Ray Manzarek RIP

Playlist: listen while you read!

Sad news last week to hear of another musical legend departing to play the great gig in the sky. Ray Manzarek, one of the most inspired and greatest organists of the modern age died aged 74 of cancer. His influence on rock music is unmistakable, but his influence on electronica should also be noted, lest we forget it was Ray and the Doors that announced to the world that deep pulsing bass lines don’t always need be provided by a 4 stringed guitar. Manzarek live is a sight to behold, right hand carving out thick layers of melody, the left chopping out the bass line with the regularity of a metronone. In the studio, without the luxury of being able to layer his parts ad infinitum as can be done today, he created some of the most memorable moments of 60s psychedelia, from the legendary opening of Light my Fire through the techno foreshadowings of Not to Tell the Earth to the soulful blues of LA Woman. Combined with the intricate subtleties of Densmore’s drumming, the gentle moans of Krieger’s guitar and the dark charisma of Morrison’s vocals, the Doors were fairly peerless. Musically though, they lacked the bombastic power of Zeppelin or the salt-of-the-earth folksiness of the Beatles, and it was this that perhaps never endeared them to the public as much as some of their contemporaries.

it’s common to hear the Doors being derided as overrated. This is impossible because generally people don’t rate them. Ironically, so much so, they are probably now the most underrated of the ‘big’ bands of the 60s. Their reputation has not aged well. Music critics generally don’t like them. They lack the fashionable obscurity of west coast contemporaries like the 13th Floor Elevators, the deadpan cynicism of the Kinks, the overblown machismo of the Who or Led Zep, the smacked-out regality of the Stones. Dip into any compendium of 20th century rock music and they are usually dismissed as pretentious and self-indulgent. Morrison comes in for the most criticism. A bloated, self-obsessed wash-out with a predisposition towards that laziest of cliches, 6th-form poetry, is the most common portrayal. Of course this ignores the effortless elegance of his voice, the magnificent timing that accentuated the interplay between him and the rest of the band, the stunning sadness of his lyrics.  But Morrison was cursed with the most unappealing of addictions; he was an alcoholic. Like many aggressive hedonists with a propensity to addiction, he gobbled anything illicit in his path, but drink was his drug of choice. And alcoholics don’t sit comfortably in the annals of cool. The dead-eyed glamour of smack (Cobain),  the day-glo alienation of acid (Barrett), the jumped-up vitriol of speed (Rotten)  all trounce Morrison’s in terms of good-looking vices.

Unlike many other bands of the time, the demons emanated from one man only. While most groups shared drugs and groupies with abandon, Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore stayed relatively clean while Morrison fell into toxic free-fall.  There’s some incredible footage of the Doors struggling manfully through a gig without their singer. Morrison has passed out somewhere. Manzarak, adding to his role of proxy bassist as well as keyboard player, also does the vocals, imitating Jim with such accuracy most in the audience have no idea the man they came to see is absent. Manzerak’s contribution to the Doors music is unquantifiable. While Krieger and Densmore were gifted musicians, they played their instruments with understatement. Manzarek’s keyboards were the core of their sound, around which everything else revolved. He could do gentle piano, bouncing hammond, elegiac harpsichord, swirling organ.

The Doors recorded 6 albums that enjoyed mixed critical reception. Only the first two and perhaps the last are widely acclaimed. Their debut eponymous album (1967) is rightly hailed as a classic but wrongly cited as their only real album of note. It is an unbelievable record. It’s hard to imagine what someone in the 60s must have felt playing that record for the first time, from the skittering hi hats that announced Break on Through to the psychedelic joy of Light my Fire to the dark, sprawling the End (one of those paradoxically great songs that you never actually want to listen to). This was soon followed by Strange Days (1967) which largely tread the same brilliant formula – pop classics (People are Strange), piano ballads (I Can’t See your Face in my Mind), unsettling epics (When the Music’s Over). By the time their 3rd album, Waiting for the Sun, arrived a year later, critics started to mutter that they were running out of ideas, but dig deep and it’s probably the most elegant and melodic of all the Doors records. The Soft Parade (1969) is usually held up as evidence of a band flat on the deck, bereft of inspiration, the brass-laden arrangements a foil for Morrison’s depleted and drug-addled voice. In fact, it’s a psychedelic masterpiece: the song that gives the album its title perhaps their greatest moment ever, combining soul, funk, rock and blues in an 8 minute odyssey. This was followed by Morrison Hotel (1970), two mini-albums combined as one, a swaggering rootsy R & B record and a step closer to the Delta blues that would form the backbone of their final album LA Woman (1971).  It gave the world two of the Doors’s most enduring songs – LA Woman and Riders on the Storm. It featured Elvis’s bass player (the Doors had started to replace Manzarek’s synth bass with a bass guitarist from around the 3rd album) and is the most unmistakably American of their albums,  often hailed as a triumphant return to form, but to many Doors fans it perhaps lacks the inimitable strangeness of the others.

Manzarak’s relationship with Morrison was strained. And both Manzarek and Krieger are not judged well by rock historians. Stephen Davis, in his masterful biography of Morrison, is scornful of their behaviour during Morrison’s descent into alcoholism and depression. He recounts how the band, knowing that Morrison’s erratic behaviour could bring the group  to dissolution at any time, persisted with their exhausting tour and promotional schedule, aiming to reap as much financial benefit as possible from the Doors before the project reached its inevitable conclusion. Clearly Morrison needed help, but little was forthcoming. Managers, promoters, agents and band-mates continued to milk the Morrison cash cow until it quite literally had nothing more to give. But it’s easy to judge from the outside. Bands, like marriages, are often the most complex of relationships and its only the people involved that really know what went on. All we can really be sure of is the music that remains, and whatever the state of the band’s internal politics, the records paint a picture of four men in the closest musical harmony, with, in Densmore’s own words, he and Manzarek “holding down the foundations for Robbie and Jim to float on top of”.  RIP Ray. When the music’s over, turn out the lights.

Playlist: One song selected from each album that hopefully highlights Manzarek’s role best

Light my Fire: an obvious choice, perhaps too obvious, but impossible to leave out. There were two versions of Light My Fire, the 3 minute radio edit, that discarded all the best bits and the 7 minute album version, in which Manzarek and then Krieger lose themselves in 2 of the most mesmeric solos ever to grace a record.

Unhappy Girl: Manzarek’s swirling hammond bookends this 2 minute pop masterpiece. Krieger’s gentle guitar licks and Morrison’s elegant, restrained vocals provide the perfect accompaniment.

Yes, the River Knows: Manzarek may have been the master of the psychedelic wig-out, but he was equally adept at gorgeous piano ballads, one or two of which can be found on each Doors album. This is perhaps the finest.

the Soft Parade: It’s fair to say that while Manzarek’s keyboard bass in the early days did provide a uniqueness to their sound, they were a better sounding band with a bassist. The rolling, relentless 2nd half of this tune, all the while underpinned by Manzarek’s driving keys, is perhaps the Doors’ most powerful moment.

Queen of the Highway: Another shimmering, understated work of art with Manzarek’s organ underpinning it all.

Riders on the Storm: This is to the keys what While My Guitar Gently Weeps is to the lead guitar or Moby Dick to the drums. Unbelievably delicate, it is Manzarek’s most enduring legacy.

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