One can only imagine the veritable treasure trove of unreleased live recordings floating around out in the ether. From those soundboard recordings made professionally and then filed away only to be later forgotten, to those illegal, crude fan recordings gathering dust in a basement somewhere, each year seems to afford music fans a chance to experience these historic moments captured on tape for posterity and obscurity. Some often prove revelatory — see the Coltrane/Monk recordings discovered a decade or so ago — while others are merely curios meant for the die-hard fans that range from terrible to unlistenable.
Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your viewpoint), the newly discovered Doors’ live recordings that make up London Fog 1966 fall somewhere in between. Firstly, there’s the historical significance in that these are the earliest known live recordings of the band. Lavishly packaged with period ephemera, photographs and insightful liner notes, London Fog 1966 is a fine collection for any hardcore Doors fan, the primary demographic to whom this set is clearly marketed. Yet while the packaging and historical significance of the set should certainly pique the interest of not only fans of the band, but of mid-‘60s pop culture in general, the performances themselves leave much to be desired. In other words, London Fog 1966 could well be subtitled First Band Rehearsal (not literally, of course, but it would give a better idea of what to expect, sound-wise).
Recorded in May 1966 at the Los Angeles club London Fog, where the band had taken up residency, London Fog 1966 shows the band literally and figuratively in their infancy. Few of what would later become the hallmarks of the band’s sound are present as they rely on a set list made up largely of blues standards along the lines of “Rock Me”, “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”. Throughout, they can be overheard discussing song structure, keys and other questioning asides as they sort through how and what to play for what sounds like an extremely sparse crowd. Yet there’s an energetic vitality present in these admittedly primitive performances; it’s easy to see what many found so appealing in Jim Morrison’s fiery vocal performances and obvious antipathy towards those in attendance.
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As a unit, the band still sounds incredibly loose, working through many of the covers as they go along. But the presence of two Doors originals that would appear on later albums show the group to have begun work on cementing the legacy that would carry them out of the Los Angeles club scene and into rock immortality. But as these early live recordings attest, it would be some time before all of that would transpire. Coupled with the multiple tracks featuring nothing but tuning, London Fog 1966 is sadly short on essential performances by a group that would become known for their incendiary live shows.
Because of this, it’s not until the band breaks into a rare live performance of “Strange Days” that the recognizable Doors sound can be heard. It’s as though the shambolic covers preceding it were merely the band fucking with the crowd, lulling them into a false sense of apathy before locking into the sound of a band on the verge of transcending the scene that, in early 1966, seemed more or less ambivalent to their existence. Morrison’s cutting asides and mid-song wails carry traces of the wilder frontman who would emerge later in the decade only to burn out and burn down everything around him within a few short years.
Ultimately, London Fog 1966 offers a brief, tantalizing look into not only the Sunset Strip at its peak, but one of its soon-to-be biggest bands coming into their own. Half a century later, there are enough moments that crackle with energy and electricity to help reaffirm the band’s position within the scene long after they wander off into the wilderness of hackneyed poetic mysticism and self-mythologizing. Here is a hungry young band trying to find their footing and harness their potential in front of a largely apathetic audience. London Fog 1966 is a warts-and-all look at an iconic band searching for that elusive element that would make them so. For die-hards only, all others can skip ahead to the group’s more polished efforts.