Riders on the Storm: The Doors and their Time in 'When You’re Strange'

Dionysus Ascending: whenever a god reveals himself to his cult, calamity follows.

When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors

Director: Tom DiCillo
Cast: Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, John Densmore
Distributor: Eagle Rock
Rated: R
Year: 2010
US release date: 2010-06-29

What do we talk about when we talk about the '60s? In Tom DiCillo’s beguiling documentary When You’re Strange: A Film about the Doors, he identifies the beginning of the era: November 22, 1963, as three gunshots ring out in Dallas.

“This is the land where the pharaoh died,” Jim Morrison wails on “The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)”. The storm is coming and from that cataclysm the Doors are born. Their 1966 debut album begins with a daemonic anthem to upset the existing order: “Day destroys the night / Night divides the day / Try to run, try to hide / Break on through to the other side”.

The documentary begins improbably with an excerpt from Morrison’s 1969 homemade film HWY, where he’s hitchhiking on a desert road. A driver in a Shelby Cobra pulls over. In the next scene, Morrison is gunning the Cobra through the desert, alone—the implication being that he’s murdered the driver.

“There’s a killer on the road,” Morrison warns in “Riders on the Storm”. As Morrison races through the desert, one is reminded of the question posed in the Doors operatic “The End”: Driver… where you taking us? The destination is never revealed, but one thing is clear: a charismatic madman is at the wheel.

When You’re Strange tracks the remarkable rise of the Doors. Formed in 1965, the band consists of a quartet of eclectic yet serious musicians: Ray Manzarek is a classically trained pianist, Robby Krieger is a flamenco guitarist who switches to electric, and John Densmore is an accomplished jazz drummer. Fronting the band is Morrison, a blossoming poet and songwriter.

The documentary relies exclusively on archival footage from 1966 to 1971. This imbues the film with a vivid sense of time and place. We see Morrison cycling around Venice Beach; we witness the band in the studio cutting takes for The Soft Parade; and then there’s concert footage, where every Doors performance is a tightrope walk for their unpredictable singer.

Narrator Johnny Depp offers a perfect description of the band’s sound:

The music is strange… different -- it takes the listener into the shadowy realm of dreams. The organ carries the hint of the carnival, both childlike and darkly disturbing. It’s no accident that the band’s second album featured circus performers on its cover. But if the band has a surreal fairground air, it is Morrison who is the frenzied trapeze artist.

The band’s history is a cataclysmic cycle of success and disaster, with Morrison the instigator for both. The Doors are the house band at L.A.’s Whiskey A Go Go when Elecktra founder Jac Holzman discovers them. After signing a three-album deal, the band performs the surreal “The End” for the first time -- at Morrison’s insistence. The song is a dark acid trip of rape, incest, and patricide. The band is fired after the set.

The band's first album includes "Light My Fire", arguably the signature hit of the decade. As the Doors begins to tour, the documentary relies on grainy concert footage, audio tracks and still photographs to reveal something extraordinary: Morrison morphs from pop star to daemon. He dances with reckless abandon onstage, as if in the throes of ecstasy. He crashes to the floor and writhes as if possessed. He whips the crowd into a frenzy—violence and rioting follow.

Morrison is a modern Dionysus in the guise of a rock star, a deity who inspires joy and madness. Ray Manzarek describes Morrison on tour as “like an ancient shaman, leading his followers into worlds they’d never dare enter alone.“

The Doors release a streak of brilliant followup albums, mixing gorgeous pop confections with darker fare. Their second album, Strange Days yields the hits “You’re Lost, Little Girl” and “Love Me Two Times”. The third album Waiting for the Sun, released in 1968, includes another smash, “Hello, I Love You”. The songs are perfect pop radio fare, and the band‘s popularity begins to rival the Beatles.

Alas, the end is already at hand. The film’s climax focuses on the infamous 1969 Miami show, as Morrison taunts his audience: “You’re all a bunch of slaves… let people tell you what to do. How long are you going to let them push you around? What are going to do about it? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?”

Lacking any video footage of the performance, the documentary relies on a sequence of photos coupled with an audio track. A woman jumps onstage and douses Morrison with champagne. He strips off his shirt and challenges the audience to undress. Shirts, pants, bras sail through the air. The bacchanal is nearly complete. “Alright,” Morrison shouts, “here’s my cock.” The fans rush forward and the stage collapses.

According to Greek myth, whenever a god reveals himself to his cult, calamity follows. Once the daemon sheds his disguise, death is near. Facing felony charges for indecent exposure, Morrison begins a downward spiral fueled by cocaine and booze. Like a wounded oracle, Morrison coughs up blood. He flees to Paris, the ancient city of wine and poetry, and dies there.

Yet Dionysus only dies to be reborn, and Morrison's daemonic presence remains. Forty years later, the Doors still sell over a million albums a year and are a constant staple on album-oriented radio. When You’re Strange captures a brief moment in time of a legendary band in a fabled era. It ends just like its subject matter: unfinished, mysterious, and brilliant.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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