Hoffman, whose atelier was located in Sniffen Court - are still there.

The strange thing is that while with the passing of time everything that was to be said about those characters appearing on the front cover has been talked about at great length, up to and including the second dwarf appearing on the back cover, none of the sources I investigated in the course of a few decades had something to say about the young woman whose ghostly image - the light doesn't resemble that of the other image, and while those "circus" characters appear under what looks like broad daylight, or at sunset, the woman looks like she has been surprised while half-asleep - is for me a perennial source of interest.

Only one of the sources I consulted gives this woman a name: Zazel-Beth Wilde. Is this for real?

I'm quite confident that those who are familiar with records released at the time will notice how the expression and the body movement of the woman on the cover of Strange Days, not to mention the quality of the light, closely resemble the quality of the work that an album designer working under the name Keef later featured on many music albums, starting with an album by Colosseum called Valentyne Suite, and the debut album by Black Sabbath (the Web is quite generous when it comes to news and pictures about Keef's long career).

Let's go back to the cover of Strange Days, and let's observe the woman's posture, as she's caught while descending that small step, still undecided between the curiosity that's been stimulated by the sudden apparition, and the hesitancy of one being in front of the unknown: Strange Days indeed!

Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Mar. 14, 2021