Very few bands can claim to have changed the definition of rock music, but the Doors are one of them. Maybe only the Velvet Underground — whose own debut was issued later the same year (1967) — can say the same.
From the acid-pop of “Light My Fire” and “20th Century Fox”, to the bacchanalia of “Whisky Bar” and “Back Door Man”, to the horror of “The End”, the Doors’ first album burnt the rule book and set the scene for everything they subsequently performed, recorded or composed.
Released at the beginning of ’67, it had little to do with the forthcoming Summer of Love (apart from maybe the drugs), although the band hailed from its Californian epicentre. There was always something deeper and darker about the Doors than the smiles and rainbows of the Flower Children.
Their name was lifted from Aldous Huxley’s 1954 diary of psychedelic drug experimentation, The Doors of Perception. The book itself had in turn borrowed the title from the visionary poetry of the 18th century philosopher and artist William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.”
Musically and lyrically, the Doors set out to challenge the traditional limitations of rock ‘n’ roll, to “break on through to the other side”. Their singer and principal wordsmith, Jim Morrison, had begun writing as an aspiring poet (he was also a compulsive reader) and the imagery incorporated in much of the band’s material reflects this.
The rest of the group had diverse backgrounds. Keyboard player Ray Manzarek was a classically trained pianist, though his real love was R&B.; Guitarist Robby Krieger, with his penchant for slide-blues and flamenco, and the jazz-grounded drummer John Densmore had played together previously in an amateur band. The four officially joined forces as the Doors in September ’65.
They carried out their apprenticeship on the burgeoning LA club circuit, most notably at the Whiskey a Go Go. Their distinctive sound, interchanging guitar and keyboards (Manzarek playing ‘bass’ on his Fender organ) together with Densmore’s atmospheric percussive drumming, was an instant success. And, as Morrison developed his silk-and-leather ‘Lizard King’ stage persona, it was no surprise that Elektra records soon signed them up.
Producer Paul Rothchild, with Bruce Botnick as engineer, took charge of the recording of the debut album — as on all their albums. Both were major factors in the development of the oft-copied but still unique ‘Doors sound’.
It’s easy to dismiss Morrison as a pretentious narcissist with a death wish, but it can’t be denied that he was one of the most compellingly charismatic and confrontational frontmen ever to have wielded a microphone. If you’ve only seen Val Kilmer’s impersonation in Oliver Stone’s movie, there’s plenty of the real “Mr Mojo” on Youtube. There are still not many singers who’ve been dragged offstage by the cops, later to be charged with public indecency and riot incitement; and he was certainly amongst the first.
Morrison’s ‘larger than life’ status is reflected in the cover photo, where he dwarfs the rest of the group, though it was the combined genius of all four members which made the Doors so special, and why their energy still comes through and excites forty years on.
The Doors — The Doors: Track-by-track review
1. “Break On Through (To The Other Side)”
The album’s opening exhortation is one of the most compelling debut onslaughts recorded by anyone. A big claim; but the piling up of urgency, the hypnotism and the explosiveness of “Break On Through” still leave you as breathless as Morrison at the end of the track.
It never stands still: there’s a constant metamorphosis of sounds. From the conspiratorial cymbals which introduce that ominous organ-bass, with the guitar crunching in straight behind it on the other channel, right through to the deadstop ending, which has your adrenalin level in the red, ready for the rest of the record. You’ll need it to truly Break On Through.
This track was released as their first single: a very minor hit — god knows why! If you’re not stunned by its relentless intensity, the headspinning solos and Morrison’s cavorting vocal, don’t bother reading on; don’t bother with the Doors at all. This is the fusion of the four in their purest state, insistently intense in their primary objective: to break on through to the other side.
To the other side of the Doors of Perception: “to the other side of morning”, as Morrison suggested on An American Prayer. To the other side of the accepted frontiers of rock, trashing the fence on the way!
2. “Soul Kitchen”
Manzarek’s mesmeric keyboards “weave quick minarets” alongside the beguiling slide of Kreiger’s guitar. The seductive smoothness of Densmore’s drums and cymbals and Jim’s echoey “secret alphabets”, both exploding into machine-gun assaults which leave “your brain bruised with numb surprise”.
Leaving aside Morrison’s image-laden lyrics (“cars crawl past, all stuffed with eyes”) and his legacy as a performer, the surviving Doors as musicians were — and still are — virtuoso masters of their craft. As a band, they exercised an unfailing telepathy, all capable of pursuing their own ends whilst never totally overtaking one another.
This is a prime example.
3. “The Crystal Ship”
A farewell ballad to Morrison’s first flame, looking in vain for “another kiss; another flashing chance at bliss”. Jim was sailing with Pam now and however stormy their journey was to become, for now the oceans are calm. Anyway, for him at least, fame was starting to open the doors to “a thousand girls, a thousand thrills”.
The peaceful waters are painted by the instrumentation as much as by Morrison’s smooth, assured vocal delivery. Manzarek adds ripples of electric piano to the gently swelling organ tide, the restrained percussion has the sails and ropes creaking in the breeze, the swirling of currents of Robbie’s guitar gently lapping the hull. Course and heading wherever we may (re)find ourselves:
You’d rather cry
I’d rather fly
4. “Twentieth Century Fox”
This “queen of cool” is every bit as Foxey as Hendrix’s lady: “just watch the way she walks.” The syncopated intertwining of keyboards and guitar get her hips swingin’ and the handclaps that accompany the percussion have her high heels clickety-clacking all the way down Sunset Strip.
And there’s no doubt whatsoever that’s she just relishing the way she turns those heads: I’d swear that Robbie’s slide throws in a couple of wolf-whistles! Being a ‘thoroughly modern Millie’, she thrives on the power of her spellbinding sexuality: she’s “got the world locked up inside a plastic box, ‘cos she’s a Twentieth Century Fox”.
5. “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)”
Reeling and staggering through this pill-assisted bar crawl, it’s maybe easier to picture the bearded, bloated self-parody which Morrison became within a couple of years. Liberally adapted from the ‘whore’s chorus’ of a Brecht/Weill opera, it’s a grotesque celebration of drunken debauchery.
Bottle in hand, we continue the eternal quest for “the next whisky bar”. The drums try their best to keep you marching in something like a straight line, with the swaggering organ lurching along the sidewalk. The discordant jangling harpsichord sounds recall a contorted Cabaret choreography and a bizarre bugle-call on keyboards sounds the turn towards “the next little girl”.
It’s maybe the least easily-accessible track on the album, with its surreal style-switches and brusque instrumental breaks: Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort, to get a further idea of the way the Doors sought constantly to do something just a little bit different, a bit further ‘out there’, than everyone else.
6. “Light My Fire”
With the solos butchered to get the song down to a more commercial three minutes, “Light My Fire” gave the Doors their first number one single. The seven-minute album version carries Robbie Krieger’s composition far beyond the realms of radio-friendly acid-pop. Both his and Manzarek’s restored contributions are masterful examples of their respective work. At times they take you so far away that the return to that legendary spiralling opening theme takes you totally by surprise.
On stage, “Light My Fire” often evolved into an even longer improvisation and was taken into other dimensions by Morrison’s inclusion of passages of poetry (as with the ‘Graveyard Poem’ on In Concert).
When the band were booked to do the Ed Sullivan Show in September ’67, they were ‘asked’ to eliminate the word “higher”, so as not to offend the sensibilities of the folks at home. (‘Uncle Ed’ had already forced the Rolling Stones to sing “Let’s spend ‘some time’ together” at the start of the year.) Jim always claimed it was due to stagefright that he ‘forgot’ to start it as:
You know that I would be untrue
You know that I would be a liar
If I was to say to you
Girl we couldn’t get much better
Ah well — these things happen!
7. “Back Door Man”
Pumping organ bass, synched with the guitar and wild war-whoops launch us into this stomping cover, which owes as much to ritual tribal dances as to Willie Dixon’s blues original. Morrison had a major fixation with Native American culture, maybe stemming from his allegedly witnessing an accident in the desert as a child, with “Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding”, as he would later recount on An American Prayer. The ‘shaman shuffle’ was one of his most celebrated stage-moves.
The band played much straighter kickin’ blues on “Roadhouse”, for example, and got even more Indian on “My Wild Love”, but this high-voltage hybrid has a pedigree all of its own.
Ray’s bass keys maintain the tribal pounding, with his right hand playing harmonica-style fills and solos, John Densmore controlling the bizarre hybrid with military precision. Robbie slides and thrashes as he sees fit, pretty much like Jim does with the ambiguous vocal. Is the Backdoor Man looking for the key under the plant-pot, or another kind of rear entry?
The men don’t know what the li’l girl understands!
8. “I Looked At You”
I looked at you, you looked me
I smiled at you, you smiled at me
And we’re on our way
No we can’t turn back, babe!
The poppy levity of the arrangement and directness of the lyric seem to recall the head-over-heels beginnings of Morrison’s relationship with Pamela Courson. They’d got together before the Doors had started to make it big and Pam stuck by him, despite his constant infidelity and increasing decadence.
In contrast to the deliciously upbeat false-ending on the track, their finish was grim and conclusive. It was she who found him dead in his bathtub in Paris in July ’71, and just three years later she joined him on “the other side”.
No turning back.
9. “End Of The Night”
Recalling the voyage of “The Crystal Ship”, this time we “take the highway to the end of the night”. Once again it’s a relatively smooth trip, though there are some disconcerting musical shadows cast on the windscreen, particularly by Krieger’s eerie slide-guitar. Those disconcerting drumrolls of distant thunder add to the sense of uneasiness. We’re not just driving through The Night, we’re heading towards ‘The End’.
Jim’s laid-back vocal maybe reflects his false sense of security. No journey through the Doors of Perception can ever be completely straightforward: there’s a long way to travel through the “endless night” before anyone can reach the “realms of bliss, realms of light”.
10. “Take It As It Comes”
Though allegedly written about the meditation practises of his bandmates, “Take It As It Comes” in many ways sums up Jim Morrison’s attitude to life in general, and his relationship with Pam Courson in particular. There’s a time for eveything: “to live, to lie, to laugh, to die”. As his quest for enlightenment decayed into an excess of corporal pleasures, he seemed to live increasingly by the motto he cites here: “specialize in havin’ fun”. We all know where it took him…
It’s another outstanding piece of psychedelic pop-rock, not a mllion light years from the condensed version of “Light My Fire”. All those unmistakable Doors hallmarks are here: the swirling organ with its imposing bassline, the constantly-shifting guitar styles, Densmore’s drums skipping lightly on the melody then exploding into furious affirmations of their own. 2 1/4 minutes of sheer genius!
11. “The End”
This is undoubtedly the Doors’ most celebrated — and most controversial — song. Led in by the creepy, hypnotic intro, the darkness of the imagery is “limitless and free”. The understated keyboard swell fuses with with the repetetive guitar as we ride the rattlesnake tambourine from a “Roman wilderness of pain” to “weird scenes inside the goldmine”.
When Francis Ford Coppola needed a soundtrack for the turmoil and insanity, ‘The Horror’ of Apocalypse Now (1979), he had to look no further than “The End”. The journey is relentless, though no one really knows when, where or how it’s going to End: “Driver, where you takin’ us?!!”
The talkover section at the ‘Heart of (the) Darkness’ got the group sacked from their residency at the Whiskey a Go Go just after they signed to Elektra. On the record, a strangled scream masks the heaviest part of Morrison’s infamous Oedipal outburst:
Father … I want to kill you
Mother, I want to fuck you
Whether it was, as the band insisted, “pure theatre”, or whether Morrison was spewing genuine resentment towards his authoritarian Navy Admiral father, we shall never know. He had already claimed that his parents were both dead, though again there’s more than one way to interpret such a statement.
Riding with the Doors is never a comfortable experience: it’s up to you if you take them up on their offer: “C’mon baby, take a chance with us…”
After the spooky, interwoven wash which has brooded at the back of the sinister vocal, punctuated by echoing door-slamming drums, the instrumental break is explosive: another prime example of the band’s majestic musicanship. Krieger’s furious flamenco flashes and overloaded fretboard-runs are accompanied by stick-splitting cymbal splashes and that flying organ. Morrison leaps around possessed, in a wild tribal trance: “fuck, fuck, yeah: kill, kill!”
It’s almost a relief when we return to the bleak familiarity of the main theme. Almost. It’s not easy to take solace in:
The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die
This is The End.
The Doors by The Doors
“Break On Through (To The Other Side)”
“The Crystal Ship”
“Twentieth Century Fox”
“Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)”
“Light My Fire”
“Back Door Man”
“I Looked At You”
“End Of The Night”
“Take It As It Comes”