By Beppe Colli
May 22, 2013
There's a song which, while still quite familiar to the multitudes
of today, starting with that impossible-to-mistake organ intro that'll
stick in one's mind after just one listening, was the undisputed soundtrack
of Summer '67, and a #1 smash all over the world. I'm talking about the
Procol Harum song titled A Whiter Shade Of Pale, of course, and that Bach-influenced
intro composed and performed by Matthew Fisher on his Hammond organ. Alas,
the gigantic success did not benefit the group: with the usual "dubious
depriving them of even a slice of those enormous profits, the group was left
without any trace of credibility, given the fact that the song had been recorded
by a diverse group of musicians, a fact which in the opinion of many made
Procol Harum a "fake", and quite dubious, entity; directionless,
and left without a recording contract by a management trying to capture the
proverbial "best offer", the group lost momentum, ultimately becoming
a perfect for instance in the "one hit wonder" category. Hence,
Procol Harum's destiny is to be remembered for their one hit, or to be forgotten.
There's also a third possibility, of course: the group being forgotten, while
their song lives on.
The biggest explosion in the US charts of Summer '67 was the new single
by a new group from California, The Doors. In July Light My Fire reached
#1. The song sounded fresh, starting with its Bach-influenced intro penned
by the group's organ player, Ray Manzarek. But the song's big success -
radio stations broadcasting Light My Fire more than once every hour - turned
into mass hysteria as soon as an unexpected factor appeared on TV screens
all over the nation - let's not forget the group's performance on the Ed
Sullivan Show - and all over the press: an "erotic politician" going
under the name Jim Morrison.
It was not Light My Fire, but Jim Morrison
which ultimately proved to be The Doors' A Whiter Shade Of Pale (it's been
reported that after the death of their lead singer the remaining Doors
half-joked about going on as a group under the name And The Doors).
It was an intense journey. While Riders On
The Storm, the book by drummer John Densmore, though obviously written
with the benefit of hindsight, is a well-balanced account, full of acute
observations, the one written by Ray Manzarek, obviously titled Light My
Fire, doesn't amount to much, its first goal being to perpetuate the myth
of the deceased singer; but it has to be said that this was the first time
one could read in full about Manzarek's rich and complex musical apprenticeship,
which makes for a very interesting read.
Funny to see how diverse the Doors' attitude
when looking back at their shared past - how strange to spend one's life
looking backwards in order to raise money! Manzarek was the formidable
"raconteur", with the passing of time those tales increasingly
resembling the ones told by one's grandfather. Densmore always oscillated
between cool memories and those eyes still wide open in amazement for what
he had seen from his drum stool - and let's not forget that John Densmore's
drums were The Doors' "nervous system". Robby Krieger, the prodigious
guitarist who penned many of the group's hits, starting with Light My Fire,
often adopted a "neutral" tone, but sometimes his inscrutable smile
The best source here is the DVD-V from the
Classic Albums series about the group's first album, The Doors. While the
scenes showing the group in the studio while rehearsing the track Wild
Child in the movie by Tom DiCillo titled When You're Strange are a perfect
picture of the group's dynamics, and the role played by Manzarek in the
As it's widely known, Light My Fire sacrificed those long organ and
guitar solos on the altar of AM radio. Both Manzarek and Krieger were very
fine instrumentalists, but it was their being part of the "backing
of a singer that spared them the sad destiny of becoming members of one of
those "jam bands" which sound so dated today, or becoming part
"folk-rock" band (Krieger) or a "Blues jam in Chicago"
collective, à la Paul Butterfield Blues Band (Manzarek). And while the group's
live concerts often turned into happenings, so creating a legend, it was
the studio dimension that best suited the group.
The sound of The Doors performing in the
studio is always clear, limpid, meticulous. It goes without saying that
the group's producer, Paul Rothchild, and their sound engineer, Bruce Botnick,
deserve their ample share of credit here. But not a little part of a song
sounding "uncluttered" has to be ascribed to something called
"arrangement". Here it's obvious that it's the skillful combination
of chords, voicings, timbres, and melodic lines that those musicians - the
drummer included, thank you - carefully chose that gives those tracks that
sense of clarity.
The Doors had a very individual sound, and
keyboards were a big part of that. But let's not mistake the sound of an
instrument for the sound of a style: while it's true that in one's mind
one can listen to many instrumental sounds as being one and the same, listening
will tell a different story, so revealing the individuality of a player:
The organ solo in Light My Fire is without
a doubt the most famous organ solo in the history of rock music. But what
about the song intro? A single shot on the snare drum, then it's that joyful
phrase, which then leads to a held chord, and the song proper.
It's widely known that in the early stages of the group's life Jim
Morrison announced his intention for the group's royalties to be equally
split four ways: a very generous offer, given the fact that up to that
point all the original songs the group played had been penned by him. While
we know that it was only due to matters of "identification" that
starting with the album The Soft Parade the contributions of the individual
composers were listed as such on the group's albums.
It's in his "dressing" those songs
penned by others, starting with the ones penned by Morrison, that one can
immediately see the importance of Manzarek's contribution when it comes
to chords and transitions. As a first "for instance" one doesn't
need to go too far: just turn over the Light My Fire single and (carefully!)
drop the stylus on The Crystal Ship. A look at the group's catalogue will
give a fine list of "piano songs": People Are Strange, Love Street,
Yes, The River Knows, The Spy...
A fine, impossible-to-mistake trait of Ray
Manzarek, keyboard player, is his stating a motif, on which he later elaborates:
listen to his "minimal"-sounding organ solo on Break On Through
(To The Other Side); his piano solo, both hands running parallel, on People
Are Strange; his "tack piano" solo on L.A. Woman...
Manzarek is also at his best when
"filling" a picture: Hello, I Love You, obviously, also Waiting
For The Sun, the Wurlitzer electric piano with tremolo on Queen Of The Highway,
the above-mentioned L.A. Woman...
And what about his intros? Here are just
a few: Light My Fire, of course, the organ intros to Strange Days, When
The Music's Over, Hello, I Love You, and Touch Me (that funny Brazilian
samba which has Densmore's drums as its perfect counterpoint, the drum
figure getting progressively more complex, with a fine use of the half-open
hi-hat), the Hammond organ at the start of The Changeling, the Fender Rhodes
electric piano on Riders On The Storm: two phrases over a bass ostinato,
then that descending figure which sounds as it's never gonna end, played
on an "endless"
is an era that's long past we are talking about, full of tiny things that
nowadays have all but disappeared. Listening to those old albums by The
Doors tells us of craftsmen's skills applied with great care, and of a
studio work which had the best results as its goal. With the group featuring
those elements which made for a better appreciation of the music, even
when not consciously perceived - something which takes for granted an undivided
attention when it comes to listening to music.
Which is even more laudable when it comes
to The Doors, given the pandemonium the group faced in their live concerts.
This could sound a bit vague, so here are
two specific examples - readers are invited to find their own.
The main character when it comes to keyboards
on Hyacinth House is a Hammond organ, with a generous dose of vibrato.
But check the timbre on the "bridge"
section, where the lyrics start with "I see the bathroom is clear".
Here the Hammond has a function called "percussion" in operation,
and its backing, the notes now played "staccato", perfectly mirrors
the feeling of "walking on eggshells" which is painted in this
As we all know, the main ingredient of the
song Waiting For The Sun is the dramatic opposition of "full" and "empty".
Given this framework, the thin, sinister vibrato of the organ part - played
on what I believe to be a Gibson G-101 - that appears under the line "Is
this the strangest life I've ever known?" gives the line a strong
feeling of tension, fear, and unknown that perfectly complements it.
back, I seem to remember that among those who thought Jim Morrison to be
a questionable character there were a lot of people who didn't even consider "those
other three" as being living, breathing, creatures. And I'm certain
that having a look at those reviews from way back, more than a few penned
by illustrious names, will prove this. It's not that things as seen ex
post necessarily benefit from a clearer vision, and for the same reason:
there's Jim Morrison... And The Doors. And I know I'll never understand
those who said/say that The Doors released only three good albums: those
first two, and their last one. (How an album like L.A. Woman can be described
as being "live in the studio" - no ears left? - I'll never know.)
In fact, the group's last studio album shows
their great versatility when playing with aplomb and finesse so many styles.
The intro to The Changeling has the Hammond
with vibrato, in some ways reminiscent of, say, Les McCann (there's also
an echo of Tramp, by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, which gives a funny
aftertaste to something which could potentially sound a bit too dramatic).
Listen to the guitar solo - three guitars! - with the organ as their backing.
"tack piano" on Love Her Madly reminds one of Blues/Barrelhouse
parts on tracks such as Roadhouse Blues and You Make Me Real - also L.A.
Woman. Here the "thin"-sounding organ sounds just like the Vox
Continental from the group's first two albums.
Listeners already know the pairing of Fender
Rhodes with "tack piano" of the title track.
The tense mood of L'America starts with the
organ arpeggios with echo - which sounds like the Gibson to me - at the
start of the track. Listen to the way the sound and the chords change ("Come
on, people"...), then the solo.
I've already talked about Hyacinth House.
But pay attention to the "polonaise", as an "incongruous" organ
intermezzo (after "... left to play").
Check the fine contrast between the tense
guitar solo by Robby Krieger and the somnambulant, narcoleptic, posture
of the Wurlitzer piano on Crawling King Snake.
The Wasp (Texas Radio And The Big Beat) is
a perfect specimen of what a fantastic Hammond player was Manzarek, though
his name was never synonymous with that brand.
For many years Riders On The Storm was made
passé by too much listening. Let's listen now to that Fender Rhodes solo.
Raymond Daniel Manczarek, Jr., known as
Ray Manzarek (February 12, 1939 – May 20, 2013)
© Beppe Colli 2013
| May 22, 2013