by Kyle K. Mann
Artist: The Doors
Album name: The Doors- 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
As the hype continues this bizarre year of 2017 over the 50th anniversary of all things 1967, on March 31 Rhino/Elektra released “The Doors: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” which is meant to be the last word on the self-titled debut.
Is this package worth the 60 bucks?
I’ll say yes, though I’m not as objective as some readers might like. As I’ve noted previously, the Doors are a band I saw at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom before they were famous, and I have a great deal of built-in affection for them.
Well. So, whaddya get for the dough?
In brief, two CD versions of the original mixes of the vinyl release, one stereo, one mono, and a third bonus CD of the band playing at San Francisco’s Matrix club, as well as a mono vinyl record album. The latter CD is live material released a decade back, but that is, according to the story, now taken from a first generation source. Indeed, this live CD sounds considerably better than the last version.
For me, the stereo CD version of the original studio tracks is stellar, with the attention to sonic detail staggering. Listening to the tracks using a new HP laptop and it’s bundled PowerMediaPlayer, and a pair of new audio-technica headphones, I’m noticing details I had never heard before. The crispness on the high end is breathtaking, including the marxophone hits on “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)” and the astonishing cymbal tones John Densmore achieves throughout “The End” and especially at the conclusion of that track.
For this superb sonic excellence we have original producer Paul Rothschild (and engineer Bruce Botnick) to thank. Densmore complains in his first book about the many hours Rothschild spent tuning and tweaking the drum tones in the studio, in setting up to record. I’m willing to bet Densmore will agree it was all worth it now, because the drums are simply impeccable on the stereo mix. Again, as one example, the various tones of drums and cymbals on the percussion-driven “The End” are staggering. About the only thing I can compare it to is the clarity of the drum sound on the late 70s Steely Dan recordings, like ‘Aja.’
Rothschild famously insisted that he wanted the Doors’ music to still be listenable in 20 years. Here we are, a full half century later, and his triumph is complete. Rothschild, who died in the 90s, would have loved this release. Elektra Records owner Jac Holtzman was quoted as telling Rothschild when he assigned Rothschild the production, “…do NOT fuck this up.”
I would say Rothschild pulled it off.
Now, as to the mono recording. Frankly, the disc I have is subpar. Perhaps it’s this particular CD I have, but there seems to be something wrong with the audio, particularly the vocals. It’s breaking up, fuzzy, unclear. For something that is supposed to be an audiophile’s delight, this mono mix ain’t cutting it.
I never liked mono anyway, so again, I’m not truly objective. I want Densmore and the bass on the left, and Krieger’s guitar and Manzarek’s organ on the right, with Morrison in the middle. Everything all mushed together sounds unnatural to me, weak and thin, undynamic. Listening in the headphones is a diminished experience for me.
That aside, the mono CD I have breaks up when the music volume picks up. It’s clearly discernible. I won’t be playing it, it’s unlistenable.
The question then becomes, is the mono vinyl album (“180 grams” as the front album sticker proclaims) the same? I can’t answer, because my turntable is in storage. And most of you either don’t have an old-school phonograph, or have it stashed away in the garage, covered with dust.
So I don’t see much in the mono releases, either the unheard vinyl album or the CD.
Which brings us to the live Matrix recording, warts and all. In brief, this is what pushes my buttons to tell you that if you are a Doors fan, this 60 buck package is worth getting. What a great live version of “Soul Kitchen.” Even with no echo effects on the vocals and instruments, and the oddness of the sparse applause, this is a worthy effort, with the tracks ordered in the same way as the album, although 3 of the shorter tracks originally on Side Two are missing.
Yes it’s strange to hear “Alabama Song” without the jingling marxophone and the big group vocals. But the live track has some different magic to it. The stripped-down version shows both what a great live band the Doors were, and by comparison how much work Rothschild really did to nail the production into a classic.
I even appreciate the tuning up before “Light My Fire.”
This signature hit, delivered in a somewhat different arrangement from the album version that the Doors had already recorded and released, is refreshing because of the high energy of the hard-charging solos. Morrison is heard faintly, cheering Krieger on as Densmore slams away at his tubs with finesse.
“Back Door Man” live in this early version is pulsing, vital. The vocal is solid, even a bit restrained. Again, the cleanup on the audio is impressive, remembering that this version was not recorded by Wally Heider and his famous truck, but just a home reel-to-reel tape. Good stuff.
And then there is the over 14 minute version of “The End.”
“Fall down now, strange Gods are coming,” sings Morrison. What? There are lyrics here I have never heard. Like, a lot of of them. I’ll let you discover these improvisations for yourself, but I will say that 50 years later, the Doors, incredibly, have some surprises left. It’s a bit shocking, actually.
A note on the packaging: pretty cool, with a worthy booklet that includes different band photos and some clarifying notes from Doors engineer Bruce Botnick. Historic, I’d say… after all, he was there.
My rating? 4 out of 5 stars. If this package had been trimmed down to the stereo and live CDs, and the price cut accordingly, it would get that last star. But if you’re a true Doors fan (after all, nearly 17 million likes on FaceBook) then suck it up and spend the cash.
We still have some 50th anniversary packaging to come, because the Doors have announced that their second album “Strange Days” will also be getting a 50 year celebration later this year.
Start saving up.