Doors, Airplane in Middle Earth

American rock n' roll bands descend on England

The Doors arrive in London in 1968. Credit: Express/Express/Getty Images

"Never ask a door what it thinks. No need to ask an airplane."

I found this message scribbled on a piece of paper left outside the Roundhouse where the Doors and Jefferson Airplane played to 2,000 persons on September 7 and 8.

The concert was to be one of the top pop events of the London season. The musical press had been covering both groups for the preceding three weeks, speculating about the significance of American "underground" groups for the British pop scene. Arthur Brown, Stevie Winwood, Jim Capaldi and others attended.

Jefferson Airplane arrived in London a week earlier, flying in five tons of equipment, bringing a party of fifteen including Head Lights, and drove around the city — at least part of the time — in a double-decker bus.

The Airplane got off to a start playing outdoors — their most familiar medium, but a novelty in Britain — on the Isle of Wight, and at a free concert in Hampstead Heath.

It was 40 degrees at 3 a.m. — scattered campfires around the field — when they played at an open air Isle of Wight festival, and it poured at Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath where, inside of what looked like an amalgam of a finely-made Swedish matchbox and a neon-lit toaster, the Airplane performed springily and happily for lots of dancing children, kids with knapsacks, and other dewy people. Even in the rain— mad dogs and Englishmen attending — the group recreated Golden Gate park in a city where open clouds, and not the sky, touch your head. At the Roundhouse, with visuals by Head Lights, the Airplane played two sets each night with its usual gaiety and unpretentiousness.

The Airplane's show at the Roundhouse, though slow to get chugging according to a British critic, was well-received. The imported San Francisco lightshow was acknowledged as the most striking London had seen.

Jim Morrison entered the Doors' reception at the Institute for Contemporary Arts' Cybernetics show tracked and followed by Granada Television's lights and cameras, Morrison looking paler and more abstracted than the remote control robot walking jerkily around the reception floor. With all the photographers and reporters surrounding him Morrison must have lost his soul a thousand times.

(The cybernetics exhibition which features computer generated graphics, animated films, composed music and painting machines is like a wide-eyed children's playground and a fantastic place for a reception — unlike the Revolution — a club resembling the Copacabana where the Airplane walked around unnoticeably during their reception.)

On the Doors' first visit to England Morrison avoided the press and generally built up the image of an inaccessible dark poet. His principal meeting with the press was at the shooting of a TV show. Morrison showed up for a minute or two to say, "London's a groovy scene," and then ducked out.

The Doors are not yet the superstars in England that they are in the U. S. They have yet to have a single in the Top Ten, for instance. The British musical press shows a mixed reaction to them, more than they might be expected to show toward an established group.

The opinions range from Chris Welch's "the worst group ever" in a Melody Maker article generally unfavorable to American groups, to Tony Wilson's "one of the most professional groups on the scene everywhere" in the same publication. Wilson also praised the Doors for their "underlying feel of calculation and projection." Other reporters were impressed by Morrison's assurance and coolness, and some even found him "a nice guy."

It's surprising to realize that the only West Coast groups that have previously performed in London are the Mothers, Captain Beefheart, the Byrds. (Canned Heat is now here, while Sly and the Family Stone were busted at the airport, and split for home.) And certain informed English intellectuals consider the Mothers and especially the Doors to be "subversive pop groups."

According to Dave Laing, writing in the ICA newsletter, "The Mothers have already seemed to me to be the most subversive of pop groups, not so much because of the political resonance of many Zappa's songs, but because of the group's dismembering and reconstruction of the styles and methods of hit parade music." But it's possible that this quasi-Barthian analysis could be used to interpret Vanilla Fudge or even the Who. And if you followed the lower path of this kind of esthetic analysis, surveyed as social criticism, you might turn up seeing in Barbara Streisand's tempo inversions — fast becoming slow, and vice versa — a kind of subverting of the Broadway musical ideal.

As for the Doors, some excellent Granada Television people are filming the group for an hour-long program to be called When the Mode of the Music Changes, the Walls of the City Will Shake. The question is, will the doors open and walk out of the building as it collapses.

The Roundhouse concert got such advance coverage in the British press as: "The biggest freak-out since Babylon is likely to erupt at London's Roundhouse next weekend, if advance reports on the Doors and Jefferson Airplane are anything to go by." One reason was that this was to be one of the very few times the two groups appeared on the same stage.

The British audience by and large preferred the Airplane, according to Melody Maker's columnist The Raver. The Airplane's second and third albums were big hits in England, and Grace Slick figured in the Melody Maker's Pop Poll as sixth most popular girl singer, the first American in the list after Aretha Franklin.

Grace had been photographed for the newspapers, while she protected herself from the English fog and and rain — and photographers — by burying her face in a thick fur collar. Interviews with Grace, focusing on her story from Great Society days and underground movies, graced the center-spread pages.

The Doors' performance at the Roundhouse featured Morrison's usual dramatic persona-heart beating drums with the hero waiting with aggressive silence for heckling to start before letting out his "butterfly scream." Now the English audience came to hear the Doors' music, so no one really fainted or screamed, and Morrison grew more peevish. Later he waited sulkily for the lights to go out for "The End." And another time he stood at the edge of the stage, asked for a cigarette — did thousands rush forward? Five minutes later someone offered him a roll-up.

Morrison comes across obviously like James Dean and less obviously–to an English audience — as the L.A. teeny-bopper's alter ego. (The film Wild in the Streets is clearly based on the Morrison image — "We've Got the Numbers"; and this film is not only esthetically atrocious, tastelessly directed and acted as it is, but it's politically corrupt since it implies that, since the fascist kids eliminate the FBI, CIA, and Senator Ed Begley, there must, by contrast, be something deeply humane about the establishment forces.)

To see the Doors as a radical political influence seems to me misguided. According to Morrison, "The Unknown Soldier" is a love song. "The violence is just a metaphor," he's quoted as saying. "It's about sexual intercourse. The firing squad is just a metaphor for what's going on." Soldiers in Vietnam turn on and listen to the Doors records — what kind of politics is that? Are the Doors any more subversive than the Vietnam war?

While in England, Morrison explicitly distinguished the Doors from the underground music scene of which Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead are examples. "If the Underground is giving away money, not earning money," he said at the Institute of Contemporary Arts press conference, "then we are not Underground. I guess we qualify as businessmen."

If the Doors represent a subversive influence it must be more owing to the fact that the group identifies itself with a pullulating population of sixteen-year-olds than to its awareness of "what's going on." With the Stones at the doorstep, it takes a lot of cerebration to see the Doors — a less interesting musical group than, say, Traffic, though they still write nice songs like "Light My Fire" and "Love Street" — as more relevant than Dylan (A. Goldman in New World Writing 3) or more to the point than "Street Fighting Man."