Rewind: Mike Thorne on “Strange Days”

Posted: August 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

In discussion with Mike Thorne on “Strange Days” by The Doors (1967).

Were you a Doors fan since their debut album, or was “Strange Days” the album that got you into their music?

I heard their first album shortly after release in 1967 and thought it astonishing. There was a presence and directness to the songs and the playing that was so fresh and new. Also, the sound and production were exceptional – everything still sounds so clear and present.

What drew you to them in the first place, especially compared to other rock groups of that era? What made them special? Was it Jim Morrison, the musicians, or their peculiar moody and dark approach to rock?

The band were clearly a distinctive group of talented people, interacting very constructively, and delivered the noise and force that’s always been attractive. They were one clear pole. In the days when music mattered, you were either a Beatles or a Stones person, with Pink Floyd or Soft Machine. There’s a parallel contrast between the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors. Even though I liked much of their output, the Airplane could be ‘nice’ in the unthinking hippy way in times when we were all feeling our way. Much of their output didn’t have anything like the power of Somebody To Love or White Rabbit, and could be downright sappy. The Doors always played rough and direct. More recent public polarities include the Blur/Oasis media circus, but that wasn’t so much about stylistic contrast.

As you chose “Strange Days” for this interview I assume it did not only define a certain period in your life, but it mattered to you up to this day. Why is that album so important to you?

The best recordings are timeless. Like fashion, where clothes you bought because they seemed fresh and original still look good years after that current Vogue has been trashed, music which was original still smells of the effort of breaking through and communicates the excitement of discovery. There’s a reason that people less than half my age are still into the young, developing musicians of the sixties. We were lucky to be born into a golden age, with so much to discover. And took it for granted until juveniles started asking us about history.

“Strange Days” was released in 1967, two years before you entered the music business as tape operator in a London studio, where you worked on sessions by Fleetwood Mac and Deep Purple. Did “Strange Days” influence that decision to become involved?

No. I just wanted a job in the music business, preferably at the creative end. Towards the end of my college studies in physics, it was clear that I’d be happiest in an environment I hadn’t even experienced. Music was important to us all in the late sixties. For me, it became obsessive.

Did your first ventures into studio work resemble the set up of “Strange Days”, or was the working environment already totally different?

Hollywood had fancy studios, land and resources being plentiful. My first recording experience was in a dingy basement in London, at De Lane Lea Music. Such was UK flower power fallout. The sixties hippies in California were laid back in the sunshine, those in New York were grubby and confrontational, those in London just grubby. The preferred music environments reflected street culture. We were comfortable down there.

How would you describe the album from a producer’s point of view? What are Paul Rothchild’s merits, and what can probably be credited solely to the band?

I’ve developed my own cliché. If a working relationship is productive, you often can’t remember who did what, or who thought of it. The unit can’t be divided into parts. Not my cliché: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Rothchild was the producer on the following album, Waiting For The Sun, which I found so lame that I sold my copy to some deluded unfortunate. The difference was probably the mental state of the band, particularly Morrison’s. They wouldn’t get their heads back together until Morrison Hotel (1970), where they returned to the punch-in-the-mouth style along with tight, economical arrangements that had attracted me in 1968.

Were you actually taking clues from how certain albums sounded, because you knew you wanted to delve into that field, or were you just a listener from a fan perspective, maybe with more interests in different aspects of how a record comes into being?

I don’t think any really creative person logs in impressions, let alone sets up a spreadsheet of Good Things. Popular culture has two types of protagonist. One is the crazy guy who just functions, not always efficiently, but translates world observations into expression as a natural act. The other looks at what works and imitates. Money, of course, is a major element for the latter. I’d prefer to identify with the former, and all the musicians with whom I chose to work were firmly there. You become the sum of your experiences and acquired craft. You can’t separate bits.

It is often said that the album is under the impression of the production achievements of the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper”, which was released between the Doors’ debut album and “Strange Days”. In the aftermath the Doors also spent more time in the studio than before. Does “Strange Days” owe to “Sergeant Pepper”?

No. The Doors clearly had their own path for their own distinctive development, although I’m sure the Beatles’ masterpiece must have given everyone pause when they heard it. The Jefferson Airplane, whose second album After Bathing At Baxter’s was done, were freaked by Pepper and did return to the studio for a complete rethink which generated what I think is their best effort. Many people must have. The Doors were looking to excel, as we all do, and spending increasing time in the studio was common, especially as power shifted to the artist away from record company accountants.

Even if “Strange Days” is rather short, does it still work as a coherent album, or does it have its ups and downs?

It’s a coherent masterpiece. End of story. Such an achievement defines its own terms.

How would you characterize the songwriting, the band’s performance, and of course Jim Morrison’s role as performer and lyricist on “Strange Days”?

Exceptional and groundbreaking. The best artists look over the edge, visit strange places. It’s their job to report back to us and tell us all about what’s out there, but in our language.

How would you place “Strange Days” into the back catalogue of The Doors? Apparently Patricia Kennealy Morrison said that Morrison thought it was their best. Do you agree? Did it even go downhill from there?

The album was the best so far. The leap they made was huge, and we who were paying attention were delighted. You can judge an album at the time or in retrospect with the context of later development. Our perceptions are always of our moments. A young fan now would be better equipped to comment relatively. As the Doors’ album releases were coming along, so was my own development. That said, Strange Days is the album I return to most.

Some critics argued that the release marked the end of the Summer of Love. Is “Strange Days” indeed a disillusioned end of an era document? Does it reflect the changes to come?

There were plenty of street-realistic albums around then, from people in whose mouth butter would certainly melt: realists with something to say beyond the fashionable hippy adopted brainlessness. There was so much brain-dead acceptance of love and peace – two things I wholeheartedly embraced without losing contact with the rougher stuff around. The police were cracking heads at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, my first time in the US. In California, there was enough room to escape if you so desired. In New York, there wasn’t, which is why the hippy sector there seemed so much more savvy.

“Strange Days” was not a huge success but it was the band’s breakthrough album. Was it already apparent how they would develop from there?

Of course not. They were breaking new ground. Regressive marketing/reverse engineering has suffocated the music biz, looking for the next great thing by referring to the past. If you can see it coming at the time, it’s not new. Statement not negotiable. Like history in general, a creative path seems obvious in retrospect but by definition can’t be predicted. We all rely on the past, the more inventive of us changing the next move unexpectedly

The band determinedly refused to be featured in the album’s cover artwork. Do you think they already could predict what would happen in terms of cult status?

They were on the covers of the previous and following albums. They were making music, pure and simple. I’m reminded of cooling off in the control room after a couple of projects. Wire’s Pink Flag (1977) was a break through, but we didn’t know it. We’d just done our best, and hoped is was good enough. I think it was Graham Lewis who said that at least we’d maybe made a cult album. Then, after mixing Tainted Love (1981), in our post-mix collapse at 4am we all thought that it might make the lower reaches of the UK chart. Cults evolve into mainstream if they possess powerful communication. The rise of punk from a few esoteric UK clubs to a national force within six months in 1976/7 is a resonant example.

What may be the legacy of “Strange Days” in music history? Did they have a notable influence on other music, also later on?

I don’t know. They were a great example of skill, expression and attitude for me, and inspiring. And very economical, musically. Hardly a wasted note. We take what we can where we find it. I’m not a musical historian – it can be antithetical to creating the stuff, although some gifted characters can handle both.

A decade later you were instrumental as A&R for bringing The Sex Pistols to EMI and you were producing the legendary band Wire, as well the seminal punk document “The Roxy London WC 2”. Thus you were right in the midst of a scene generally seen as anti-reaction to the classic rock era. Were you actively trying to distance yourself from bands like the Doors, or were the musical and ideological dynamics of the burgeoning scene just getting out of hand?

Punk ‘attitude’ is so old hat now. The moment has passed. The establishment targets don’t exist any more, battles having been won, and the successful versions in style have adopted the standard model. What we always need is new insight. The punks provided it in their time, as did the Doors. Style doesn’t matter at all. The only question to ask is, ‘am I hearing something fresh?’ ‘Am I hearing something I didn’t know before?’ If you only like one style of music to the exclusion of all others, you should look in the mirror and imagine a new haircut. Fresh expression is a moving target.

Were there aspects of the Doors in tune with the early days of Punk, more than its protagonists would even admit? Did the rebellion also mean breaking up with what was before for good, or did the 60’s rock tradition still had some impact on the developments?

Don’t forget that we had our rebellion in the sixties, and others had paved the way in the previous decade.  Rebellion is by definition against tradition. We move on. It doesn’t stop good expression from enduring – that’s timeless. We leave behind imitative dross that only draws on style without saying anything new. That was what the punk revolution was about. The early seventies had lots of stylish people making good-sounding music and saying absolutely nothing. As soon as I saw the revolution brewing, I signed up.

As you as a producer progressed into the 80’s you took up the electronic side of music, and you were responsible for the sound of some very defining albums of the classic Synthpop era, like Soft Cell’s “Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret” for example. Was this even further away from the sound of your youth, or was it in fact just something similar with different means? Are there lessons “Strange Days” taught you that can be heard in certain periods of your career as producer, or even all of it?

There were absolutely no stylistic channels for me. I thrived on change, to be able to explore a new zone, and still don’t really know where that preference came from. Having grown up producing punk and progressive (such as Soft Machine), I was intrigued by synthesizers, like anyone at the time looking for new sounds. After Soft Cell, I worked with John Cale and Nina Hagen, among others. My effort on Bronski Beat’s Age Of Consent in 1984 was immediately followed by Til Tuesday, a solid rock-lineup band, with Voices Carry. I always wanted change.

The lesson to take away from Strange Days is the self-defining economy of the arrangements, and the distinctive interconnected supporting parts they play. Everything grabs the ear without being self-consciously accomplished. In their better later albums, you’d see the same economy and quality, but it wasn’t appearing for the first time. Then, on the album the three remaining made after Morrison’s death, all we get is generic riffing, a total disaster throwing their best into even greater relief. Attitude had shifted.

Is there some quality level in production work that should be achieved, and it might be more “Strange Days” than, say, “Never Mind The Bollocks”?

Production quality is measured by the clarity with which an artist’s vision can be translated from the live medium and relayed as a recording. The aesthetic issues can be debated all night. This comparison is between apples and oranges. Production all too often gets in the way of the music, either because of incompetence or over-assertiveness. As a producer, I was upset when someone might ask if I had a ‘sound’. A producer should have the sound of the artist.

If you look back on your work as a producer, what is your very own “Strange Days”?

That’s the most searching question of all. Did I participate in something as significant? Probably. But when you’re in the middle of all that musical and social whirl, you can’t step too far outside. Even now, as I look back and dimly appreciate that I helped some radical projects, I have no sense of personal history. We were just embedded together in a project and pursuing some goal that just seemed appropriate. All of us in the studio would just be completely focused on making the best recording, no prisoners taken.

So I have to look for something which stirred up and changed the world. There are a few. Bronski Beat’s Age Of Consent is a strong contender. This band made gay acceptable in 1984 Britain without any aggressive confrontation, simply by becoming part of society and being visibly comfortable with themselves. Jimmy just sang about personal things, without ranting, and as a result the straight majority recognized that queers were human beings too. Add to that agenda strong songwriting and musicianship and you have a winner. In a summer where more states are legislating for gay marriage, it’s hard to think back 25 years to that repressed time. (There’s still a way to go, though.)

I wrote four careful production commentaries on various Bronski Beat projects, which you can find here.

Sounds like me 08/10

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