When The Doors entered Elektra Sound Recorders on November 4, 1969, they weren’t just starting work on their fifth album. They were also trying to resuscitate their career. And Morrison Hotel, released in February 1970, did just that. The group sounded newly revitalized and invigorated, from the rousing opening of “Roadhouse Blues” to the bluesy sign-offof “Maggie M’Gill.” Even the album’s cover art was destined to become iconic.
“It was a great album to record,” keyboardist Ray Manzarek remembered in his memoir, Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors. For the 50th anniversary of the album’s release, a new reissue, released in October, features revamped sound, a second CD of previously unreleased outtakes and the album on 180 gram vinyl. It’s The Doors getting back to basics, after the orchestral work of their previous album, The Soft Parade.
1969 had been a rough year for the group. After what was hailed as a “triumphant” return to New York in January, the band played the first date of what was supposed to be a U.S. tour on March 1 in Miami. The show ended in chaos, with lead singer Jim Morrison thrown off the rickety stage at the end, then leading the audience in a human chain around the venue. As the result of complaints, the police issued an arrest warrant on March 5, charging Morrison with drunkenness, open profanity, lewd and lascivious behavior, and indecent exposure.
The backlash was immediate. The tour was canceled. Morrison was also charged with “interstate flight,” even though the Miami warrant hadn’t been issued until after he’d already left Florida. To deal with that charge, Morrison turned himself in to the FBI’s L.A. office on April 4, where he was arrested and released on $5,000 bail; by the end of the month, the charge would be dropped. After further negotiations, Morrison agreed to turn himself in to the Miami authorities on November 9, where he was arrested and released on bail. A trial was set for the following year.
After a few months of laying low, the band began playing shows again in June, and their fourth album, The Soft Parade, was released in July 1969. Though it charted lower than their previous albums, peaking at No. 6, it still went gold (and eventually platinum), and produced another classic single in “Touch Me.” The group then planned to release a live album and played three live shows at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood on July 21 and 22. The group hoped to have more shows to work with for the live album, but the ongoing controversy over the Miami debacle made promoters hesitant to book them.
“The problem was, we couldn’t play live much,” says Robby Krieger, the band’s guitarist. “We’d had a bunch of shows set up, and they all got canceled. Therefore, it wasn’t too easy to do a live album.
“Now, when we did Absolutely Live (1970), that was a combination of maybe 12 different shows — that’s how you cheat,” he jokes. “It wouldn’t have been a bad idea just to do a live album of one show. That’s probably what we should’ve done.”
So it was decided to make a new studio album. Morrison had spoken about the kind of music he wanted to make in an interview with his future biographer, Jerry Hopkins, of Rolling Stone, telling him, “I like singing blues, these free, long blues trips where there’s no specific beginning or end. It just gets into a groove and I can just keep making up things. … You know, just starting on blues and just seeing where it takes us.”
“Blues trips” would definitely play a major role in Morrison Hotel, with the band also wanting to adopt a simpler approach to making a record. “The Soft Parade, it just took forever,” says Krieger, “and we were saddled with having to arrange everything, the horns and strings. It was just more work than we thought it would be. So Morrison Hotel was kind of, ‘Oh boy, let’s just have fun,’ and not have to worry about adding all these strings and horns and stuff. I think probably the most fun album we did was without (producer)
Paul (Rothchild); the L.A. Woman album, which we did by ourselves with (engineer) Bruce Botnick. And Morrison Hotel was kind of like that, in that everything was a lot quicker. And Paul, I think, was more relaxed as well.”
Drummer John Densmore in particular had tired of Rothchild’s demands for take after take on Soft Parade. “Well, Paul was always like that, especially during that album, for some reason,” Krieger agrees. “Especially drum-wise. He would always take forever to get the drum sound. Poor John would be sitting there hitting the snare drum for an hour; ‘We’ve gotta get this sound better!’ But you can’t complain about Paul’s results.”
Some accounts of the sessions suggest that they were fraught, with Morrison drunk much of the time, not capable of coming up with lyrics, and leaving his bandmates to pick up the slack. But in Krieger’s view, such behavior was more common to the Waiting for the Sun sessions. “That’s when Jim started drinking a lot,” he says. “Morrison Hotel to me was more of a relief from the previous album, and to me, it was more fun.”
“Roadhouse Blues,” the album’s opening track, gets the ball rolling. The song’s loose feeling is due to the fact that it came together out of a jam. “Out of a jam,” Krieger confirms. “Jim was all about the blues at that time. He really, for some reason, was adamant that we do some blues on this album. And ‘Roadhouse’ was just the epitome of that. I just started playing this riff— dum da dum da dum da diddly diddly — and he just came up with those words. I don’t know where from. But he didn’t seem to be groping for words, that’s for sure. I think the words are great.
“I think he was talking about this place that was actually down the street from our studio where we rehearsed,” he continues. “I forget the name of it, but it was down towards the Troubadour. And Jim spent quite a bit of time there with some of his drinking buddies.”
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