of the Week #14
People Are Strange/Strange Days
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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
Beppe Colli 2021
CloudsandClocks.net | Mar. 14, 2021