In Qualified Praise of Expanded Editions

As I wrote in my December 31, 2018 post listing my favorite reissues of 2018, expanded editions of classic, or even not-so-classic, albums are a growing presence in the record industry. At this point, in fact, it seems like almost every vintage rock act has an expanded edition of some sort in their catalog. At the extreme end of the scale, it can run to huge, and hugely expensive, multi-disc sets, like the recent seven-disc White Album box or, on a more cult level, the seven-disc set box for the Stooges’ Fun House. At the chintizest end, it can mean just one additional marginally different alternate take, or one B-side.

My pick for the #1 reissue of 2018.

The seven-disc expanded edition of The White Album.

While the biggest boxes tend to go to very popular acts, that’s not a hard and fast rule, with many cult artists getting the very extended treatment. Besides the Stooges, for instance, the entire Velvet Underground catalog has been granted expanded editions, some of them running between four and six CDs. Even artists who neither sold that much nor have much left in the vault get spruced-up single CDs, like late-‘60s Elektra groups Clear Light and Eclection. And Skip Spence’s Oar, supposedly one of the lowest-selling major label LPs of the late 1960s, was recently honored with a three-CD edition—perhaps the unlikeliest huge expansion of an album to date, though it’ll no doubt be outpaced by an even more obscure record in the future.

What makes for a really good extended edition? Ideally, it should hit all or at least some of the following bases:

Additional material, whether studio outtakes/B-sides/rare compilation-only tracks/live recordings, that’s of considerable historical interest/value to enhancing appreciation of the core album;

Additional material that, besides being rare in the manner outlined above, is also very good and enjoyable to listen to, even granting that it’s seldom-to-never going to be as good as the core album it’s embellishing;

Thorough excavation of all the reasonably interesting/quality additional material that can be added to the core album, even if it takes several discs to do so;

Top-notch packaging, particularly in the way of detailed historical liner notes, with fine/rare vintage photos, ads, posters, label/sleeve reproductions, and other memorabilia being useful bonuses.

Some expanded editions come close to hitting this grand slam, but none of them really do. That’s not necessarily the fault of the compilers, labels, or artists. Sometimes every damn last thing is included, but the additional material’s just not massively interesting/enjoyable/notable. Sometimes great unreleased tapes known to exist are not legally available for clearance. Sometimes the artists themselves aren’t cooperating with the project.

I’ll look at some of the notable failures of expanded editions to meet their potential in my next post. But the bulk of this post will be devoted to some of my favorites, and why, in different ways, they meet at least some of the goals to which all such retrospectives should aspire. No doubt some of your favorites will be missing. But keep in mind that it’s a list of personal favorites, not one that ticks off how well the set was mastered and assembled and how its importance is judged by the community of music critics and listeners as a whole, regardless of how much I like the music.

As it happens, two of the best expanded editions came out last year, and took the top two positions on my 2018 reissue list. #2, but #1 as far as ideal expanded editions go, was Liz Phair’s Girly Sound to Guyville. Despite the different title, this is essentially an expanded edition of her 1993 album Exile in Guyville, which occupies disc one of this three-CD set.

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But the real attraction of this release—not a box, just a regular CD-sized package with three discs—are the two CDs of the so-called Girly Sound tapes, which Phair recorded on her own on a four-track in her bedroom. These predate the recording of Exile in Guyville, and include not only different versions of seven Exile songs, but more than thirty others, some (but not many) of which she’d redo for post-Exile albums. These come close to meeting all four of the criteria for the ideal deluxe edition:

Considerable historical importance. This is almost as thorough a document as possible of her evolution before her debut album, both with the different versions of Exile songs but also, even more crucially, the many songs that didn’t make it on there or anywhere. (As to why it’s not completely thorough, see two paragraphs down.) And they’re much different sonically than the Exile material, with their solo lightly-amplified-guitar-and-voice intimacy (though Exile wasn’t gaudy or over-produced).

Extremely high-quality, enjoyable bonus material. I’m not putting detailed reviews of the music for the albums I discuss in this post, and you can read about that aspect of Girly Sound to Guyville in my extensive rundown of the record on my best-of list. But the two discs of home tapes have both very good, sometimes great, songs and good performances, in considerably better sound quality than their bootlegged versions. They are discs I’ve listened to over and over, which is rare for tracks augmenting the core classic album.

Almost everything known to exist was included. Here’s a prime example of how two items are missing, but not through the fault of the artist. Two songs from the Girly Sound tapes, “Fuck or Die” and “Shatter,” that have circulated unofficially are not included. That’s because they incorporate some lyrics from Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” and the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered,” and couldn’t be cleared for official consumption.

Good packaging and annotation. The fairly fat booklet features extensive interview material with Phair, Exile in Guyville producer/bassist/drummer Brad Wood, Casey Rice (who also plays on Exile in Guyville), and some more obscure figures who helped build awareness of Phair’s work. However, in part because it’s not LP-sized, graphically the booklet’s not as impressive as most expanded edition notes are, with virtually nothing in the way of illustrations. If it’s a choice between good notes/documentation and fluffy/minimal notes filled out with big photos, however, I’ll take the non-augmented notes every time.

To be honest, this really could have been a two-CD set with just Girly Sound material. Almost anyone who gets this already has Exile in Guyville. The conundrum is, though, that if it just had the Girly Sound stuff, it wouldn’t be an expanded edition, and maybe the participants wouldn’t have been as motivated to produce liner notes that were as thorough. The third disc probably didn’t up the price up too much; the CD set was selling for a pretty reasonable $20-25 when it came out, though I wonder if it’s already gone out of print, since it’s already not easy to find new online.

#1 on my 2018 reissue list — but not quite as impressive as Girly Sound to Guyville viewed purely from how it fulfills an extended edition’s mission — was the seven-disc box of the Beatles’ White Album. Three of the seven discs didn’t interest me much — two of them were of a new (and hyped) mix of The White Album itself, and the third a Blu-ray with mono and 5.1 versions. But four were largely comprised of unreleased material, three of them devoted to 1968 studio outtakes (almost all of which hadn’t even been previously bootlegged), and the fourth to demos the group recorded at George Harrison’s house shortly before the White Album sessions started.

More than anything else, that disc of demos—the so-called Esher demos, in honor of the name of Harrison’s home—is what puts this in the top echelon of expanded editions. I’ve written about them at length in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, and you can read that section here. But for now, it’s sufficient to note that they’re the most important body of unreleased Beatles material, the 27 acoustic-oriented tracks showing them in an unplugged, loose, and friendly frame of mind. Crucially, it’s also a disc you can play over and over for sheer enjoyment—as I did when most of the demos got bootlegged back in the early 1990s. Now they’re in appreciably better sound quality, and available for all the world to hear, not just us clued-in cats who seek unofficially circulating recordings.

The three discs of studio outtakes have enormous historical value, but aren’t, with maybe a few scattered exceptions, things you’d want to play as often or repeatedly. And it’s not a thorough presentation of everything known to exist—there are so many multiple takes of White Album songs that you’d probably need a car trunk to hold them all on compact disc. (Maybe those will be made available to the public on the 100th anniversary of The White Album, though none of us will be around to hear them at that point.)

There’s also a 164-page hardback book that, a little surprisingly considered how much has already been written about the Beatles, is very good; has a lot of information, intelligently relayed; and has plenty of interesting graphics.

The Beatles were at an advantage when devising a box like this, of course, because they had such a big well of interesting unreleased material from the White Album era to draw upon. That wasn’t the case when they put out the only other deluxe edition produced for a Beatles album, the Sgt. Pepper box, where the outtakes weren’t nearly as numerous or interesting (or as variant from the official versions, as the ones for the White Album sometimes were). Another icon of the era, however, had an even bigger reservoir of unissued material to tap for the next deluxe I’ll cite.

It’s arguable whether Bob Dylan & the Band’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete is even an expanded edition. None of it, after all, came out on a “proper” album, if you take that to mean an album released relatively soon after it was recorded. Even the 1975 official compilation of Basement Tapes—issued a good eight years after the tapes were actually taped—isn’t quite the core of this six-CD set. The 1975 Basement Tapes, for one thing, had eight Dylan-less Band songs not on the box, and five of the songs on the 1975 double LP were given overdubs for that release.

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I think it’s safe to guess that these distinctions don’t matter too much to most—maybe even almost every—listener who’s interested in The Basement Tapes. They’ll probably consider The Basement Tapes Complete to be an expanded edition of whatever they have, whether it’s the 1975 double album or the five-CD Genuine Basement Tapes bootleg series. If you’re not disqualifying it, again it scores high in the key categories:

Vast historical interest, as it’s among the most mysterious periods of any major artist’s career, and a rare example of a star recording shed-loads of material during his prime, but not releasing any of it at the time;

A thorough exhumation of the available goods. A few very lo-fi tracks were left off, but it still included a whopping 138, some of which had never even been bootlegged. And the lowest-fi of the tracks were thoughtfully grouped together on one disc. It’s true that the 18-disc collector’s edition of Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 outdid this by including every damned last surviving studio take, a disc of hotel room tapes, and MP3 downloads of all his surviving 1965 live performances. That’s not included in this list because it’s not an expanded edition of a particular album, although it’s extensive enough to deserve this honorable mention.

Listenability. To the chagrin of some, I’m not such a huge Bob Dylan fan. And this six-CD anthology of Basement Tapes, I think even Dylan obsessives would admit, is uneven, with a big gap between the best of the material (much of which was chosen for the 1975 double LP) and the numbers that were obviously throwaways or goofs. But it’s pretty listenable overall, if not as compellingly so from start-to-finish as the Girlysound tapes or the Esher demos. You’re likely to listen to this at least a few times all the way through if you buy this in the first place, and some Dylan fanatics will listen to it many times without tiring.

Packaging: a hardback 42-page book of liner notes that, if not as huge as the one with The White Album (or for that matter the books/liner notes that the Bear Family label often includes in its box sets), are very informative. That’s complemented by a 122-page book of vintage photos and memorabilia, much of it quite rare.

While these are the three expanded editions that stand out to me as the class of the field, I’m also citing a few others I like a lot, even if they don’t touch as many bases:

The Moody Blues’ first album, The Magnificent Moodies (in the UK; as usual for those days, in the US, their first LP was similar but somewhat different), was “expanded” into a two-CD job by Esoteric. Basically, it was an excuse to not just add to, or double, the length of the original, but to quadruple it. The Magnificent Moodies was hardly a magnificent album, though it was pretty good as second-line British Invasion LPs went. However, in the era when Denny Laine was their lead singer and (with keyboardist Mike Pinder) writer of their original material, they did a lot of non-LP singles. Some of those were quite good, and all are essential to a fuller version of their pre-psychedelic/prog era, when their forte was haunting R&B/pop.

MOODY BLUES Magnificent

The first disc of this modest regular CD-sized package has The Magnificent Moodies and all of their non-LP sides, even adding a rare French EP cut and an early unreleased version of their big hit “Go Now.” The second disc is more in the “good to have” category than the “spin over and over” one, with lots—about thirty, in fact—outtakes and radio sessions, not to mention a Coke commercial.

But it’s a nearly 60-track overview that’s so extensive it would have been unimaginable when it was a struggle just to get all of the Moody Blues’ pre-1967 output in one place. Lots of small-print info and graphics are in the 24-page booklet, and a foldout of press clippings and postcard/ticket-type thingies are thrown in. It’s an example of how to do the best job possible without the big budget and size of a deluxe box. Some would argue that it should also include their two other non-LP singles predating Days of Future Passed (after Laine left), but then those are on—you guessed it—the two-CD expanded Days of Future Passed.

While I don’t want this to turn into a commercial for Esoteric, the same label also huffed and puffed up the self-titled debut album by the Move into an unimaginable size, without sacrificing quality. The thirteen songs of the actual LP comprise a relatively minor part, percentage-wise, of this three-CD, 65-track set. There are also both sides of their first two singles (both big hits in the UK); outtakes; demos and a local Birmingham radio session from January 1966, a good year or so before their first record came out; and an entire disc of January 1967-January 1968 BBC sessions, including a bunch of covers they didn’t put on their studio releases.

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Yes, disc two is dominated by the kind of stereo mixes I find relatively inessential. But again, an info-packed booklet and foldout of press clippings gets the most out of the regular CD-sized format. Esoteric did a similarly bang-up job on a lot of other parts of the Move catalog, by the way; the two-CD Shazam adds about three dozen bonus tracks to an LP that only has six songs (albeit some of which are pretty long). Ditto for Procol Harum’s first album, whose ten tracks are the prelude to 27 bonus ones, even if a few of those are peripheral stereo mixes. We do get into quantity over quality in some respects with these Esoteric editions, but the best extras on all of these are things you want to play, and sometimes play a lot.

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I’m not as big a fan of Nico’s solo stuff as I am of the early work by the Moody Blues, Move, and Procol Harum. But I like how the two-CD The Frozen Borderline compilation basically puts two substantially expanded editions together. Disc one features her 1968 album The Marble Index, with outtakes, alternates, and demos; disc two features her 1970 album Desertshore with a half dozen demos.

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These are close enough in release dates to basically be an overview of her prime as a songwriter (remember she wrote little on her very worthwhile 1967 debut Chelsea Girl), with both albums bearing a heavy influence from John Cale, as both an arranger and instrumentalist. It’s true the Desertshore demos tend to confirm just how important Cale was because they sound so bare compared to how they’d develop after he worked with the material. But that in itself is of pretty vast historical importance, if you’re a Velvet Underground fanatic at any rate.

The LPs came out on different labels (Elektra and Reprise), which often complicates things in the reissue business. But luckily those labels are now administered by the same company, which removes the obstacles from packaging these in tandem. The liners aren’t as imposing as the others on this list, but get the job done with lots of info and first-hand quotes from Cale and others.

How could it have been better? They could have also added material from her BBC broadcasts on John Peel’s program in early 1971, though most people who want The Frozen Borderline would already have those on her Peel Sessions EP, issued almost twenty years before The Frozen Borderline. Much less forgivably, two alternate versions that appear as bonus tracks on the much slimmer 1991 expanded edition of The Marble Index are not on The Frozen Borderline. It’s almost as though they feared making the set a total success.

One of the best expanded editions was of a soundtrack LP, rather than a conventional album statement by one artist. The 2003 two-CD deluxe edition of The Harder They Come pulled off the difficult feat of making a classic album better by more than doubling its length with a second disc of eighteen reggae classics from 1968-1973.

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In a refreshing counterpoint to the elitism that sometimes governs the selection of such compilations, it included not only additional tracks by artists featured on the original soundtrack (the Maytals, the Melodians), but also some of the first crossover hits to popularize reggae in the US and UK (Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” Dave & Ansel Collins’ “Double Barrel”). Although Johnny Nash is sometimes derided as an exploiter/mere popularizer of Bob Marley songs, it also includes his big hit “I Can See Clearly Now,” along with his Marley cover “Guava Jelly.” There’s also Eric Donaldson’s original version of “Cherry Oh Baby,” covered by the Rolling Stones on their Black and Blue album.

Yes, the compilers of this edition had an advantage over most expandeds in being able to pick choice gems from the entire pool of the era’s reggae music, rather than cull leftovers surrounding a core album by one artist. But it’s done very well, also included decent if not huge liner notes.

This was also done, incidentally, for the Easy Rider soundtrack, whose two-CD edition almost triples the length of the original LP release, adding nineteen other late-’60s rock classics (including the Band’s original version of “The Weight, ” which is heard in the film, but couldn’t be used on the original soundtrack LP for contractual reasons). But although it’s a good listen, it really isn’t connected with the film, which itself wasn’t connected with a certain musical style, as The Harder They Come was with reggae.

To round out the releases given qualified praise here to an even ten or so, how about a “shout-out,” as the 21st century terminology demands, to expanded editions that include DVDs/Blu-R=rays as well as music CDs. That’s becoming more common as time goes on, and though it’s usually secondary to the musical portion, there are some real goodies.

Just a few months ago, the expanded edition of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland also had a DVD documentary about the making of the album (in addition to three CDs, one of them comprised of outtakes/demos, the other of a live 1968 concert at Hollywood Bowl). That documentary was issued a long time ago as part of the Classic Albums series, but the opportunity was taken to add almost forty minutes of extra material. So there you have an occasion where “bonus” material’s added not just to the music, but also to the visuals.

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I like how Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water made the second disc a DVD featuring their 1969 TV special Songs of America, which is very interesting; had not been too easy to view; and was quite controversial at the time, mixing music with footage of contentious late-‘60s social turmoil. There’s also a documentary about the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water on the DVD disc.

Too bad, then, that no extra musical tracks are added to the actual album, when there are certainly some other studio and live recordings from the time that were eligible. In fact, a couple were even included when the album was part of the box set The Columbia Studio Recordings 1964-1970. But when it comes to extended editions, you not only can’t have everything—you never have everything.

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But if even some of the best expanded editions have imperfections, some imperfections are more imperfect, and even annoying, than others. My next post discusses what not to do with expanded editions—even though such things are done all too often.

The Doors Are Open

I’ll be teaching a course on the Doors for the first time at the end of this month, and spent a lot of time preparing the material over the last few months. I’ve been a big Doors fan for more than forty years, but of course as I got my class together, I’ve thought a lot more about the group recently than I have for a while.

There’s been an enormous amount written about the Doors. It’s hard to believe there was a time, before the best-selling Jim Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive came out in 1980, that there was no substantial book about them. Still, there are a few aspects of their work that aren’t discussed much. I’ll be going over a half dozen of them here.

1. The bass player(s). Even many casual rock fans know the Doors were unusual in not, with few exceptions, using a bass player onstage. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek is particularly noted for playing the bass parts on a Fender Rhodes Piano bass, simultaneously playing the upper register melodies on a Vox Continental organ.

Doug Lubahn's book about the Doors, which includes a section specifically detailing his bass lines on the Doors tracks on which he played.

Doug Lubahn’s book about the Doors, which includes a section specifically detailing his bass lines on the Doors tracks on which he played.

It’s not so well known that the Doors usually used an electric bassist on their recordings, though except for the first album (on which Wrecking Crew stalwart Larry Knechtel played on a few tracks), they were properly credited on the original LPs. Doug Lubahn, who plays on most or some of Strange Days, Waiting for the Sun, and The Soft Parade, handled the instrument more than anyone else. But they used a few others too, including Harvey Brooks on The Soft Parade (who’d played in the Electric Flag and on some of Bob Dylan’s mid-’60s sessions); Jerry Scheff on L.A. Woman (most noted for playing in Elvis Presley’s band); Lonnie Mack (on Morrison Hotel);, and, least famously, Ray Neopolitan, who plays on most of Morrison Hotel, though not much else is known about him.

If the quartet lineup—really a trio, instrumentally, Jim Morrison rarely playing anything—worked so well in concert, why was it almost always altered in the studio? There’s a pretty big difference between hearing something live and on a record, and they, producer Paul Rothchild, and Elektra Records were likely conscious that some more depth and oomph were needed. And the session bassists worked pretty well, whether playing on their own or kind of doubling/reinforcing Manzarek’s lines. Here are just a few of the memorable bass lines on Doors records:

That part near the end of “Take It As It Comes” where all the instruments dramatically drop out except bass and drums (Knechtel);

The opening riff of “You’re Lost Little Girl” (Lubahn);

The opening riff of “My Eyes Have Seen You” (Lubahn);

The part right before the final, shouted verse of “The Unknown Soldier,” introducing by a single declarative, loopy bass note (Kerry Magness, of the group Bodine, who only played on this one Doors track);

The fuzz bass on “Five to One” (Lubahn);

The throbbing bottom on the opening instrumental section to “L.A. Woman” (Scheff);

The ominous line underpinning the intro to “Riders on the Storm” (Scheff).

Jerry Scheff's autobiography, which has just a little on his work with the Doors.

Jerry Scheff’s autobiography, which has just a little on his work with the Doors.

There are plenty of others. In fact, most of the tracks on Doors albums have a session bassist except for the self-titled debut, and even that has Knechtel playing on four of the eleven songs.

I’d go as far as to say it would have been a good idea for the Doors to have a full-time bass player, though it’s been reported that when they were first getting their sound together, they tried a few bassists and found the sound too full. Doug Lubahn would have been the best candidate, as he fit in with them well and was already recording for Elektra as part of the Rothchild-produced group Clear Light.

In fact, in his obscure memoir My Days with the Doors and Other Stories, Lubahn says Rothchild asked Doug if he’d consider joining the Doors as a full fifth partner in 1967. Lubahn, apparently without regret, turned him down as he wanted to stay in Clear Light, who ended up doing just one LP before splitting. Lubahn does acknowledge that when he brought up the subject with Rothchild twenty years later, the producer denied it ever happened.

Whatever took place, the Doors’ records sound great — in part because they used session bassists. Which leads to the next point:

2. The Doors were better in the studio than they were in concert. That’s nothing to be ashamed of — many and perhaps most bands sound better on their finished studio product than they do on live tapes. And at their best, the Doors were pretty good live. I do think the gap between their live and studio sound is bigger than it is for the usual top act, in part because they used bass players on their records. And the dynamic range and sonic balance of Doors records is usually pretty phenomenal, with engineer (and, on L.A. Woman, co-producer with the other Doors) Bruce Botnick deserving credit as well as Rothchild. Of course like countless acts they were sometimes able to use overdubs and effects that weren’t possible onstage, like Ray Manzarek’s use of the Marxophone on “Alabama Song,” his weaving of both organ and piano parts on “The Crystal Ship,” and the rain and thunder on “Riders on the Storm.”

That lets them off pretty easy, but there are some less flattering issues that can be brought up as well. For me at least, their live recordings—and I’m too young to have seen them in concert, so I’m going from the many official and unofficial taped shows in circulation—sometimes suffered in a few crucial respects:

Frequent insertions of dissonant poetry/music pieces, sometimes as medleys with actual songs with which they didn’t jibe too well. I’m not a big fan of the legendary “The Celebration of the Lizard” epic, but obviously it meant a lot to the Doors, or at least to Morrison, as they often performed small-to-big chunks of it. Sometimes the juxtaposition of a grating poem to a classic tune would be jarring, like when they preceded “Light My Fire” with that screeching “Wake up! Run to the mirror in the bathroom look” section. The medley of “Texas Radio & The Big Beat” and “Love Me Two Times” wasn’t as displeasing, but nor was it entirely logical.

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A sense that they weren’t taking themselves too seriously. This comes through much more strongly on their 1969-70 tapes than the pre-1969 ones (which are much fewer in number, especially if you want decent fidelity). You don’t have to hear specialized archive releases or bootlegs to find this; it characterizes much of the official 1970 double LP Absolutely Live, where there’s sometimes a looseness that verges on sloppiness, and a jovial tone at odds with the serious poetic lyrics. Lester Bangs pointed this out back in 1976 in his chapter on the Doors in the first edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll: “Morrison was by turns painfully and wryly aware of his own absurdity, and you can hear his humor in the between-song banter (“Dead cat in a top hat…thinks he’s an aristocrat…That’s crap”) on [the intro to “Break on Through”] on Absolutely Live.”

That’s why I think their tapes of shows at San Francisco’s Matrix tapes in March 1967 (two CDs of which have been officially issued) are easily their best live recordings, despite not-quite-optimum fidelity. “Light My Fire” was still three months away from becoming a hit, and they’re not yet jaded. They’re still hungry, and play things pretty straight. Even their second-best set of live recordings—two shows in Stockholm in September 1968, which have yet to see official release (possibly because of somewhat imperfect sound)—are more earnest and straightahead, without the toying with their own compositions you hear on the many official CDs of 1969 and 1970 concerts.

One of several posthumous archival CDs of 1970 Doors concerts.

One of several posthumous archival CDs of 1970 Doors concerts.

Mediocre blues/R&B/early rock’n’roll covers. The Doors did a lot of non-originals live that they didn’t put on their studio LPs. Which brings us to the next point:

3. The Doors were not particularly good at blues/R&B/soul. There were only three covers on Doors albums, all of which worked fairly well in their own way: Weill-Brecht’s “Alabama Song” and two blues classics, “Back Door Man” (written by Willie Dixon and originally recorded by Howlin’ Wolf) and John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake.” (With Ray Manzarek on vocals, they also put a little-commented-upon version of Dixon’s “(You Need Meat) Don’t Go No Further,” first recorded by Muddy Waters, on a B-side.) They did a lot more in concert, as was hinted at by 1970 even if you didn’t go to Doors shows, since they put a couple on Absolutely Live.

Archival releases and bootlegs have unleashed a lot more into circulation, including but not limited to “Money,” B.B. King’s “Rock Me,” Lee Dorsey’s “Get Out of My Life, Woman,” “Mystery Train,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee,” Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” and “Little Red Rooster.” Back on the first live tape that survives (from May 1966 at the London Fog, recently excavated and released), they even do “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” Little Richard’s “Lucille,” and Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Fight It.”

May 1966 tapes of the Doors at the London Fog were recently discovered and officially released.

May 1966 tapes of the Doors at the London Fog were recently discovered and officially released.

I’m of two minds about the availability of all this surplus. On the one hand, you want live/archive releases/bootlegs to have material you can’t hear in an act’s common discography. The Doors have plenty of that, including not only the ones listed in the preceding paragraph, but also occasional non-blues covers like an extended instrumental version of “Summertime,” as well as some originals (usually half-baked-sounding) that didn’t make it onto their standard releases.

On the other, they just weren’t that good at these blues/R&B/soul/early rock’n’roll classics. Not nearly as good as, say, the Rolling Stones, one of their chief early inspirations, or some of the other best blues-oriented British Invasion bands, like Them, the Animals, and the Yardbirds. Or the Beatles, who weren’t nearly as blues/R&B-oriented, but did some great covers of songs in that style, “Money” being merely one of the most famous examples.

Some other great groups, it should be stated, weren’t great blues/R&B interpreters, like the Who. Just because you aren’t great at that one thing doesn’t mean you’re not great. But the Doors, unlike some other top bands, weren’t great at both covers and their own songs.

The Doors genuinely loved this music. But their interpretations were relatively perfunctory, sloppy, and unimaginative, often verging on the sluggish. Morrison tended to give in to some of his worst vocal mannerisms on these, such as affected yelps and macho growls and screams. It doesn’t bother me too much, but the live Matrix 1967 version of “Crawling King Snake,” predating its release on L.A. Woman by about four years, has some of the most abominable harmonica playing (presumably by Morrison) you’ll hear anywhere, though it fades away after the instrumental introduction.

There was just one R&B cover on their live recordings that was really good, despite their numerous attempts. The Matrix 1967 arrangement of “Who Do You Love” is lean, taut, and not too much like the Bo Diddley original. Compared to his usual blues interpretations, Morrison’s singing is effectively restrained; Robby Krieger’s slide guitar is superb; and the way the organ, drums, and guitars crash together and accelerate at the end is great. But it’s an exception that proves a general rule, in my view.

Official two-CD release of Doors tapes from March 1967 at the Matrix.

Official two-CD release of Doors tapes from March 1967 at the Matrix.

Had the Doors tried to make it as a straight blues/R&B band—or even, like some of their British Invasion heroes, a blues/R&B-oriented rock band—they never would have made it. The predominance of such material in their early sets was probably demanded/expected when they were unknowns who needed to play at least some familiar, danceable songs to club audiences. Their undistinguished efforts in this regard seem to have caused some other bands to dismiss them as hopeless no-contenders, and even make Rothchild and Elektra president Jac Holzman wary of getting involved with the Doors until they heard their far more impressive original material. Of which there was a lot, leading to the next point:

4. Were there any other top bands whose debut album was so clearly their best? I can’t think of any. The Doors were both blessed and cursed by their early productivity. Blessed because when they creamed off the best for The Doors, they had not just arguably the best debut album of all time, but one of the best albums of all time. Cursed because they couldn’t match that debut, even though they had a lot of fine music left.

Even for great groups that start off with a great album, usually that doesn’t happen. They don’t use up their best material; they write new material that’s good or even better, and stretches into new directions. That happened with the Beatles after Please Please Me, and the Who after My Generation. It happened with the Rolling Stones after their self-titled debut, though in part that’s because Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who’d barely written anything by the time of their first album, quickly matured into a great songwriting team.

The Doors, unusually, seem to have written two to three albums’ worth of songs by the time their first LP was released. It’s only become apparent with the passage of time, and the availability of numerous archive releases, how many of their post-debut album compositions were actually written way before the sessions for their second LP (Strange Days, released September 1967). Seven of the ten songs from that record had been performed onstage by March 1967 at the latest, as half a dozen are on the Matrix tapes.

When I got this bootleg of March 1967 Matrix tapes as an 18-year-old in 1980, I was fascinated to hear early performances of numerous songs the Doors had yet to record in their famous studio versions.

When I got this bootleg of March 1967 Matrix tapes as an 18-year-old in 1980, I was fascinated to hear early performances of numerous songs the Doors had yet to record in their famous studio versions.

(As an aside, those tapes are a reminder of the days when acts would perform quality original material in concert that hadn’t yet been released on their official albums. That would be uncommon in subsequent decades, in part because of fears, whether overblown or legitimate, that the songs would be bootlegged/broadcast/circulated before their proper unveiling on commercial discs. As an unfortunate consequence, many live performances haven’t been as interesting as they could have been had artists used them to introduce/refine new material.)

It’s known that some of the as-yet-unreleased songs on the Matrix tapes had been written and performed for quite some time. “Moonlight Drive,” the song Jim Morrison sang to Ray Manzarek on Venice Beach when they decided to form a band in summer 1965, was on their batch of half a dozen September 2, 1965 demos (and also recorded in an early version on an outtake from The Doors), as was “My Eyes Have Seen You.” “Strange Days,” to the surprise of even avid Doors fanatics like myself, is on the May 1966 London Fog tape that was released a couple years ago.

So when it came to the Strange Days album, you had a group of songs that were strong, but not quite as strong overall as those that had already been selected for The Doors. Whether because of Jim Morrison’s increasingly erratic behavior/indulgences and/or other reasons, they found it hard to maintain their quantity and the consistency of their quality, and kept dipping back into their early pool of songs when the well was sinking. On their third album (Waiting for the Sun), they plucked a couple other numbers from their September 1965 demo, “Summer’s Almost Gone” (also performed at the Matrix in March 1967) and “Hello I Love You.”

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Even as late as Morrison Hotel, they retrieved “Indian Summer,” which like “Moonlight Drive” had been cut in a different version as an outtake for The Doors. Another big surprise from the May 1966 London Fog tape was an early live version of “You Make Me Real,” which took almost four years to appear on Morrison Hotel. Even on L.A. Woman, “Cars Hiss By My Window” has been reported to have been worked up from lyrics dating back to notebooks Morrison kept in Venice Beach in the mid-’60s.

Of course, many and maybe most rock artists sometimes reach back into their past, sometimes way back. The Beatles revived one of the earliest Lennon-McCartney compositions, “One After 909” (which they’d recorded but not released back in early 1963), in January 1969 for the Get Back sessions/Let It Be album. They took another song they’d considered recording, but not released, back in early 1963, “What Goes On,” when they needed to fill out Rubber Soul two and a half years later. The Beach Boys reworked “Thinkin’ About You Baby,” which Brian Wilson and Mike Love had penned for singer Sharon Marie back in 1964, into “Darlin’” in late 1967, and got a pretty big hit with it. There are numerous other examples.

But there aren’t many other examples of a band of comparable significance to the Doors using so much material that couldn’t fit onto their first album. They had enough, indeed, to make The Doors a double LP. But it wouldn’t have had the relentless knockout punch of the single disc, and double LPs in rock were rare back in late 1966, let alone double LPs that were also debuts (the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out being a very notable and unusual exception).

Does that mean that the Doors’ career was a disappointment after their first album, and that none of their subsequent songs were on the level of the best from that LP? Of course not. But their trajectory was not one of explosive artistic growth through a sustained peak. It might have contributed to a sense of letdown that led some critics, like Lester Bangs, to view the band, kind of unfairly, as having slid into less relevance/hipness. Or at least find, as Lillian Roxon wrote in the late ‘60s her entry on the Doors in her Rock Encyclopedia (the first serious rock reference book), that “the second album was a repeat, a lesser repeat, of the first.”

The best of their final album with Morrison, L.A. Woman, indicates they just possibly might have been able to recharge themselves with both exciting fresh material and an interesting exploration of new directions had their lead singer lived. Which leads to the speculation:

5. What would the Doors have done if Morrison hadn’t died? Or at least lived long enough to be on one more album?

 It’s an impossible question to answer, of course. Even if he’d lived, it’s possible he would not have recorded with the Doors again. Maybe he would have stayed in Paris and never returned to the US, in part to avoid a prison sentence he was appealing for profanity and public exposure at a March 1969 concert in Miami, though the other Doors could have recorded with him in France. There’s also speculation that he was tired of music and pop stardom, and wanted to discontinue his musical career in favor of writing poetry/prose and perhaps working in film—again impossible to prove or disprove.

Here are the negatives of how the next Doors album might have sounded had Morrison been involved:

There’s reason to believe his voice was sharply deteriorating. His alcohol intake and general substance abuse gets the most attention when his excesses are documented. But he was also a heavy smoker, and this might have been taking its physical toll, even though he was at 27 still pretty young. You can hear a gruff tone on some of the L.A. Woman cuts—like “Been Down So Long,” “The Changeling,” and “L.A. Woman” itself—that’s coarser than anything he’d previously cut, though it works well for this material. His smoking, and an associated hacking cough, were apparently getting even worse in his last few days in Paris. How long would it have been before he lost some of his vocal range and depth?

L.A. Woman was tilted more towards straight blues than previous Doors records. That’s especially true of “Been Down So Long,” “Cars Hiss By My Window,” and the John Lee Hooker cover “Crawling King Snake.” But it also comes through to some extent on “The Changeling,” “L.A. Woman,” and “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat).” Again, this works well within the context of the LP, since there was variety and contrast with classic, more characteristically Doorsian songs that weren’t straight blues (“Love Her Madly” and “Riders on the Storm”), and since even “L.A. Woman” and “The Changeling” were bluesy without having standard, predictable blues structures and melodies.

Excerpts from the L.A. Woman sessions are featured on this disc.

Excerpts from the L.A. Woman sessions are featured on this disc.

However, there’s reason to believe Morrison might have wanted to drift into straight blues that would have made the Doors less interesting or even pedestrian. Predicted drummer John Densmore in his memoir Riders on the Storm, “He would just want to play the blues, the slow, soulful, monotonous blues, which is great for a singer like him, but boring for a drummer like me.” And possibly boring for listeners, especially if it’s delivered in a croaky voice.

But there are a couple positives to this speculation too:

Although some L.A. Woman tracks seem to show some wear on Morrison’s voice, on other tracks, he crooned as well as ever. In particular, his vocals on “Riders on the Storm” are as clear and haunting as anything he sang. And that was the last song he recorded with the Doors, so it wasn’t as if his voice went into decline after the L.A. Woman sessions started. Would he have still been able to summon these kind of performances on another Doors LP?

And although some feel Jim was through with pop music and wanted to stay in Paris to write, an indication that he might have felt otherwise also comes from John Densmore’s memoir. Shortly before his death, Morrison called Densmore from Paris to see how L.A. Woman was doing; expressed some enthusiasm for doing another one; and said he’d be back in just a few months. According to the Morrison bio No One Here Gets Out Alive, Morrison told Densmore that if critics liked L.A. Woman, “wait’ll they hear what I got in mind for the next one.”

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Does that mean Morrison had already written some songs we never got to hear? Or at least that he’d sketched out some lyrics or ideas? It should be noted that Densmore at least was dubious they’d be as good, writing, “I saw us spending the rest of our lives in dumpy clubs and in grumpy recording sessions.”

My own feeling, to be honest, is somewhat in line with Densmore’s. The material, I’d guess, would have gotten bluesier, but also less interesting and inspired, possibly even monotonous and burned-out sounding. And it would have been diminished by Morrison’s problematic vocals and general downward physical and mental spiral. But it certainly had a chance of being better than the pair of utterly unmemorable albums the Doors did record without him.

Did Morrison possibly have in mind material that might comment on his dire personal situation (particularly the threat of a prison sentence), and push the limits of what was considered acceptable in pop music, particularly via controversial lyrics? We don’t know that either. But it’s interesting to consider, even without taking into account his numerous brushes with the law stemming from his anti-authoritarian behavior onstage and offstage:

6. How often the Doors ran into obstacles with presenting their original lyrics. Instances in which the Doors were censored or somewhat self-censored might seem tame now that far more provocative and profane lyrics are more common in rock and rap. Still, there were a number of interesting cases in which their words were changed for their recorded versions, starting with the opening track of their first album.

The middle section of “Break on Through” was supposed to feature Morrison repeatedly singing “she gets high,” and that’s how it was recorded. Instead, on the original LP (and single), we heard “she gets, she gets, she gets, she gets” before he goes into an extended wordless wail. That always intrigued me, even as a fifteen-year-old back in the late 1970s. She gets what? I certainly wasn’t guessing “she gets high.”

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The Doors continued to sing “she gets high” in live performances, such as the one on 1970’s Absolutely Live and even back at the Matrix in March 1967. And the original uncensored studio version was reinstated on CD reissues. In fact, now it’s hard to find the censored “she gets” one, although that was the only one available when it first came out, and for many years after that.

Even as someone who advocates free expression, my own feeling might disappoint the Doors and many of their fans. I think the censored “she gets” (no “high”) version is better. The rhythm of the shorter phrase fits better into that section. But also, it’s more interesting to leave the third word to your imagination. Everybody loves his baby because she gets money? She gets sex? She gets “it,” whatever it is? She gets “high” might have been considered hip and daring in 1967 for its drug reference, but it’s frankly kind of a cheap letdown now. She smokes pot, or even does harder drugs. So what? Does that even make her cool? And was it really that unusual, at a time when so many people were getting high?

The Doors’ first album ended with “The End.” Famously and infamously, the middle section was a reenactment of the Oedipus myth. It got the Doors fired from their Whisky A Go Go gig when Morrison sang explicit lyrics about having sex with his mother. There was no way that was going into the recorded version when the Doors cut the LP, not in late 1966, and maybe not even today for most acts. Jim did chant the f-word during the instrumental break, and while that was buried on the original release, again CDs reinstate this. Or kind of reinstate it, since it’s still kind of submerged, if audible. My take is that it doesn’t notably add or detract from the track’s ultimate effect. If you want to hear the untampered “fuck the mother, kill the father” line, that’s on the Matrix tapes.

Leading off side two of The Doors was their cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man,” written by Willie Dixon. Live, they at least sometimes altered the lyrics to insert the following verse, which is not found in either Howlin’ Wolf’s original or the Doors’ studio version: “I’ve got the right to love you, I’ve got the right to hug you, I got the right to kiss you, I’ve got the right to misuse you.” You can hear that on their Matrix tapes.

As there’s no Doors recording of “Back Door Man” predating the Matrix tapes, it’s not known whether they were already doing those words onstage when they recorded their first album. If they were, it’s not known whether it was their decision not to use those words in the studio, or if there might have been pressure from Elektra. It can’t even be discounted that had these words already been part of the Doors’ arrangement, they might have been cut simply for space considerations, as the additional verse would have made the song considerably longer than the three and a half minutes it occupied on the first LP. Whatever the situation, here’s one case where the omission of that pretty offensive line “I’ve got the right to misuse you” was a good thing.

Another jolting lyrical change to another song they covered on their first album can be heard on the Matrix Tapes. A key line of Weill-Brecht’s “Alabama Song” is “show me the way to the next little girl.” At the Matrix, that line was sung as “show me the way to the next little boy.” That wasn’t going to fly on a 1967 record, Elektra or not.

Another infrequently  noted example of censorship, or maybe self-censorship, was “Five to One,” the final track on their third album, Waiting for the Sun. That’s because there’s just the one version, which doesn’t contain profanity. In concert, however—as numerous live tapes evidence—Morrison consistently concluded the spoken section near the end about getting in a car to go out with some people with a declared intention to “get fucked up,” those words being drawled in a drawn-out manner for emphasis. It’s an odd, interesting detour in a song largely devoted to revolutionary exhortation, but the Doors were good at mixing somewhat contrasting narratives into the same song. Yet there’s no way Elektra Records, even as one of the hippest and most progressive labels of the ‘60s, was going to allow the f-word on an album in 1968, by their most commercial act or probably anyone else.

There are two different versions of “Touch Me” that owe nothing to the words Jim Morrison sings of the principal tunes (actually written by Robby Krieger, the sole composer credited). At the very end of the track, there’s a memorable four-note staccato brass riff. That’s all you hear on the original single.

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But on the mix the band intended—and again, it’s the one that has become standard on CD—you hear low vocals grunt-sing “stronger than dirt.” That was a playful quote of a jingle, if that’s the right word, in a widely broadcast commercial of the time for Ajax, where voices chant-sang the same phrase in much the same way. Maybe it was removed from the single to avoid any objections, legal or otherwise, from Ajax.

I might sound like a fuddy-dud here, but I think the “stronger than dirt” interjection is rather silly and juvenile. And dated. Lots of people would have gotten the joke, i.e. reference to the Ajax commercial, back in the late 1960s. Not a whole lot of people born after 1960 get it now, and even those who saw the commercial back then might have forgotten about it. People haven’t forgotten about the Doors, and that “stronger than dirt” reference is there forever, though it’s so brief it doesn’t seriously blight the listening experience for me.

“Build Me a Woman” is one of the more obscure Doors songs, as it wasn’t on any of their studio albums, though a concert version’s on Absolutely Live. That version’s “clean,” but the one they did on the New York PBS TV program Critique in April 1969 opens with the line “Sunday trucker, motherfucker,” although Morrison slurs the MF word to iron out the profanity when he repeats the line. It’s another odd interjection that doesn’t fit in with the song’s main (if slight) narrative, perhaps meant as a jibe against rednecks harassing hippies. Considering their career was being destroyed by canceled concerts in the wake of their Miami show, it also took some integrity and courage to sing the uncensored lyric on television, though only PBS would have allowed that then. (Would they allow it now, one wonders?)

The most celebrated incident in which a Doors lyric was censored, or almost censored, occurred on the most popular network television variety show. When the group appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on September 17, 1967, they were famously told by a producer not to sing the word “higher” in “Light My Fire.” They sang it anyway, Morrison nonchalantly claiming to forget to change the words in all the excitement. As Ray Manzarek often told the story, the producer screamed they’d never be on the Ed Sullivan Show again. To which they responded, “We’ve done the Ed Sullivan Show.”

What’s never discussed, however, is exactly what the Doors could have sung instead of “girl we couldn’t get much higher.” It’s not easy to alter that phrase. “Girl we couldn’t light the fire,” or something as asinine and ill-fitting as that?

What’s even more ridiculous, of course, is the order to change the lyric in the first place. “Light My Fire” was a #1 single for three weeks in the summer of 1967. By the time of this broadcast, literally tens of millions of people had heard the song in its original unexpurgated guise. Was singing it a different way going to erase the memory of the original lyric? Much more importantly, if “we couldn’t get much higher” did indeed refer to getting high on drugs, so what?

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When the Rolling Stones were asked to alter the words of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” on the Ed Sullivan Show in early 1967, Mick Jagger complied. (Despite some claims in interviews that he’d just mumbled some words in place of the title, you can certainly see him sing “let’s spend some time together” at times in the clip that was broadcast.) The Doors did not. And they did suffer the consequences of never appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show again, though that really didn’t hurt their career in the long run.

Some of this post has focused on some of the weaker parts of the Doors’ musical legacy. Lest anyone get the wrong impression, I want to emphasize I’m a huge Doors fan, and they’re among my top ten favorite rock acts. Along those lines, the closing section is on a musical positive that I don’t see commented upon too much:

7. The Doors were quite adept at mixing sex and romance into songs that were largely, or at least as much, about other topics. There are numerous examples, and I’ll cite a few here:

“Break On Through” is mostly about transcendence, but goes into a quite lusty and effective middle section, as cited earlier: “Everybody loves my baby, she gets”…high. Or not.

“When the Music’s Over” is about generally revolutionary behavior and sentiments. But in the middle, Morrison purrs to his baby to come back into his arms.

Morrison chants “love my girl” near the beginning of one of the most revolutionary-minded Doors songs, “Five to One.”

“Peace Frog,” which reflects the general violence/confusion of late-’60s society, is overlaid with singing chants of the line “she came,” as well as ending some verses with “She came in town and then she drove away, sunlight in her hair.” And of course “Peace Frog” is a medley with one of the band’s most overtly romantic numbers, “Blue Sunday,” as if the chaos of the streets has receded, to be replaced by blissful love.

Most of “Land Ho!” is about a wayfaring sailor. But it ends with a jubilant intention to “come back home and marry you.”

And “Riders on the Storm,” though mostly about an ominous hitchhiker, has an entire verse urging a woman to love her man, take him by the hand, and understand.

What does all this mean? That sex and death are intertwined, as might be one popular interpretation by overenthusiastic academics and psychologists? Or that you can’t have revolution without sex, or that sex and love are as important or more important than revolution?

My hunch is a different one: that for all his anti-authoritarian daring and testing of conventions and limits, Jim Morrison in particular was also something of a romantic. That’s overlooked in all the controversy he stirred with his more extroverted and outrageous behavior. But it’s certainly consistently there, and perhaps part of his search for transcendence, even if he never quite found that blissful plateau in his lifetime.

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