What does it sound like?:
By the time The Doors settled down in the studio to record their fifth album in November 1969, they, and Morrison in particular, had endured a difficult year. Morrison was facing two court cases, both of which carried potential jail sentences. He had been arrested for alleged ‘indecent exposure’ at a gig in Miami that March and ‘skyjacking’ during a flight to Phoenix to watch The Rolling Stones. One tour had to be abandoned because of the bad press and their records were blacklisted by many radio stations. In July, The Soft Parade, with its horns and strings, was greeted by accusations of a sell-out. Morrison surrendered his Lizard King leather trousers, grew a beard, gained weight and attempted to steer clear of drugs, an effort undermined by an increase in alcohol consumption. His relationship with Pamela Coulson became even more wild. It must have been a relief to return to his real family: the other members of the group, producer Paul Rothchild and engineer Bruce Botnick.
With opener Roadhouse Blues, Morrison Hotel immediately sounds the polar opposite of The Soft Parade. Kreiger’s growling guitar, Manzarek’s whorehouse piano, John Sebastian’s bluesy harmonica and a powerful 4/4 beat are the platform for a Morrison vocal that swaggers with sexual charisma. Roadhouse Blues is cohesive, back-to-basics and powerful, placing Morrison in his comfort zone, setting the mood for an album that is deeply satisfying rather than daring. Across the album as a whole, the music is straightforward. Kreiger’s peculiar, angled take on Rock Guitar is largely absent, Densmore thumps his kit with a solid regularity and Manzarek’s piano lines flow through well-travelled paths. There is a moment on the extras disc when Morrison resists Rothchild’s attempts to get down to business and insists on warming up with the meat and potatoes of Roadhouse Blues, Money and Muddy Waters’ Rock Me in quick succession. Fortunately, as the three musicians recognised, meat and potatoes were exactly what Morrison needed to rediscover his writing mojo and give his voice some heft. It helped that this group makes a superb Blues Rock band. His lyrics are peppered with odd-ball turns of phrase and intrigue. Peace Frog, the new song with the most diverting music, is the centrepiece. Morrison delivers a state-of-America declaration mixed with imagery impressed upon him when he was four and witnessed a traffic accident involving Native Americans. There are also a couple of sea shanties, Ship Of Fools inspired by Plato no less and Land Ho!. Morrison’s father was an admiral in the US Navy. You can picture little James playing pirates as a child. The Spy and Queen Of The Highway document his fluctuating feelings about Coulson, which are controlling, adoring and indifferent all at the same time. Three older songs do have some of The Doors trademark strangeness. Waiting For The Sun should have been on its namesake album two years before, Indian Summer, a weird, gentle ballad, was recorded as far back as 1966 and You Make Me Real, here presented as a bar-room brawl, was one of Morrison’s earliest songs. Surprisingly, You Make Me Real was originally the A side to the only single until it was flipped for Roadhouse Blues. The Maggie McGill finale takes us back to the beginning, book-ending the album perfectly with a walloping 4/4 beat.
However, the 50th anniversary package is bizarre, consisting of two CDs, one LP and a glossy book in a nice box. Rhino seem to believe that people who buy CDs are exactly the same as those who buy vinyl. Why else include the two together? However, there are enough Doors fans willing to buy this physical product. It is, after all, the fifth one in the sequence, though Strange Days was just a 2CD set. It does mean the art work can be enjoyed in a larger size, even if they slap a broad border all round it, and it allows for a nice big book. The Bruce Botnick remaster adds little to the 40th anniversary version. The extras are not that attractive. There are nine tracks out of nineteen dedicated to Queen Of The Highway, a good song rather than a great one, and five to Roadhouse Blues. The second lounge piano instrumental Queen Of The Highway and the Roadhouse Blues/Money/Rock Me sequence are worth seeking out but nothing else. CD 2 is not going to be revisited very often.
Morrison Hotel is an album whose qualities are undiminished after fifty years. Many Doors fans rank it third after the debut and L.A. Woman, probably deservedly so. Nevertheless, this 50th Anniversary edition does suffer in comparison to last year’s The Soft Parade. The extras are weak, whereas The Soft Parade’s are interesting and revelatory. A re-evaluation of both albums upgrades The Soft Parade, unjustly criticised at the time, the musicians clearly enjoying the experimentation, but keeps Morrison Hotel static with the band keeping things simple. However, Morrison himself is lethargic, almost disinterested, on The Soft Parade and refreshed and invigorated on Morrison Hotel. The choice of photographs of two of Morrison’s favourite drinking establishments on the cover didn’t bode well. The court cases were still pending. Jim Morrison would soon celebrate his 27th birthday. In Maggie McGill, he claims to have been singing The Blues since the world began but on this LP, at least, he seems to be enjoying himself.
What does it all *mean*?
If you liked Morrison Hotel when it first came out, you will still enjoy it today. If you haven’t heard it, it’s a very fine album. Seek out a previous version. You should be able to pick up a copy very cheaply.
Goes well with…
Plenty of beer and a thickening waistline.
9th October 2020
Might suit people who like…
John Lee Hooker, Canned Heat and The Beatles Rooftop Concert.